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Teaching Low Beginners in Immersion ESL Classes

Teaching low beginners for the first time is scary. It is common for first timers to fall back on the direct method, as it is difficult to engage them communicatively when they speak little or no English at all. Don’t panic! Beginner ESL students can be engaged with such simple tools as photographs and cellphones, which teachers often struggle to tear students away from.

A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words

With low beginners, think ‘show’ rather than ‘explain’. Whenever you find yourself explaining, or writing ‘explain’ or ‘describe’ in your lesson plan, stop. Your low beginner students will get lost in the words.

Pictures or simple line drawings on the blackboard can help make a concept clear. You don’t need to be a great artist! The goal is to get your meaning across quickly. For example, begin your first low beginner class by introducing your name. Gesturing is often sufficient for this- pointing to yourself and saying “My name is _____” usually gets the idea across. If not, prepare (in advance) a flashcard of a typical piece of ID. Point to the name on the ID, then point to yourself. Then ask students, “What’s your name?”. When students have an idea, you have them ask each other their names, and periodically review the names so that students can learn each other’s names. This helps create a supportive classroom.

One way to use pictures with low beginner students in English immersion programs is to take advantage that your students are also there to travel and have fun. This ESL activity for a simple past grammar class will develop a community for classmates to exchange information on fun things to do in the city, and it often leads to students becoming friends and touring together!

  1. For homework, ask students to take three pictures showing what they did after school.
  2. The next day students have to tell a story using the past tense, talking about what they did the day before while showing the pictures on their phones to their fellow classmates.
  3. This activity can take about 5-10 minutes as a great warm-up.

Use Story Maps

When students have had a chance to introduce themselves, you can start developing the story maps. Model the process for your personal story. On the blackboard, draw simple pictures to illustrate key facts about your life. For example, you can draw a flag or symbol from your country to illustrate your nationality, a photo or picture of a hand with a wedding ring to illustrate the marriage, a picture of a large stick figure and two small ones to illustrate if you have children, or a picture of a coffee mug to show you drink coffee. Think of simple pictures that could represent key facts about your life and create a story map on the board.

After creating the story map, go back and narrate the story with simple sentences. You can write key words underneath the pictures. It is good to include a visual about your work, as you want to find out about students’ careers and interests. After going over your story map with students, hand out a piece of paper (legal-sized – or 8.5×17”- works well for this) and some markers and gesture to students that they are going to draw their maps. As students are drawing, go around and identify as much information as you can. Help students write the name of their country of origin on the paper, and other keywords. You will find out information about your students’ lives and get to know them.

When students have finished working on their maps, you can pair them with a partner and have them exchange maps. Your students may not have a lot of words in English to discuss the maps, but they will be interested in learning about their classmates and may be able to identify some keywords. You can collect the maps and go over one or two of them with the class. Use simple language (and keep smiling!)

Before the next class, go over the maps. Identify key information and themes. Make a copy of the maps for your records and for later use. Make overheads or Powerpoint slides of the maps for use in upcoming classes. For the next class, create a handout with your story map, and write a simple narrative underneath it. Leave blanks for the keywords. Review the story map with the class and have the class work together to fill in the blanks. After that, use the overhead projector or computer, and go over some of the students’ maps as a class. Continue to elicit keywords from students as you go over the maps. Use concept questions to begin exposing students to a range of language forms.

With the vocabulary base, you generate from these activities, you can begin introducing some simple grammatical structures using contexts that are relevant to your students’ lives and experiences. Using vocabulary, themes, and contexts that are generated by your students help you create ESL lessons that are relevant to your students’ needs and interests. Students make a more immediate connection between the language they are learning and their lives. Published resources may not necessarily help you find out about the reality of your students’ lives. Starting your course off with materials generated by your students can help you create meaningful and relevant learning experiences that will improve your students’ motivation for improving English.

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