Establishing routines in pre-primary classrooms

11 December 2018

Using chants, songs, rhymes

Nowadays in China and some other Asian countries, where English is spoken as a foreign language, there is a tendency that children start learning English at an earlier age. According to a survey published by the China Youth Daily (2016), nearly 70 percent of the 2003 respondents reported that their own children or children they know started learning English before five years old. This is mainly due to Chinese parents’ fixation on giving children an early advantage. Another major reason is that parents believe it is more effective to cultivate children’s language skills at an early age. Therefore, the demand for pre-primary English education is rising every year in China. More and more English teachers started to teach younger children than they did before. Some of them didn’t realize the differences until they are there in the classroom facing a group of 3-6 year-olds. Without the background knowledge of child development, teaching could become an impossible mission for teachers.

Recently I’ve been taking a NILE course about teaching English in pre-primary education and I also delivered a few training sessions about teaching English to pre-primary children. In this short article, I will share some of the key fundamentals in pre-primary education from my learning. I hope it’s helpful and you can apply some of the information in your classes.

Find out what 3-6 year-old children can do

The first thing a pre-primary teacher should be aware of is that your students are still developing both physically and cognitively. Whole child development should be taken into consideration even if you’re only an English teacher. According to Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) by The British Association for Early Childhood Education, there are seven learning and development areas for children, including 18 aspects of these key areas.

Area of Learning and Development Aspect
Prime Areas
Personal, Social and Emotional Development 1. Making relationships
2. Self-confidence and self-awareness
3. Managing feelings and behaviours
Physical Development 1. Moving and handling
2. Health and self-care
Communication and Language Listening and attention
Specific Areas
Literacy 1. Reading
2. Writing
Mathematics 1. Numbers
2. Shape, space and measure
Understanding the World 1. People and communities
2. The world
3. Technology
Expressive Arts and Design 1. Exploring and using media and materials
2. Being imaginative

The research shows that at around the age of 3 years old, children

  • begin to cooperate in routines, recognize boundaries and know when they’re misbehaving
  • are able to respond to familiar sounds and enjoy playing with different sounds, songs and rhythms
  • join in singing favourite songs
  • are able to identify action words and can understand more complex sentences
  • can repeat words and expressions from familiar stories, songs, chants and rhymes

At around the age of 4 years old, children

  • can take turns and are able to share although they may still need support from adults
  • are able to adapt quickly to changes in routines and situations
  • enjoy experimenting with different ways of moving
  • can sing a few familiar songs
  • begin to move rhythmically and imitate movements in response to music
  • can create movements in response to music

At around the age of 5-year-old, children

  • understand boundaries and behaviour expectations
  • are able to concentrate and sit quietly during an activity for longer periods of time
  • have a repertoire of songs and dances
  • enjoy exploring different sounds of instruments
  • initiate new combinations of movement and gesture in order to express and respond to feelings, ideas and experiences

Based on what children can do at this stage, it’s not hard to find that establishing routines could be a key to the success of a pre-primary class, while chants, songs and rhymes are good tools to use.

Why establish routines?

  1. Routines create familiarity and a sense of security for children;
  2. Structure provides boundaries for regulating behaviour;
  3. Routines help children become more independent, responsible and confident;
  4. Routines provide opportunities for prediction through language;
  5. Routines support language development.

When and how to establish routines using songs?

I will use the popular Macmillan pre-primary series Hats On Top as an example, to give you an idea of how to integrate songs into routine establishment. Example chants, songs and rhymes in Hats On Top are listed as following:

Transition songs: to establish routines and smooth transitions, e.g. Circle Time, cleaning up, saying goodbye
  1. The hello song
  2. The Hats On Top song
  3. The pick up song
  4. The goodbye song
  5. The circle time song
  6. Wash your hands song
  7. Tidy up song
Wiggle rhymes and songs: accompanied by fun actions and are designed to be used whenever you wish as a class management tool
  1. I’m a Big Boy Now
  2. Little Kites
  3. Clap Your Hands
  4. If You’re Happy and You Know it
  5. Wash, Wash, Wash
  6. The Teddy Bear Chant
  7. The Farmer Is Planting Seeds
  8. I Can…
  9. Five Little Monkeys
Content songs: teaching vocabulary, phonics and grammar Based on each lesson content. However a generic example may be ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ as a tool to teach body parts


Possible Routines Songs
1. Greeting the children Transition songs
2. Taking the register
3. Starting lessons
4. Getting into pairs or groups
5. Moving from one part of the classroom to another
Doing particular activities, e.g. those involving movement or stories Content songs
Getting the children’s attention Wiggle rhymes and songs
1. Starting and stopping activities Transition songs
2. Giving out and collecting in materials
3. Looking at and/or correcting children’s work
4. Collecting in and returning homework
5. Going to the toilet
6. Tidying up

Chants, songs and rhymes are great as children learn to work together, pick up chunks, get to listen to lots of meaningful language, have a reason to use English, find them funny, move their body and enjoy repeating them. By integrating songs into the process of routine establishment, taking children’s development stage into consideration, teachers will take the first step towards a successful pre-primary class.

I hope you find this blog useful and try to integrate more songs with your routines. Happy teaching!

Super Huang is the Teacher Trainer and Academic Consultant for Macmillan Education, Greater China. She holds a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of York in the UK, where the focus of her study was on English Language Teaching.

Super has been working for both online and offline schools in China, as a teacher and teacher trainer. She has a good knowledge of the Chinese market and is a dedicated educator.