15 ways of starting a preschool English lesson

1. Entrance drill Students line up outside the classroom and are asked questions or at least say hello to the teacher as they enter the room. This gives each student some personal attention, shows any parents waiting outside what their children can do in English and stops them rushing into the classroom together. You can […]

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net

1. Entrance drill
Students line up outside the classroom and are asked questions or at least say hello to the teacher as they enter the room. This gives each student some personal attention, shows any parents waiting outside what their children can do in English and stops them rushing into the classroom together. You can also use this as an opportunity to give them instructions on what to do as they come in, e.g. “Boys on the right, girls on the left, pencils out, bags on the hooks”. You can add a bit of fun to an entrance drill by adding a challenge (e.g. count the fingers that the teacher or the previous student very quickly flashed up) or an element of chance (paper scissor stones) and sending students who fail to back on the queue, but make sure this doesn’t make the entrance drill take so long that it cuts into classroom time or makes the kids already in the class restless. You might anyway need to do one of the livelier activities below straight afterwards. When they have got used to doing an entrance drill, the student who was just let into the classroom can take the teacher role and ask questions, set a challenge etc, but note that this will probably extend the activity further and so might not be a good use of class time with a large class.

2. Choral greetings
Many kindergartens start their normal classes with this, and dispensing with it can make it seem like English is not a proper lesson (for better or worse). To add some fun you can move straight onto Stand Up Sit Down (see below) after choral greetings, or you can vary the greetings with substitution (saying “Good morning cow” etc instead of “Good morning teacher” to flashcard cues), instructions on how to give the greetings (“Good! Now one more time, but slower/ faster/ louder/ quieter/ sadly/ angrily/ deeper/ higher/ three times in a row quickly”), trying to catch them out with the cue to start the greeting (“Wait. Wait. Wait. Now!” or “Reeeeeady. Steeeeady. Steeeeeady. Go!”), or correcting the teacher or a puppet who gets the greetings wrong (“Happy Birthday!” “No!” “Good night!” “No!” “Good morning class” “Yes! Good morning class, good morning teacher”).

3. Hello song/ school song
Another way of varying choral greetings is to turn them into a song instead. Many collections of kindergarten songs for EFL and ESL classes have songs including “Hello”, “Pleased to meet you” etc. The main problem I find with these is that, unlike goodbye songs, there is not an obvious action to do when saying hello. I tend to get kids of 4 and above shaking hands (three year olds love shaking hands with the teacher but don’t work so well together), sometimes adding fun by getting them to shake hands very vigorously, shake hands with as many people as quickly as possible and/ or shake hands with the right hand as normal and then with the left hand crossed over it and then spin each other round. You might want to avoid the last one if the kids will become convinced that it is a normal English greeting! The other problem, sometimes also connected to lack of actions, is that hello songs tend not to be good energizers and so might be best avoided if there is a quite controlled stage like a story or an entrance drill before or after this stage.

4. Action song
One way of avoiding the stiffness of a hello song is to just say hello very quickly and then move into an action song where students move about by: doing typical actions like jumping; touching parts of their body, clothes or classroom objects; pretending to be animals; or stepping or jumping as they count numbers. Unlike many other activities at the beginning of a class, as long as it is a familiar song (see below) you don’t have to worry about the transition into it as you can just press play on the CD player and let the appearance of music make what they have to do obvious. To avoid too much organising when they are still not warmed up, don’t bother with songs where they have to link hands such as Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush or the Hokey Cokey (= Hokey Pokey), which are best left for use as finishing songs at the end of the class.

5. Stand up sit down
One way that you can make a transition into an action song or move from a dull standing up opening into more of a warmer is to ask students to sit down and then instantly ask them to stand up again. Then ask them to sit down and stand up increasingly quickly, throwing in some instructions that mean that they should just stay where they are. You can then move onto other actions like “jump” or classroom language to mime (or really do) like “open your books” or “quiet please”.

6. Try their patience
A general concept tied into some of the ideas above is to use the fact that the students are sitting down and still alert as an opportunity to do some things that take advantage of that such as presentation of new language and drilling. Stretching that out as long as you can (meaning of course, as long as students are still learning!), you can then move into a much more active game involving running around to burn off the excess energy they have been building up and to help the students who learn better actively, perhaps using Stand Up Sit Down or an action song as the transition. The transition into a more active stage can be decided on by when you predicted would be best for the students, in order to spend a set amount of time in that class doing particular kinds of tasks, because it is the best way of introducing or practising the next language point, or (best) decided on by the teacher sensing when the kids are getting restless and not paying attention anymore and so moving into one of the activities you planned that you sense would suit their present mood best.

7. Use their energy/ tire them out
An alternative way of looking at the variable energy levels and attention spans of preschool kids is to plan to getting them running, jumping, shouting and singing until sitting down and doing something more “serious” will come as a welcome break. This is particularly suitable for classes that have just come straight from running around elsewhere, e.g. a sports class or the playground. If what happens before the class varies all the time, it might be worth planning both a “tire them out” start to class and a “try their patience” start, and choose which one to use depending on what the other teachers tell you about the kids’ schedule or on how you judge their mood as they enter the class.

8. Warmers
The third option is to do a short warmer and then settle down for alternating sit down guessing the flashcard etc and stand up stuff, similar to a traditional TEFL lesson plan for older kids and adults. I don’t usually find that my kids need warming up in this way, the main exception being after a long break when doing something familiar and lively in English at the beginning of the new term can remind them of some of the language that has been replaced in their heads by the names of insects in L1 over the summer, and remind that English can be fun. Doing a warmer can also have the effect of getting a class working as one and so prepare them choral drilling, team games etc.

9. The same as last week/ something familiar
Another general concept of a good start for a preschool class is that it should be something that the children are familiar with. In the first few lessons with a new class this might be difficult to achieve, but try to find out: what they have done with other classes; what English songs children in that country tend to be familiar with (often the ABC song, Head Shoulders Knees and Toes, Jingle Bells and maybe something from Sesame Street); what songs and games there are versions of in their own country; what English greetings and social questions they tend to know, etc. You can then introduce what you want to be your standard starting language game, song and/ language in the middle of those first few lessons and then move to them to the start from the third or fourth class.

10. Personal questions
Many parents and school managers expect classes to start with personal questions about name, age, favourites etc (even though learning to recognise the difference between “How are you?” and “How old are you?” can take the same amount of classroom time as learning 100 items of vocab and they could have learnt it instantly if we had left introducing it until they were 12 year olds). Ways of making it fun and so hopefully make it stick in their brains include using a puppet, spinning round and point your finger at one random person who must answer the question, and throwing the beach ball to pick who goes next.

11. Personal interaction with the teacher
A good concept to include in any preschool lesson plan, especially with under 4s, is some one to one interaction with the teacher. This can be done right at the beginning of the class with an entrance drill or “Give me five!” (or just “Touch!), shaking hands, or handing out things they will need for the first activity such as little plastic hands to touch the classroom objects or flashcards with.

12. Storybook that starts with hello/pleased to meet you/personal questions
A storybook is something else I use in absolutely every kindergarten English lesson, and this can be tied in with personal questions and making use of their concentration powers near the beginning of the class. Use a story that starts with “Hello”, “My name is…”, “Pleased/ nice to meet you” etc. and get the students to ask the questions to the character in the book and then answer the questions with their own information. If you are lucky, the rest of the book will then go onto present or revise language that you want to cover in the rest of the lesson. If not, you might be able to get away with skipping pages to get that part over with quickly, or there might be a similar page in the textbook that you can use in a similar way to a story. If the latter is true, you might be able to use the tip below too.

13. Puppet
Using a puppet from the very start of the class can achieve many of the things mentioned above- something familiar, an obvious context for personal questions, someone to model the answers to questions and actions, and even something you can throw to the students in place of a beach ball.

14. Passing
This tip also includes the advantages of several of the things mentioned above, especially personal questions and personal attention. It can also be a good way of moving onto students asking the questions rather than just answering them and getting them ready to play team games (with older kids). As you ask a question or say hello to one of the children, pass them an object such as a cuddly toy, a puppet or a piece of plastic fruit. They should then ask the same question and pass it onto the next person or any other student of their choice. Once they are used to this, in future classes you can get them to race (passing and asking questions along rows as quickly as they can) or you can pass out more and more objects so that they are going in all directions at the same time.

15. Tag/ it
Along with spinning with your finger out, using a beach ball (maybe rolling it along the floor with students who can’t catch yet) and Stand Up Sit Down, this is one of the games that I play in preschool classes that is most suitable for using from the very start of the class. The teacher tries to run after and tag one of the students. That student must then answer the question the teacher asks and is then “it” and must run after the other students to try and tag them and ask the same question. You can make who is “it” and so therefore the rules of the game clearer by having an object that they must touch other people with, then passing that object onto the next person who is “it”.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
October 2008 | Filed under Fillers And Warmers
There are links to more than 400 articles and 1000 worksheets plus 1500 blog posts by Alex Case on TEFLtastic blog.

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