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How to teach body parts to kids

An overview of which body words to teach and how.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub

Teaching body parts like “arm” and “hair” is very common in young learner classrooms, and justifiably so because:

  • Conversations about body parts (“I bumped my head”, “Ha ha ha, I can see your belly button!”, etc) are very common in everyday life for young and (especially) very young learners
  • That kind of language is also needed for classroom instructions like “Put your hands on your head” and “Put up your right hands if… and your left hands if…”
  • There are many good games, books and songs for teaching body parts

Some of those great activities are described below, but first it is also worth considering the potential problems with this topic.

Potential issues with teaching body parts

  • Some of the most popular songs and books, e.g. the song Head Shoulders Knees and Toes, don’t have very useful vocabulary in them
  • There is sometimes more than one possible word for the body part you want to teach, e.g. “pinkie”/ “little finger”
  • Often the most age-appropriate vocabulary, e.g. “tummy”, is something that would be considered advanced level in an adult class
  • There can be translation problems, e.g. the most common words for “leg” and “foot” are the same in Japanese and in many languages “toe” and “finger” are the same
  • Some words can’t be translated into (level appropriate) English, e.g. there is no single word for “lower back” in everyday English and most toes have no individual names
  • There is always a very good chance that one or more students will introduce ruder body parts that you want to avoid

Other solutions are mentioned below, but the main thing you need to do to avoid most of the problems above is decide which body words are most suitable for your class. The approximate order of when I would teach them is:

Basic body parts

  • head
  • finger
  • mouth
  • nose
  • eye
  • ear
  • hair
  • hand
  • foot
  • leg
  • arm
  • teeth

Slightly higher level body parts/Pre-Intermediate body parts

  • thumb
  • tooth
  • lip
  • tongue
  • cheek
  • toe
  • shoulder
  • knee
  • tummy/stomach/belly
  • neck
  • back
  • bottom
  • little finger/pinkie

Medium level body parts

  • belly button
  • skin
  • beard
  • chin

Higher level body parts

  • index finger
  • middle finger
  • ring finger
  • ankle
  • wrist
  • elbow
  • forehead
  • eyelash
  • eyebrow
  • moustache
  • chest
  • hip
  • big toe
  • little toe
  • palm
  • fingernail

Very high level body parts

  • forearm
  • armpit
  • spine
  • waist
  • fringe
  • heel
  • sole
  • shin
  • calf
  • jaw
  • biceps
  • crown
  • wrinkle
  • bags under your eyes
  • temples
  • ear lobe
  • nostril
  • pupil
  • iris
  • eyelid
  • shoulder blade
  • collar bone
  • trunk
  • rib
  • thigh
  • lower back
  • toenail

Songs to teach body parts

The best tip for teaching young learners body parts is lots of action songs where they sing and touch or move the body parts they mention. There are EFL versions (e.g. The Bath Song on Super Simple Songs and Touch Your Head in the Saxoncourt book Fab Red) and variations on traditional songs with simpler body parts (e.g. the version of One Little Finger from Super Simple Songs), but it is still hard to beat the classics in terms of catchiness. Traditional songs with body parts vocab include:

  • Head Shoulders Knees and Toes (+ eyes, ears, mouth and nose)
  • Hokey Cokey (left/ right + arm and leg)
  • One Little Finger (+ lap or any body parts you get students to place their fingers on)
  • If You’re Happy and You Know It (hands, feet and head)
  • The Pinocchio (left/ right + arm and leg)
  • One Finger One Thumb (+ arm, leg and head)
  • One Two Three Four Five Touch Your Head Along with Me (+ hands and feet)

It is instantly noticeable that with the exception of Head Shoulders Knees and Toes and the variation on One Little Finger all of the songs above just practise “arm”, “leg”, “head” and “feet”. Other potential problems are:

  • Students are not sure which part they are actually singing about (e.g. the distinction between “toes” in Head Shoulders Knees and Toes and “feet”)
  • Students have difficulty distinguishing between the body part words and other words in the song, e.g. thinking “knees and” is a word
  • High level and nonsense words (e.g. in Looby Loo) can distract

Tips to get around these difficulties include:

  • Sing the songs to elicit body parts in other parts of the lesson, e.g. singing “Head shoulders knees and…” and waiting for them to fill in the next word
  • Drill the body parts before and after you do the song, e.g. shouting out “Right/ left + arm/ leg” at random before or after the Pinocchio song
  • Sometimes do the song slowly and acapella
  • Change the body parts mentioned in the song
  • Use flashcards to elicit the words of the song or change them
  • Combine songs with books, songs and games

Using stories to teach and practice body vocabulary

There are books available for most of the songs mentioned above. There are also plenty of other books for teaching body parts, for example:

  • Blue Hat Green Hat (get students to tell you where the clothes are and should be)
  • Go Away, Big Green Monster (parts of the face)
  • Here are My Hands
  • Where’s My Baby by Julie Ashworth and John Clark
  • The Gruffalo
  • The Gruffalo’s Child
  • From Head to Toe by Eric Carle
  • Barney Plays Nose to Toes

Games and crafts to practise body parts

The Barney the Dinosaur book mentioned above is actually just a pictorial representation of a game somewhat similar to Simon Says. Other games are given in the article 20 fun ways to teach kids body vocab on Teflnet, including a few ideas on using crafts for the same language point.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | July 2013
There are links to more than 400 articles and 1000 worksheets plus 1500 blog posts by Alex Case on TEFLtastic blog.

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