Joanne Ramsden explores the situation many teachers have suddenly found themselves in: using a digital connection to teach children in their own homes. Joanne looks at the challenge this presents for teachers of younger learners and offers some tips and suggestions on how to help younger learners through this period.

There are lesson materials including a worksheet and teacher’s notes at the bottom of the article as well as a link to the webinar for Macmillan Education in which Joanne discusses these ideas at length.


Teachers across the world have found themselves needing to become quickly comfortable and confident with teaching online. Many of us might have experience of teaching young learners but we may be less familiar with how to teach young learners online. It can seem as if there are a lot of new skills to learn but it is important to remember that many of the skills that we already have as teachers can, with a little adjustment, work very well in an online environment. This article will give you advice on three different ways to teach young learners online effectively: using the environment around us; increasing participation; and playing games.

Using the environment around us

At first, it may seem that teachers are at a disadvantage by not being in the classroom. However, the advantage of online lessons is that teachers are in two spaces at the same time: our teaching space and the children’s home. We can use the children’s home to personalise our lessons and to connect with our learners in a way that creates opportunity for real communication. The following techniques all use the learner’s environment. 

Show me something

Ask learners to find things in their homes that represent what you are teaching. This has the benefit of being an activity that children can do with their microphones on mute because hearing multiple answers is difficult online. Remember to make sure you have some examples of your own at hand to give visual support if needed.

  • Review colours by saying, ”Show me something blue.” or ”Show me something red.” Allow time for the children to look around their homes and pick up an item before moving on to the next colour.
  • Review shapes by saying ”Can you show me a rectangle?” or ”Can you show me a square?”
  • If you teach science, you can review materials or natural and man-made items around them.
  • Instead of naming items, give clues to encourage thinking skills. ”Show me something you can read. Show me something you can wear.”

Make a video

Asking children to make a video is an ideal way to help with assessment. We can even give individual feedback on each one. Children have great fun showing you around their home but remember to check your school policy and get permission from children, family and school administrators as required.

  • Make your own video to show them first as an example.
  • Give clear instructions about what the video should include.
  • Ask children to point out things in their home.

Mirror me

Before the online lesson, you can ask the children to bring some of their toys. The toys can be used to practise different language points:

  • Prepositions of place—you can ask them to mirror what you’re doing with one of their own toys, e.g. the bear is next to the doll.
  • Children can use their own dolls or action figures to practise the pronouns he or she, action verbs, and prepositions of movement – He’s / she’s running / walking / jumping up, down, along, across, over.

Hide and seek

During the online lesson, you can quickly switch off your camera while you hide an object. You need to make sure it’s within range of the camera so that the children can find it.

  • Have the children take turns to try to find it. Is it in the cupboard? Is it behind the books? Remember to ask children to put up their hands when they want to speak and once you have named the child who will answer, that child should unmute their microphone.
  • When a child discovers the hiding place, allow the winner to hide an object of their own.

Increasing participation

In the classroom, it’s easy to make everyone feel comfortable. We smile encouragingly at each child and our eye contact with them makes them feel included. Online, eye contact is not possible and children don’t feel that personal connection. The following ideas aim to encourage children to feel comfortable enough to participate in online activities.

Use their names

It is important to use the children’s names as much as possible. This makes them feel included and also helps us with managing the class. When you start the class, open the session a little early and start to accept the children five minutes before the allotted time if at all possible. Greet everyone personally as they arrive.

  • After the initial hello or warm-up song, ask the children how they are feeling. Letting them answer individually makes them feel included and involved.
  • When they’ve answered a question correctly, include their name in the praise.
  • Try to name everyone at some point during the session.

Sing songs with actions

Action songs encourage active participation and make sure everybody is awake, active and ready to learn. Even with microphones on mute, we can see that children are joining in and enjoying themselves. Examples of songs with actions are:

  • “Head, shoulders, knees and toes”
  • “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”

You can change some of the lyrics around to practise what you are currently looking at. For example, if you are teaching daily routines, you can sing: ‘If you’re happy and you know it, wash your face/ brush your teeth /comb your hair.’

Odd one out

If we need the learners to produce longer sentences, odd one out is ideal for encouraging thinking skills.

  • Choose the concept or lexical set you want to review.
  • Choose four items: three items that go together and one from a different set (the odd one out).
  • You can project a slide or use real objects.
  • Encourage children to participate by raising their hand.
  • Name a child and ask them to unmute their microphone and say which one is the odd one out.
  • Ask the children why it is the odd one out to encourage further production.


Art activities are fun and take the pressure off learning or reviewing content or vocabulary, while at the same time reinforcing listening skills and comprehension. Origami is a good art activity because most children have access to paper.

  • Show the finished piece of origami and make sure everyone has the materials available.
  • Demonstrate making the item slowly, step by step, while children watch.
  • Encourage children to make the item, following the steps with you.

Playing Games

Young children love playing games in the classroom and that’s no different online. It may seem difficult to play games with your learners online but the following games adapt themselves particularly well to an online format.

I spy

You can play “I spy” to review any number of different lexical sets.

  • Have all the objects ready on the table in front of you and make sure the children can see them.
  • Then say something similar to the following: “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with ‘P’.
  • The children need to look for something beginning with the letter P and put their hand up when they have the answer.
  • Name a child with their hand up and have them say the name of the object.

“I spy” is extremely adaptable. Children can review what items are made of: “I spy something made of wood, glass or fabric.” Or they can practise colours: “I spy something blue.”

Simon says

“Simon says” is great as a warmer to grab everyone’s attention or to play between activities to change focus. It is an instruction following game and the children should follow the instruction every time you say the words “Simon says”. It can be used for many different topics:

  • Review parts of the body: “Simon says touch your nose!
  • Review action verbs the children learnt in class: “Simon says stand up/ sit down/ turn around/ brush your teeth.

Stand up, sit down game

In this game, instead of answering verbally, children stand up for yes and sit down for no. As well as giving them the opportunity to move around, if they are unsure of the answer, they have the visual support of their classmates to give them confidence. It’s easy for teachers to see who understands the language because the answer is visual.

  • Make a statement. If it’s true, children stand up. If it’s false, they sit down. e.g. “Cats can run.” Children stand up. “Cats can fly.” Children sit down.
  • Personalise by saying “Stand up if it’s true for you.” Make a statement e.g. “I like cheese.” Children stand up if they like cheese.
  • A variation of this game is the “thumbs up / thumbs down” game when children put their thumb up if the statement is true or down if it is false.

Classification game

If you are teaching science or geography, you might want to review concepts through classification. Ask the children to make simple signs and hold them up e.g. wild / domestic animals, food that comes from animals or plants etc.

What’s missing?

Set out the items that you want the children to review. Switch off your camera for a moment while you remove one of the items or flashcards and the children have to guess which one is missing.

Things to remember

With a few changes, it is easy to confidently teach young learners online. Remember while it may be necessary to make some changes, it is also important to keep some of the routines and habits that the children are comfortable with. As mentioned, you should include the initial hello or warm up song, and, at the end of the session, you should allow the learners to unmute their microphones and say goodbye to you and to each other. Children will appreciate this moment to say goodbye to each other – just make sure you turn the volume down as you give the final instruction!

Joanne Ramsden’s webinar for Macmillan English with tips on how to teach young learners online.


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