/ Teachers, Young Learners


This year I’m on maternity leave, well not officially, since in Italy mothers are requested to re-enter their jobs 3-4 months after their child’s birth, but let’s say, I’ve become a freelance mummy-teacher. What does that mean? In the morning, I started running an English home-nursery, while in the afternoon, I started teaching kids. On Wednesdays, I have lessons with my Mini Heroes, 6-7 year old boys (only boys). Obviously, my lesson planning is completely different from my good old lessons to adults and I usually need a shower after a lesson with them, but being their hero-teacher is the best price on Earth. It’s not a traditional classroom course. We do our YL lessons in our playroom in my home, using my kids’ toys. But most of the activities I tried with remarkable success and/or results are simply to be introduced even in a classroom. 


Let me start with explaining how I plan a lesson for my YL group.
The very first thing was to set up my long-term plan. I sell 6-8 week packages to my clients, so parents don’t feel the stress to commit themselves for the whole school years (which they might do anyway, only step by step) and it also gives me different entry points for new students. I asked my students’ mothers what book(s) they children use in their school(s), took a look at their syllabus and considered their age (6-7) and the exams that might be available for them. I don’t really cherish Trinity for different reasons (they never let you observe an exam which makes you think that they do whatever they want), but so far I have had positive experience with Cambridge YLE. The first exam for 7-12 year old kids is Cambridge YLE Starters. To have good results (not only a reward) in this exam, kids need a decent vocabulary (colours, every day items, clothes, animals, furniture, action verbs, etc.) and use simple grammar (present simple and continuous, have got, prepositions).

I crosschecked the two and picked 3-4 vocabulary topics and 3-4 grammar points to teach and revise (theoretically 2 lessons for each).

And here is the thing: kids learn for years, for example, the colors, but they put it after the subject (This is a lion big – Italian interference) or they know present continuous, but always forget to use the auxiliary (He sitting on the bed). They very probably know the difference between a and an, but say a elephantetc. So my aim is not to teach them grammar (I only clarify the rule in one minute, often in Italian and skip automatic copied exercises, so called closed practice). I want to make them use what they have already known.

So as a second step, I set up a rough plan for each lesson: two lessons are supposed to deal with the same vocabulary field and grammar structure. In every lesson, we also revise in one or two activities what has been done previously in the course (the closer to the end of the course, the longer this phase). So every lesson is given a target language and the lexis that needs to be recycled or grammar that needs to be reactivated. Even better if these are expressed in functions: to be able to describe their families, etc.

The third step is the most important: I list all the games that can be done practising the given target language (see examples below).

The fourth step is to look for extra materials (a worksheet if necessary, pictures to describe, stories for the dictation race, etc.), mostly online.

The fifth step is to decide about the order of the exercises. I have a routine:
– We start to set up our puzzle carpet, a five-minute activity that helps the boys to ‘arrive’ and get into ‘English mood’.
– Then we quickly repeat our main class rules, pointing at the correct behavior in pairs of pictures (e.g. playing with toys vs destroying toys).
– We say then our Starter, that starts with a greeting, then we ask each other how we are, finally we clarify what the day and the date is. Later also the weather is going to be added to the list.
– We move onto our main part which also involves revision phases and finally
– We finish with a free game session.

Revision is important. We tend to remember words for a short period of time, so in order to maintain new lexical items in the long-term memory, these need to be repeated at least 7 times on different occasions and in different contexts. So every lesson needs to include revision. However, we don’t always start with the revision session. These (since we have more than one) are usually built in the lesson. So after every new syllabus point, there can be a short game or exercise that aims at reactivating previously learnt vocabulary. The same with grammar points. A word snake or a memo game between two exercises with a new structure can also help to relax for a second and get motivation for the next challenge.

Each lesson is around one idea. For example:
– In one lesson we started to write the names of the continents onto sticky notes and stick these onto a big blind map. Then we drew the logo of our favorite superhero and these flew from one continent to another and did exercises (dice game to revise numbers in Las Vegas, revision of food items by making our favourite pizza on a paper plate in Neaples). Finally, we finished with a true-false exercise answering to questions like: Can Superman fly? Can Flash jump high? etc. Boys had to jump up with their right hand up if it was true and jump up with their left hand if it was false.
– In another lesson we picked one country, Denmark, and after a dictation race (see below), we did exercises with LEGO, which was invented in Denmark. The homework was to read about LEGO on the internet.

Important detail that we also have a reward chart where the boys collect points to get a final big reward. Not after every exercise, but 2-3 times in every lesson, we organize a race and choose the winner who then gets rewarded with a point. At the moment we have a tie!

Another important element in my lesson is the art-break. Around the middle of the lesson, I give the boys a task, in which they need to sit down and draw or colour. This is a kind of break for them, they often change into Italian and chat for a couple of minutes, which doesn’t disturb me, since they often ask about English (how you say this or what is the difference between this and that). What they make, is usually an important part of my next exercise. For example, in my last lesson (vocabulary: body parts, grammar: have got), I asked them to create their own monster, which they did with a lot of enthusiasm. The exercise afterwards was to describe this monster in first person singular: Hi, my name is Spider-Face. I have got eight legs, etc.

One common problem with energy-bomb kids is that they tend to fiddle: they never sit still and keep moving, they play with their pens and destroy their notebooks while listening or answering to a question. One of my colleagues gave me an excellent tip: give them playdough they can play with, while they listen to their class mates or to you; it will help working out their extra energy through their hands. And it works.

Another fantastic thing I discovered is a toy for toddlers: a colouring book that works with a water-pen. The pen doesn’t write onto other things only onto the notepad and reveals hidden pictures. But then it dries and can be reused. An excellent investment which can replace playdough. The thing is that boys don’t like looking into your eyes, while answering to questions, so they can hide into these coloring books, guess what is coming out at the end and still listen to your question.

The keyword is moving, moving, moving. I make them sit for 5 minutes, but they cannot handle more (in an afternoon lesson, after 6 morning lessons and the homework session, it’s nearly impossible).

I also insist on using English. They can have a glass of water if they ask for it in English, they must say What does … mean?, I won’t react to ‘come si dice …?’, etc.


Needless to say, a 90-minute lesson is long and really tiring, but it’s also very good to ‘hide’ a lesson into a series of games.

After talking how to plan a lesson, I’d like to move on to the list of games I have found really useful and enjoyable.

You might not have the possibility to do all the activities below, considering that normal lessons are usually done in poorly equipped classrooms. However, I’d suggest that you insert some of the games into your traditional lesson and let’s see if you see any difference. You will need just a little investment to have your magic bag ready for any YL class. It’s very often difficult to maintain young learners’ attention during a lesson, but in most cases this problem can be handled with clear rules (ours are always on the wall), routines and lots of movement. Competition is the cherry on the cake.

Let’s see the list:

Flyswatters: I found them in a 1€ shop and bought three straight away. I use them in different ways, but the main movement is mostly hitting something with it. It can be something stuck onto the wall or put onto the puzzle carpet. It’s not a big deal if it makes noise, important that nobody gets hurt. Let’s see two concrete examples:
– I wrote a and an onto two sticky notes and put them onto the carpet in front of the boys, but not too close to them. I called out nouns and the boys had to decide if these stood with a or an.
– In another exercise, I picked a red chair for false and a yellow one for true. I gave simple sentences to the boys, like This is an elephant, while I showed a picture of an animal on a flashcard and they had to hit onto the correct chair. I usually ask the boys to play in pairs, then the winners compete and the final winner gets a point on the reward chart.

Hit (not kick) the bucket: This is the boys’ favorite game, so I try to insert it into every lesson, however, always as an end game, since it gets them very excited and it also gives them the final opportunity to release some steam. We choose two containers (small buckets, chests or boxes) and balls (small rubber balls or textile tomatoes, which don’t bounce easily and cannot hurt anybody). Then I assign a role to the containers, similarly to the flyswatter exercise, like true and false or a and an or even prepositions (with more than two buckets even more interesting). My role is to call out nouns, sentences, verbs and wait for the result. The boys need to be the same distance from the containers, throw at the same time and the winner needs to pick the correct answer AND hit the bucket, otherwise no point. I usually reward the final winner at the end of the game with one point.

Pull DOWN your socks: You might not want to do this exercise in a big class, and on a hot day, but it’s great fun. In our home-school, everybody takes their shoes off when entering the apartment since we have toddlers in the morning all over the floor. So the boys are usually in their socks in our room. I made them practise a and an by asking them to take their socks off, roll them up in a ball and use these as little balls. I gave them once again nouns and they had to hit the correct indefinite article. Don’t try it with shoes, your employer might call you the next day.

Wooden memo games: I teach also very small children (2-3 year old ones), so we have lots of very useful toddler toys. One of these is a wooden animal memo game. I was surprised myself how much my mini heroes liked this toy. We played it the official way (turning up two pieces at once and if they are the same, the player can turn up two more), adding to the game that they had to turn back even the identical pairs if they didn’t remember the English words for the animals.

What’s missing: everybody’s favorite, it gives the competitive element to any exercise and is fabulous to use it to introduce a grammar exercise. I put different things on the floor while pronouncing their names in English. Sometimes I ask the boys to give me objects, sometimes I decide what goes into the pile. I also used the wooden memo blocks in this game. Then I cover them with a scarf and put my hand underneath. I take one of the objects and remove it with the scarf. The guys have to remember which object is missing, but I accept only English names. The exercise is excellent to check vocabulary, but as I said it also works as an introduction to a grammar point. For example, a couple of lessons ago, I put wooden animals (these from Noah’s arch) under the scarf and while I removed them two by two, I placed them either close to me or far from me. So as the next exercise, I introduced these are and those areto the boys. If somebody could repeat all animal names with their colours and the new grammar, got a point (These are two purple elephants).

Another exercise is going to be to place the removed objects in a way, that we can discuss prepositions afterward (e.g. the pen is between the mobile phone and the eraser).

Mystery box: I usually do this exercise as the wind down exercise at the end of the lesson. I have a lovely metal box and I put an object into it. The boys need to ask ‘is it…‘ questions. Great to practice to be + adjective and to be + a/an+ noun structures. Easy for us, hard for a beginner.

Spy-books: my favorite one. I found a secondhand Spy-book on amazon and I use it once in a while. The boys need to spot things in a crowded picture. Harder than it sounds…

Word snake: the original game says: tell me e.g. an animal, take the last letter and the next candidate needs to tell you another animal beginning with this letter. You can check any lexical field with this game. I used this game to check spelling, since my boys are great to tell me words, but I noticed that even the best ones might miss spelling skills. So we played the game in a circle, but after every word they had to write the word down and I checked spelling.

Dictation race: another great exercise to check spelling. The original game says to put the students into pairs and stick a short text onto the wall. The pairs decide who is the messenger and who is the writer. The messenger runs to the text, memorizes as much as he/she can and runs back to his/her mate to dictate the memorized text. The other part writes. The couple who finishes the text sooner (with the correct spelling, capital and low-case letters count), wins the race. It happened to me that I had three students present, so I had to change the rules and everybody raced for his victory. The exercise was particularly useful, since it gave the chance to students who hadn’t been so good in speaking exercises, but excellent at visual ones, to show their strengths.

Roll the dice: In a toyshop I found a dice box for some super offer (3 euro – 10 dice). It gives me the chance to practise numbers up to 60. One plastic cup and let’s roll the dice. I ask my students to count loudly, so we can check if they really know the numbers. As a follow up, I always jot down 5 numbers written in letters and ask the boys to turn them into digital numbers. This way, we see if there is any problem with thirteen vs fourteen or fifteen vs fifty.

Scrambled words: another exam exercise that needs to be practised from the beginning. I found on amazon a wooden alphabet, which I used to revise the alphabet. Then I picked letters, mixed them and asked the boys to reconstruct the words. It can be easily done on the whiteboard with a marker. In the Cambridge exam, there is a visual input, which helps a lot, but it also turns the exercise into a recognition task and not a restructure one. I usually give them the lexical field: think of colours, for example, without giving more hint.

Alphabetical order: an exercise to follow up the scrambled words can be to organize the words in alphabetical order. This is a simple task if somebody knows the alphabet well, but it’s really challenging when somebody is learning it. It checks the knowledge of the alphabet and even makes it more interesting involving the second or third letters.

Blind map: I also like geography exercises. I was not good at geography at school, but was not my fault. Not even my teachers’ fault. I hated our books. It listed everything about industry and agriculture, but honestly, who cared? Animals, beaches, interesting stories about pirates or inventions would have been more useful to grab my attention. And this is what I try to do. We ‘travel’ to Egypt and talk about the Nil crocodiles and take a look at the last PlayMobile pyramid (cool!). Or we ‘go’ to Denmark to play with LEGO. They will remember these, but might not know whether people in Egypt grow aubergines or not.


And last but not least: Testing in a different way:

One golden rule is that you need to test your students as they were prepared (or prepare them as they are going to be tested). So if a course is based on games, then the testing process needs to be a game too. I found this exercise very good:

Pass the hat, otherwise…: I asked the boys to sit in a circle and I put on some dance music and a hat onto my head. I explained that they had to pass the hat to their neighbor on their right, while they heard the music. Once I stopped the music, the student who had the hat on his head or in his hand, had to answer to my questions. The questions were previous exercises: a sheet with different vehicles and the candidate had to name all of them or numbers they had to call out, etc. I checked most grammar and vocabulary points and I checked everybody. Obviously, this can be done in a small group, in a bigger one you can concentrate onto one or two syllabus points. But the thing is, they have so much fun that they don’t even notice that are being tested.

Random tasks: another great idea is to set up a box with random tasks. You can use this for testing, but also for simple punishment, for example for missing homework or poor conduct. The student needs to pick a card from the box with a task on it, like: tell me the alphabet, count from 10 to 0, sing a song, name 10 animals, etc. This can also be linked to the reward chart and if the student cannot answer the question, they can even lose a hard earned point.

The ideas above are not my ideas, they come from different sources, like BusyTeacher, and some ideas even from the British Council newsletters. They have in common that they are successful to make any superhero play and learn at the same time.

PS: This post was originally written in December 2017.


Activity Book - Toys

YL activity books for Cambridge Starters, Movers and Flyers or any ESL primary classroom about Toys (free), Sweets, Beach, Animals, Meals, House, Clothes and many other topics. Shop around in the ELT-Tutor webshop.

Go to ESL Activity Books

Taboo Cards - Flyers

YL Taboo cards following the official Cambridge YLE Wordlists. Ready-to-print, fun activity for vocabulary revision.

Taboo Cards Starters – ELT-TUTOR SHOP
Taboo Cards Movers – ELT-TUTOR SHOP
Taboo Cards Flyers – FREE

These editable Google Forms help you keep track of the lexical items you’ve already dealt with in your YL course:

Progress Checker Starters – ELT-TUTOR SHOP
Progress Checker Movers – ELT-TUTOR SHOP
Progress Checker Flyers – FREE


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