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7 Tips for Teaching English to Beginners

Teaching English to Beginners is challenging and new ESL teachers become very nervous at the idea of standing in front of a class of low-level students.  It is likely that you would not be placed in a Beginner level without having any previous teaching experience. This means that if you happen to be looking for your first ESL teaching job and you come across a school that will place you in English Beginner lessons, this is a big warning sign of their lack of experience and organization. That said, there are strategies you should learn now for when you have to teach low levels. This OnTESOL graduate blog will show you how to start teaching English to Beginners in a communicative way.

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1. Simplify the Language

Simplifying the way we word the language of instruction, especially when teaching English to Beginners, is very important. As ESL teachers, we have to remember that we are talking to learners of the English language, not to native speakers. The more difficult the words are and the longer and more complex the sentences are, the less our beginner students will understand our instructions, or explanations.

Imagine you are teaching English Beginner lessons and want to elicit a grammar structure, a noun in this case, by showing a picture or object. You may want to ask ‘’What do you think this is?’’. This question, which may sound natural to you, could be complicated for Beginners. They will pay more attention to the word THINK, rather than the idea of identifying the object. If you use a simple interrogative sentence like ‘’What is this?’’, you will not distract them with words they may not know at this level, or concepts they cannot understand.

Use simple sentence structure, and avoid long explanations.  Try to use materials that are visually uncluttered, too. This will help learners focus on the key information. Learning to simplify the language of instruction is a process. You will learn how to speak to Beginners with simpler structures or words naturally. When you use difficult language, your students will look at you with blank faces, showing they have not understood your instructions.  With experience, you will realize when communication is not taking place and you will naturally tend to simplify the sentences or find a way to paraphrase and simplify them. That said, do not speak unnaturally.

2. Use Authentic Material with Beginner ESL Students

Bringing authentic materials into English Beginner classes is important because they provide exposure to real-world language use. However, Beginner students can become quickly frustrated with authentic materials if they find associated activities too difficult. This section of the blog will show you how to teach English to Beginners with authentic materials

When using authentic reading and listening material, consider the following strategies to help Beginner learners grapple with the difficulty of the language:

  • Ask students to consider general questions about the text which requires them to draw on their real-world background knowledge.  For example, ask questions about the topic, the characteristics of the speaker, or about the type of text they are reading/listening to. Students should be able to answer these kinds of questions successfully without understanding all of the details of the text. This type of listening/reading skill (activation of background knowledge) is important for students to practice, and using authentic materials provides a good opportunity to do so.
  • When listening/reading for details with Beginners (scanning), use smaller chunks of authentic language.  Design activities that help learners to recognize patterns and characteristics rather than specific details and vocabulary. For example, they can look for repeated words, listen for stressed words, and look for words they do recognize.
  • Use recordings of authentic interaction or have your students listen to authentic interaction outside of the classroom in public places such as on the bus, in food courts, or in popular public areas.  Again, have students focus on generalities rather than all of the specific details of the text.  For example, the speakers, the setting, and perhaps what they guess the topic might be.

If you can design simple ESL activities that lead to a degree of success for students and help them build their confidence, authentic materials can be very useful and motivating for Beginner students.

3. Repeat/Recycle

Provide lots of opportunities for practicing the language that has been presented in class. Recycle the previous vocabulary into lessons on new topics. Short, but frequent, exposure will help make new language ‘stick’.

4. Variety

It’s important to repeat information, but make sure to vary the activities while you do. Changing the types of ESL activities will keep students engaged and prevent boredom.

5. Show, Don’t Tell

Too much explanation of grammar points will be lost on your learners. Use situations and visuals to help make contexts clear.

Also create points of reference in your classroom: a vocabulary wall, charts of important grammar points, a list of classroom management expressions. Students can refer to these as needed during class without disrupting the flow of the lesson.

6. Make it Meaningful

Find out about your students’ lives. At the start of the course, have students create a picture of their lives and routines. Make one yourself about your own life, and share it with the students. It doesn’t have to be pretty (stick figures can get the meaning across just fine). Use the timelines as a way to develop lessons that are relevant to your students’ needs.

7. Create a Supportive Atmosphere for English Beginner Classes

Remember that being unable to communicate effectively can make many adults feel very vulnerable. Encourage your students’ efforts and recognize their progress. Let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes. Sometimes having students teach you a few words or phrases in their languages can help.

Watch the video below to learn more about teaching English to Beginners from our senior TESOL trainers:

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