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15 ways to personalize your young learner classes

Personalization (making sure students can use the language to talk about themselves) is commonly accepted as a vital part of language learning, but it is one that often gets lost with low level classes or when the students are far away from the teacher in age and so chatting about themselves is not straightforward. It is, however, precisely in low level and very young classes that students most need the motivation of realising that they can use English to talk about themselves and in which they are most impressed by the teacher taking a personal interest in them. Here are 15 games and other ideas that will allow even very low level students and very young learners express something about who they are in simple English from the very first moment they step into an English class.

1. The Make Me Say Yes game
In this game, students ask the teacher Yes/ No questions and only get a point if the teacher’s (true) answer is “Yes”. Possible language points with low level and young classes include can (“Can you swim?”), have (“Do you have a pet?”, “Do you have a pen in your bag?”), to be (“Are you British?”, “Are you 37?”), and like (“Do you like pizza?”).

2. Likes/ wants
“Do you like…?” is one of the questions from the Make Me Say Yes game that can be extended into almost any language point, e.g. getting students to respond to things on each flashcard you reveal such as colours (“It’s pink. Do you like pink?” “No!” “No? Do girls like pink?”), food, animals, sports, school subjects, and household jobs and other daily routines. You can also use this language or the more suitable “Do you want..?” when you are giving out flashcards or realia for the next game or activity. Having an emotional reaction to the materials and the vocabulary will help the students remember and expressing their opinions and choosing which they want can help them become more independent in their learning and more likely to speak out.

3. Have
“Do you have…?”/ “Have you got…?” is another piece of grammar you can use to personalize lots of other language points even before you have formally introduced it, e.g. with family members (“Do you have four sisters?”), clothes (“Do you have black socks?”), and toys.

4. Can
The third and final (?) grammar point you can use to personalize lots of other language points is “can”, e.g. with sports (“Can you swim?”) or body parts (“Can you your nose with your toe?”).

5. Puppets
Students are likely to be less shy about asking a puppet personal questions than they are about asking a teacher. They can then take the puppet and ask each other the same questions (speaking through the puppet), making asking questions they already know the answer to seem less fake and making them less self-conscious speaking with a native speaker-like accent while they are putting on the voice of the puppet.

6. Storybooks with personal questions
Another way to use fantasy and fiction to lead to talking about their own reality is to use storybooks where there is information about the characters that answers the kinds of personal questions you are practising, such as names and ages. The students can then ask the questions to or about the storybook character (e.g. “What’s your/ his name?” “My/ his name is Spot the Dog”). The teacher or character in the book can then ask the same questions to the students.

7. Make false statements
Saying “Your name is Blblblblblblbl” or “You are 1 year old/ zero” to students is good for a laugh, makes them listen to everything you say from then on in case it is also false, gives them a feeling of power and the ability to speak out in the classroom (they can correct the teacher!), and is a good way of eliciting the answers to questions like “How old are you?” and “What is your name?”

8. Remember each other
After they have got used to correcting you on their own personal details, you can get the whole class to correct you on what you say about the one student you pick on, e.g. “His pet is a spider” “No! His pet is a cat!”. This can then be then be extended to students remembering or guessing the answers to questions about other students, e.g. “What is his favourite colour?” They can then test each other, e.g. “What’s my favourite food?” or “How many bedrooms does Jose’s house have?” A variation on this is to get them to close their eyes and test them on what other people are wearing.

9. Profile pages
A great way of showing students that you are really listening to what they say is to let them see you writing it down. This can be something as simple as changing what you have written down when they tell you “I am 5” instead of “I am 4” for the first time. Just jotting it down in your notepad is enough, but having a profile card for each student on the wall that you add to and change information on is even better.

10. Celebrate birthdays
Ways of adding a language point to this include drawing them pictures of presents they would like, counting and correcting the number of candles on a picture of a birthday cake, and singing the Happy Birthday song.

11. Projects, photos and drawings
Arts and crafts work should be a standard part of any pre-school syllabus, but you can add to its language content and how much it helps students remember the language by making sure they put as much personal content into it as possible. For example, make sure they are actually drawing something that looks like their own family by asking “(Does your) father (really have a) beard?” (maybe with mimes), “Wow, your brother’s nose is BIG!” or “How long is your mother’s hair? (To her) ears? Shoulders?”

12. Comment on what is different today
Small children have a cute but English-free habit of stopping the whole class to show their teacher the cut on their finger or the pink socks that they didn’t have in the last lesson. You can try to exploit this natural personalisation by asking them questions about anything you notice is different, e.g. “Whose is the new poster with an elephant on it?” or “I see Noriko is wearing pink socks. How many people are wearing pink socks today/ have pink socks (at home)?”

13. Please Mr Crocodile
In this traditional English playground game, students stand against the back wall and chant together “Please Mr Crocodile, may we cross the water?” and the crocodile (teacher or good student) says “Only if you are wearing a skirt/ are three years old/ have the letter Y in your name” etc. The students who meet the criteria can cross the classroom to the opposite side of the room, and then when the teacher says “Go” all the others have to try and run across without being eaten by the crocodile. You can play the game either so people who are eaten are out of the game or so they have to become the crocodile.

14. A regular personal questions stage
The fact that young children learn languages quickly is well known (especially by ambitious parents), but the fact that they forget quicker than the rest of us too is often ignored. This fact means that they need revision of even basic stuff almost every week. One way of doing this is to start every class with them answering and (later) asking personal questions about name, age, favourites, clothes etc. There are many games suitable for these questions and this age group to make sure they don’t get bored with asking the same questions all the time. Games include throwing a ball back and forth as they ask and answer, passing balls along lines of students as a race, and asking and answering whole chains of questions without making a mistake.

15. Talk about their other teachers
Once you have run out of things to say about yourself and all the students in the class, a few questions and answers about their other teachers is a great way of getting their interest, using English for real communication (telling them something they didn’t know such as their Maths teacher’s favourite food) and of making them remember what they learnt when they are outside English class.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net June 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Teacher Technique, Young Learners : 15 ways to personalize your young learner classes