ELT in Early Childhood: Circle Time

If you are working with young English learners, chances are you are using a portion of your class for what is known in the United States as “circle time”—a time when learners typically sit on the floor instead of their desks so they are in close proximity with the teacher, and the teacher then conducts a read-aloud of a class book and/or reviews student names, the weather, class jobs, and so on. There are extensive benefits to reading aloud to learners at these early stages. In an Education World article called “Reading Aloud: Is It Worth It?” Wesley Sharpe quotes Catherine Paglin, who said,

From being read to repeatedly, children learn that reading is enjoyable, that pictures provide clues to the story, that books and print go from left to right, that print represents words and meaning, that stories have a beginning and an end. By listening, watching, and asking questions, they add to their vocabulary and increase their comprehension.

For ELLs, though, circle time may present listening or conversation fatigue, when ELLs are trying hard to listen and process the language but soon fall behind as their teacher and peers continue reading out loud and answering text-related questions. If ELLs are not able to keep up with the story, their attention may drift and they may disengage, either acting bored or sleepy, or fidgeting and distracting others.

As such, teachers of young ELLs may want to consider the following adaptations to circle time or book read-alouds to keep the benefits and boost engagement and conversation skills.

Instead of passively listening, have students do the following as the teacher reads aloud:

  • Whisper to a partner what just happened on the page.
  • Tell a friend one word they heard on the page.
  • Act out what just happened on the page or in the story.
  • Make the animal sound of the animals in the book (or machines, people, etc.).
  • Raise their hands or make a corresponding sound every time you read a key vocabulary word in the book (for example, if your key word is “friendship,” have students high five each other every time they hear it; if key word is “hungry,” have them rub their tummies.)
  • Choose a character from the story and try to act how they acted.
  • Make a face that matches an emotion in the book as it comes up in the story.
  • Move felt pieces on a felt storyboard to match what goes on in the story with a partner.
  • Use puppets, dolls, or real-world objects that appear in the story and act out movements simultaneously with the story, or hold up the object as the object appears in the story.
  • Incorporate related songs and dance movements, even for the weather, class jobs, etc. For example, have students act out the job that they have been assigned or make their arms into a big circle if today will be sunny.
  • Play name games with word-initial sounds so the kids learn all the names of new friends, such as animal association (Owen Otter, Stefan Snake, Eliana Elephant) and let them act out their animal every so often (even once a week as the year progresses) to remind each other of names.

For additional Circle-Time/Read-Aloud ideas, check out:

  1. Child Care Lounge: Circle Time Activities and Ideas for Preschoolers
  2. Early Childhood News: 10 Circle Time Games
  3. Teach Preschool: 10 Tips for Circle Time in the Preschool Classroom


Sharpe, W. (2009). Reading aloud: Is it worth it? Education World. Retrieved from http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr213.shtml

About Kristen Lindahl

Kristen Lindahl
Kristen Lindahl holds a PhD in linguistics with a specialization in L2 teacher education from the University of Utah. She is currently assistant professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she teaches pre-service ESL/TESOL educators at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Dr. Lindahl has taught K–12 and college ESL, and actively pursues consulting and coaching teachers of English learners in public and English language schools around the globe.
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2 Responses to ELT in Early Childhood: Circle Time

  1. Karen Nemeth says:

    And one of the most important considerations about circle time in a multilingual class is ….. that maybe circle time is not the best strategy any more. As language diversity is the reality in most preschool and kindergarten classrooms now, teachers may need to let go of some older traditions involving whole group participation and make room for more effective small group activities that allow them to engage more effectively with children who are ELLs. Maybe a brief circle to share important news of the day and greetings could be followed by free play/work time when teachers, volunteers and paraprofessionals read to small groups of children and talk with them about the stories using some of the strategies in this article.

    • Kristen Lindahl Kristen Lindahl says:

      Excellent point, Karen. Many “traditional” activities like circle time and others should be re-evaluated to be sure they do in fact meet the needs of our many diverse learners. The learner landscape is constantly evolving, and so should teachers and practices!

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