Teaching Beginners 101

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Several months in, I thought I’d pretty much got the hang of this teaching gig. Eliciting, concept checking, explaining grammar rules – sorted. Until I was given a class of beginner students. How on earth was I meant to get them to understand anything when the first bit of target language was ‘Hello’?!

Five years and several beginners’ courses later, here are my top ten tips for stressfree beginners’ classes.

1.Teach what you expect them to produce.

When teaching any other level, we take it for granted that we can walk into a classroom, greet the students, ask them how they are and what their names are – and receive an appropriate response. Complete beginners don’t necessarily know this language, and so bouncing into the classroom with a cheery ‘how are you?’ may be met with blank stares. If you want your students to respond to ‘What’s your name?’ with ‘My name is…’, you’re likely to need to teach them. Remember that although it seems simple to you, for complete beginners these questions and answers are a challenge! Don’t be surprised if ‘How are you?’ is still answered, ‘My name is Anna’ until a few lessons have gone by.

2. Use visual aids whenever possible.

Remember that beginner students have very little vocabulary – but they need to understand what new words mean somehow! Showing students a dictionary is far quicker and more effective than explaining ‘it’s a book that tells you what words mean’ (especially if in that sentence they’re only familiar with the word ‘book’!). Using photos, pictures and realia in class makes it more interesting, and also can give students extra information which they may not be able to glean from the language they understand. For example, video listening exercises are often easier than ones which simply have audio, because the students can pick up on the setting, body language and facial expressions.

3. Show, don’t tell.

Keep your instructions clear, short and concise. Demonstrate what you want the students to do (particularly in pair and group work – choose a stronger student and model the activity for the rest of the class). Use gestures  (for example when telling the students to open their books) and don’t be afraid to use mime!

4. Teach classroom language.

If you want students to communicate with you and each other in English, again, you need to teach them to do so! Make sure part of one of your first lessons focuses on ‘classroom language’ – things like classroom equipment (pens, pencils, rubber), requests such as ‘Can I have a pen, please?’ and ‘Can I go to the toilet, please?’ as well as phrases: ‘Sorry I’m late’, ‘I don’t know’, ‘I don’t understand’. Although these phrases may seem pretty ambitious for a class who barely understand ‘How are you?’, it’s not necessary for students to understand every word or the grammar behind them in the first instance. Teach them as chunks: ‘I don’t know’, and remember to drill the pronunciation!

A note on L1 here: I’ve encountered teachers who speak students’ L1 who give all their instructions in students’ own language. Personally I’d advise against that, especially as it won’t do them any favours when they join an elementary class and can’t understand instructions in English!  You don’t need to speak the students’ L1 in order for them to understand (see previous points about visuals and modelling), and it’s far better to encourage them to communicate in English as much as possible from the very start.

5. Keep it simple – but don’t patronise.

It can be tricky to find supplementary material when teaching adult beginners, not least because searching online for beginner EFL/ESL materials tends to result in lots of materials aimed at young children. Sometimes you can still use these activities with adults; I’ve certainly played dominoes, boardgames, hangman and some flashcard games with mine! Use your common sense, and if something seems particularly childish (either in topic, content or presentation), give it a miss. Remember as well that whilst your students speak very little English, this doesn’t mean that they are uneducated or stupid.

6. Remember to praise!

Some of the most self-conscious students I’ve taught have been adult beginners. They’re well aware that their colleagues, family members and friends often speak far better English than they do – and even though you know this doesn’t mean that they’re stupid, they  often fall into the trap of believing this themselves. Praise frequently (but sincerely) and make sure they’re aware of what they can do now that they couldn’t do before.

7. Review, review… and recycle.

The English that beginner students are learning will be the building blocks for all the English they may learn in the future – and so it’s important that it sticks! Use the first activity of each lesson to review and practise something you covered in the previous class. As you progress through the level try to recycle the language that students already know – for example questions with ‘Is it…?’ can be used in any guessing game, or ‘What colour is it?’ can be asked about any object or item in a picture.

8. Remember that it’s normal for students to understand more than they can produce.

Don’t worry if you students can’t necessarily understand every word you say. That’s a situation they’re going to face for a long time yet, and as long as they understand the key vocabulary and the general gist of what you’re saying, it’s not a problem. Likewise, don’t worry if your students can understand some quite complex written or spoken material, but then can only produce very basic things themselves – this is a normal stage of language acquisition.

9. Don’t be afraid to go off topic sometimes.

It can be tempting when teaching very low level students to think that you need to stick exactly to whatever pages you’re meant to be studying in the coursebook. This really isn’t the case! Some of the most rewarding interactions I’ve had with my beginner students have been during a discussion about holidays, when one of my class got his phone out and started showing us pictures of his horse! Not particularly holiday related, but at the end of the day, you’re teaching your students to communicate in English – and sometimes that’s far more important than whatever’s on the syllabus.

10. Enjoy it!

Adult beginner students are one of the most rewarding levels to teach, as their abilities at the end of the course are so different to at the beginning! Sometimes you’ll have lessons where nothing seems to go right and your students can’t understand… but rest assured that won’t be the case every lesson. Teaching beginners can be a real challenge, but the rewards can be great too!

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