Thursday, January 18, 2018

Tips for Teaching Beginner Students

Olga Gilbert

In the middle of the class, the door opens and a new student timidly walks in. “Hello. My name is Olga,” I greet her. She smiles and nods. I point to my name tag and repeat, “My name is Olga. What’s your name?” The student shows her name tag and says her name. Welcome to our low beginner class!
What makes teaching this level so rewarding yet challenging? After all, you don’t need to know all the intricacies of English grammar or all the nuances of spoken language. Knowing what to teach and how to teach it makes all the difference in the world for students who come with very little or no prior knowledge of the target language.
Getting to know your students is always one of the best places to start. What they need English for (school, job, everyday use, etc.); whether they speak two or more languages (that will help them with strategies for learning yet another one); what their educational background is (some of your students may be PhDs, some illiterate) - this is only some of the information that helps us craft our lessons. Learning about your students’ first language is equally important: how the sounds are different from English; what about tenses, pronouns, word order? This website explains major differences between English and sixteen major world languages: Taking a few minutes to learn about your students’ first language will help you understand what areas may be especially difficult for them.
If you are like me and do not speak your students’ first language, how can you explain grammar to them? But do we really need to? Discovery or inductive approach is more preferable to traditional direct explanation:  In a nutshell, show several examples, help students discover the patterns (use different colour markers for that), confirm the rule and check for comprehension.
All language learners require a lot of practice, beginners even more so. You may think that drills are outdated and do not represent the Communicative Language Teaching model, but there is a time and place for using them effectively to practice the new language you have just introduced to your class:

In our practice activities, we always want to move from the more controlled ones (like drills, fill in the blanks) to more communicative, personalized tasks where students have an authentic reason for communication. Don’t get discouraged thinking this will not work for beginners due to their limited vocabulary. Try out some of these ideas:

1. Charts and questionnaires:

2. Find Someone who ...

3. Conversation Cards: each student is given a different card with a word (apple), phrase (like/apples) or a complete sentence (Do you like apples?). As they walk around asking each other questions from their cards, they can also exchange cards after each mini-conversation for added challenge.
4. Information gap: students work in pairs to find out missing information from their partner:
While activities 1, 2 and 3 practice questions using first and second person (I, you), # 4 allows you to practice third person (he, she, they). To make this more communicative, use information from the lives of your students.
Have you ever felt that explaining an activity is more difficult than actually doing it?  Our students don’t have the language to understand complex instructions. We need to break them down into smaller steps, use simple language and model, model, model. Don’t assume that your students know how to play tic-tac-toe, bingo or snakes and ladders. I did and had to pull back and spend additional time re-explaining the task. Now I carefully think through each step. The more interesting and interactive the activity, the more difficult it is to explain. Think through it in advance.
Beginner students rely on their teachers for direction, explanation and modeling. It doesn’t mean, however, that our classes cannot be more student-centered. Pair and group work in activities mentioned earlier promotes student interaction and increases student talking time.
Many more aspects of teaching beginners are still left uncovered - such as error feedback, when and how - and perhaps can be explored in a later discussion. Meanwhile, don’t be afraid to try something new in your beginner class in the new year. If you have questions or ideas concerning the above activities, feel free to contact me at

Valentine’s Day ESL Resources

Valentine’s Day:
Love and Valentine’s Day lessons (The Virtues series) (readings, including from the Bible; discussion questions, quotes and other activities) (excellent reading on the history and customs of Valentine’s Day, with glossary) (a reading with lots of accompanying activities) (Valentine’s Day conversation questions) (vocabulary and writing activities for lower level)
On Love:
What love means to kids (great conversation starters) (conversation questions on love for pairs)
Dating, Marriage, Relationships: (a collection of worksheets, lesson plans and lesson ideas) (ESL conversation questions on love, dating and marriage) (a reading and a variety of activities accompanying it, on romantic love) (love and relationship worksheets for lower level students)

Love – Sitting on the Mat

Elmer Warkentin
I asked Jesus, “How much do you love me?” “This much,” He replied. And He stretched out His arms and died. Your ESL student, your Muslim immigrant neighbour, your Hindu friend asks you, “How much do you love me?” What’s your answer? Jesus set the love bar very high, infinitely higher than our Valentines verbiage. “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mk 12:31) “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13)
Linda, a dear friend and missionary colleague in Nigeria, was just two days short of a hundred years old when she passed away in Swift Current last year. Linda served as the chef in a missionary kids boarding school in Nigeria and was deeply loved and appreciated for her dedication to making this a home for kids away from home. She loved those kids. And they felt it. But Linda had another passion.
Not far from the school were settlements of Muslim Fulani cattle herders. Linda had a burning desire to tell the women and children there about Jesus. But they wouldn’t let her in. For the next three years Linda regularly approached the entrance of a village, spread her grass mat on the ground and sat there. Yes, for three years. After three years, the village women came out to her and invited her to come in and tell them about her Jesus. “We know now that you love us”. Linda had an amazing ensuing ministry with these Muslim women and children.
I love Keller’s definition of Biblical justice. May I substitute ‘love’ for ‘justice’? “Justice [Love] means taking the threads of your life: your emotions, your time, your body, your physical presence, your money - and plunging them into the lives of other people.[1] That costs.
Dear ESL teacher, do you love your students? Are you prepared to sit on the mat?  How can you show that you love the internationals that God puts you in contact with? How do you show your students that you love them? It may be by sitting on the mat: visiting them in their homes, or having them into your home; eating, and learning how to make their food; meeting in coffee shops for hours on end just talking or listening.
I have an Iranian friend I meet with for coffee regularly who wants nothing to do with religion. We meet for coffee, talk, go for bike rides, and I have him and his wife join us on the campground for a halal barbecue, etc. I love him and hope and pray that one of these days he’ll “invite me in”.
Sitting on the mat – loving – is hard; it costs. It won’t make the headlines but God sees us and in His time our friends will open the door: “Come in, we know now that you love us.”

[1] Timothy Keller, “The Beauty of Biblical Justice”, para. 14, at (accessed January 13, 2018).