Teaching English to beginners can be a frightening prospect for any English teacher. You don’t know what sort of student is going to turn up or how easily they will pick up the language. It’s down to you as the teacher to give them the confidence they need to learn and successfully teach them English. So, how do you go about achieving this?
How to teach English to beginners
Every English teacher knows that teaching beginners can be a real challenge. This can be made even more difficult if you don’t understand your students’ native language! Do you remember attending your first foreign language class in school and not understanding a word the teacher was saying? This is exactly how new English students feel when they first enter your classroom.
Fortunately, if you have the necessary training (TEFL certificate we’re looking at you – give ITTT a look if you still need one!), you’ll be well prepared for the task at hand.
If you’ve ever done any form of TEFL training, you’ll know that not only is it possible to teach English to beginners purely using English, it is also arguably the best way for students to learn. Plus, seeing your students’ English levels improve in front of your eyes as a result of your teaching always gives a great sense of satisfaction.
So, even if your students don’t even know their ABCs yet, take heart that you CAN teach them and they WILL learn English. To help you along the way, here are our top eleven tips for teaching English to beginners. These will work for both EFL and ESL students.
1. Keep instructions simple
Don’t use too much English! When teaching absolute beginners you should avoid lengthy explanations. Instead, you should use as few words as possible allied with helpful gestures. What do you think is clearer to a newbie? “Hi everyone, thank you for coming in. Now if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you can turn to page one in your textbook.” Or “Hi everyone, please open your textbook” with a hand gesture or demonstration of opening the textbook.
Gestures and visual cues are super important and help beginner students understand even if they don’t know the meaning of the words yet. This one tip alone could be a life saver for you when you teach English to complete beginners for the first time.
2. Let your students listen
The first thing most students want to do when learning a new language is to start speaking it. However, before doing this they need to be able to listen and understand you and the language. This means don’t try and teach them the longest words in English right away! Give them time to acclimatize to your English and don’t pressure them in to speaking right away if they don’t want to. Grade your English accordingly and speak slowly and clearly so that everything you say can be understood.
3. Check their understanding
You should never assume that students have understood the lesson content or classroom instructions. To assume is a rookie mistake. For example, in your first lesson with beginners of any age they may feel too embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand something, especially in a group setting. You therefore constantly need to check that they have understood.
Three of the simplest strategies to check for understanding are to see what your students are doing, be aware of their body language and ask if they are okay. The word “Okay?” with an accompanying hand gesture is universally understood and your student’s response will let you know if they need further help. Remember, your students can come from different cultures and not all of them will necessarily be familiar with raising their hand to get your attention.
4. Practice, practice, practice
In EFL and ESL beginner lessons your students won’t pick everything up right away. English beginners require a lot of repetition and drilling in order to learn and this means practicing and repeating the same words and sentences multiple times.
You need to provide students with lots of examples, check their understanding and then have them practice what they have learned. You can then have them do the same with their class mates and practice it all over again in the next lesson. By doing this consistently you will steadily build up your students’ language and before you know it, they will be asking “how are you?” and “how was your weekend?” having sailed past their ABCs.
5. Establish classroom language
We’ve already talked about the importance of speaking slowly and clearly for beginner students. However, this won’t be effective if your language is overly complex. It’s therefore also important to establish consistent, recognizable language in the classroom.
For example, once you have taught your students to ask and respond to “how are you?” and “how was your weekend?”, you can incorporate this into the start of each lesson. This way you help them regularly practice what they have learned.
You can also teach students to use key phrases such as “I don’t understand”, “what does that mean?” or “can you speak more slowly?”. This will greatly aid your communication with them and help the lesson go more smoothly for everyone.
Learning a new language can be daunting for students of any age, so anything that you can do to get students more comfortable is a massive plus.
6. Show and tell
Using visual cues are a vital part of the learning process in any language, let alone in teaching English to beginners. As babies we learn by seeing and hearing and it is just the same when learning a new language. What does this mean? It means that when you’re teaching, rather than just stating an instruction or target language, you need to illustrate it. This can be done in the form of gestures, drawings, illustrations, videos and role-play.
7. Make it interesting
English teaching for beginners doesn’t have to be boring. Nothing is duller for you and your students than just making them read from a text book and fill out worksheets. By injecting some variation into your lessons by using role-play, games and watching video clips your students will be a lot more engaged. This is particularly important when teaching children, many of whom will be English beginners. Preparation is therefore key here. If their level has improved enough you could even get them to write some short stories. Narrative writing prompts can be particularly useful to encourage this.
8. Prepare well
The old phrase ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’ certainly holds true in English teaching. If you want to deliver a good lesson to your students you need to prepare it well and plan for any eventualities.
Even though teaching English to beginners means repeating the same language, it doesn’t necessarily mean repeating the same activities. Different types of students will respond better to different resources. You need to be ready to adapt and teach according to the needs of your students. Don’t forget, you can’t rely upon having in-depth conversations to keep things going at this level like you can when teaching English to advance level students, so the onus is on you to keep the lesson flowing.
9. Encourage them to read
Even complete beginners can learn English from reading and it is one of the core skills of language learning. You should try to find suitable material for your students’ age and comprehension level and encourage them to read as much as you can. This may be as simple as getting them to use a dictionary to look up the translations for words, or trying to follow the English subtitles on their favorite TV show.
Just make sure that you have a good understanding of their English level to begin with, as you don’t want to assign something too difficult. This will lead to frustration with the student when ideally you want it to be something that they enjoy.
10. Give praise
Providing positive reinforcement is one of the key elements required to successfully teach English to beginners. By giving praise when a student gets something right you give them confidence to speak again or attempt another sentence. This helps them learn and is much better than saying “that’s wrong” if a student makes a mistake.
If a student does give an incorrect answer, it is better to make a note of it and then have the class practice again together. By doing this you won’t embarrass the student in front of their class mates and everyone will get the opportunity for more practice. A positive classroom is a happy classroom, if you can foster this it will help both you and your students
11. Remember your students are fluent in their own language
After all is said and done, you should always remember that your students have their own language. This means that they might have different ways of communicating their ideas or use specific patterns of speech that make them more prone to making mistakes in English. As teachers, we need to be aware of this and listen carefully and patiently as they go through the learning process. The objective is to help them to learn and use the English language correctly. We should therefore encourage them to speak it all times whilst in class, and try to avoid them using their own language as much as possible.
Teaching English to beginners: Some final thoughts
Teaching English to beginners may seem difficult at first, and there is no doubt that it can be one of the hardest levels to teach, but if you persevere it can be incredibly satisfying.
When you teach your students to speak English, you are also helping to set them up for success in other areas of their life. Seeing your students start from nothing to going on to hold full conversations is very rewarding and a great reason to get into teaching.
Ready to start teaching English? Check out our ultimate guide to online English teaching jobs.
And, if you feel that you still need guidance and haven’t taken a TEFL course yet, doing so will give you the skills you need to teach English to students of any level and age group. Find a TEFL course here!