Fun Ways to Teach Young Children Vocabulary

As language teachers with more or less teaching experience, we have often wondered how we can better educate our pupils so that they gain self-confidence speaking their second language, as well as being able to read, write and even more important speak it. In fact the answer is found when we ask another common question: […]

As language teachers with more or less teaching experience, we have often wondered how we can better educate our pupils so that they gain self-confidence speaking their second language, as well as being able to read, write and even more important speak it. In fact the answer is found when we ask another common question: what age is the most appropriate to start learning a foreign language? As young as possible, the answer would be. And so, the difficulty of teaching a second language, starts.

Why isn’t it easy to teach very young children?

What about practising new language with a video? English videos can be used from time to time to bring variety in class. Moreover, children, it doesn’t matter how young they are, are very open to new technology. Using a video means seeing and hearing at the same time. So, it is double exposure to the language the Ss. are learning.

At first I was against it, saying it is a lazy medium which affords little challenge for the mind as it provides little room for the students’ imagination to thrive: you just spoon-feed the mind with sounds and sights. Now I have become addicted to it. It happened when  I realized I could change this lazy medium into a useful classroom tool. Just one example: How about turning off the sound and asking students to guess or even create the dialogue from a scene?

How about giving your students hand-outs with the lyrics and blanks which they have to fill in while listening? Or asking them to identify every word they already know, and treating them with a reward – of your choice – for their answers.

The internet is a marvelous source full of ready-made lessons to be used by language teachers. It offers a wide variety of songs and  short stories – many animated – that are fun to watch and very efficient to use as modern approaches to enhance language skills. Children are exposed to native speakers of English who sing or tell stories on a wide variety of topics.

One of the videos I have fallen in love with is the song I like Elephants, or “The Elephant Song”, by Eric Herman:

Elephants. I like elephants.

Elephants. I like elephants.
I like how they swing through trees
Monkeys. I like monkeys.
I like how they swim in the ocean

Fish. I like fish.
I like how they scratch at fleas and sniff at trees and bark at the mailman

Gotta like dogs.
Curled up on the windowsill purring, and chasing mice

Cats. I like cats.
I like how they say, Cock-a-doodle-doo!

Roosters. I like roosters.
I like how they gallup and trot

Horses. I like horses.
I like how they reach into beehives for the honey

Bears. I like bears.
I like how they jump up high to catch a fly and sit on a lilypad

Gotta like frogs.
Running through a maze for some cheese

Mice. I like mice.
I like how they say, Oink! Oink! Oink!

Piggies. I like piggies.
I like how they hop and eat carrots

Bunnies. I like bunnies.
I like how they stomp through the jungle with their big gray trunks

Elephants. I like elephants.

The song is a great opportunity to teach names of animals and many verbs which otherwise would be difficult to learn, especially at young ages: sniff, scratch, curl, purr, reach into, bark, stomp, chase as well as nouns like beehive, maze etc or prepositions.

Step 1. Start a short discussion (in English, of course) with class about animals. Rule: always name an animal which has not been previously mentioned.

Do you have a pet?
What pet do you have?
Let us guess what pet you have got.
You tell us what your pet says and we tell you what your pet is. (neigh = horse, bow-wow = dog, oink = pig, etc). Another child will show the flashcard of the animal associated with the sound.

Step 2. We extend the discussion to other animals: What is your favourite animal? (Rule: always mention an animal which has not been previously mentioned.) Animals on the farm/in the forest/in the jungle etc. So, we enrich vocabulary with names of animals. (Children like animals and they enjoy seeing them in pictures and speaking about them and imitating them.)

Step 3. Using the video projector play “The Elephant Song” by Eric Herman. Children just watch it and listen to it.

Step 4. Children are given handouts with the song and they listen to it again but this time they follow the text and notice that some words (words they already know) are missing and they fill in the blanks. We check with the whole class to see if everybody has found and spelled the words correctly.

Step 5. Children listen to the song again but this time they try to identify the words which have been written in bold on their handouts. They will not even realize that words like purr, curl, bark, windowsill, beehives, stomp etc are new for them and that you are trying to teach them these words. They have listened to the song, seen the animation and now they know the meaning of those words. You don’t have to explain them.

Step 6. Ask children  to write these new words (which are in bold on their handouts) on the blackboard. You repeat pronunciation of these words with the whole class.

Step 7. Ask children to order the teacher or one of their colleagues to curl or to purr or to sniff or to stomp etc. This is again funny and they practise pronunciation again. You also check comprehension of the text.

Step 8. Ask the children funny questions about the animals in the song, like: Does a cat bark? Does a dog purr? Does an elephant say cock-a doodle-doo? etc. Teach them short answers: yes, it does / no, it doesn’t

Step 9. Sing the song with the children and Eric Herman. One of your pupils can play the role of the little child in the song.

Step 10. Ask the children to draw funny animals for a song of their own like those in Eric Herman’s song, or just the animals in the original song. Next time they will tell you about these animals using the words they have just learned.

Written by Mariana Popescu for TEFL.NET January 2009
Mariana Popescu is an English teacher at the Children's Palace, Constanta, Romania.


  • Juana Sanchez says:

    I love it…I ready was elaborating more about while reading your article. I teach 3 years old with very limitated vocabulary. They are still pointing at things instead of talking, but this game can be apply to a different topics. Excellent idea!!!! English is not my first language and many of my students speak Creole or Spanish

  • maddestmum says:

    This is intended for young students learning english as a 2nd language. I am teaching 3-5 year olds. English is the 3rd language and of course they can’t read and write. Other than coloring which takes too much time any ideas.For older students this is great.

  • Kate says:

    Thanks for the great idea and a detailed description of the lesson! It’s the first time I’ve heard about Eric Herman’s songs. I’m sure, my pupils will enjoy this song and some others as well.

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