You might think that teaching English to young learners in Asia starts with basic words and phrases. Actually, for the very young learners, you'll need to start right at the very beginning, with the alphabet.
Children at this age (anywhere from 3 years old and up) might never have been exposed to the letters of the alphabet. Countries like Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, and many more, use their own alphabets and scripts. Children will likely have seen the occasional Roman letter somewhere, but it's unlikely they'll be familiar with the whole 26 character range.
Until you get them up to speed on recognizing and pronouncing the individual letters and their sounds, writing words on the board and teaching sentences is a lot more difficult.
Teaching The Alphabet
It's not as easy as you might think. Yes, the letters are simple and only have one syllable (apart from "W"), but there are 26 of them, which can be hard to learn. Think how older children need a lot of practice before they can remember the 7 days of the week or 12 months of the year, and you'll see how much practice younger kids will need remembering every letter, its sound, and the order it goes in.
Fortunately, things like The Alphabet Song make reciting the alphabet over and over again a lot easier for children with short attention spans. On top of that, there are a lot of games and activities that you can do, which we'll go into more in the rest of the article.
Teaching the alphabet DOES take some time. Very young learners pick things up quickly, but without constant recycling and drilling, they can forget it just as quickly. Many private schools dedicate a whole 6 weeks to teaching the alphabet. It's important to get it right.
The following are tips that will help you along the way.
Break the letters into groups
It's a lot less difficult to teach 5 or 6 letters than it is to teach the whole alphabet. Start with something like A-G, and adjust it depending on how well the students cope with that amount.
Every lesson after that, you should review the ones learned so far, and then add around 4 more. As well as making it easier to learn, it also helps students remember the order that they go in.
Speaking of order..
As students learn the letters, mix up the order
When it comes to numbers, letters, months, and other ordinals, students often just learn the order they go in. It can be frustrating to find out a student can recite the whole alphabet, only to learn they can't tell the individual letters apart when not surrounded by the right ones.
Make sure to mix it up from time to time so they get used to reading and recognizing the letters themselves, rather than just learning the sequence.
Teach the sounds of the letters at the same time
Some people teach the whole alphabet and then work on the sounds later, but it's more beneficial to do them at the same time. When you teach "A", also teach "ah", and so on. This is not only beneficial because students will have an easier time associating the right letters with their sounds, but you'll also be able to start teaching initial letter phonics.
If a student can recognize "B" and knows how to say "Buh", then you can build up to teaching them words that start with B, such as bed, ball, and banana. They'll likely be learning these words as part of the course anyway, so it will help cement the various words and letters in their memories.
Fix mispronunciation early
A lot of students will already have been exposed to some letters by their parents or kindergarten teachers trying to help. This can mean that sometimes they are pronouncing letters slightly incorrectly. Letters like "H" "F" and "L" can often be mispronounced, and the earlier you fix this and drill them on the correct sounds, the better.
It's a LOT easier to nip the bad habit in the bud early, even if you are just focusing on getting the students to remember the order.
Games and Activities
The following are some games and activities you can do to help kids learn.
Flashcard Scavenger Hunt
A popular game (that needs careful monitoring) can be to hide flashcards around the classroom and have students race to find and collect them. Make sure you place them equally around the room so each student gets a chance to find one. For an extra bit of practice, have the students close their eyes (no peeking!) and recite the alphabet while you are hiding the flashcards.
Once a student has a flashcard, they should give it back to you and tell you which letter it is. You can add difficulty by having them tell you the letter, its sound, and a word that begins with it.
Depending on the level of kids and the size of the class, you can do this with a handful of cards or the whole alphabet.
If you have magnets you can do this on the board, or you can just line them up on the floor. Have a couple of students stand/squat opposite the list of letters, and when you call one out, they need to touch it. You can award points/smiley faces for being fastest, or just award points for getting it right (some younger children need constant encouragement and don't like missing out on points).
If the students are more familiar with the alphabet, you can make it more difficult by placing the letters in the wrong order, or even by calling out a word that begins with that letter.
As different students learn in different ways, you should also do some writing/drawing practice. If they are very young, you might want to have them trace letters instead, or just colour them in.
For more advanced students, you can ask them to draw/write other things that start with the corresponding letter as well.
Pass The Parcel/Flashcard
Passing a parcel or flashcard (or ball, or anything) and reciting the alphabet as it's done is another good game. If students are getting restless, you can add an element of fun to the game by using a ball and having a student throw/place it in a box if they are the one who holds it when you shout a command.
This is just a variation on the classic pass the parcel game, and you can also do something similar with musical chairs.
Of course there are many different games and activities that you can try, and it would be advisable to do as many as possible. Young learners have short attention spans, and different students learn in different ways. Variety is always good.
What's great to know is that as students become more advanced and get better at the alphabet, you can adjust games and take them up a level, including words and phonics as well.
Teaching the alphabet might be "straightforward" and simple to do, but it definitely takes time and commitment.