Interactive English Digest. Vol. 1, # 4. Nov. 1998.

Tips for English Education in the Home

This article outlines some ways that parents can help their children learn English at home.

English text by Tim Newfields Chinese translation by Chang Yahui

Most children are avid language learners. An average three year old has a vocabulary of around 200-300 words. By age six, that expands nearly tenfold. By the time most children are ten, they probably know over 10,000 words. A sense of curiosity, desire to communicate, and lack of fear regarding mistakes are not just characteristics of many young learners — they're qualities of good language learners of all ages.

Extensive research exists about the differences between child and adult language learners. The main points can be summarized in five areas: (1) attention span, (2) concreteness, (3) playfulness, (4) phonic acuity, and (5) affective points. This article highlights these differences and suggests ways parents can promot foreign language learning at home for children.

(1) Attention Span

Childrens' learning activities should be geared to short time frames. The best activities are also multi-sensory: involving seeing, hearing, and touching. It is generally good advice to rotate activities in which children sit still and write/draw with those which involve moving and more extensive social interaction. In short, variety is the key to success when teaching children. For children under the age of 10, activities should be 10 minutes or less in length. Children between the ages of 11 - 15 can usually focus on activities up to 15 - 20 minutes in length.

(2) Concreteness

Young children often do best when dealing with concrete objects, clear verbs, and vivid adjectives. Abstract ideas and grammatical explanations, in particular, should be avoided. Parents can help their children learn English by pointing out household objects and using common phrases such as "Have a nice day" or "Welcome back from school". Such ritual phrases help tie the concrete world that students experience with English. For too many students in Asia, English is merely an academic subject with no real practical value. Parents can help children by showing them that English is a language with practical applications in many real life situations.

(3) Playfulness

For a child, playing is a way of exploring. Games are more than just fun — they are adventures in constructing different realities and engaging in new experiences. It goes without saying that classes for children should have a gamelike orientation. Games in which children enact new roles (e.g. doctors, explorers, etc.) are especially effective. For older children, different roles are often more appropriate (tourist, rock star, etc.)

For many students in Taiwan, English education is often frustrating. Teachers often focus on what is wrong in their compositions or speech and emphasize strict grammatical correctness. As a consequence, students often lose confidence and end up disliking English. What parents can do is mention on what is right when their childrens speak or write. They can also focus on the content (rather than the form) of what they speak and say and encourage their children to develop their ideas.

(4) Phonic Sensitivity

Young learners have a talent for mimicing new sounds. To them, foreign sounds are less "foreign". It is widely recognized that near-native pronunciation is best achieved by young learners, though adults can sometimes achieve high levels of accuracy as well. Parents who are confident of their English pronunciation can encourage their children to emulate correct English sounds. However, excessive drilling or insistence on perfect pronunciation is likely to be counterproductive. It is better to focus first on helping children hear the difference between various English sounds in context, then later only gradually later, pronouncing the difference.

Self-paced CD roms and cassettes are good tools for developing pronunciation because students can get repetition frequently without being embarrassed.

(5) Affective Factors

Children live in a different emotional world than most adults. Whereas most adults are willing to endure extensive hardships if they believe it is for a worthy goal, children generally have more short-term goal orientations and less willingness to "grit and bear it".

Children do not mask their feelings as well as adults do. Pre-teens will generally say (or show) when they are bored or happy more directly than adult learners.

Parents need to be sensititve towards their childrens mood swings towards English language learning. At times, they are likely to love it and at times they are likely to hate it. Children who do not perform as well as others are likely to be in special need of encouragement.


This article has highlighted a few of the differences between childhood and adult language learners, and some of the things parents can do to help their children enjoy learning English.

Whereas adults tend to think of "learning" as something that occurs in schools or classroom, as a sort of formalized ritual that people are supposed to go through in order to "earn knowledge", children tend to have a much more natural and playful attitude towards learning. Learning is something they do while playing, while at home, and in front of their television sets. There are several things parents can do to stimulate foreign language learning among children. Perhaps one of the more important is be a role model and use a foreign language at home. Some Chinese parents I know use English to communicate one or two days a week and their native tongue on other days. Another option is to have English at certain times of the day — say at the dinner table or Sunday brunch. The important point is that parents do the same things they are encouraging their children to do. Children learn best from concrete role models, from seeing their parents emulate the behaviours they want their children to learn. Many of us can remember, for example, parents who smoked but told youngsters not to smoke. Such advice was often ineffectual. We can also remember cases of parents telling their children to "study and read books" when they themselves tend to consume their spare moments watching TV. For better or for worse, parents are the primary role models for their children. Their attitudes towards foreign language learning will unconsciously be transmitted to their kin.

How do you feel about English? Do you believe language learning is "difficult" or that mastery is almost "impossible"? Does foreign language learning seem like a onerous task or pleasant experience? Perhaps the best way parents can help children learn foreign languages is to adjust their own attitudes towards foreign language learning. It doesn't require any special intellectual ability to learn two or three languages. What is needed is a good environment and a positive attitude. Skillful parents will recognize ways that they can influence both the environment and the attitudes of their children.

Tim Newfields has 14 years experience teaching English in Japan and teaches English at Ming Chuan University in Taoyuan. Yahui Chang has been a freelance writer since 1989.

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Copyright (c) 1998 by Tim Newfields and Yahui Chang