By Ben Sugiyama


Make it personal

Get to know your students as much as possible. Learn what their favorite TV shows are, what toys they like at home, what sports they like, who’s in their family and what they do. This takes time of course, but it is well worth the effort. Once you have started to learn about your students, you can start to personalize the lesson material slightly to pique their interest. If you’re studying body parts, for example, talk about their favorite characters “How many fingers does Ultraman have?” “What color is Doraemon’s nose?”

Or when Kinka and Pinka go to the hospital in the Happy Valley series. “Oh look, there’s Nicky Nurse. Yuki, your mum is a nurse, isn’t she?”

Children latch onto this personalization and want to (intrinsically) produce the language themselves.

Also, if a child is telling you a personal story from their lives - “I went to my Grandma’s house yesterday.” - engage with the story, show interest, ask questions. There’s nothing more natural than being there in the moment with a child as they tell you what they’ve been up to recently. If they are speaking their native language, guide them into using English with you to flesh out some of the details of the story. They intrinsically want to tell you the story, so helping them translate it into English will be something they can really get behind. You can also involve the other kids in the room by asking similar questions to each of them or by having them ask questions to the storyteller. You may think you don’t have time in your lesson for this kind of activity, but in reality it only takes a minute or two.


When we are curious about something our brain becomes primed for learning and for memorizing. The neural pathways and chemicals do their thing and set the brain up in the perfect state for acquiring new knowledge.

In the EFL classroom, we need to set up situations where the curiosity of the children is piqued. Research shows that when we are curious, we don’t only retain the information we are curious to know, but we also retain other, periphery information.

We can use this in our classrooms. When setting up activities for young learners, have an air of mystery, build to something being revealed and use that as the base to introduce the learning. There are lots of ways to do this. For example, have a box with a mystery item or even your lesson flashcards hidden inside. Tell a story with your characters and have your students perform a task with the characters in order to unlock the box and take out a flashcard. Then when those neurons and chemicals are firing in their brain use the flashcard to hit the target language.

Characters and stories

And that brings me on to my next point. Use characters and stories. I think most textbook series aimed at young EFL students make use of characters. These characters make the content in the books more engaging for young learners, but at the end of the day, they are still just characters in a book. You need to bring these characters out of the book and have them take an active part in your lessons. Have cards or cut-outs, you can laminate a character, stick them on a chopstick and you get a puppet. Use them to tell stories, use them to go on adventures, use them to learn the target language together with the students. I personally use Happy Valley and Jimmy’s Magic House. Both series are character driven. They’re characters that kids love and that they never get bored of, but it’s my job to bring those characters to life in the classroom and give students chance to interact with them. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how confident young learners become in their speaking when they are addressing characters as opposed to teachers.

For more on this, I implore you, if you haven’t already to go to one of Scott Crowe’s presentations. His work on emotional positioning is fantastic and is a great way to use characters in the classroom.

Make it real

Make things as real as possible. For young learners, have lots of play, toys, objects, puzzles and things they can touch and use physically. I’ve said that I use Happy Valley and Jimmy’s Magic House, but in a 50-minute lesson, the books are only open for 5-10 minutes. I extract the target language from the books, and I spend the majority of time in the lesson doing games and activities with real objects whenever possible. I then tie it all together by opening the books towards the end of the lesson. The children are familiar with the language on the page and are ready to talk about it and complete the necessary activities.

In speaking with other teachers, I’ve come to realize that we all have slightly different definitions of the word ‘game’. When I use games in my young learners’ classrooms, I’m generally talking about non-competitive activities such as sorting blocks into piles of size or color. If an activity is competitive by nature, finding a certain object hidden in the room for example, then I certainly don’t give any rewards for completing the task, nor do I mention winners or losers. I simply move on to the next activity.

So to recap, the 6 main points:

Create a comfortable learning environment where students can speak freely.

Build trust.

Make it personal

Build curiosity.

Use characters and stories.

Make it real.

And, remember it’s a process. I can’t stress how important it is to remember that. If you make these changes in your classes, you might not see immediate results, you might think “Oh that Ben guy, what does he know? He doesn’t have to teach little Stevie here”, but trust me, if you stay the course, be consistent and don’t have higher expectations for kids than you do for adults then you’ll start to see some big differences down the line.