30 May 2019

Ideas for teaching 2 and 3-year-olds in your ESL classroom

Teaching 2 and 3-year-olds can be a lot of fun and extremely rewarding.  However, many teachers worry about teaching this age group as it requires teachers to rethink their teaching strategies and classroom management.  It is actually much easier than you may think to teach little ones, and once you “crack the code”, you’ll probably enjoy teaching these classes more than any others.

Here are some great tips to get you started.

Teaching toddlers in an ESL kids classroom

1. Understand their limitations and abilities

Don’t get discouraged that they can’t read or write and sometimes barely speak! There is plenty of time to work on that boring stuff when they get older. 2s and 3s are able to do a lot in class, and the cool thing is, you’ll see huge improvements each time you see them.

Understanding what they are able to do (and not do) is the first step in knowing how you can help them learn English:

  • Understand their limitations and abilitiesThey are extremely curious – they want to explore the world and learn new things.
  • They are able to remember things – they may recall events from the previous day and can remember as many as three objects that are presented visually.
  • They can identify what’s missing from a picture or group of objects.
  • They are able to follow simple instructions.
  • They can identify simple primary colors.
  • They are good at naming and labeling.
  • They can draw lines, circles and squares with a pencil.
  • They can ask many who, what, where, and why questions.
  • They love to imitate playmates and adults.
  • They can speak in short sentences (4 to 6 words).
  • They can say names and ages (usually up to their own age) and use pronouns.
  • They can match objects to pictures.
  • They have a vocabulary of around 300 words (in their first language).
  • They can listen attentively to short stories.
  • They can complete puzzles of a few pieces.
  • They are able to describe actions in pictures.
  • They can take turns in games.
  • They can express affection and wide range of emotions.
  • They can turn pages in book one at a time.
  • They can build a tower of more than a few blocks.

… and much, much more.  You’ll be surprised by your students’ abilities every time you see them!


2. Play, play, play

Play, play, playOne of the hardest things to get used to as first-time teacher of toddlers is the concept of “not teaching”.  At this age, kids learn though exploring the world around them and imitating people, and all of this is usually done through play.  As such, the teacher should see him/herself as more of a playmate than a teacher.

Sit with your students and explore things, play games and sing songs together, have fun and laugh a lot.  Your students won’t care that you are doing this in a strange new language.  They will try to talk to you in their language and this is fine – answer back in English and focus on sharing nouns, verbs and adjectives from your own language.


3. Short activities

Toddlers have a short attention span and lose interest in activities very quickly. It’s not that your lesson activity is boring, it’s just that there are so many other fun and interesting things in their immediate environment that demand their attention! Basically, you are competing with everything else in the world for their attention, so changing activities frequently helps to focus their little minds on what you are doing with them.

Make sure that each activity lasts no more than 5 to 10 minutes. Therefore, plan for lots of activities and always have a few extra up your sleeve, just in case!

Your lesson doesn’t have to have 10-15 brand new activities – you can recycle activities from previous lessons, sings songs, read a story, play a game, play with toys or just jump around a bit. I always try to ‘bookend’ calm activities with energy burning activities, to stop them getting restless.

Short activities


4. Allow a parent to join their child the lesson

Allow a parent to join their child the lessonI always teach both toddler and one of their parents together in the class (usually mother but it can sometimes even be a grandparent!). Your students won’t suffer from separation anxiety and it will make your life as the teacher a whole lot easier. The parent will help with bad behavior and keep their child focused on the activities.

Have the parent sit next to their child (I use cushions on the floor) and take an active part in the lesson. They can help with coloring sheets, dancing to songs, playing games, and everything else in the lesson. They are also there to help out with any little problems and toilet emergencies.

You’ll also notice that as the parents know exactly what their child is learning in class, they’ll reinforce learning between lessons – and often teach more. I’ll often notice children coming to class and saying 5 or 6 color words when we only worked on three in the last class!


5. Use a glove puppet

Use a glove puppetUsing a fun glove puppet each class (I use Cookie Monster) makes a huge difference in your toddler lessons. Shy students will open up more to a puppet and kids often get overwhelmed with excitement at the beginning of class to see their favorite puppet! They will think it is real (students sometimes ask me questions about the puppet’s daily routines, etc.) and believe it is their friend.

Start and end the lessons saying hello and goodbye to the puppet and bring him out every now and then to ask students questions or to sing a song.


6. Only teach a few words each lesson

Try not to introduce more than three new words in one lesson. They will have a hard time remembering them.

Only teach a few words each lessonSome teachers feel that they are not really teaching their students much, if all that they have covered is three new words, but you’ll be surprised at how much more the kids are taking in. Every time you talk (your classroom metalanguage) they take in some of what you say. I’m always amazed when students come out with phrases without being prompted (good job, well done, here, sit down, thank you, what’s this?, pass, give me, etc.) that they have picked up from me. Then there are the songs and stories that also add to their lexicon.

You can use our lesson plans here at ESL KidStuff with your younger learners – simply teach the lesson plan over a series of lessons so they cover three new words at a time, and add some of the extra activities explained in this article.


7. Sing lots of songs

Kids love singing good songs and doing all the gestures and dance moves. They are sponges for learning songs – many a time we revisit a song and I am having to watch my students for the words because I have forgotten some of them!

Sings lots of songsSongs can be used to introduce or reinforce new words (e.g. Let’s go to the zoo for animals), to start or end a section of the lesson (e.g. The hello song and The goodbye song), as an energy burner (e.g. Head, Shoulders Knees and Toes) or a calm down song (e.g. The rainbow song). Always review new songs and keep recycling them. You can also take requests – students love telling you what song they want to sing!

We have 50 songs at ESL KidStuff that you can download and sing in class.


8. Use lots of visuals

Use lots of visualsStudents really learn well when their attention is engaged visually.  Make sure you have lots of flashcards (we have over 1,500 at ESL KidStuff), pictures from magazines, posters on the walls, and lots of toys and real objects (realia).  Always pass objects around and play simple games, such as catch, as touching and interacting with the objects really helps them to learn.


9. Play lots of games

kicking the correct balloonToddlers can’t read or write, but they are master game players! Games can be really simple and shouldn’t be too competitive – make sure that everyone is a winner. Here are just a few ideas for simple and fun games:

  • Patting balloons to each other, or kicking the correct balloon (“kick the blue balloon”)
  • Jumping over a rope laid on the ground to pick up an object
  • Touching a flashcard from a set of flashcards laid out on the floor
  • Retrieving objects and giving to the teacher (e.g. “Go and get me a crayon”)
  • Playing “What’s missing” games – students close their eyes as the teacher removes an object or flashcard, then recall what is missing)
  • Sitting in a circle and passing a ball around
  • Doing action games (“Who can roar like a lion the best?”)

•	Jumping over a rope


10. Praise all the time

Positive reinforcement is so important at this age. It doesn’t matter if a student got something wrong, the fact that they tried deserves a round of applause. If the kids enjoy their class, they will return next week because they want to be there … and a side effect is that they will learn English!

When praising, use a variety of phrases (well done, good job, great, wonderful, amazing, fantastic, etc.), give out stickers, use high-fives, draw happy faces on worksheets, and smile a lot.

Praise all the time

13 thoughts on “Top 10 tips for teaching English to toddlers”

  1. Wow, these are great tips! Teaching toddlers can indeed be challenging as they are easily distracted, so it’s definitely very important to make it fun for them. Quick question, have you also tried making them watch educational videos? If yes, is it effective?

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