Do you remember how you learned to speak your first language? How about any languages after that? Regardless of the details, I’m sure it involved A LOT of patience and practice! The same is true for your students. Beginner language learners may face many challenges in their language journey; likewise, you may face many challenges as their teacher. Despite the many possible challenges, it can be a lot of fun, if you know what you’re doing. If you can keep approach the course with a bit of empathy, you will have one of the best tools out there to help your student be successful. Let’s start at the very beginning…

What does this label “beginner” mean?

Absolute Beginners

have zero knowledge of English.  They may know the ABCs and numbers, or simple words like “hello” and “goodbye,” but there is a very good chance that they know absolutely nothing. This is what makes them absolute beginners.

However, some beginners are what’s known as False Beginners.

These learners have some knowledge of English because studied previously or have made it a personal hobby to listen to music or watch movies in English, but their English is still very basic. False Beginners may have a skewed sense of their true abilities: they may think they know more than they do OR they may think they know nothing. It is your job to help them identify and acknowledge their starting point so that they can make goals to get to their ideal endpoint--hopefully English fluency!

REMEMBER---whether an adult student is an absolute beginner, a false beginner, or somewhere in between, they know how to communicate in at least one language--just not in English. Be sure to consider what they know already! Part of the benefit of working with adults, is their generally higher level of cognitive abilities than their children counterparts.

What problems are unique to beginners?  

Yes, the 3 most common problems for beginners are:

1. Feeling like a child

As teachers, we can be tempted to start with what we assume to be the basics: colors, numbers, days of the week, etc. because they are easily learned by most students. However, what can your student really communicate if they know how to say “1,2,3” “red, orange, yellow” and “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.” Not too much. It’s okay to teach these vocabulary words as long as it is done within the context of real communication. Don’t just teach isolated words. The critical period hypothesis puts a lot against adult beginner learners so giving adults a context also helps them to feel that their cognitive abilities and prior knowledge are being acknowledged and used as a tool rather than a hindrance. Happy, confident learners learn much more than insecure, stressed learners.

Start with the language that is most essential to the student--this may be greetings, asking for help/clarification, introducing oneself, explaining one's job or describing one's family and hobbies. Based on her goals for learning you can determine this. If no clear goals are there, start with language you need her to understand in order to give a successful class. Generally to be in affirmative, negative, and questions are a good place to start. Then you build vocabulary around this and again, always practice the vocabulary in a full sentence/sentence frame--not just isolated words.

2. Feeling like English is useless avalanche of information

When you know little to nothing about a language--or anything for that matter--it can feel like you are walking along a dark tunnel without fully knowing what to expect or where they will end up. Your job as a teacher is to be a guide with a hint of light along the way, little by little. It is good practice for all courses, but especially for beginners, to plan 2-4 classes ahead of time and present this information to the student. This could be through a calendar or just filling out the “next class” section in the Cornell notes ahead of time. Having an idea of what is coming should help put learners at ease AND help you as a teacher feel more confident and prepared.

You need to speak simply, but not unnaturally. Don’t talk “like a cave person.” You should be conscious of the kinds of words and grammar structures you use as well as your speed of speech. However, take care to speak as naturally as possible so that students learn from the real thing. Again, the goal is that they can communicate so if they can’t understand real speech patterns, they won’t be able to communicate. To help make yourself clear, but natural, you can use: cognates, visuals, gestures, and realia. Teach students to use communicative strategies. as well such as circumlocution and asking for clarification when they can’t think of a word or don’t understand something. This way you can avoid falling back on using their first language (L1) as a crutch.

Additionally remember to show, not tell whenever possible. When you introduce a grammar pattern, vocabulary word, or activity, try not to explain in detail what you are going to do, just give the basics and do it. This way you cut out a lot of useless teacher talk that will go right over your students head and distract them from concentrating on the main language targets and objectives for that class.

3. Feeling tired and frustrated more quickly and more easily

Endurance for any activity is built up slowly over time; this is no different for learning a language. While we want every course to be conversation focused, communication and conversation do not only require active, productive skills. You also need to be skilled in receptive skills--which can be active or passive depending on the context. Therefore with beginners, they won’t be having typical conversations you would with a B1 or B2 learner, but they can certainly work on their English communication the entire time.

The Golden Rule of Beginners is “regularly repeat, review, and reinforce.” All students need repetition. A student needs to see and use a vocabulary word, phrase, or grammar structure in communicative practice at least 10-20 times in order to fully acquire it and be able to use it relatively consistently in spontaneous communication. Ojo, this doesn’t mean to simply repeat the word or phrase 10-20 times and call it good. This means you need to think of contexts and types of practice: controlled, role play, Q & A, etc. in order for them to repeat the material to be acquired frequently enough. Don’t teach something and then wait weeks to review it either. Review should be consistent, ongoing, and cyclical. Language isn’t acquired by checking off a list of items. The more often you can review, the better. As you repeat and review regularly, you need to also reinforce what is being learned, what is done correctly, and what is not yet done correctly. Each class should start and end with a short review time where active feedback is given to the students. Use the Cornell notes to guide you. You don’t need to correct every single error they make, but definitely correct any objectives you are working or have worked on previously as well as anything that could be offensive or seriously impedes communication. Try to use a variety of correction techniques which you can find here in the Resource Drive.

Finally, you should plan your classes with beginners in short, connected blocks of time of maybe 10-15 minutes. You should maintain the objective of the class throughout, but you will need to change the pace and variety of activities in each class. It is especially important to alternate between activities that require more production vs more reception and to use all 4 skills. You want to slowly build a student’s confidence and fluency without overwhelming or over saturating them. If a bright light suddenly fills that same dark tunnel discussed earlier, what would be your reaction? Naturally, you will probably cover your eyes, stumble, or otherwise react to this negative stimulus. It would be too much for your eyes to handle without the proper warning or transition to such bright light. The same is true for your students, if you give them too much at once, it will just cause that same negative reaction and hinder their learning.

Online Resources

Language Strategies

Pronunciation App to download

Learn English Grammar app

Check out the pages on the Dynamic Teacher Resource Drive for even more!