Teaching Beginners requires skill, experience, and compassion. In my opinion, it can be the most challenging of levels, but also the most rewarding. This OnTESOL Graduate blog explains who beginners are, some of their unique challenges and needs as learners, and some scaffolding strategies that ESL teachers can use.
Who are Beginners?
Within the category we call Beginner, as in all levels, there is a range of abilities. We divide these into two main groups; true beginners, who have literally no or almost no previous exposure to English, and ‘false’ Beginners, those who have studied some English in the past and maybe know the alphabet or a few words or even phrases but cannot form sentences and have little understanding of basic grammar.
What Makes Teaching Beginners Unique?
Beginners typically face more challenges than other students. If Beginners are studying abroad in an ESL immersion course, they may not feel very comfortable in their new environment because they cannot communicate in their first language. While some people are not affected by this, others develop what Stephen Krashen calls an ‘affective filter’, a kind of wall of emotion that can make learning quite difficult. Because of this vulnerability, it is even more important that your Beginner classroom be a safe and comfortable space, and that you encourage the development of friendship between your students.
It can be difficult to know what is happening when Beginners are not improving at a normal pace. Sometimes, students are in beginner classes because they have never had the opportunity to study English, and many of these students advance quickly to the next level. On the other hand, some students in your beginner classes will be there because they experience challenges with language learning more generally, have some other form of learning disability, they may have had very negative experiences with learning English previously and dislike it or see themselves as bad at it.
A negative attitude toward learning English can be counteracted by a teacher who challenges and supports students through fun and interesting teaching that takes into account the unique challenges that beginners sometimes face.
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The concept of scaffolding is extremely important for teaching Beginners. I’m going to illustrate how a teacher builds and slowly deconstructs a scaffold over the course of a lesson so that their beginner students work steadily toward independent use of new language.
Sequencing in a beginner’s course is crucial because you need to have a very clear picture of what they know. Think about what they need to know, for example, if the focus of your lesson is on ‘weekly schedules’.
If your target language point or the new language point that you introduce is ‘the simple present’, then you need to assume they already know a few things; they should already know
-The days of the week
– Basic syntax
-A few verbs that describe their weekly activities
-The names of a few places
-Prepositions we use for time or place
In the context of language teaching, scaffolding means providing full support at the beginning of a lesson and then slowly removing layers of support. So if my goal for the lesson is for students to be able to talk about their weekly schedules, I have to show them, early on, what that looks like.
There are a number of ways we can introduce an example. I like to have students as active as possible in the process. One way of doing this is through what is called a running dictation. Put an example of the kind of paragraph you want students to produce on a wall of the classroom, divide the students into pairs, and have each partner take turns walking up to the paragraph, reading and remembering a sentence or two, and then returning to their partner, who will write it down. Have them switch halfway.
That way, students begin the lesson actively, practicing their reading, pronunciation, and listening skills, strengthening their memories, and needing inferences about syntax and grammar. Once they have completed the passage, have them compare it to the original and correct any mistakes, perhaps by listening to you read it.
Once they have it, ask them to scan the passage to pull out a few groups of words; for example, ‘days of the week’ ‘verbs’ ‘time words’. Have students write these on the board and spend a few minutes making sure that they know the meaning of these. Add a few more, if the students know any, and then give them a few comprehension questions to check their understanding. Before moving on to the next activity, tell the students to turn over their pages, and ask if anyone can volunteer to recall some of the sentences for the class.
At this point, you could do a short lesson on the simple present. Ask students what they notice about the verbs and elicit from them that when the subject is ‘I’ the verb is in base form, but when it’s ‘he’, the verb takes an ‘s’.
Write the subjects and verb endings for the simple present on the board and give students time to copy them down and ask questions. Touch on the fact that we use the simple present to describe habitual actions, and unpack the meaning of that.
That’s your presentation section; notice how the lesson is fairly top-heavy, because at this level students need a lot of input, but also that it actively involves them from the very beginning. Remember that beginners usually cannot understand complicated grammatical explanations, keep your explanations short and use clear examples, so that they see patterns in context.
Working Towards Independence
For the practice stage in a lesson for Beginners, you are going to remove a little of the scaffolding. In this lesson, for example, you could give students a person’s weekly schedule and have them complete sentences starting with prompts.
In pairs, students look at the prompt and then scan the calendar for the info to help them complete the sentence. Always do one or two examples as a class before turning it over to them. Continue by giving each student a weekly schedule and having them ask questions to each other about their schedules. Once they have done that, have them tell a different classmate about their original partner’s schedule.
Make the schedules interesting and memorable, but make sure that most of the language they are using is familiar to them because the main objective of this exercise is to have them repeat the grammar point with a little less support. If they are getting caught on the vocabulary, their ability to focus on the grammar will be significantly impeded.
For production, have students pair up and write a paragraph, like the one they saw at the beginning of the lesson, about their own real schedules. Give them access to dictionaries or your help, and have them try to recreate, in writing, a fairly accurate paragraph using the grammar and vocabulary that they have been practicing.
Encourage them to take risks and make mistakes, but provide clear feedback and explanations when questions arise. Have them post their paragraphs around the walls of the classroom and take a walk around to see each other’s work. Help them acknowledge what they just accomplished by reviewing the lesson goals.
Provide them the opportunity to extend their learning by giving an optional writing homework assignment along with a shorter grammar assignment. For writing, tell them to interview a person that they’ve met and have them write a paragraph about their schedule, or to simply write about the schedule of a person they know. Finally, give them some vocabulary lists, prepared in advance, of activity-verbs and places where people do those activities and encourage them to do some memorization work with these.
Things to Keep in Mind with Scaffolding
I hope that I have clearly demonstrated how to approach planning for Beginners; start with where you want them to end and then build the scaffolding backward. Keep activities short and give constant feedback as to how they are doing by checking their understanding.
Avoid giving them tasks that they are not ready for, like having long discussions, but do make time for small talk at the beginning and end of lessons, and use that time to get to know them.
Try to find out what their personal strengths and accomplishments are, and make sure the class celebrates those as well; it can be difficult for such intelligent and accomplished people to be in places of such vulnerability, so help them enjoy it as much as they can.
If you are able to establish trust and good learning routines, you can have them working hard and their improvement will be quickly evident. This is really one of the most rewarding jobs a language teacher can have.