We often get questions from teachers and parents looking for advice on teaching 2- and 3-year olds, so we'd like to share some ideas on planning a class for these very young learners. It's important to understand that children from 2-3 years old have very limited vocabularies in any language, and from the age of 2 are generally just beginning to string together utterances of more than one word. As such, your main focus with such young learners is not on language production, but language comprehension. You'll want to engage the children in interesting, comprehensible activities while providing them with lots and lots of input. Don't pressure the children to speak...they will when they are ready.
Here is a suggested lesson plan for working with this age group.
Have the students line up and knock on the classroom door before coming in to join the lesson. This is a small signal to the children that they are transitioning to a new setting with new activities. Using music to signal transitions really helps young children stay calm while preparing them for something fun and new.
If they are speaking, ask a simple question like, "What's your name?" To make sure they understand the question, you can point to yourself first and say "My name is ______. " Next point to the student and ask, "What's your name?" Use gestures whenever possible to help make the language understandable.
If the student is not speaking much yet, is relatively new to the school, or is just not in a great mood (maybe they just woke up from a nap), a friendly, "Hello, come in!" or a high five works just fine. Have music playing in the background to create a warm atmosphere in the classroom.
Have an activity set up in the classroom so that when the students enter, there is something that immediately interests them and takes their minds off of any worries they may have. Ideally, this is a tactile activity that doesn't require speaking, but can be adapted so the children need to listen to the teacher.
Fishing: Print and cut out a set of alphabet fish. Or make your own from different colored paper. If possible, laminate them so they'll last. Put paper clips where the mouths are. Make "fishing poles" from a nice round piece of wood (avoid anything too pointy), some string or yarn, and a magnet. When the children come into class, sit down with them and notice the fish together. Point out the different colors. ("Look, a blue fish! There's a yellow fish!" etc.).
Show the children how to fish, saying, "I'm going to catch a yellow fish!" Give each child a fishing pole (make sure to monitor them carefully). Say, "Let's catch a yellow/green/blue fish!" If you are reviewing colors, this should be enough. If you are introducing colors, point out the colors for them. Continue until all the fish are caught. Count the fish. Collect the fish. Ask for each color one by one, "Can I have all the yellow fish, please?" "Can I have all the blue fish, please?" Don't worry if children don't understand you at first. When they bring their fish to you, note the colors, ("Oooh, a blue fish!") and thank the student.
Sorting activities: Go to your local discount store and buy a bunch of different colored "pom-poms," those small little puffy balls used for crafts. Buy some multi-colored containers or small baskets, one for each color of pom-pom. Have the pom-poms spread all over the classroom. Let the children come in and play with them and then ask them to help you clean them up. Sort them into colors. Count them. Put the purple pom-poms in the purple basket, yellow in yellow, etc. Two-and three-year-olds really love sorting and cleaning up, so as long as you mix up the sortables (buttons, straws, bean bags, etc.), you can do this kind of activity over and over.
Matching or puzzle activities: Cut pictures into two pieces and scatter them around the room. Have the students help you put them together. As you do so, introduce the vocabulary. For example, cut pictures of different types of animals in half. Place halves all around the classroom. Keep the other halves to yourself. When the children enter, show them you are trying to find the matching piece to one of the halves by just going around the classroom trying to make a match. Once the kids catch on, give them each a half to find the match for.
Teachers sometimes don’t take advantage of clean up time. Clean up time is a great opportunity to use natural language with the students in context. You can use it to review the language one more time by asking for items one-by-one by color, shape, or using the vocabulary word. Or put on the "Clean Up!" song and demonstrate putting things away. Children love to help and the room will be clean in no time!
Make "passports" for each of the children in class. At the beginning of class, the teacher says, "Passports, please!" As the children hand over their passports, encourage them to say, "Here you are!" Count the passports together. With young students, we are always counting (How many?) and naming colors (What color?). The children are reassured by language they can easily understand. Call each child one by one and let them choose a sticker for their passport by asking, "What color do you want?” After, keep the passports on the teacher’s table to return at the end of class.
Print your own Super Simple Learning Passport. Print page one first, then turn it over and print page two on the back. Or, you can just print the cover and leave the inside of the passport white. Thicker paper works best.
Begin every class with a hello song. Every Super Simple Songs CD includes both a hello and a goodbye song, so there are many to choose from. Our favorite for the youngest students is "Hello Hello!" from Super Simple Songs Three. It's very simple and fun, and stresses building confidence with its easy to follow gestures.
Now is a good time to let the students get up and burn off some of their nervous energy. Singing an active song allows the children to have fun and move around the classroom. Try "Walking Walking," "Seven Steps," "Count And Move," or "We All Fall Down." You don't need to choose a new song for each lesson. Very young children are reassured by familiar routines, they will be just as excited to sing and dance to "Walking Walking" the tenth time they hear it as they were the first or second time. You don't need to "teach" these songs...just put them on and go!
Circle Time Make a circle with all of the students holding hands. Make a BIG circle. Make a small circle. Walk round and round, fast and slow! Bend down low, reach up high. Say, "Hello!" Now, sing "Make A Circle." At the end of the song, students are seated and ready to listen/focus.
Remember that two-year-olds often like to play around other children, but are still becoming comfortable playing with other children. Circle time is great for helping children learn to play together and cooperate with other kids.
Thematic Language Introduction/Review
Circle time is a good time to introduce or review a language theme, such as animals, food, or emotions (happy, sad, angry). When possible, real objects are the best way to introduce or review new vocabulary in class. When introducing toys, for example, it's much more exciting and interesting for young children to see and feel the actual toys. However, it's not always practical for teachers to bring realia to class. Flashcards can work well as a substitute, but always look for interesting ways to introduce the cards. Have them hidden around the classroom and have students help you find them. Or pull them slowly one by one from a colorfully decorated envelope or a Mystery Box. Think of ways to build curiosity before introducing the items. Never just thumb through the flashcards and start drilling.
Thematic Language Activity
After introducing the language theme for the class, try an activity that allows the children to use, or at least indicate comprehension of, the new language. Simple crafts and worksheets are great for keeping the students focused and interested while allowing the teacher to use the target language in a meaningful way. For example, when practicing emotions, try drawing different faces ("Can you draw a happy/sad face?"). Very young children won't be able to draw very well yet, but they enjoy trying and it's a great opportunity for them to begin to learn crayon/pencil skills.
Now, sing a song related to the language theme of the class. For emotions, try "If You're Happy," "Five Little Pumpkins," or "Can You Make A Happy Face?" It's a good idea to play the song in the background during the Language Activity so that the students become familiar with the tune and will be comfortable singing and/or dancing with the song. Remember that language production is not your main goal with very young learners. It's okay if they don't sing. All the students will enjoy listening and responding through dance and gestures, and you'll soon find them singing without any prompting.
Next is storytime. Help students transition by singing "Please Sit Down And Storytime Music" which lets students know it's time to sit down and be quiet. Be sure to sing and gesture both verses before starting to read to give the students time to settle down. Ideally, the book is related to the thematic language of that class, but it doesn’t need to be. Very young learners show a lot of interest in books with flaps or things they can touch, like "Where's Spot?" "Where's Maisy?" or "Good Night, Sweet Butterflies."
It's nice to finish class by giving each student a stamp in their passport (or a handstamp). Call each student by name and let them choose their stamp ("Which one do you want?" "This one?"). The returning of the passport is a nice way to signal the end of class. Children can be very sad to see classtime come to an end, but when you give the students stickers or stamps in their passports it eases any disappointment they may feel.
Any of the goodbye songs from the Super Simple Songs CDs will work great, but our favorite for the youngest learners is "Bye Bye Goodbye" from Super Simple Songs 3. It's a great bookend to "Hello, Hello!" and lets students end the lesson confidently by saying, "I can _____."
Some parts of the lesson stay the same almost every week...Hello song, Active song, Passports, Circle Time, Storytime, and Goodbye song. A certain degree of routine is comforting, and it allows you to have some natural interaction with the children. Some of the most useful language in class can come during passport time from interacting with each child one-on-one. Some things change a little but are still familiar...different songs, different sorting activities, and different language themes.
Every once in awhile, totally mix things up. Get online (Pinterest is a great resource!) and find some age appropriate crafts that may take a little longer than activities you typically do in class. Forget about the flashcards and all the other activities and have a fun craft day!
Be flexible! If an activity is not working, be prepared to move on to another activity. If an activity is working, don't hurry along to the next activity. You don't have to do everything on your lesson plan.
When teaching 2- and 3-year olds, remember that you are not only their first language teacher, you may be their first teacher of any kind. You have a great opportunity to help your students form positive attitudes not just about language, but learning in general.
Have fun and Keep It Super Simple!