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Five Ways that Parents Can Hurt their Children’s English Learning Development

In my eight years as an ESL teacher, I’ve dealt with all types of parents – from the supportive to the apathetic and everyone in between. Being a parent myself and teaching both my sons English, I know first-hand the amount of time and effort needed to help them learn.

Recently I started wondering: why do some kids excel at learning English while others can barely string a sentence together despite years of tuition? Based on my experience, these are the most common mistakes that parents can make with their children’s English study.

1)They don’t provide any/enough support for learning at home
This is the most common and frustrating problem, in my experience. If students only attend one class a week and don’t do any review at home, it will be very difficult for them to make any progress. When I mention this during parent teacher meetings, I’ll hear the usual excuses of parents being too busy, or not being able to help because they don’t understand English. My counter is usually that if they can make time to send their kids to class each week then surely they can spare an hour a week (at the most) to ensure they complete their homework. Student progress relies on a team effort from both parents and teachers – we’re not magicians.

2) They can speak English but won’t help their kids practice
This one really baffles me. Many younger parents can speak English quite well and are more than capable of helping their children practice at home. Due to their lack of confidence however, they spend a lot of money for foreigners to teach them simple phrases that they’re quite capable of teaching them at home for free.

3) Learning is too structured and/or boring.
One thing that’s really struck me is that Chinese kids and native speakers learn English in completely different ways. Chinese kids are usually pushed into formal classes from an early age and the only way they really learn is through flashcards, textbooks and pages upon pages of written homework which gets very boring, very quickly. When my first son was born, I decided to teach him English the same say I learned – through interacting with my daily environment and learning words as I went along. My wife and I also built up an English library and I read him stories, as well as encouraging him to watch English cartoons every day. While at the markets, I had him name as many different types of food as possible and we’d sometimes play a guessing game, of ‘I can see…’  whenever we were walking down the street. He wasn’t shown a single flashcard or textbook until he was four years old at kindergarten but by that time he was already switching comfortably between English, Chinese and Cantonese.

4) They strong>mistake their unrealistic expectations for a reality
So after shoving a four-year old with no English experience whatsoever into a class, some might expect them to be almost fluent in about six months and get angry when their expectations aren’t met. We usually need to explain to them that learning a language is a lifelong process and it can take a while to develop any sort of fluency. I have a four-year-old student who is in that exact same situation. When he first arrived in my class a couple of months ago, he couldn’t say a word and would just repeat my questions back at me. Now he can answer questions properly, say his name, how he’s feeling and describe some objects around him. This isn’t bad for eight weeks but it’s still not enough for his mum, who seems unhappy at his lack of progress so far. I always urge parents to show patience and gently remind them that their progress depends on the support they get at home, as well as in the classroom. Some always push for perfection, which can greatly damage their children’s confidence and English development.

5) They start learning late
Many kids start learning at kindergarten but in my experience, it’s never too early for them to learn. In fact, I think the first three years of a child’s life are the most important for learning, as they absorb everything so quickly. My boys could say a few words and recognize common sounds such as animals, cars and trains by the time they were a year old. At around 18 months, they showed an amazing capacity to absorb and use a lot of words in a very short time and their vocabulary just exploded. I’m not suggesting that kids can’t become extremely fluent in English after starting in kindergarten or even primary school but providing an immersive learning environment from the time of birth will give them an excellent head start.

Helping them learn English really isn’t difficult. Build up that English library, show English cartoons/DVDs for at least an hour each day, give them a generous amount of your time and encourage them to use English as often as possible. Above all, make it fun and remember that to achieve mastery in English, it must be seen not as a weekly chore but a way of life.

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