How to be a better ESL/EFL preschool and kindergarten Teacher

How to be a better ESL/EFL preschool and kindergarten Teacher

Understanding the 9 characteristics of ESL/EFL young learners aged 3-6

A while ago I read research by Yuksel and Halici (2010) on Motivating Young EFL Learners Through Effective Classroom Management (Yuksel and Halici 2010) in which they identify 9 characteristics of young EFL Learners. I think it is very important for EFL/ESL Teachers to be aware of these characteristics and to look at what solutions teachers have as it can be very useful for us. 

So, without further to do, let’s take a closer look at each of Yuksel and Halici 9 characteristics in their research regarding motivation and classroom management in Young Learners (4-6-year-olds).


 1. "They depend heavily on the teacher for directions during the courses" (Yüksel & Halıcı, 2010).



  • Need to be prepared, clear, and confident.
  • Need to have good resources and know how to use them to achieve goals.
  • Need to know good educational activities.
  • Teacher as a guide, not an authoritarian figure.


Have you ever felt rushed and unprepared for your lessons? I know I have as sometimes life happens, and something goes wrong. How was the quality of the lesson and your general attitude when you felt unprepared? Where you able to guide and facilitate the lesson as well as you could have?

 In the rush to get to class on time, I once grabbed the wrong set of printouts. Needless to say it wasn’t the best lesson.I felt sorry for myself and my attitude stunk, which in turn was reflected back to me by my students and the quality of the lesson I delivered.

 Put simply, you, as the teacher, need to be prepared, clear, and confident. However, let's be clear; this does not mean being an authoritative figure. As Yüksel and Halıcı (p113) state, "The first thing to be revealed about the teachers is the fact that they are not the boss in their classes. They are the facilitator and guide in their classes." Therefore, a level of empathy and understanding of EFL learners' needs is required, which will become more evident as we look at the remaining characteristics.


 2. "They are inquisitive and receptive, easily motivated if the teachers know how to motivate them." (Yüksel & Halıcı, 2010).



  •    Students are motivated in different ways.
  •    Different activities to meet these motivation needs.
  •    Different resources to meet these motivation needs.


This is crucial to understand: they are highly motivated if we know how. Motivation cannot be forced, building trust with them is the first step as it allows them to become stable, and confident and overcome any initial anxieties they may have in new environments and situations. Patience is paramount. As they explore and become more confident observing how they prefer to learn can help channel activities for them that will likely motivate them to want to learn. Suganda (n.d) citing Verster, and Sosiowati (2003), highlights that young learners typically lean toward visual (seeing) auditory (listening), kinesthetic (moving), or tactile (hands-on/touching) learning. Understanding how they prefer to learn and tailoring our approach towards that will increase motivation.


 3. "They have a very limited attention span." (Yüksel & Halıcı, 2010).


  • Need for appealing resources.
  • Need for games and activities.
  • Be aware of the amount of time spent on activities.
  • The need to empathise with students.



To help attention and interest in teaching EFL, the selection of resources and activities is crucial. You should carefully consider both the type of resources and the activities you will use. The significance of visually engaging and kinesthetic (movement-oriented) activities, particularly games, is shown in the research by Damar, Gürsoy, and Korkmaz (p104, table 2). According to their findings, 100% of EFL teacher trainers agree that language instruction benefits from visual and kinesthetic approaches. This highlights the importance of using resources that have appealing pictures, colors, and fonts, that interest them and can stimulate imagination (see point 8).

 Kinesthetic activities mean games, and put simply fun games and activities can help increase concentration and focus on the lesson (see point 5). For an array of game and activity ideas, visit (coming soon).

 Another point to bear in mind is the need to empathize with students when they begin to lose concentration. It's important to recognize that it's not their fault. Be aware of losing cooperation if trying to redirect their attention when they really don’t want to, and ultimately, it is their choice, remember your role as the guide and facilitator.


4."They have an analytical way of learning rather than intuitive” (Yüksel & Halıcı, 2010).     


  • Need for logical progression.
  • Need for suitable logical resources that meet the needs of EFL /ESL
  • EFL / ESL learners need to build up interest motivation through good resources and topics.



Young learners acquire knowledge through cause and effect, progressing step by step with logic. Activities that involve pattern recognition, logical reasoning, having clear routines and labeled activities with a logical flow are important.


When teaching language to young learners,I believe it is important to try to follow a structured and logical progression, giving them a structure they can begin to understand and building blocks to work with and expand later on. I understand with English it can be difficult as many words are irregular and don’t follow the rules (tell me about it!), but we can still give them a good, useful syntax structure, using common words and with common patterns to work on


 As we have established, the material and activities being interesting, relevant and attainable are linked to how interested and motivated the students are - and an interest in learning and motivation are vitally important. You can’t force learning as in the long-term it will create dissatisfaction and discontent. With EFL/ESL beginners they don’t have the phonemic awareness of native learners For this very reason with young EFL/ESL learners 3-6 years-old, I focus on a structured approach building speaking and listening and using guided reading to build good literacy habits that follow a structured progression.



 5. "They need physical activities that involve physical movement.” (Yüksel & Halıcı, 2010).


  • Need to use a variety of games.
  • Physical activity boosts emotions, well-being, and memory
  • Need to explain rules and be firm but fair.



According to Pruett, writing for Psychology Today (2016)," physical activity “encourages the growth of connections between the brain cells responsible for attention and memory, which, in turn, increases the capacity for learning and problem-solving”. Furthermore, “physical activity can act as insulation against the negative effects of stress on the body and mind, particularly in the young.”

Not only that, but physical activity is excellent for building motor skills, coordination, balance, spatial awareness, teamwork, sharing, flexibility, and concentration while reducing stress.

 For us EFL teachers of young children, this is great news as it means playing games. There are many games involving flashcards, balls, bean bags, whiteboards, or even with no material. Please visit (coming soon) for games you can use now!

 Please bear in mind that, in order to successfully utilize games, you need to have good classroom management and ensure rules are clear and children obey and understand. Don’t hesitate to be strict but fair with misbehavior so it doesn’t get chaotic. It may take a few tries or even weeks for some students to understand what behavior is expected but remain consistent and patient.


 6. "Their social relations are restricted with another student sitting next to them.” (Yüksel & Halıcı, 2010).


  • Need for variety of group sizes and environments for a rich variety of experiences.



Early childhood mental health and the capacity to regulate and express emotions, develop meaningful relationships with adults and children, and actively explore their environment is of utmost importance. A child's early experiences with their environment and social interactions are vital due to the speed of development. It is, therefore, necessary to ensure quality, stable interactions and a variety of social experiences. (Palmer 2019) Play, talking, observing, and interacting with different students through large group activities, small group activities, and sitting with different students are vital to ensuring a rich variety of experiences to learn from and gain confidence.


As a teacher, be aware of your environment. Create an environment that allows socialization and offers opportunities for students to cooperate with a variety of individuals and groups. Having activities with mixed groups, different sitting arrangements, large group activities, small group activities, and sometimes use educational games requiring teamwork and working together. 


 7."The affective and emotional aspects of teaching are important for them.” (Yüksel & Halıcı, 2010).


  • Need for empathy and trying to understand the child's needs and emotional state.
  • Children reactionary to teachers' emotions
  • role of naturally emoting, surface acting and deep acting emotions.


Denham, Mortari, Silva (2019) note, “Teachers’ emotional socialization contributed to children’s emotions and reactions to teacher’s emotions, as well as children’s social-emotional competence with peers.” NAEYC states in its Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment (2011), “We shall care for children in positive emotional and social environments” (p. 3), with “safe and healthy settings that foster children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development” (p. 2).


It is highly personal how a teacher responds to their students as they have built up their own relationships and trust. But as Brown, Vesely, Swati Mehta, and Stark (2022) note, despite the “emotional complexities of teaching,” the need to regulate emotions is a key professional competency. They note the three emotional acting strategies: “naturally emote (i.e., feel and express genuine emotions; Diefendorff et al., 2005), surface act (i.e., conceal emotions felt inside and display alternative feeling; Hochschild, 1983), or deep act (i.e., modify felt emotion to align with emotional display expectations; Hochschild, 1983).” 

 Put simply, if a child is being disruptive, your natural emotion of frustration can be enacted upon in which you yell or show anger; however, the teacher can surface act and choose to conceal these feelings and respond in a neutral tone if they believe this best suits the child's needs. Conversely, the teacher may deep act whereby they internally create a different emotion that replaces the initial frustration. For example, they may remember the student's grandparent is unwell, the teacher's initial frustration is replaced with empathy, and the teacher responds to the child in a neutral tone.

They go on to note that in a Canadian study, experienced teachers ‘surface acted’ more than inexperienced teachers, and in a Chinese study, teachers ‘deep acted’ more than inexperienced teachers. Despite the cultural differences, the end result of responding to emotional stimuli to suit the child's needs in a more neutral tone rather than expressing their emotions is important.



8."They are very receptive to the world of fantasy and imagination as they live in an imaginative environment.” (Yüksel & Halıcı, 2010).




  • Need for resources that are fun and allow imagination yet practical.
  • Benefit of adopting stories to increase motivation and interest.
  • Benefit of using tone of voice and body language to describe and appeal to imagination.


They are very receptive to fantasy and imagination means it is a great tool to appeal to in order to motivate. In simple practical terms, when presenting a noun or object, you can emphasize and over-exaggerate their characteristics with your tone of voice or body gestures to make them imagine.

“A cheetah is fast!” (move hands quickly to show how fast and use a tone of voice to emphasize speed). “An elephant is BIG!” This big! (Use hands to gesture how big).


Use stories about the topics. If presenting verbs, tell stories about what Superman can do. “My friend can jump over a house, he can run faster than a cheetah, he can eat ten hamburgers!”. This over exaggeration is appealing to their imagination.


Use Resources that are fun and allow children to talk and use their imagination, such as cartoon designs and over-exaggerated pictures, but don’t get too carried away; there is a time for imagination and there is also a time for being practical and these designs should also be equally practical.


9."They do not regard mistakes as a step towards learning. They may be upset if they are told that they are wrong.” (Yüksel & Halıcı, 2010).


  • Encourage, explain and guide.


 Very important. You should encourage, explain, and guide/show instead of saying, “No, that’s wrong!”

For example: “That's a good effort; this is Santa, and this one is Santa, the other is a reindeer. Nearly right, good effort, try again.”

So remember, encourage, explain, and guide/show the logic or what is correct, and then let them try again. If they keep not understanding, move on from the task and don’t dwell on it; every student is different and learns in different ways.


I hope you found this useful please comment and share your thoughts and ideas. 

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Yuksel, H & Halici,Y.(2010) Motivating Young EFL Learners Through Effective Classroom Management.*153447149.pdf (




Damar E A, Gürsoy, E & Korkmaz ŞÇ. (n.d.) Teaching English to Young Learners: Through the Eyes of EFL Teacher Trainers   *63620 (


Pruett K (2016) Why Physical Activity Is So Crucial for Preschoolers  Why Physical Activity Is So Crucial for Preschoolers | Psychology Today


Palmer J. (2019). Social and Emotional Development in Early Learning Settings Social and Emotional Development in Early Learning Settings (


Denham S A, Mortari L, and Silva R (2019) Preschool Teachers’ Emotion Socialization and Child Social-Emotional Behavior in Two Countries: Early Education and Development: Vol. 33, No. 5)


Preschool Teachers’ Emotion Socialization and Child Social-Emotional Behavior in Two Countries: Early Education and Development: Vol 33, No 5 (


NAEYC (2011)Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment | NAEYC


Brown E L, Vesely C K,Mehta S, & Stark K. (2022) Preschool Teachers’ Emotional Acting and School-Based Interactions


 Preschool Teachers’ Emotional Acting and School-Based Interactions - PMC (

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