How to teach your kids English?
As a parent, you want the best for your children. You want them to be happy, healthy, and wealthy, and research shows that better English skills are correlated with all of those things. So in this article I’m going to explain how you, as a parent, can give your children this gift of English.
The best time to teach your kids English was when they were born. The second-best time is right now. So let’s get started.
Using the education system
The most obvious thing you can do is rely on the education system to teach your kids English. But the reason you’re reading this article might be because that’s not working. In reality, a lot of kids get the education they want, but not the education they need.
Children can study English at school for many years, and get fantastic test scores, but still leave school without the only thing that matters: the ability to communicate. Many English classes in schools teach kids about the English language, not how to use it.
And this is no small problem: because in the future their Cambridge exam certificate might get them the job interview, but if they can’t communicate in the interview, they won’t get the job.
But there are some school systems that are really successful at producing highly-proficient English users. So let’s look at them and understand what they do right.
The results of the global EFSET English test tell us that learners in the Netherlands have the best English of all the countries measured, and the results of the TOEFL test agree, with the Dutch getting the highest score in the world with an incredible average score of 99 out of 120.
So why are they so good? Well, for a start Dutch is a West Germanic language just like English, so there are a lot of similarities between English and Dutch vocabulary and grammar, plus the Netherlands is a small and very wealthy country, whose education system was ranked 4th in the world by the World Economic Forum. English is taught at school from an early age and they have a huge bilingual education program.
So, in summary, they have a similar language and a great education system. But that doesn’t help us very much. Those things are out of our control. That’s why I want to talk about a much more important comparison: Spain and Portugal.
These two countries have very similar cultures, economies, and education systems, yet in the EFSET results Portugal is 7th, and Spain, 33rd. That’s a massive difference. What can explain it?
You can find the answer by simply turning on the television. In Spain, English-language programming is dubbed: the original language has been replaced by Spanish, but in Portugal English-language programming is subtitled. So children in Portugal hear English from a very early age, and that must be why they have better English.
But that isn’t actually the reason. Although subtitles might account for a small variation in language ability, it’s nowhere near enough to explain the difference. In fact, it confuses cause and effect.
The reason that Portugal has better English is because they have made a decision to integrate the English language into their culture, and that’s why they use subtitles. They have normalised English.
And in fact you can stop reading this article right now, because if you want to know how to teach your kids English that’s the best thing you can do: normalise English.
When your kid doesn’t care if they read a book in English, or watch a YouTube video in English, or sing a song in English, instead of their native language, you have succeeded at normalising English. It means that English isn’t just something that happens in a classroom between 12:15 and 12:45 on a Tuesday, it’s something that is part of their everyday life.
Becoming a teacher
But what if you want to do more, and you want to actively teach your children English? Well, that means that you need to become a teacher. But you want to be a good teacher. So let’s look at the golden rule of language teaching:
Teach the student, not the language.
Normally the first step of teaching any student is to ask them what they need. But with children you can’t really do that, so you have to decide what they need. This is your duty and right as a parent. Ask yourself: What do you want for them?
Remember that they will get better at the things they practice, so reflect on what type of student you want to create. Do you want a kid that is great at doing worksheets and gets top marks in the exams? Then spend all your time doing language-focused worksheets! But don’t be surprised when their listening and speaking skills are terrible.
Another way to think about it is this: the healthy eating pyramid. Thing of the classic “Food Guide Pyramid”, designed as a guide to healthy eating. But there’s a couple of problems. The first one is that it doesn’t consider the individual at all.
For example, if you are trying to build muscle then the right pyramid for you will look completely different. The quantities are completely different, and they need to be different to achieve different objectives.
But the second, and biggest problem is that according to the healthy eating pyramid eating a hamburger every single day is technically considered healthy.
So as a parent, and especially a teacher, we can’t just follow someone else’s rules. We need to give our children a nutritious diet of English that satisfies their needs. Your job is to decide what to feed them.
Your English is good enough
I want to take a guess. I guess that you think you can’t teach your kids English because a voice in your head says:
“My English isn’t good enough.”
The first thing you need to know is what the poet Mark Van Doren said:
“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.”
Your job is not to know everything and to have perfect English. It is to discover with your child. You should not be their only source of English.
You don’t know a word? Look it up in the dictionary together. Don’t know how to pronounce it? Listen to the samples. Can’t explain the grammar of a sentence? Doesn’t matter, wait for more examples to learn the pattern. Stop trying to be perfect, and just be good.
And most importantly, are you embarrassed about your accent because it doesn’t sound British or American? Well, you are not British or American and you never will be, and neither will your children. Stop trying to be something that you’re not. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be your authentic self, and neither do your kids.
I cannot emphasise the importance of being a role model like this for your children. When you put yourself down because your English ‘isn’t good enough’, or you’re ‘not a native speaker’, you pass those feelings down to your kids. You silently tell them that they’ll never be good enough either. But by changing your attitude you can make those feelings end with your generation.
A good teaching mindset
I’m sad to say that if you ask children, a lot of them will tell you that they don’t like English, when what they really mean is that they don’t like English class. The English language is my life’s passion, but if I had to endure most school curriculums I would hate English too.
There is a very damaging idea in education that learning is suffering. That copying, and memorising, and concentration, and silence is ‘real’ learning, and that if you’re playing, and having fun, you’re not really learning. Please do not follow this toxic thinking.
Kids learn through play, and experimentation, and making mistakes, and breaking things, and having fun, and we have known this for thousands of years.
“Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind….do not use compulsion, but let early education be a sort of amusement.”
-Plato, The Republic, 375 BC
As an adult it’s very tempting to try to convince your kids that learning English is important for their future. So they can get good marks on their exams, so they can travel, and get a good job, and have all the opportunities that English can give them.
Unfortunately no child in the history of the universe has ever been motivated by such practical adult things, so don’t waste your energy. Kids are motivated by things they enjoy. Learning English doesn’t need to be practical. Many children have art class at school, but we don’t expect them to produce professional art, and we don’t shame them for it.
You want your kids to have the same relationship with English. Playing Minecraft in English is constructive. Help them play, and explore, and laugh. If you do that, you will create lifelong learners who don’t even need a teacher because they will be driven by the only true learning tool: curiosity.
Children are not sponges
There’s an unfortunate myth that when it comes to language, children are like sponges. They have this ability to learn languages that is simply magical. This myth does so much damage, and it’s something you need to eliminate from your mind as their teacher.
Firstly, learning a language is really hard for children. In fact, it’s so hard that it takes native speakers 30 years to reach their peak language abilities. The reason that kids learn languages so well is because of one thing: necessity. Children do not have a choice to learn their native language, they need to learn it to survive, because humans are social animals.
Kids need social interaction to learn. Research has shown that young children don’t learn any language from watching screens. Sitting your kid in front of Peppa Pig for 2 hours won’t teach them anything. Watching 5 minutes of Peppa Pig, and then recreating the story together with a Peppa Pig doll will.
The key is creating that necessity. There needs to be times when English is the only option for your kids to get what they want.
Everything I have told you in this article means that teaching your kids English is simple. But simple isn’t the same thing as easy. Following the advice in this article is hard, and frustrating, and it will take many years to see results, just like every other part of being a good parent.
So start small, accept failure, have fun, and don’t give up. It’s worth the effort to give your children the gift of English.