How children learn

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By Sue Clarke, teacher and trainer, British Council, Portugal


Your child is an individual and different from all others. The way your child learns best depends on many factors: age, learning style and personality. Read the notes below, and think about your child. This will help you to choose activities and methods that will suit your child best.

Children pass through different stages of learning

  • A baby or infant learns about the world through reacting to input through the senses.
  • From about two until seven years old the child starts to develop the ability to reason and think, but is still self-centred.
  • After the age of about seven a child usually becomes less self-centred and can look outside themselves. By the age of 12 most children can reason and test out their ideas about the world.
  • This means that with younger children we need to personalise and give examples which relate to themselves, whereas older children need help to make sense of the world around them. This also means that children must be at the right stage ready to learn. For example younger children are ready to acquire the concepts of number, colour and shape but are not ready for abstract grammatical rules.

What kind of learner is your child?

  • It is important to understand how your child likes to learn best. Which are the child's dominant senses? Do they like pictures and reading? If so you can encourage your child to use drawings, pictures, maps or diagrams as part of their learning.
  • Some children like listening to explanations and reading aloud. You could use reading stories to encourage this kind of child. And most children enjoy learning through songs, chants and rhymes.
  • Does your child like to touch things and physically move about? Some children have tons of energy to burn off! You could play games to get them moving or running around, acting out rhymes or stories or even dancing!
  • Other quieter children may have a good vocabulary and be a good reader. Word games, crosswords, wordsearches, anagrams and tongue twisters would be good to encourage these children.
  • Yet other children require logical, clear explanations of rules and patterns, or like to work out the rules for themselves. They may be good at maths too. For these children activities such as word puzzles, reading and writing puzzles, problem-solving, putting things in order or categories and computer games provide ideal opportunities for learning.

What kind of interaction does your child prefer?

  • Some children are outgoing and sociable and can learn a language quickly because they want to communicate. They are not worried about making mistakes.
  • Other children are quieter and more reflective. They learn by listening and observing what is happening. They don't like to make mistakes and will hang back until they are sure.
  • If your child is outgoing they may do best learning in groups with other children, whereas a quieter child may need more private, quiet time to feel more secure about learning a language. You can provide this in many ways – even through the bedtime story in English.

Motivating your child

  • For a child to be motivated learning needs to be fun and stress-free. Encourage them to follow their own interests and personal likes. For example if your child likes football he or she will probably like to read a story about football even if the level is a little difficult. Interest and motivation often allows children to cope with more difficult language.
  • Try to provide as many fun activities as you can for learning English. Songs and music, videos and DVDs, any kind of game especially computer games are motivating for all children.

For how long can your child concentrate?

Children can usually only concentrate for short periods of time – when you are doing an activity with your child, using flashcards for example, or doing a worksheet, make sure that you stop or change activity when your child is bored or restless. This might be after only a few minutes.

Correcting your child's mistakes

Children respond well to praise and encouragement – let your child know when they have done something well. Don't criticise them too much when they make a mistake. It's natural to make mistakes when learning a language. Don't pick up on every grammatical mistake – encourage your child to use English to communicate.

Repetition and routines

Children need to repeat language items many times to get them to ‘stick’ so don't be afraid to repeat games or do several different activities with the same language topic or set of words. Children often love to repeat the same song or story as it gives them a sense of confidence and familiarity.
Establishing a regular routine for homework is also important. You can check what they have to do for homework and set up a regular time for doing it.

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    brownhead's picture

    Hi, I really find your site very interesting. The topic on how children may learn easily is very helpful to moms who need help in teaching their children on how to adapt new lessons. I agree that the very first thing to do is know your child's learning capacity and style because our child are different individuals. The next important thing that I also used for my children when they were younger is motivation. This is the best for me I guess. I found out that they easily grasp things easily when you motivate them first. One and last thing that can be very well right for children in learning,  is to praise them and encourage them especially when they have done good things. 

    Joanne Blackmore's picture
    Thanks very much for writing to us. I thoroughly agree with you! Considering your child's personality, motivation, encouragment and praise some of the most important factors when teaching your child English.

    Best wishes,
    LearnEnglish Kids team
    meas vuthy's picture

    Dear Brit council, i am from Cambodia, today i am not a english teacher but i want to train my children at home to be strong , English language. so how can i start to teach them.

    Best regard,

    from Meas vuthy, thanks

    Joanne Blackmore's picture

    Hi, thanks for your post.
    You'll find lots of useful tips for teaching English at home in our articles and video tips.
    It's important to establish a regular routine for your English time at home. I think that short and frequent sessions are the most effective. Vary the activities in order to maintain your children's interest and above all make sure that they have fun with the language. Use songs, rhymes, stories, games, videos, craft activities etc. to introduce and practise language with your children. You can also incorporate English into everyday situations such as preparing food, getting dressed or going to the park.
    Have a look at the weekly top tips on our parents' home page for new ideas!
    I hope that helps. Let us know how you get on!

    Best wishes,
    LearnEnglish Kids team

    dhanalakshmi senthilkumar's picture

    Hello! My son is now 3.8 years old.. I do not force him in anyway.. Bt i always think that bringing up in his communication level is much important.. I try to communicate wit him in english all time, bt he rarely respond me in english. But he can understand,.. What shall i do and how should i train him. Please guide me. He is almost good in learning and grasping things doing activities as well apart from communication.

    Joanne Blackmore's picture

    Hello! Thanks for your comment.
    Children go through a passive phase when learning a language. At the moment your son is busy absorbing the sounds, vocabulary and structures of English. Don't worry - when he is ready he will begin to respond to you in English, but be patient as the timing can vary greatly from one child to another.
    The most important thing at this stage is that he feels at ease with the language and that learning English is an enjoyable experience for him.
    Have a look at this thread in our forum - there are some suggestions of activities on LearnEnglish Kids to use with children of this age.
    I hope that helps

    Best wishes,
    LearnEnglish Kids team

    corrosio's picture

    Hello! I am 66 and have 4 daughters, the olders (36, 31 and 30 years older) speak English and now my younger (8 in two months) wants to learn it too.
    The problem is that I am retired from my Professor job (Chemical Engineering) and living in a place where there is no English School. As Leticia (my younger) has been asking me to teach her some English I feel oblied to do so, but I do not know how to do with kids! In the classroom my "kids" were 18 or older. A good English course is given only 125 km far from our home.
    My little daughter loves to read and has seen some cartoons in English with a good comprehention and assimilation of many words and their meanings in Portuguese.
    I thank you in advance for your kind attention and orientation.

    Best regards,
    Luiz Eduardo. 

    Joanne Blackmore's picture

    Hi Luiz Eduardo,
    You'll find lots of resources on LearnEnglish Kids for teaching English to your 8 year old daughter.
    You could let her choose a topic for example clothes, weather, jobs etc. We have a huge range of topics to choose from
    If you take the topic 'jobs' as an example, you could listen to a song
    There are printable flashcards and worksheets to accompany the song.
    You can play some word games to practise the vocabulary:
    And finally your daughter could practise writing in our Your turn section:
    On the British Council's Teaching English website you'll find lesson plans to use with some of the online resources on LearnEnglish Kids.
    When you feel that your daughter is ready you can begin to teach her some grammar - you'll find videos, games, quizzes and tests in our grammar section.
    I hope that helps - let us know how you get on!

    Best wishes,
    LearnEnglish Kids team

    anita tomar's picture

    Thanks a lot for useful tips

    bardees maher's picture

    the topic is really helpful and very easy to undersatnd :) keep it up