Someone, not a teacher, innocently mentioned in passing that it must be easy teaching beginners English. I spent the summer teaching a beginner class and it was thoroughly enjoyable, but I wouldn’t call it easy. Here I reflect on some of the issues we faced and five ways I tried to get the most out of the classes for the learners.
In higher-level classes I expect the students to communicate in English nearly all of the time. However, beginners are limited in the language they have at their disposal. They need to build rapport with their classmates and sometimes want the reassurance of communicating in their native language. It’s natural that a monolingual group will want to speak to each other in their L1, but this can become a missed opportunity to practise English. In order to limit the use of their native language, we monitored the use of L1 in class so students were aware of how much Arabic was being used. I had a visual on the board of L1 and English with arrows pointing up and down to show if they were communicating more or less in both. I asked the students their opinion so they were evaluating themselves and we related this to their goals.
Giving clear instructions and explanations.
One way to keep the class on track is to make sure that everyone knows what they are doing. It sounds obvious but it’s still worth keeping this mind. Confession time. I can be wordy when I give instructions and explanations. It’s something that I’ve been working on since I started teaching. When I was planning the lessons for my beginners I spent time thinking about how I would explain what we were going to do. I also thought about how I would introduce new lexis. Once I got to know the class it wasn’t necessary to go into so much detail but it helped us at the start.
Using board work effectively.
As you can see from above I planned what I was going to put on the board. Get a system for your board so the students know what you are doing to avoid confusion (i.e. aims in one area, a space for emergent vocab and error correction etc.) I won’t go into detail here about how I did it as this post from ELT planning is all you need. I’d also recommend looking at the #ELTwhiteboard hashtag on twitter for board inspiration. One thing I did learn this summer is that if I wasn’t careful with my handwriting the students had real difficulty identifying the letters. For learners who don’t share the Roman alphabet, it’s important to be consistent in your letter formation. I tried not to crowd my board and used colours to make it as clear as possible.
Work on study skills.
Students may need some guidance with study skills. This summer I was teaching beginners in the morning and then I would teach an advanced group later in the day. Without exception, every time the advanced learners came across new language they would note it down. They’d ask for clarification on any language points they were unsure of. Back with the beginners it was clear some of the students didn’t have any such systems in place. I made suggestions about ways to record vocabulary and prompted students by giving them time to make notes from the board. It was also good to monitor as they occasionally made errors when noting down new vocabulary.
Give them the language they need. Scaffold, model and prompt
Make sure students have the language they need to use in the classroom to avoid unnecessary use of L1. How can we expect students to communicate in L1 if we don’t give them the language? I displayed useful language on the board/walls as I always do. I also went for accuracy. For example, students wanted me to look at their work and would ask ‘it’s true?’. While I could understand what they meant it was an opportunity to teach and display ‘Can you check this for me?’. We left this helpful language on the walls so they had it to refer to.
In speaking activities, I found it useful to display a model of the target language with changeable parts for students to refer to and/or for them to plan what they were going to say. We removed such visuals once the students had already practised and become comfortable with the target language.
I introduced phonemes as I thought it was good to start as we mean to go on. I focused on individual phonemes rather than transcribing whole words. I focused on the vowels and diphthongs, as well as the specific errors common to my group which included confusing the /p/ and /b/ sounds. Both books I’ve used for beginners’ courses have given attention to pronunciation from day one.
The last thing I’d add is that it really is a great level to teach. Is it easy? Not particularly, but it is very rewarding.
So there you have five thoughts on teaching beginners. I’m by no means an expert, so if you have any suggestions or advice I’d love to hear them in the comments section.