Teaching English to Absolute Beginners

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest challenges that English teachers will face in their careers is being asked to teach students who have zero English knowledge or ability. In an ideal world, these students would be placed into classes with teachers who are bilingual and can use the students 1st language to help in acquiring the 2nd language...the problem though, is this isn't an ideal world, and many teachers, who can only speak English, are regularly asked to teach students who cannot speak a word of English.

So where should you begin? What are the best approaches to teaching absolute beginners? What part of the language should you focus on first? How do you overcome the huge language barrier that separates your from your students? In this blog entry, I want to provide some popular strategies that English teachers will use in these situations, and also give you some of my own personal insight into teaching beginner English language learners.

Change your mindset
First and foremost, to successfully teach absolute beginners (or anyone really) you have to go into this challenge with the right mindset. I've heard so many colleagues over the years talk about how they hate teaching beginner ELL's because it's so difficult and mentally and physically taxing (which it can be); but it can also be the most satisfying teaching experience you will have. I'm a firm believer that if you go into something with the wrong attitude, you're setting yourself up for failure. Instead, people teaching absolute beginners need to realize how important and meaningful of a job it is to teach new language learners. In your first classes with these students, you aren't just teaching them English, you are helping them grow the self-confidence they will need to be successful at all levels of learning English. Teaching beginner ELL's is also super rewarding as there is no other stage in language learning where you will see your students grow and improve so much.

Meaningful learning
One of the most common questions that teachers have, when asked to teach English to absolute beginners is "What should I teach first?" When asked this questions, I often reply by asking "If you were in a foreign country, what would you want to learn first?" Most likely you wouldn't say grammar or random vocabulary, instead you'd want to first learn some survival language that will help you function in your new environment. I read a great article the other day by Simply Ieva the called TEACHING COMPLETE BEGINNERS ESL – A HOW-TO, where she presents a great list of 7 topics that you should first try to teach absolute beginners. These 7 are:

1. Personal Information
2. Social Interaction (hello's / goodbye's, etc.)
3. Classroom English
4. Time, Calendars, Weather
5. The Body
6. Food
7. Home and House Vocabulary

If I was to add to her list, I would also include directions, shopping and how to ask wh- questions.

How to teach absolute beginners
I know what you're thinking..."this is a good list of things to teach new ELL's, but HOW do you teach them this information if they cannot understand any English?" and this is a great question! Teaching students with little or no English requires 3 main characteristics: Creativity, Flexibility and Patience

Creativity: To be able to reach absolute beginners takes a great deal of creativity on the part of teachers, as traditional ways of teaching English may not work. For example, the classes I used to teach to beginner students involved a lot of gestures, drawings, and other visuals. This often required me to make a fool of myself, as I'm a terrible artist and actor, but it didn't matter because I was communicating with my students. Where words 'fall on deaf ears,' actions and other visual aids are key to learning...and most of the time teachers are called upon to come up with these non-verbal forms of communication on the fly, without any preparation.

Flexibility: As I just mentioned, teachers of new English language learners need to be able to adapt on the fly. You can plan out the greatest lessons of you life before teaching absolute beginners, only to have them bomb the next day in class. To teach new ELL's you've got to be constantly adapting to what works and doesn't work with these students. For instance, before teaching absolute beginners, I expected that my classes would be very teacher-centered, as students would not be able to learn from each other, which proved to be totally incorrect. I found out quickly that although my students were all 'absolute beginners' some actually knew a little more English than others. Likewise, some students were able to learn English much faster than other students. As a way to help teach the true beginners I realized I would also have to heavily rely on the students to help each other. I used pair work and group work as much as possible, so students (especially, if they speak the same native language) could teach each other and also gain confidence speaking with one another.

Patience: Patience is key for all teachers, but especially if you're teaching absolute beginners. English is a very tough language to learn and it requires a lot of time to master. As the teacher, this requires having realistic expectations for your students. Classes and lessons often will progress much slower than you imagined and you can expect to have to speak very slowly and deliberately, do a lot of repetition and answer the same question over and over again. Each day you teach, it's also very important to review the previous classes lesson and be prepared to re-teach parts of that lesson.

One topic (that I actually wrote another blog entry on) that I wanted to quickly address is whether or not students should be able to use their native language in class, or should you enforce an English Only rule in your class. Without a doubt in my mind, absolute beginners should not only be allowed to use their native language to help learn English, but it should be encouraged. To me, taking away their ability to speak to fellow students in their own language at this stage of English learning, would be like taking away their pens or pencils....you're eliminating a valuable learning tool. I'm not saying that they should be constantly speaking in their own language, but that it should be a tool they should be able to use when needed. Teachers still need to encourage their students to use English as much as possible, and they also need to be able to identify when students are using their first language to help with learning English and when they are just having meaningless conversation.

Some additional tips for teacher absolute beginners are:
-Make sure the classroom is friendly and welcoming

-Make sure your students know making mistakes is part of learning

-Try to learn some of the native languages of your students

-Use realia and flashcards in class as much as possible


-Get to know your students (this will help you assess understanding)

-Keep your lessons as fun and engaging as possible. Students can lose their interest and motivation to learn very quickly when beginning to learn a language

-Try to engage students in multi-skilled lessons as much as possible (speaking, listening, reading and writing).

Please let me know your feedback on my ideas, and if you have other suggestions please let me know in the comment section.


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