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 You may think that drills are outdated and do not represent the Communicative Language Teaching model, but there is a time and place for using them effectively to practice the new language you have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

No comments: