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The language the world speaks: How kids can best learn English

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English bridges different cultures and brings people closer, particularly in an expat haven like DB. To find out how kids can best pick up the language, Suveera Sharma talks TEFL with three local educators.

The world is definitely shrinking, and the cultural boundaries slowly dissolving. Before, one could spend an entire lifetime in the same town, without feeling lacking in any way. Now however, we are global citizens, with English being the ‘world language.’ It has become imperative to speak and understand the ‘lingua franca’ of the world.

English is the language most often taught as a foreign language, and due to its omnipresence in the global market, more and more parents are sending their kids to specialist classes to make sure they become as fluent as they can be. They believe English will help their children get ahead in a globalised world, and that the sooner they get started, the better.

About TEFL

A TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification, is an asset when it comes to teaching English to non-native English speakers. It is an internationally recognised qualification that promises to equip the participants with the skillset to teach the language successfully.

TEFL-qualified teacher Bruce Marsh runs the Kenon English Centre in Nim Shue Wan. “TEFL gives you an edge. It provides you with a structure and framework to most effectively train your students,” he opines. “All our teachers are TEFL qualified.”

Kelley Quinn, another TEFLqualified teacher and DB resident, teaches English to three- to fouryear- olds at Greenfield English (International) Kindergarten in West Kowloon. “TEFL provides you with a template and qualifies you to use your knowledge in the right way,” she says. “I teach English to very young children, and the approach is very specific to their age group, but in future if I were to teach adults, I would comfortably be able to adapt my methodology to suit their needs.”

DB resident Willie Lau, director of creativity at Holistic Education, is not TEFL qualified, and has a slightly different take on the subject. His company provides underprivileged children with free and subsidised English-language courses. “As educators, our goal is not only to improve our students’ English, but also to inspire and have a positive influence on all of them,” he says.

Willie teaches in community centres across Hong Kong, and he says he is always involved with a varied group of children, some of whom have very little knowledge of English. “How you teach a class is as important as what you teach them,” he says. “It’s all about strategy and the correct approach.”

Teaching methodologies

The three DB educators agree that the lessons provided must be made engaging and participatory for students, irrespective of their ages. This is imperative to keep their interest in developing real communicative ability in what is an alien language for them. Web tools and unprecedented access to online resources allow teachers to create lessons tailored to the specific needs of a student.

“I start with the basics and try and incorporate learning into daily chores,” Kelley says. “We also use a lot of visual media like flash cards and worksheets to help them relate images to words. We use repetition and try and introduce four to five simple new words every week. With children this small reiteration is essential.”

To illustrate her point, Kelley refers to a young Cantonese-speaking boy in her class. “Every day, while helping him tie his shoe laces, we would sing the same English song. Soon he not only learnt the song, but also the meaning, and he was using words from it in his conversations.”

Working across Hong Kong, Willie says he is constantly changing his lesson plans as children leave and new ones join in the middle of the term. He believes his strength lies in lesson planning and execution.

“I tell my teachers to make lessons captivating like a movie. They must be delivered in an interesting way,” he says. “We have to capture the attention of the students. Children lose focus if they are not engaged. I incorporate activities into my lessons to add variety and keep their attention.”

Bruce is of the same mind. “We interspace our lessons with songs and rhymes to bring liveliness to the lessons. The children learn a lot when learning is enjoyable for them. The number of children per class is restricted to six so that personalised attention is given to each student.

tefl educators

“We have the same approach for all nationalities,” adds Bruce. “I try and give them an immersive learning experience.”

Working in DB, Bruce sees students from all age groups, including adults. So how is teaching an adult different from teaching a child? “With children you know what grade they are in, and that mostly gives you an idea of their levels. However, with adults we first need to assess their level of understanding of the language,” he explains. “We also try and understand their purpose and motive behind learning the language, and work on our lesson plan accordingly.”

Supplementary learning

While it is beneficial to go and learn a language in a formal setting, it is equally important to learn outside the classroom as well.

Willie regularly arranges for his students to come over to Discovery Bay. “We try and sponsor a meal for them at a restaurant and encourage them to interact with the other people around them,” he says. “It gives them the confidence to speak to strangers in English.”

Discussing how parents can help children improve their English at home, Kelley is equally focused on the importance of conversation. “The more children try and speak, the better they learn. Parents must make an effort to talk to their children in English. It cements their learning. Reading English books to them every night is another great step forward.”

Bruce agrees, saying, “The best idea is to do a lot of conversational English. I encourage students to practice speaking whenever they can and not be afraid of making mistakes.”

With regard to at-home learning, Bruce again places the emphasis on the fun factor. “Let your children watch cartoons in English for some time every day,” he says. “In today’s age, children respond better to technology. Parents should look to resources online as well.”

On a final note, parents should try to relax. It’s normal for bilingual kids to make mistakes and mix their languages. When they are trying to express themselves, they use the vocabulary they know, so if they are lacking a word from one language, they will make it up with the other. “Mummy look how well I’m reading, I’m going molto veloce!”


6 ways to support your child’s English learning 

1. Learn English together.
2. Play in English.
3. Read stories in English.
4. Listen to a UK radio station.
5. Sing English songs together.
6. Ask English-speaking friends over for supper.


Images: Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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