Top tips for teaching beginners

Teaching beginners has been one of the great joys of my life. Walking alongside a new reader, a new speaker is an enormous privilege, watching the world expand, opportunities appear and confidence grow. One student, feeling emotional one day, said, “You have changed my life.” And I realised in this instance, it was not an exaggeration, it was true.  So where do you begin?

Who?

Beginners are all different. They may be fluent English speakers but unable to read and write or they may not be able to speak at all. They may be able to read and write fluently in their own language or have never been to school. They may be able to read a language that uses the Roman-script or

of all the variables. They may have learnt one script or many, one other language or many. They may have learnt a language formally before and be familiar with the metalanguage (teacher talk, such as verb, sentence, full stop) of language learning or picked up the language from a host community. They may be extrovert or shy, have cultural expectations of the role of teachers and learners… And so on, and so on…

What?

  • Create a safe learning environment. A friendly, relaxed atmosphere is the most effective way to facilitate learning.
  • Start oral. All the research shows that beginners need to listen first, then speak and only then begin to read and write – just as a baby does. The most effective order is the same. In a class, expectations may be different, but make sure the focus is always on speaking. If the students don’t know the words, they cannot read them and writing is just an exercise in copying. Don’t worry if students don’t understand every word – the exposure to language helps anyway.
  • Recycle, recycle, recycle. We all need time and motivation to ensure that language moves to our deep memory. “I taught colours this morning” doesn’t mean that  our students have learnt them. Use the same language in different contexts.
  • Getting personal. Start with the daily life and loves of your learners. Let them talk about themselves and their own lives. Use your own life – decide where you are comfortable with your boundaries – and the lives of your students as the primary resource.
  • Need to know. Language we need is language that we remember. Phrases and “chunks” of language that the learners can take straight out into their daily lives are invaluable. I can still remember and use the phrases I learnt in our first two-week “Survival Nepalese” course, because I needed them for my daily life. The ‘need-to-know’ language keeps changing: keep revisiting the rationale for what you are teaching.
  • Classroom language.  Make sure the learners understand key phrases and vocabulary so that they can relax into the tasks and focus on the language they need to learn – teach those “ chunks”
  • Teach themes. Rather than teaching grammar, take a topic, and let the language emerge from the context.

How?

  • The language experience approach – the teacher and learner together talk about a personal experience – or a photo- and negotiate a text together; the teacher writes down the exact words so they produce their own authentic text. The teacher reads it back, they then read it together and then the student recites the text. The text can then be cut into sentences to consolidate. This uses memory and reading skills combine.  Click here for an online example of this.
  • Use “realia”  – real stuff and keep it visual.   Take in your mouldy vegetables, your ripped clothes, your photographs and exploit the language potential of pictures and objects.
  • Use games  – make it fun. Language Acquisition theory tells us that you learn best when you are relaxed. But do think about the rationale for the game. Games are not all equally useful. Think about the time taken, the amount of language that they involve, the amount of preparation needed, the reusability, the complexity of the instructions etc.
  • Technology – use the resources you have. Think about how you can use mobile phones. Use the internet to access resources, photos, lesson plans, listening and video clips.
  • Keep it social – a class with strong social networks is more effective than a class of separate individuals. Don’t underestimate the value of class cohesion and personal relationships. Build confidence – for many learners the most important byproduct of learning English is an increase in self-confidence and reduced stress. Encourage students to have a go, and make mistakes an accepted part of learning. Smile and praise.
  • Keep it simple – keep your instructions short; repeat words and listening clips much more often than you think necessary, don’t overload the lesson, demonstrate don’t tell, using gestures and mime –but…..
  • Don’t patronise – a beginner learner is not a beginner thinker. Respect what they do know.

When?

  • Little and often is always the most effective, rather than a blitz once a week. If you have students coming to class once a week, encourage them to speak outside class and to find ways to practise what they have learnt.
  • Now! Start now and enjoy the journey I have revelled in for the past “n” years – where “n” is a very large number.

Why?

  • Because you can! Giving someone the gift of speech or literacy really does change lives.

Because it is enjoyable! Challenging at times too, but so rewarding!

 

One thought – my closest friend in Nepal was illiterate for most of her life. One day she was given a tract. Giving a tract to an illiterate, Hindu farmer may not seem like a good evangelistic strategy. However, she was so touched that someone thought she was worthy to be given something to read that she decided to enrol in an adult literacy class. When she could read her own language, she went back to the tract, read it and became a Christian. What does this tell us about our outreach possibilities? … and our amazing God.