Tips for Connecting with Young Learners by Dave Dodgson

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Dave Dodgson who is currently based in Turkey shares this post with great tips….

Tips for Connecting with Young Learners

I never planned to teach kids. I was trained to teach English to adults and never pictured myself working in a ‘school’ setting with students who only came up to my waist. And yet, here I am now in my 9th year of working in a primary school! I have to admit that my original reasons for taking the job had little to do with education or advancing my career and I suspect that, just like me, many EFL teachers who work with kids ended up doing so by ‘accident’ with little or no training given beforehand.

Now, I should stress that I love my job and I have no regrets about the career move I made back in 2002 (although I thought I would at the time!) but the first year was difficult. I had never been around children much (I’m the youngest in my family) and had little idea of how to connect with them, motivate them or understand them. In those days, all I was concerned with was keeping order in the class and I achieved that by being strict – I shouted, warned, threatened and glared (using my height to full effect!) – but I soon realised that that wasn’t the way to go. I needed to ensure the kids felt secure and confident in their learning environment and that they saw their teacher as approachable and someone they connected with. And so, I set about making this happen and this is what has worked for me over the years:

Be on their level – literally!

Think back to your primary school days – do you remember how big the teachers seemed? Well, we seem even bigger when we are standing and the kids are sat at their desks! This can be intimidating for some children so it’s important to put them at ease. Whenever I go to a student’s desk to monitor, help them or answer a question, I crouch down and put myself on their eye level. Even a small gesture like this can out them at ease and help them connect with you.

Ask personal questions – and remember the answers!

It can be particularly difficult for children to connect with a foreign teacher who perhaps doesn’t know their own language that well so I always strive to find out personal information about my students, even when their level of English is basic. I ask about their likes and dislikes, their families, their hobbies, their favourite celebrities and so on, all of which can be done with basic language. I then ask them about what they told me, whether in the lesson or in the corridor at break time. This really helps them feel valued and listened to. Just last week, I asked one girl about her baby sister and if she was talking yet – her face really lit up and she proceeded to tell me all sorts of things about her sister and her family. She even promised to bring a photo in on Monday, which I look forward to seeing.

Tell them about yourself and share their interests

I used to avoid telling students personal details about myself. I’m not sure why – maybe I thought they would make fun or use it as a chance to distract me from the lesson plan – but it was an unnecessary self-imposed barrier. How could they connect if the personal information only went one way? I’m not saying you should stand in front of the class and just talk about yourself of course, but it’s important to find and share common interests. For example, my students with younger brothers and sisters love hearing about my 5 year-old son and we exchange stories about them; students with pets like to know about my cat; the boys like my football facts and they are often surprised to learn I used to watch wrestling! Although I’ve outgrown that a bit now, I still feign an interest. 😉

Keep your promises

Nothing can be more disappointing for a kid than when they feel let down by an adult. I experienced this early in my young learner teaching career when I promised we would start a story book on our syllabus the following lesson but then decided to wait until the following week. The class was really upset and had no interest in the lesson I had prepared instead. Even if these things seem minor to us, they can be very important to children so only say they will watch a video, play a game, do a project or have their work displayed somewhere in the school if you intend to follow through on it and are 100% sure it will happen!

Give them choices

Offering choices to students is a great way to make them feel a part of the learning process. If there’s only enough time left for one activity nut I have two or three more on my lesson plan, I’ll let them choose which one they want to do. When possible, I let them choose whether they want to work in groups, in pairs or individually. Sometimes, I even let them choose the topic for the entire lesson! This really helps show them that their teacher is willing to listen to them, is receptive to their ideas and is approachable.

Better that than some glaring, shouting, threatening giant!

What are your tips for connecting with kids? If you were not trained to teach kids, how did you adapt to working with them? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!


Dave Dodgson is an EFL teacher based in Ankara, Turkey, where he has lived for over 10 years. After spending the first couple of years of his career teaching adults, he started teaching Primary school children in 2002 and has never looked back (well, maybe he looked back a few times…) He is currently studying for an MA in EdTech and TESOL via the University of Manchester in the UK and is due to graduate in 2012. When not juggling with the demands of a full-time teaching job and distance study, he writes the odd post for his blog Reflections of a Teacher and Learner and spends as much time as he can with his beautiful wife and their 5 year-old son.
You can follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveDodgson

Try implementing some of these ideas and share with us your post about the experience!

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Shelly Terrell

Shelly Sanchez Terrell (@ShellTerrell) is an award winning digital innovator, an international speaker/consultant, and the author of Hacking Digital Learning with EdTech Missions, The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers, and Learning to Go. She has trained teachers and taught English language learners in over 20 countries as an invited guest expert by organizations, like the US Embassy, UNESCO Bangkok, Cultura Inglesa of Brazil, the British Council in Tel Aviv, IATEFL Slovenia, HUPE Croatia, ISTEK Turkey, and Venezuela TESOL. She has been recognized by several organizations and publications as a leader in the movement of teacher driven professional development as the founder and organizer of various online conferences, Twitter chats, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Two of the projects she co-organized were shortlisted for ELTons, #ELTChat and the Virtual Round Table Language and Technology online conference. She was named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women, awarded a Bammy Award as a founder of #Edchat, and named as one of the 10 Most Influential People in EdTech by Tech & Learning. Her greatest joy is being the mother of baby Savannah and Rosco the pug. Shelly has an Honors BA in English with a Minor in Communication and a specialization in Electronic Media from UTSA, a Masters in Curriculum Instruction ESL from the University of Phoenix, and a CELTA from CELT Athens. She regularly shares her tips for effective technology integration via Twitter (@ShellTerrell),, and on her blog,, which has won several awards and recognitions as one of the top ESL, Edtech and Elearning blogs. Find over 400 of her slide presentations at


  1. Hear Hear!
    I teach HIGH-SCHOOL and these points, except for the crouching down to eye-level are “spot on” for them too.
    With adolescents though, I tend to think about which personal info I share with the students, things are trickier with them. Definetly agree that some should be shared though -it goes toward mutual respect!

  2. All good advice. Been to all the places you describe. Love the towering, glaring giant image! Imagine how scary/puzzling/ridiculous that looks from a meter off the ground. Poor little mites! I often found that as much as making the students feel comfortable though, getting to feel relaxed and ‘in the groove’ oneself was really the hard part/trick. Music helped me more than anything.

  3. Your story reminds of me of my own Dave – I never planned to teach YLs on a full time scale but how rewarding it proved to be!
    Seems like Turkey has yet one more great teacher out there! 🙂

  4. Nice to see you here, Dave. I once substituted for a teacher with 6-year-olds, never taught that age before, only the third week or so of term. I did “The Frog Family” which I found in a resource book, which basically involved them hopping around the floor. The next lesson, the teacher was mad at me. She’d spent the first lessons getting them to sit still and now they were all over the place. I told her it was her fault for smoking and getting a cough so she had to take time off work. We became good friends though 🙂

  5. Lovely ideas here! So many YL teachers do indeed ‘fall’ into it and have to learn on the job through trial and error. I particularly liked you’re ‘get down to their level tip’ – this definitely makes a difference.

    My ‘connection’ tip is to meet and greet the students as they enter and as they leave – making sure I speak to each of them (even if only ‘bye, see you next time’) making eye contact as I do.

    Thanks for the useful reminders!

  6. Thanks for the all the comments so far which I shall address in a moment. Before that, thanks to Shelly for posting this – I always enjoy doing guest posts and what better place to appear than on one of my favourite blogs run by one of my favourite ELT people? 🙂

    Naomi E – how much personal information is a tricky question, isn’t it? In truth, the things I share with them are personal facts more than anything else (who’s in my family, likes/dislikes, favourite things). All quite superficial but great for making connections.

    Patrick – spot on! The teacher needs to be free of apprehension as much as the kids. Sometimes I think they have a special sense for when the teacher is a bit nervous or uncertain and they prey on it!

    Anita – I wonder how many people in TEFL ever plan to teach YLs? NOt many by the sounds of it!

    David – the teachers who make the kids sit quietly and still (indirectly) cause so many problems for me. When I let them move around a bit, the first time they generally go over the top and take ages to settle down! They soon learn the phrase ‘a fine line’ though 😉 Oh, and I should also add – kids love language plants!

    Naomi – thnaks for the extra tip. I always try to chat to kids in break and at lunchtime. It always seems more authentic away from the lesson setting somehow.

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