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Specific strategies for reaching Level 1

Use of native language

We begin with a situation where children do not know any English. The starting point, naturally, has to be the language they know – their mother tongue or native (local) language. An introduction to English has to be through their native language. The essence of this is clarified in an example below.

Children like to learn new things. Speak to them in their native language and tell them plainly that they are going to learn a new language. Get them eager to learn.

The use of native language can be systematically minimized and if proper strategies are used, the class can get to an “all English” situation by the end of one year. Nevertheless, native language should be used whenever a doubt arises or when the teacher needs to find out if children have really understood.

But the use of the mother-tongue or the native language in an English lesson must be a right one. Consider this example. To introduce the word ‘table’ one need not provide its native language word. Pointing to it is adequate. Children will automatically link the English word with what they already know in their language. By repeatedly using the native-tongue where it is unnecessary, the teacher under-estimates the intelligence of her children. Also precious time is wasted. Instead, the teacher should send out a clear message to her children – “listen carefully and remember, I will not make you lazy by constantly giving you the translations.” Taking small steps and providing adequate practice and reinforcement can ensure a quick exit from using the mother-tongue.

In summary, translation has a right use, only as an aid to the students’ grasp of English. An overuse results in students becoming lazy or over-dependent on teachers.

Teaching the first words

Once children are ready to learn, the next step is to get them to listen to English. With the right amount of teacher repetition, children soon learn to understand what is being told.

Here the teacher should focus on two things – speak clearly and loudly (not in a sing song way). The teacher should speak naturally and must ensure that children get to see how she produces the sounds. The second is to use gestures, objects and pictures to convey what she is talking about.

An example, adapted from Teaching English To Beginners by L. R. H. Chapman is presented here.

Words and phrases actually spoken in English by teacher or class are printed in italics. The teacher must always repeat the English two or three times, clearly and slowly but not unnaturally, and then give the native language (NL) equivalent but only when necessary. In the case of a word introduced by an object or by a picture of it, he should not give but ask for the word in the child’s language. (A pupil should never be given what can be taken from him.)

teacher (holding up a book): What is this? (asked then in NL and the class will answer 'xx' [example; Kitab in Hindi] in NL.) A book. ('xx' is equated with 'a book' not with 'book' by itself. The teacher should give 'a' neither an exaggerated sound nor the fully weak vowel of normal speech.) All say after me: A book.
class: A book. (Some individual pupils repeat the word. Note the order: first, chorus repetition which must be quiet, then individual repetition but not too much of it or the effect will be dulling.)
teacher (holding up a pen): What is this? (asked in English, followed by NL if considered necessary. A pen. All say after me: A pen.
class : A pen.
teacher (holding up a pencil): What is this? (in English only) A pencil. All say after me: A pencil.
class : A pencil.
teacher (holding up the three objects, one by one): What is this?
class: A book. A pen. A pencil.
teacher: What is your name? (repeated slowly, but not with an unnatural separation of the words: What—is—your—name? The teacher now asks the same question in NL; then he asks some pupils the question in English, and they answer with their names only. The teacher returns to the question: What is this? and obtains the answers: A book, a pen, a pencil. Repetition is essential but it is more effective and less monotonous if given in frequently recurring doses. He can now add another word, for example ' cat'. He can draw a cat on the blackboard and proceed as with the previous words. A blackboard drawing is recommended for this reason: in the first lessons of English the teacher has inevitably so little material to use that there is danger of monotony and loss of interest. He must therefore present his meagre material in the most varied form possible, and a blackboard drawing is one way of holding the interest of the class.)
teacher (making the appropriate gestures): Stand up. Sit down. (The class will certainly understand and obey the instructions.) Stand up (without a gesture, and pupils will stand). Sit down (again with no gesture, and some pupils will sit down, which provides the teacher with an opportunity to impress upon the class the importance of careful listening).

If this is analysed, it will be seen that 13 English words in all have been used, 4 of them by the pupils, thus showing in practice that 'production' is less than ‘reception'. It is more correct to say 'used ' than 'taught' or 'learned', for these words will be used again and again in following lessons and it is this repetitive process which constitutes teaching and learning a foreign language.

The two questions: What is this? What is your name? are common everyday questions in both NL and English and so easily understood. It is quite unnecessary and would be wrong to try to teach beginners the components of these questions, e.g. is, are, your, you. They are spoken by the teacher as units, the pupils hear them as units, recognise the sound and grasp the sense.

The answers to these two questions are respectively: a book, etc., name only. Thus heed is taken in practice of the warning that teachers must not demand from young beginners a greater speech effort than they can make without strain. Moreover, these short answers are correct, natural, and at least as common in actual speech as complete sentences would be. Gradually, short answers can be lengthened, not with any view that this constitutes an improvement but simply to give pupils practice in English sentence structure.

Picture stories

Children love stories and their attention spans are longer if the stories are interesting. While enacting, using gestures and voice modulations add effect, wordless picture stories are helpful for teaching vocabulary through a pointing and associating technique.

The story can be repeated and the new vocabulary introduced can be elicited as a chorus response. Soon the picture-word association is established.

Here is an example of a wordless book.

Teachers can create their own wordless stories by selecting appropriate images and making a slide show of them.

Action songs

Children will learn anything. We have encountered lots of tiny tots reciting “Twinkle twinkle little star” But in the language class, songs and rhymes that can introduce words and phrases which children will soon use must be given priority. Also try to choose rhymes that children can comprehend.

An example of such a rhyme is “One two buckle my shoe”. Initially, you may not even want to say what one, two, three … is. But the familiarity with these words and their repeated usage will be highly beneficial when you introduce numbers. Except for the “big fat hen” part of the rhyme, the meaning of the rest can easily be communicated with action and object. You can translate “big fat hen” (give the NL equivalent). A picture of a hen may not be necessary because most children, at least in India, would have seen a hen.


Drawing and painting should be seen a precursor to writing. Additionally, they also allow children to express themselves. Perhaps, an adult cannot always understand what the child is communicating, but the child has a very clear notion of what its drawing is depicting.

Children, like everybody else, need to express themselves. Unlike adults, who generally use language as the preferred means of communication, children need other avenues for expression. Play is one means. You would have often seen children (whose language facility has still not developed sufficiently to use speak to communicate) spend enormous time playing in mud and water. They use mud to mould objects, they trace figures in water …; all the while they are communicating to themselves and to other children playing with them in a non-verbal way. Drawing affords children the same opportunity.

The language of visual forms, expressed by drawing and painting or drama, music and dance, comes to the child more naturally and spontaneously than that of words, which is a kind of "imposed" skill and belongs to the world of adults. Therefore, it is important that children be given ample opportunities for self-expression in a language which comes to them more naturally than the language of words. The degree of satisfaction they derive from successful self-expression is an indication of the growth of the child.

A teacher need not be very inquisitive about children’s drawings. She should express her appreciation but refrain from asking them what it means. Remember, they do not yet know the words that can convey their feelings. If a teacher suggests (in words) what she believes the drawing is, the child will not even be capable of contesting it. At best it may ignore it and at worst feel insecure because its thoughts did not match that of the teacher’s.

Hence, while using this strategy, teachers must be very careful not to interfere with children’s thoughts. If the teacher notices that the child is engrossed in its drawing and is enjoying it, she should just appreciate (non-verbal) it or wait for the child to say what it feels like.

In summary, drawing (at this level) helps children think and translate their thinking into scribbles and shapes. They are not threatened by this activity because they are free to express themselves for how ever long they want. Adults need not understand what is being drawn. Gradually, as children get to higher levels, they will discover for themselves that they can also use words to express themselves. Until such time, drawing is their private means of communication.

Download Art: The Basis of Education by Devi Prasad

Games and Play

Games and play provide a rich, informal environment in which language is picked up, used, and practised. We distinguish between two forms of it. One, the structured environment in which the teacher has set the rules and got the children to conform (typically the games period). Two, when children are left to themselves (typically the lunch break). There is a lot to be learned in observing children in both these situations – the words they use, the contexts for such words, the natural mixing of NL and English, etc.

Games and play involve an element of competition (getting someone ‘out’ for instance) which naturally bring in rules, judgement, claims and counter claims, negotiation, and conflict resolution. The degree of language usage in these will naturally vary with age. But, encouraging children to actively use language; standing back and observing their language; and actively using this vocabulary back in class can be very fruitful. A word of caution: Forcing your language on children in games and play will rob them of a free, natural environment, in which language is freely used and practised.

Games and play, therefore, can be a useful strategy for obtaining feedback on children’s language range and usage.


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