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10 Tips for Teaching English Online to Lower Level Students

Teaching low-level learners is a challenging task in a traditional classroom and it gets even more daunting when you are teaching English online.

Low-level learners are those who can be classified under ACTFL Guidelines as Novice learners, or under the CEFR as A1 users. Whatever classification system you use (and there are many out there), low-level ESL learners experience the following difficulties with their speaking skills:

  • May produce unintelligible pronunciation at times.
  • Need significant time to express themselves on familiar topics.
  • Cannot engage in conversational activities.
  • Cannot speak beyond predictable topics and responses.
  • Speak with isolated words or phrases, but not in complete thoughts.
  • Difficult to understand unless effort is made.
  • Are not functional with basic grammar rules.
  • Can be somewhat tiring to interact with.

This OnTESOL Graduate blog includes a few tips to help ESL teachers manage such classes and help students walk away with a sense of satisfaction.

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1. Speak Slower Not Slowly

As is often the case, people seem to think if they speak slowly, the foreign language speaker will understand them better. But honestly, it makes us look a little silly when we do that. Plus, people don’t usually speak like that anyway. So, when ESL teachers speak to students in an exaggeratedly slow manner, it can be insulting to them.

Simply throttle back your normal speech to a slightly slower rate to give learners a chance to process each word. Low-level ESL learners tend to focus on individual words instead of the idea being conveyed. So give them a chance to pick the words up by slowing down a bit, but not too much.

2. Speak Clearly

One way to slow down speech without sounding too unnatural is to enunciate your words properly. When we enunciate, we emphasize the consonant sounds that give greater clarity to each word. This gives learners an opportunity to catch specific words and synthesize each one into a complete thought. Speaking clearly helps lower-level learners feel as if they’re participating in the communication. And this can help build confidence.

3. Use High-Frequency Vocabulary

Frequency refers to how often words are used. High-frequency vocabulary means words that are common, such as big, small, tall, happy, pretty, nice, etc. Low-frequency vocabulary refers to words that aren’t as widely used, such as enormous, minute, towering, ecstatic, adorable, enjoyable, and the like.

Try to use high-frequency vocabulary when speaking to low-level learners. You’ll be using words they’ll be more familiar with than the less-common ones. Again, this can help build their confidence in communicating in English.

4. Drop the Idioms

Idioms are tricky for low-level learners who are still navigating the meaning of words. I remember one day I received a blank stare for telling my ESL class to “break a leg” before the test. By using less idiom and more direct wording, you can help facilitate communication.

5. Skip the Courtesy for Now

If you’re like me, with a background in customer service, you may have a habit of using courteous speech. That works pretty well with customers who speak the same language. But it doesn’t work as well with low-level English speakers. Saying such polite remarks as, “would it be possible for you to type your name in the chatbox” or “kindly tell me a little about yourself,” will likely be unintelligible to them.

To promote communication, try going what may feel like the discourteous route for now. Saying something like, “type your name … in the chatbox” and “introduce you” may be the only way to get the message across. It may not feel comfortable to you, but it will have to do until your students can develop their skills further.

6. Use Phrases Instead of Sentences

Instead of, “please tell me a little about yourself,” we can use, “introduce yourself.” Sometimes, the old ‘caveman’ speaking method is the best.

We can’t communicate complete thoughts to low-level learners because it will sound foreign to them (pun intended). To overcome that obstacle, try using short phrases, or even broken sentences if need be. The point is that we want to communicate with them, and they want to develop their English skills. Often, that means one step at a time.

7. Ask Targeted Questions for Limited Responses

Rather than asking low-level learners, for example, to introduce themselves, ask them specific introductory-type questions such as, “where are you from?” Or, “what is your job,” etc. Asking learners to create unique or complete thoughts might be an overwhelming task for them at that level. In fact, if they could do that, they wouldn’t be low-level learners.

Try helping them out with their introductions by asking them specific questions. Then, type it out for them, and teach them how they can say it on their own. What I like to do is show them an introduction with missing information like this:

1. Hi! My name is ____.

2. I’m from [city, country].

3. I’m a [your job title] in a [type of company].

4. In my free time I like ____.

5. I want to improve my English because ____.

6. That’s a little about me—thanks!

As they answer my questions, I fill in the blanks for them. By challenging them to fill in the blanks, they are creating something personalized for themselves to use in the future. And they’ll likely appreciate it.

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8. Type and Speak

Doesn’t it get tiring repeating yourself several times? I mean, you have six or eight classes lined up each day. If you keep repeating yourself each class, your voice is going to give out by the fourth class. So, instead of repeating the same thing several times, why not type it out? Give them a chance to see what you’re saying.

Then say it again. Learners can now see and hear what’s being asked of them. I like to repeat the same thing a couple of times to reinforce the concept. In time, you won’t need to type it out because they’ll recognize those word combinations.

9. Draw and Speak

You’ve heard the expression, a picture’s worth a thousand words; well, it works in the ESL classroom as well. I’ve found myself at times drawing some interesting things on the screen: buttons, classroom objects, faces, people sitting, and standing, and the like, just to aid learners.

I’m no artist by any stretch of the imagination, but students can understand what’s being communicated. It doesn’t always happen by voice but through an image. And if you’re using a classroom environment where you can access Google images, you have a treasure chest of images to help facilitate word building and communicating complete thoughts. If you’re not using that, you’re missing a fantastic tool!

10. Smile

Let’s face it, sometimes teaching a low-level class can be downright frustrating. There’s no argument there. However, when frustration shows on your face, you’re telling your learners that you’re bothered. Consequently, they may likely feel awkward or uncomfortable.

Some may even get upset. Either way, wearing your negative emotion on your sleeve in an ESL class isn’t conducive to learning. Train yourself to keep a smile on your face, even when its rough. Believe me, I know how difficult that can be. If you need to, turn off your webcam for a second and mute your mic just to re-compose yourself under the guise of a momentary technical issue. Whatever you need to do to keep your composure will go a long way in helping everyone make it through the class with a positive outcome.

3 thoughts on “10 Tips for Teaching English Online to Lower Level Students”

  1. Hello,
    I am a teacher in training. I like your article and would like to use it in my conference paper but my mentor would like me to use more evidence based literature from journals. I am wondering if you can share your references with me.
    Thank you
    Angela Soumas

  2. Hello, I am conducting SPEAKING lasses to children with very low levels of English. I have 7 different classes and the class size ranges from 18 to 37 students for a 40 minute class. I purchased a subscription to a service created by 2 teachers. The lesson plans are great, but the problem is that within each class some students are much better than others at pronunciation and reading. After group practice, I have individual students come up to read a sentence or two. Some students struggle with just reading one sentence. Do you have any recommendations for any games, songs or strategies that might be universally appealing?
    Thank you

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