Published 14th July 2020
As a teacher who teaches English as a Foreign Language you can never be sure who you are going to be teaching. You could find yourself teaching Young Learners or teens or adults, students or CEOs or doctors, Chinese students or Iranian students or Brazilian students, Beginners or Intermediate learners or Advanced learners. It really is a lucky packet and we need to be prepared for all situations. Today we’re going to focus on a learner which is often the most dreaded of EFL students: the Beginner student. So here are our top tips for teaching English to beginner EFL students.
If you’re not sure what classifies a student as Beginner (or any other level), then take a moment to familiarize yourself with the CEFR. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a rating system used to ascertain what level of proficiency a learner has in a language – in any language, not just English. For each level, there are specifics regarding what the learner can and can’t do in terms of their grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and fluency. Because of these guidelines, we are able to classify our learner by their level and assign them to the correct class.
Top Tips for Teaching English to Beginner EFL Students
Being in the correct level is important for a learner. If a lesson is too far above a learner’s level, they will understand too little to take anything in. They will not only be lost but they will feel demotivated as well. If a lesson is too easy for a learner, they will be bored because they won’t be learning anything new. Knowing a learner’s level allows us to prepare appropriate lessons for our learners, with appropriate materials, so that our lessons will be effective. They are also a handy tool which can be used by more inexperienced teachers to know what language structures their students should already know and which they are ready to learn.
The difficulty comes in when our learners are at Beginner level, when they are at the beginning of their language learning journey, when they have so much to learn. How on earth do we teach Beginner learners, especially if we don’t speak their language?
What is a Beginner learner?
According to the CEFR, a Beginner learner should be learning only essential vocabulary. This is usually related to family, household objects, place names and basic adjectives. They should be familiar with basic personal pronouns and should be able to construct simple sentences and ask simple questions. They will speak slowly, with hesitations and false starts, and their pronunciation might be affected a lot by their first language.
Bear in mind that these days there are very few learners who fall under the Absolute Beginner category. Absolute or Zero Beginners know, well, absolutely no English. Because of the day and age we live in, it is highly unlikely that any of your learners would have had zero exposure to English or would know no words in English. At the same time, there are many students that fall under the False Beginner category. This is a student who seems to know a lot of English but it is a very surface level picked up from the media. In actual fact, they likely know chunks of language rather than being able to independently produce the language themselves.
Translation and the Beginner learner
Considering Beginner learners don’t really understand much of what you are saying, many people think that Beginner learners need translation to learn English. After all, this is how English-speakers usually learn foreign languages. But while translation can be a good tool in the EFL classroom if used effectively, we actually try not to use it as much as possible. Instead we prefer to use the immersion method of teaching, as this has been shown to be a very effective means of language learning.
So if your learners can’t understand you and you don’t use translation, you might be wondering how on earth we can teach them English. Well, here are a few tips to help you feel more comfortable teaching English to Beginners.
Read more: Using translation in the EFL Classroom
Watch your language
This is not what you think! When teaching Beginner learners you need to make sure you grade your language appropriately. This means slowing down your rate of speech, but also choosing your vocabulary and grammar structures carefully. You should speak in short, simple sentences, and use repetition when necessary. You can also use body language to reinforce what you are trying to say.
Repetition, repetition, uh, repetition
With Beginners you will need to take things slowly. Not only with your speaking but with your lesson too. When presenting new language you will need to drill the language so that your learners can learn how to pronounce the word properly; this will also help with retention. Then, you will need to play games and do activities to consolidate the language. Finally, you will need to revisit the language regularly in order to make it stick.
Visuals are everything
Remember that when we teach we have a lot of teaching tools at our disposal. We have whiteboards, flashcards, projectors and books. Images are (for the most part) universal. Because we are teaching lower level vocabulary, it is easy to find visuals which support our target language. If we are teaching cat, it is much easier to explain and understand when taught alongside a picture of a cat. When teaching, find pictures which can solidify the concept you are teaching for your learners, but make sure they are clear and unambiguous.
Don’t forget the realia
We just said that visuals are everything. But what’s even better is realia. Realia are real objects that you bring into the classroom. As before, if you are teaching cat, you can bring a cat into the classroom. With a real object there can be no confusion about the target language you are teaching. Plus, using realia makes the lesson that much memorable for your learners. Okay, so a cat is probably not the best example! But you get the idea.
Keep it learner-centred
It’s beneficial for students of any level to be involved in the lesson, but especially so for Beginner learners. Beginner learners are at an important point in their learning journey. If they are able to take control of their learning, they will grow in confidence and their learning will progress faster than otherwise. Possibly the most important tenet of teaching English as a Foreign Language is that we don’t spoon-feed our learners. We elicit language and ideas from them throughout the lesson, and we try to help them figure things out for themselves.
Get them talking
You might think that Beginner learners can’t speak at all, but that’s very far from the truth. They might not have the language to say what they want to say, but they most certainly have something to say! Your job as the teacher is to provide them with the language and the situation to allow them to speak as best they can. The bottom line for all our learners is communication, so this is what we want to help them to do. Give them tasks which are not too difficult, make sure they are fully prepared, and give them time to think about how they will complete the task.
If all this seems a bit overwhelming, don’t worry! This is why you do a TEFL course! A TEFL course will prepare you to teach any kind of learners. It will teach you how to recognize your learners’ levels and show you how to create lessons best suited to them. Use these tips and you’ll soon be teaching Beginners like a professional! And remember, experience is the best teacher!