Published 21st March 2018

English language learners are classified into levels according to their English proficiency. These levels are described by the Common European Framework or Reference (or CEFR) and range from Basic (Beginner) to Proficient (Advanced and Proficiency). Each level has its challenges and rewards, and teachers often prefer one to the other – though this can sometimes be as a result of inexperience rather than preference.

These levels are not clear-cut either and this can cause difficulties. Learners have strengths in different skills and no learner is the same, regardless of if they have been given the same CEFR label. This can be tough for the EFL teacher who must learn to balance the needs of their learners to ensure their lessons cater for all their different needs.

Two types of learners which surely cause the most confusion and anxieties on the part of the teacher is that of the absolute beginner and the false beginner.

What is an absolute beginner EFL student?

An absolute beginner is a student who has zero knowledge of English. They cannot be expected to be able to understand even the most common English phrases, such as How are you?  They have had no contact with or exposure to English before attending your classes. Absolute beginners are often from developing countries, rural areas or are uneducated, which further adds to the challenge.

How can you teach an absolute beginner?

  • Absolute beginners need to start slowly. Even the most simple English phrases can incorporate numerous vocabulary items and grammatical concepts so it is best to start with simple sentences, such as Hello, I am Tracy.
  • Repetition is key at this level in order to consolidate the language and encourage memorisation. You may feel this is too much rote learning but at this stage you want your learners to feel comfortable with the language and often phrases at this level lend themselves to repetition.
  • Use visuals and gestures. Try to include actions and images in your lessons as much as possible to teach the language as this will provide a bridge between the learner’s language and English.
  • Teach classroom language. Take some time to teach language that is commonly used in the classroom, such as Listen, Repeat and Match.

What is a false beginner EFL student?

A false beginner student is a student who has already taken part in English language lessons at some point in the life. They did not progress very far in these lessons and their English skills are severely limited. However, they are familiar with certain English phrases or aspects of the language as they have been exposed to the language to a certain extent.

How can you teach a false beginner?

  • Build on what they know. Before tackling a topic or a linguistic concept, find out what your students know so you don’t waste time teaching them what they do know and can use their knowledge to expand their English skills.
  • Don’t assume anything. False beginners may come across as quite knowledgeable about English (for a beginner) but there are probably holes in their knowledge which will cause problems later on if they are not dealt with. Use introductory activities to assess their knowledge and abilities before jumping in to your lessons.
  • Use familiar topics. Start by focusing on topics you know your students are familiar with. Topics like greetings, going to a restaurant and talking about family are probably familiar to your students, which means they will feel comfortable trying to talk about them.

Absolute beginners are quite a rarity these days in the EFL classroom but not unheard of; false beginners are quite common. If you find yourself in either of these teaching situations, bear these tips in mind and soon your students will be out of the beginner stages.