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June 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

The Joys of Teaching English to 4- and 5-year-olds

Sandra Piai is a freelance teacher trainer and proofreader. She has an MSc in CALL and TESOL from the University of Stirling, the Cambridge DELTA and the Montessori Certificate in Primary Education. In addition, she has been a Moderator of Trinity College London Cert TESOL courses, a Trinity and Cambridge EFL examiner and she edited the IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group’s Newsletter from 1999-2005. Recently, Sandra has spent more time writing and proofreading and at the present time she is teaching English at her local kindergarten on a voluntary basis. Email:                        


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Doubtless one teacher’s joy is another teacher’s nightmare, as many colleagues and trainee teachers I have met over the years seem to have a fear of working with very young learners, and I could say the same for teacher trainers on short holiday courses who often want to avoid working with the pre-school age group of overseas teachers. Perhaps fear is too strong a word, but I have met quite a few primary teachers who would prefer not to teach such a young age group. Certainly English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers, who often find themselves expected to teach a wide range of classes and ages, would usually prefer not to teach 4/5-year-olds, and why should they if they have not been trained to do so? Personally, I would prefer not to teach exam classes. 

Yet very young learners (VYLs) are such a lovely “empty slate”; they want to learn and appear to soak up the language. They are also curious, creative and imaginative. As Chapelton (2016) on the British Council website points out, every child is unique and all have a common natural curiosity and an innate ability to learn, which we as teachers need to exploit. Moreover, learning to speak is an interactive, social process with inputs and reinforcements coming from many sources (Tsuji, cited in Roberts, 2019), which means language input in the VYL classroom needs to come from a variety of sources including stories, pictures, music, songs, rhymes and chants, games, and the children themselves as well as the teacher. For me, who likes to think of herself as creative but can’t sing and can’t draw, they are the ideal pupils. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. They still seem to sing the songs I teach them in tune, and they use their imagination when hand-drawn flashcards are not always recognisable as a dog or a cat, or a lion and an elephant. 

Of course, the internet is always available to download flashcards and watch/listen to songs, but it is also quite therapeutic to create your own materials if/when you have the time and very young children seem to relate more to something produced by the teacher than downloaded from the computer, as it is often more user-friendly and is aimed specifically at them and their interests and not at a general audience. Another point to consider is, how interactive is the internet and watching/listening to songs on a screen? Yes, the pupils will join in with the actions, but it is surely more beneficial if the teacher helps his/her pupils acquire the language interacting with them using visual and musical aids and then, perhaps later, reinforcing the language by letting the children watch the song on the screen and join in with the actions.

I started teaching the four- and five-year-old pupils in our local asilo (kindergarten) as a volunteer in October 2023 for two afternoons a week. Ideally, I would have liked to have done three afternoons a week as such young children, while learning quickly, also forget quickly. However, thinking back to my five-year-old learners in Spain who did one hour a week on a Friday evening from 5-6pm after a full day at school but still made excellent progress, I decided these classes of half an hour twice a week could in all probability also produce good results. From October until Christmas I only taught the five-year-olds. The four-year-olds began their classes after Christmas.

I drew up a draft syllabus for the five-year-old pupils which could be amended as we went along and I went into the asilo the day before the first class took place and introduced all the children to Big Ted and Baby Ted. I explained in English, with a few Italian words thrown in, that I don’t really speak much Italian, but Big Ted would help me by interpreting if necessary. That way I set the scene that we only speak English in the English classroom.  Big Ted is such an asset in the classroom as I can repeat what he whispers in my ear and the children seem to accept that it is Ted speaking and not me, or at least that the language comes from Ted and I am just repeating it. All the children love Big Ted and he has to give out high fives when they leave the classroom, although sometimes I pop him back in my bag and say he is asleep and so they tiptoe out so as not to disturb him.

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Big Ted and Baby Ted waiting for their VYLs

The syllabus includes shapes and colours, numbers up to ten, animals, parts of the body, some items of clothing, classroom objects, classroom language and instructions and simple opposites. After Easter I started to include items from nature, such as leaves, flowers, grass, and the fruit in The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle, 1994). The classroom language and classroom objects we learnt through playing Simon Says, the colours and shapes we learnt together and reinforced by playing Bingo with the different coloured shapes and sizes, the animals were learnt through flashcards and puppets, and the parts of the body through action songs. Young learners pick up language so quickly, especially if you use all the senses by miming, singing, using flashcards, music and movement, and storytelling in a happy and relaxed environment. 

They also learn vocabulary that you might not expect them to learn. When I used to read Meg and Mog (Nicholl and Pienkowski, 2004) with my eight-year-olds, I always used to call the cauldron a big pot, then one day I forgot and read cauldron and what was the most popular word from reading that book? Cauldron of course! Tiptoe is another word I wouldn’t usually have taught this age group, but everyone tiptoes out of the classroom when Big Ted is asleep. In one of the five-year-old groups, one little girl asked me how to say cosi-cosi in English and I said so-so, although I didn’t actually “teach” it. She remembered it the following week and uses it all the time when the opportunity arises, e.g. Are you happy? So-so, and since then it has become the most popular word with this group. The other group hasn’t been introduced to so-so, but I would say that at the time of writing their favourite word is finished! Which they love to shout out when they have finished doing a colouring or drawing activity. 

However, what all groups at the asilo (i.e. five- and four-year-olds) love best of all are the action games like Simon Says, mentioned above, as well as action nursery rhymes such as Tommy Thumb and I, 2, 3, 4, Come in please and shut the door. (See Appendix for the full version of these nursery rhymes, as well as a link to how to play Simon Says for those who don’t know the game). I’ve also introduced a couple of Carolyn Graham’s wonderful jazz chants with the five-year-olds: Shoes and Socks, and Ssshhh, ssshhh, stop that noise, (Graham, 1980). Shoes and Socks introduces items of clothing, and Ssshhh, Ssshhh is so useful when you want them to listen. Without raising your voice, you just have to say, Ssshhh, Ssshhh, and the children will immediately add Stop that noise. I only use the first line of this particular chant, as the rest is slightly challenging for such young learners.

Rather than starting the lessons with a song which I always advocate with VYLs, the five-year-old groups now start with 1, 2, 3, 4 and the pupils take it in turns to go outside and knock on the door whilst the class chants 1, 2, 3, 4, Come in please and shut the door! But what they like best is Hurry up! which comes in the line 5, 6, 7, 8, Hurry up, you’re very late. Hurry up! is the second favourite item of lexis in both groups. There are other ways of repeating and recycling language through using music in your classroom. In fact, I overuse the tune of Frère Jacques to practise lexis, e.g.

Dog and cat, dog and cat Shoes and socks, shoes and socks 

Fish and mouse, fish and mouse Hat and coat, hat and coat

Giraffe and elephant, giraffe and elephant Jeans and t-shirt, jeans and t-shirt

Big, bad lion, big bad lion. Scarf and gloves, scarf and gloves.

We all make a sound between a growl and a roar and extend an arm and hand like a big paw for the big bad lion, and we mime putting on gloves when we get to the line scarf and gloves. You can obviously change the words to practise the lexical sets you have been teaching as the tune lends itself to so many simple songs and rhymes. I also use it to practise parts of the body, fruit and other types of food and I use it at the beginning of lessons to sing:

Hello, hello; hello, hello

What’s your name? What’s your name?

My name’s ……… (everyone shouts out their name)

What’s your name? What’s your name?

The children love shouting out their names at the top of their voices, but as it is only one minute of noise, I encourage them to do this. Strangely, with the four-year-olds, I couldn’t get them to understand this concept of shouting out their name – they all shouted their name was Sandra! Not even with the intervention of Big Ted, could I get them to say their names. However, never give up with VYLs. After a couple of lessons of asking them individually what their names were, interspersed with Is your name Ted? Or Is your name Sandra? And them responding No, they eventually realised what I wanted them to say in the song – you need to do a lot of demonstrating with VYLs, give lots of examples and, above all, have lots of patience. But never give up, you and your learners will get there in the end. After What’s your name? I move on to How are you? but go back to What’s your name? occasionally so they don’t forget it.

Hello, hello; hello, hello

How are you? How are you?

Very well thank you, very well thank you

How are you? How are you?

The four-year-olds now have no problem with shouting out their names and can all ask each other What’s your name? They are also very good at shouting out Finished! when they have completed a colouring activity. The syllabus for this age group is mainly colours and numbers up to ten, and big and small animals. As there is only time for them to have half an hour of English a week, it makes more sense didactically to keep the syllabus simple but flexible. Next year they will have the chance to build on what we have done this year. At first, they were very shy and even insecure in the lessons, but once they started shouting out their names they have not looked back and working with them is now just as fun and rewarding, a joy in other words, as working with the five-year-old learners.  

With the older learners, I also use the tune from London Bridge is falling down for singing instructions, such as:


Everyone is sitting down, sitting down, sitting down

Everyone is sitting down, SITTING DOWN! 


Everyone is quiet now, quiet now, quiet now

Everyone is quiet now, QUIET NOW!


Put the paper in the bin, in the bin, in the bin

Put the paper in the bin, IN THE BIN!

(This is my favourite!).


Everyone look at me/listen to me, look at me/listen to me, look at me/listen to me

Everyone look at me/listen to me, LOOK AT/LISTEN TO ME!


What I also find interesting with these pupils is that about 25 percent of the children in the four groups I teach have different heritage languages which they speak at home. These languages are an interesting mix of Moroccan, Ukrainian, Moldovan, Albanian, Spanish (from Latin America), as well as Indian and Chinese languages. They all speak Italian at school and are now learning a third language, English, albeit in a fun and creative way. Other children are of mixed parentage and speak both Italian and the other parent’s language at home and again English as a third language at school. In fact, research shows that learning an additional language is often easier for bilingual children than for the monolingual child, because, as Sorace (2023) points out, their bilingual brains already understand something about the ways that languages can be different and, indeed, most of the bilingual children do seem to participate more actively. 

The Indian and Chinese boys are in one of the four-year-old groups and are certainly more confident and less shy than the other children and remember more vocabulary, but it is also possible that at least one of their parents might speak English and revise the vocabulary with them at home. Of the five-year-olds, two little girls, one Moroccan and the other Albanian, are so enthusiastic about English that their enthusiasm affects the rest of the group. When we made some envelope puppets, they quite spontaneously turned to each other and said through their puppets “What’s your name?” and “Are you happy?” which we had just been practising. This is one of the joys that I find in teaching such young learners, as it is so rewarding to see them wanting to speak in English and not just words, but short phrases. Once they had initiated these short dialogues with the puppets, many of the others in the class did the same. Children of this age can learn so much from each other. Probably more in kindergarten than in primary school as there is less pressure and English is still a fun activity rather than a lesson on the timetable. 

On the other hand, one of the Italian children is practically bilingual as his parents both speak and read to him in English at home. His comprehension and spoken language are good, and I have discovered he also knows a lot of the songs we do from listening to Spotify. I was worried he might be bored, but he joins in songs and activities and enjoys helping his friends when they are not sure what to do. There are also some rather exuberant children in this class who are real risk-takers, as they always want to answer in English even when they have not understood correctly. In fact, as is to be expected at this age, everyone participates in their own way. They all seem to enjoy learning English and want to experiment with the language and the majority are not afraid to do so, although most are “followers” rather than “initiators”. I don’t think of them as being of different nationalities or coming from different backgrounds, but I was interested to see where their families were from originally because there has been so much research and discussion on bilingualism recently and it is becoming more and more relevant with the movement of people between different countries today. 

Nevertheless, some learners, whether mono- or bilingual, are shy especially the younger ones, and they need a lot of scaffolding and encouragement, but they generally join in singing songs and they always participate in the actions. It is important at this age to let them join in when they are ready. The fact they don’t always participate does not mean they are not internalising the language. If they can follow the lessons and enjoy them that is all I ask for at this age. I would suggest, however, that from observing how the different groups behave in the lessons, the bilingual children bring an additional dynamic to the classroom interaction, as they do seem to be less inhibited when it comes to speaking another language. However, I am generalising from what I have seen in my classroom, I am not undertaking a research project nor am I collecting data to support my observations. One newly-arrived Ukrainian child who is still learning Italian, tends to repeat everything rather like an echo after the whole group has finished singing or repeating a phrase in English. It is so nice to hear her participating in her own way and her repetition reinforces the language for the whole group too. 

To sum up, the children have learnt an amazing amount of English over the year, especially when, as already mentioned, you consider they only do half an hour twice a week. Or, at least, the five-year-olds do, the four-year-olds have only been doing half an hour once a week since Christmas, but even they know the colours can count to ten and know the names of quite a few animals. And they understand simple instructions like stand up, sit down, listen, make a line at the door, point to the door, point to Ted, although most of them need a lot of encouragement especially to point at things, rather like the encouragement they needed at the beginning to shout out their names. On the other hand, when I was revising the colours with this group on one occasion, I just said blue for both light blue and dark blue, but one little girl came out with sky blue for the light blue colour. Where did she learn that? Certainly not from me, but now the whole class says sky blue (children learning from each other again) and I have had to adapt my vocabulary to suit them. That is another one, or even two of the joys of teaching VYLs, they always surprise you and once one child picks up a new word, the others will nearly always copy them, as with finished, so-so, and now sky blue. Thus the whole class often learns new lexis from each other.

The fact that the groups work so well together and help each other also reinforces the fact that language isn’t learnt in isolation but through social interaction (Tsui Sho, in Roberts 2019). We interact all the time with the songs and rhymes, the games and stories. We include Big Ted and Little Ted in everything; we do simple dialogues with the envelope puppets we have made and, above all, we have fun. Fun is so important at this age, as learners need to feel relaxed and comfortable with the language, because if they are going to be studying it for at least 12 years, then the last thing we want to do now is put them off the language. Indeed, this is my main aim, to help the children enjoy the sounds of English and get used to listening to and interacting with the language. Their pleasure in coming out with phrases in context such as Come in please, Shut the door, Hurry up, Stop that noise, being able to mime big and small, happy and sad, and to sing a “special” song in front of their parents at the Christmas and end-of-year parties as well as simply enjoying the lessons is the biggest joy of teaching such young learners. But there are little joys in every lesson, for example, when I make a mistake in a song and they correct me, or I forget to play Simon Says and they remind me, or even when they give Big Ted a high five when leaving the room at the end of the lesson. All of this sends me home with a big smile on my face.

(Word count: 3,500 approx)



Carle, Eric (1994) The Very Hungry Caterpillar. London: Penguin Books

Chapelton, T. (2016) How can young children best learn languages?  (accessed 04/04/24)

Graham, Carolyn (1980). Jazz Chants for Children. Oxford: OUP

Nicholl, Helen and Jan Pienkowski (2004) Meg and Mog. London: Penguin Books

Sorace, Antonella (2023)  Are some languages more difficult than others?  (accessed 02/04/24)

Tsui Sho, in Roberts, Joanna (2019) Why are some children so good at learning languages? (accessed 04/04/24)

London Bridge is Falling Down


                                                 Tommy Thumb

Tommy Thumb, Tommy Thumb

Where are you? Where are you?

Here I am. Here I am.

How do you do?


Index finger, index finger

Where are you? Where are you?

Here I am. Here I am.

How do you do?


Middle finger, middle finger

Where are you? Where are you?

Here I am. Here I am.

How do you do?


Ring finger, ring finger

Where are you? Where are you?

Here I am. Here I am.

How do you do?


Little finger, little finger

Where are you? Where are you?

Here I am. Here I am.

How do you do?

I have changed the words slightly as I don’t feel Peter Pointer, Toby Tall or Ruby Ring are really useful vocabulary. However, if you watch any of the YouTube clips, this is what you will hear. The website below is my favourite version:


1, 2, 3, 4

1, 2, 3, 4 

Come in please and shut the door.

5, 6, 7, 8 

Hurry up, you’re very late.

9, 10, 9, 10 

Don’t be late for school again.

These are the two action nursery rhymes that my classes enjoy. I couldn’t find a good link to YouTube for 1, 2, 3, 4, but we do it like this:

  • One child goes outside and knocks on the door

  • The class chants 1,2,3,4 Come in please and shut the door

  • The child comes in, shuts the door and waits as the class points to the clock or their watches and chants 5, 6, 7, 8 Hurry up! You’re very late. 

  • The child hurries to his/her seat and the class chants 9, 10, 9, 10 Don’t be late for school again as they wag their fingers at the “late” child. 

The link for how to play Simon Says is:


Please check the Pilgrims f2f courses at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Pilgrims online courses at Pilgrims website.

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