Sunday, January 14, 2007

teaching languages to young children: what works best

I recently "met" (via email) Jennifer Manriquez, a Spanish teacher in Michigan, who offers Spanish classes for children and their parents and who has published an instructional Spanish for kids video. You can visit her website, Bilingual Fun, to see more about what she does, what materials she recommends for Spanish, and she the research she cites when promoting Spanish for kids. Jennifer shared with me what she has learned about how to help children learn a second language. The following is her explanation:

As a bilingual educator to toddlers through elementary age children and mom to a four-year-old and two-year-old, I feel like my life revolves around the learning development of preschool age children. We are raising our children in a bilingual household, so much of what I incorporate into my Spanish preschool classes is what I learn from my own children’s acquisition.

Here are few key rules that I always abide by when creating lesson plans and implementing activities:

Children learn by ‘doing.’
Children learn by having fun.
Children learn with music, rhymes, and rhythms.
Children learn with movement.
Children learn by reflecting… first absorbing the language, and later speaking.

As mentioned in a previous post, music is a must! Our classes are 45 minutes and we generally sing 3-6 songs each time. Repetition is also the key to acquisition at this age, so we always begin and end the class with the same 2 or 3 greeting/goodbye songs. Children are able to absorb the language very easily, and music and chants help to stimulate that part of the brain.

In addition to music, I use movement as well in all of our lessons. For example, I incorporate a lot of TPR (total physical response) into our songs and chants. By giving the children a movement or sign to associate with vocabulary words is another excellent way to enhance their acquisition. With young learners of this age, it is imperative to keep the class moving and upbeat. By incorporating kinesthetic activities, I am able to keep the little ones focused and having fun.

We do many hands on activities as well. I use a felt board for every class, by introducing vocabulary or telling stories. I allow the children to bring felt pieces up and put them on the board. All the while I am giving them commands in Spanish, reinforcing vocabulary, or telling a story. The kids absolutely love the felt board! I have made mini felt boards as well, so kids can do individual activities too. For the older kids, I use pocket charts and this allows them to take an active part in the lesson as well.

My classes are parent/child classes; we teach to both the children and parents so that reinforcement may be continued at home. All classes are conducted in Spanish, with some English for explanation of various topics to the parents.

The basis of my classes is interaction and communication, so we are always dancing, singing, moving, chanting, etc. I use a lot of preschool sites to get lesson ideas and just modify them to fit my activities.

Young children have the amazing ability to absorb and acquire languages. After teaching high school and adults for years, I am absolutely dedicated to teaching the little ones, as this is the age that language learning should begin!

Thank you so much for sharing, Jennifer! Click here to see advice from Annie Showalter-Gingerich, another preschool Spanish teacher.


  1. All the observations are true, though, too few teachers know about it. Small children are kinaesthetic so they must move around. Keeping them still and focused for more than 5 minutes - mission impossible :-)

  2. Yes, I have heard that teachers can generally expect students to focus on an activity for the number of minutes equal to their age! According to this, a class of toddlers could only concentrate for about three minutes, and elementary school students not much longer than that.

    In one-on-one situations, however, and small groups, I think it's easier to keep their attention longer. But as you add, only if they're actively participating!

  3. Yes you are absolutely right that Young children have the amazing ability to absorb and acquire languages. Me and my son learning Spanish he learns very faster than me. This is really a great article. Thanks for sharing us.
    Spanish school Costa Rica

    1. It's interesting to compare second language acquisition in children and adults; while it's true that kids pick up vocabulary and pronunciation more quickly, we grown-ups have tools that they don't, like an understanding of how our native language grammar works!