By Aulia Rachmat, published in The Jakarta Post, August 20, 2006.
As an international language, English plays a significant role in education. Many parents want their children to start learning the language at an early age. Many institutions offer English courses with various teaching methods, but parents need to be careful in choosing a method that best suits the needs of their children.
Most very young children do not have a desire to study. However, they are able to absorb knowledge from the environment, learning expeditiously. In their first five years, children are able to speak a language by learning spoken sounds in a natural way. During this phase, children build a sensitivity to language and are potentially able to learn more than two languages at the same time.
Starting from hearing the voice of adults and watching the movement of their lips, children will indirectly acquire basic vocabulary, sentence patterns and accent. Moreover, most children of around one year old begin to use sounds to communicate. They usually communicate with one syllable words like da and ma. By the age of two or three, he or she can develop his or her communication skills by referring to things that can be played with, such as a ball and a doll. From this point, we can see that learning while playing should be applied simultaneously as an approach for children to learn English.
It is important to ensure that children aged under four years old need to feel both emotionally safe and happy when they explore and learn new things. Thus a child-friendly environment should be prioritized in delivering knowledge to a child. Once a child feels comfortable, he or she will enjoy interactive communication with their teacher. The class, of course, should also be conducted in a fun way. This condition will help children build a sense of togetherness with classmates, including in doing exercises or activities.
In learning English, it is easier for a child to broaden their vocabulary through visualization. Colors are said to be the first thing that a child notices when picking up words. So coloring in can create enjoyment for children in the learning process. This is a time when a child learns to hold a pencil in the basic triangular grip. At first, a child scribbles an abstract object when using a pencil. Nevertheless, scribble is what the child needs to do in preparation for tracing letters later on. Shapes and numbers follow next.
Learning shapes like the square, rectangle and triangle through playing puzzles enhances a child’s ability to concentrate. In addition, practicing to recognize numbers by counting the quantities and associating number with things can create a pleasurable class atmosphere. For example, match the number of animals in their sequence from one to 10. This is a time when a child’s motor skills are developed. Furthermore, when a child is able to focus their attention and make eye contact with the teacher, then other activities like learning English through singing and rhyming can be introduced.
Many teachers use activities like singing and rhyming in learning the language to create a fun atmosphere as well as motivate children to be active during class. The rhythm of songs has a positive psychological impact on the children to pick up words from the lyrics. Rhyming, on the other hand, where words are formed with the same ending sounds such as “the nice boy with the toy living with the cowboy” will explore children’s imagination despite the sentence’s silly meaning.
When a child is around four years old, their teacher should be able to give more activities related to spatial and social skills as well as memory development. Both spatial and social skills can enhance a child’s ability to perceive relations of objects by communicating with his or her classmates. In addition, in teaching children to talk the teacher should include words related to daily activities like eating, walking, drinking and playing.
Having a child memorize words like the names of days and months will broaden their vocabulary in addition to sequence numbers. However, every child’s memory bank is limited, and a teacher should not merely emphasize memorization in vocabulary-building exercises. Rather, using pictures like flash cards without words is a good method for a child to learn new words. In addition, learning words by sounds like phonics helps enhance a child’s ability to learn the sounds of spoken English as well as build vocabulary with less memorization.
Phonics is a basic skill in learning sounds of predictable words. Even though the skill is not sufficient to master English, it will lead a child to have a phonemic awareness in relating the letters of the alphabet to spoken sounds. Once the child possesses such skills, then he or she is ready to learn to read.
The ideal age for children to start to learn to read is around five. Reading is something that needs to be taught properly, otherwise it could lead to boredom. Teachers should therefore be able to develop an effective technique to raise a child’s interest in learning how to read.
Storytelling is one of the preliminary reading approaches that should be conducted before applying the reading teaching concept. A teacher should regularly read stories to his or her students. Stories like The Cat and Mouse, Beauty and the Beast or classics such as The Prince and the Pauper and Oliver Twist are likely attractive to children. Moreover, it is recommended that a discussion be conducted after storytelling in order to increase the children’s interest in the story. This approach, if done correctly, will instill in the children a love for stories. Once a child is interested in stories, it will psychologically motivate him or her to learn to read.
In teaching children to read, teachers should not emphasize grammar. Instead, reading with phonetically correct pronunciation and good understanding of a story’s comprehension should be the main learning outcomes.
Even though grammar is important in learning English, it is likely to discourage children at early age from liking the language. The most important outcome is that a child finds enjoyment in learning English. After a child is able to talk and read, he or she will enter the door to total literacy by having learned to write. This is a time when grammar should not be an obstacle during the learning process.