How to keep very young learners interested – Herbert Puchta style


We watched one of Herbert Puchta’s webinars on YouTube titled ‘how to keep very young learners interested’ (see here).

Who is Herbert Puchta, you may be asking. Well, Herbert is an extremely well-respected researcher and teacher trainer in the TEFL field. He’s also the author of countless TEFL books, many of which you’ve probably used or heard of (see here),

He also gives teacher training seminars all around the world (see here), holds a PHD in English, and was the professor of English at the Teacher Training University in Graz.

So he has quite the credentials!

We dissected the 8 strategies from his webinar and wrote about them below.

It’s quite a long piece, but if you haven’t encountered any of Herbert’s stuff before, this post will be extremely beneficial for you.

I promise.

Stick with it, you’ll be far better equipped by doing so.


Strategy 1 – make sure they learn in a multi-sensory environment
Herbert says research shows very young learners are more likely to remember a word if it’s taught in a multi-sensorial way (with visual, touch and auditory cues for example) rather than just spoken.

For teaching ‘farmer’, for example, Herbert suggests the teacher could say ‘farmer’ a few times, along with a movement like they’re driving a tractor.

To then check for comprehension, you can give out yes or no flashcards, show a picture of a farmer, and say policeman, for example. The students would then need to hold up no to demonstrate they memorised the words you’d taught them.

Herbert also says you can make the students close their eyes, and once they have, then you can say a word from the set you’ve just taught them (for example farmer), and check if the students do the correct action (drive a tractor).

You could also say a word using your lips, but without producing the sound. Obviously, you’d need to make sure their eyes are open for this one!

Once you say the word, you can either get the students to perform the corresponding movement or run/hop to/touch the correct flashcard.

All these activities are targeting multiple senses and will help commit the target language to the children’s memory.

Strategy 2 – use auditory submodalities and rhythm for difficult words
For most new learners, and particularly very young learners, longer words are difficult to remember.

To help, Herbert suggests saying the word rhythmically, by turning it into a chant.  Saying it louder, quieter, faster, slower, and in a song like kind of way should motivate the children to practice saying the word and remember it.

Herbert also suggests using auditory submodalities, which is just a fancy way to say change the pitch and volume of individual words.

This way the students can differentiate individual vocabulary since each one has a particular loudness and pitch. For example, if you have police officer, fireman and taxi driver in a set; you could say police officer in a high pitched, female-like voice, fireman loudly and angrily, and taxi driver very quietly and softly.

His research suggests this is like underlining words in the ear and helps improve the child’s understanding of the pronunciation.

Strategy 3: revise lexical sets using memory games

Herbert recommends revising sets of vocabulary from different units, using memory games.

Get a set of flashcards from 3 different units, for example, and ask the students to sit in a circle around you. One unit could have been on places (supermarket, police station, school etc.) for example, one on jobs (policeman, fireman, taxi driver etc.) and the other from objects (ice cream, car, chair etc.).

You’d then show them the first flashcard and place it face up onto the ground. After seeing the first flashcard, ask the students to guess the second. They’re likely to guess one from the same set, so make sure it’s from there. You don’t want to demotivate their participation by making them feel tricked.

Once all the flashcards are face up on the ground, drill each one many times to emphasise their location.

Then, ask the students to close their eyes.

When they’re closed, flip over one flashcard, so now it’s facing down. Then, ask the students to open their eyes and guess which flashcard is turned away. Once they’ve guessed, you can reveal the flashcard.

(Writer’s note: If they’re stuck, try sounding the first syllable or doing the words corresponding action. That way it’ll help them stay motivated and not become disheartened).

Strategy 4: revise vocabulary with odd one out activities
Herbert thinks these activities are very important for very young learners because they help them develop categorising capabilities. He didn’t go into why in the webinar, but I’m assuming it adds a layer of meaning to the word (as it differentiates one image from another), which children love as they have a desire to treat language like an unsolved puzzle (this idea was suggested by Wells, 1999, and I’ve referenced it from this article by Audrey Mcllvian called ‘Teaching English to Very Young Learners).

So you might be asking – what are odd one out activities?

Well, firstly, they tend to, but not always, be in students’ workbooks. The workbooks will likely have pages where there will be 4/5/6/10 images, and all of them should be the same – except one. The students would then need to circle the odd one out (see above).

Other activities in very young learner workbooks prompt them to draw lines between similar objects. The above activity, for example, asks the children to listen then link up similar images, which again leaves out the odd looking images.

Strategy 5: go beyond a mere behaviouristic kind of learning when you do TPR activities

Here, Herbert suggests using a TPR (Total Physical Response) sequence you’ve taught before to give meaning to a new set of words.

In order to do this then, you need to teach a TPR sequence.

The entire sequence Herbert explains in the webinar is this “I’m a farmer….. listen….. what’s that?!?! It’s a bull, run!”

And for those of you who aren’t familiar – this is how you can teach a TPR sequence.

Firstly you’d need to teach the children a word of your choice using a flashcard. In his example, Herbert used “bull”.

Then, you’d get the kids to stand up around you in a circle, and say something like “I’m a farmer”, point to yourself, and do the action you taught the children (drive a tractor, for example).

After this, you’d say something else, again with an action. In his example, Herbert says “listen” and cups his ears. If the children are imitating you, this is good. If they aren’t, get them to. As Herbert said in strategy one, children learn best using multiple senses.

The teacher would then say another set of words with an action attached. In this example, Herbert says “what’s that?!?”. which again, the children would repeat using both the word and action you did as you said it.

This is where the choice of word you taught them previously (bull) is important. In Herbert’s example, he would then say “It’s a bull, run!”, after which, the children would do a running action.

So, now you’ve taught your children a TPR sequence, which, after plenty of drilling, you could say at any time and get the children to perform.

But what do you do next?

Well, this is the crucial part – once you’ve taught them this sequence, you can then perform the same sequence using a different set of words. In other words, the sequence will be the same, but its content will be different.

For example, Herbert says that if you’re drilling “football player” and “goal” in the next lesson, you could do so by using the same TPR sequence: “I’m a football player…… listen…… what’s that?!?….. it’s a goal, clap your hands!”.

This makes it easier for the children to learn new sets of words, as they’re already familiar with the order of actions and words for the TPR sequence. It also means they aren’t thrown any curve balls. Knowing what they need to do makes the classroom a more comfortable learning environment.

Most importantly, though, it’s a great way for the children to use auditory, kinesthetic and visual learning components.

Strategy 6: use task listening to check (individual) children’s comprehension

After performing a TPR sequence like the one above, you can then check the children’s comprehension by doing, for example: listen and point activities, listen and colour activities, listen and say yes/no activities, listen and use yes/no cards.

Listen and say yes/no (self-explanatory), and using yes/no cards (which we covered earlier), are easy activities to check for understanding.

Listen and point activities, similarly, are easy to do. To do this, the teacher would have more than one flash card in the student’s view, say one of the words presented on one of the flash cards. The students would then need to point to the correct one, for a pat on the back and hoorah.

The listen and colour activities are in particular textbooks and also test comprehension. To do them, the students would listen to a recording, for example, which would then give a corresponding colour to a part of the TPR sequence.

If it’s complicated, take a look at the below image from Herbert’s Super Safari book. In Herbert’s example, the recording says: “red (pause……..) listen, what’s that!? (pause…….) blue (pause……….) run!”.

In this sequence then, the children would colour the ‘listen, what’s that(s)!?’ (picture 2) white dot in red etc.

Strategy 7: use ‘backward chaining’ to help children to remember longer strings of words

Backwards chaining is saying a sentence in the reverse order and getting your students to copy you. This is particularly useful if you’re teaching a long sentence which the children are finding difficult to remember.

For example, “shake your arms and shake your feet”, can be broken down into “feet…. your feet…..shake your feet…… and shake your feet” etc.

Herbert says this is an exceptionally good way to help students remember longer sentences.

Be warned though – it’s worth practising before hand.The first time you do it (particularly if the sentence is long) can be tricky. It’s not unusual to be deep in thought in class trying to think of the next word in the sequence if you haven’t practised it before.

Strategy 8: use ‘sandwiching’ when giving instructions in the children’s own languages

When there are some complicated instructions, Herbert recommends ‘sandwiching’ your students’ native language between the English instructions. This means the English instruction is said twice, but their mother tongue language is said once.

For example, “we’re going to play a game now”, and adding in the translation from the children’s mother tongue in the middle, to then repeat “we’re going to play a game now”, helps the children understand the instruction better.

Yes, yes, yes – we’ve all heard it before “don’t use the student’s first language in class”. The problem is there are certain times where that is the only way to get something across. Herbert recommends using this quite sparingly. He didn’t say why in the webinar, but it’s likely that it increases the chance of them only listening to instructions in their mother tongue. So if you aren’t doing it for most your instructions, then it shouldn’t be a problem.


To recap:

Strategy 1: make sure your lessons focus on as many senses as possible

Strategy 2: use chanting, and changes in pitch and loudness to solidify vocabulary

Strategy 3: use memory games as a revision tool for different units you’ve studied

Strategy 4: also revise vocabulary with odd one out activities

Strategy 5: use a TPR routine the children have learnt previously, adapt it, and use it for a new TPR sequence

Strategy 6: use listening tasks to check children’s comprehension of TPR sequences

Strategy 7: backwards chaining is  a great way to help children remember long sentences, in songs for example

Strategy 8: sandwiching is a great tool to give out complicated instructions

The End

Thanks very much for reading – we hope you found it useful.

Just before you go though there are two things you should check out. First is, we’ve added a quiz to our present simple page so if you think you’ve got the chops, give it a try!

Also, check out Herbert’s resources section on his website and YouTube videos – he’s got some incredibly insightful and practical content, so it’s well worth checking out.


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