Fluent English can give children a better future, but many struggle to develop their language skills at school. But why? In this guide, we discuss the problems with how English is taught at school and give you strategies to help your child get better grades, build confidence and gain fluency. Let’s jump in!
In the right environment, children can learn English as a foreign language quickly and with relative ease. However, they must be given enough attention by the teacher, have opportunities to regularly use the language and develop a personal interest in English. Unfortunately, most school systems do not have the resources to provide this type of English tuition.
The following problems may be familiar to you from your own experience of learning English at school:
The number of children in a class limits the amount of speaking time for each child. Even if the teacher tries to encourage pair work and group discussions, it is difficult for one teacher to give enough attention to each child.
Shy or less fluent children are often ignored while several confident kids receive most of the English teacher’s time. This isn’t fair, but it often happens.
Most schools have a range of student ability in their English classes. This can mean that more fluent children make slower progress or that kids with weaker English skills do not understand the lessons and become bored by them.
Some schools use “setting” to create several different English classes by ability. However, if your son or daughter is struggling with English, then they may end up in a lower set class where progress is slower. This puts them at a disadvantage when trying to move up a set.
Unfortunately, speaking still comes last in most school English classrooms. This is a problem because you can’t speak a language without actually speaking it! For your child to gain spoken fluency and develop a clear accent in English, they must have regular opportunities to interact with the teacher verbally.
Confidence comes through practice, but non-native teachers often lack confidence in their own spoken English and so this skill is not developed enough in most school classrooms. Reading, writing and grammar are usually the main focus, along with some translation exercises or dictation tasks.
If your child is struggling with English, then it is likely that they also find English boring. Unfortunately, state schools have a set English programme that they must follow. The content and delivery of these lessons may be outdated and may not suit all children. It is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, and again is due to a lack of school resources.
A bored student will always make slower progress. To become a fluent English speaking adult later, it is important to encourage children to develop a personal connection and interest in the language now.
Although many non-native English teachers are great educators, there are some potential problems when children have little or no interaction with native speakers.
Children may continue to make mistakes associated with their mother tongue, and that are also made by their non-native English teacher. They may also fail to develop native features like accent, correct word selection, idiomatic language etc.
In many school systems, English classes do not start until the child is 12 years old. If they do start earlier, these classes are usually at a very low level.
By the time we reach the age of 12, our brain’s plasticity (flexibility to learn new things) begins to decrease. This makes it harder to learn a new language. Therefore, it is important that you take advantage of your child’s ability to learn a language early.
Learning a language from an early age means your child is more likely to be fluent as an adult. Not only that, but it will also increase their overall cognitive ability, problem-solving and communication skills.
An interested child becomes a life-long student of English. If school English classes as boring, you can still make English interesting and enjoyable at home. Remember that English is a living language, not a dusty textbook subject!
Here are some strategies you can use to help your child enjoy learning English:
For example, if your child likes craft activities, do these with instructions in English instead of your native language. If your child loves football, find interesting information about top players online and read or watch Youtube videos about their lives etc.
If your child likes cartoons, watch them in English and schedule time in the week to watch them together. If your child likes video games, go into the settings and change the language to English. Whatever your child is interested in, try to find a way to connect it with English.
For more fun activities, take a look at our guide to teaching kids English at home.
Children cannot plan as well as adults, so it is important to help them establish an appropriate English routine. Write a list of activities to do in English with your child each week. These could be usual activities or tasks that you previously did using your native language. Decide on how many hours to dedicate to using English each week.
Example of a simple English routine:
Sometimes children are just not in the mood to learn – they might be tired, or perhaps they’ve had a bad day at school. In these situations, it is better to take a break. Forcing your child to learn English may create negative associations with the language, which is something you want to avoid.
Similarly, parents are not always in the best headspace to teach their child English. If you have had a bad day at work or feel stressed due to your schedule, it is better to take a break for the day. Children can pick up on stress and negativity, and you do not want this to affect their English studies.
An excellent way to make English part of your child’s everyday life is to label items in English so that children learn to associate the sound, word and object together. Use these items in activities you do together. For example, you could bake a cake with your child, ask them what they need to bake it (nouns) and what they need to do with these items (verbs).
See this post for more tips on how to help your child learn English vocabulary.
It is important to be consistent with English learning and keep practice up during the school holidays. If children have a long break, they will forget what they have learnt.
You could also look for summer camps and activities in English around your local area or overseas. These can be a great way of improving English while having fun with other kids. If you know other parents with kids learning English, perhaps arrange a play day to play games and do activities in English together.
When planning your child’s English routine, little and often is best. 20–30 minutes a day is better than a two-hour session once a week, which will make them tired and bored.
It is also important to remember that children’s interests change quickly, so parents need to be able to change activities if they notice a child becoming less enthusiastic about a particular game, book or song. Always keep the content fresh and relevant to your child.
The main (big) goal should be for your child to reach B2 (upper-intermediate) level by the time they finish secondary school. Many English-speaking universities and workplaces require this minimum entry level.
If your child reaches B2, they will have a clear advantage when it comes to academic and employment opportunities. They will also be in a good position to progress further to C1 (advanced) level as an adult.
Another main aim should be for your child to be in the top 25% of students in their school English class.
Reaching B2 will take a lot of time and effort from your child so it is important to set multiple smaller goals to get there. You can think of these like stepping stones when crossing a wide river.
Examples of good short-term goals:
It is essential to set goals for children when they are learning, so that both you and they can see the progress they are making. However, it is also important to manage your expectations of what your child can learn during a given time period.
Learning a language happens in these five steps:
There is no strict rule about what age a child should be able to do each step because progress depends on factors like motivation, ability, support and exposure to the language.
Parents should always be supportive and not become frustrated if the child is not at the level they want them to be immediately. A good expectation to set is that the child should use English every day, engage actively in the learning process and (hopefully) enjoy it. Progress will come naturally as a result of this.
It is also worth knowing that steps 4–5 will take much longer to achieve than steps 1–3, and that between 4–5 there may be long periods when it is difficult to clearly see your child’s progress.
All English learners eventually reach something called a “plateau” (usually in the intermediate phase). This is when a learner reaches a certain level and stays there.
Reasons for this might be that it becomes difficult to see their progress or they become frustrated that after so much work, the goal of becoming fluent still seems far away. Another reason is that after reaching a certain level, they become too comfortable there and do not see the need to improve.
At this point, you will have to think of new ways to motivate your child and help them stay disciplined as they progress to B2 level and beyond.
Parents today lead busy lives and, despite their best intentions, it can be difficult to support children 24/7 with English. You may wish to consider getting a native English tutor for your child to provide regular classes, guidance and feedback on progress.
One-to-one English tuition offers the following advantages:
If you are considering paid tuition, check out our guide to choosing the right English tutor for your child.