Beginning with Beginners: A Guide to Teaching a Beginning English Language Class

Beginning with Beginners: A Guide to Teaching a Beginning English Language Class

Getting Started

If learning a new language can be equated to staving off drowning from a sinking ship, then the first few weeks of study are a matter of grabbing floating debris and fending off shark attacks.

While it’s maybe not that dramatic, it does involve some important decisions. As a teacher, it’s your job to decide what to throw at students and what to keep on the ship. You need to figure out what is most important, what is most easily grasped and what will likely sink them. Most beginning students come and want to hit the ground running – but language is not a track, it’s a sea.

As you advance, the waves seem larger and faster, even though their meaning is often nuanced, merely a delineation of time or a lilt of inflection. Your job is to provide safe passage through the storm and make sure everyone comes out okay. With beginning students the most logical place to start is our island oasis, the verb “to be” in the simple present tense.

The verb “to be” is the sliver into our world. It’s our most common verb, our most versatile verb, the verb that is the touchstone for so much vocabulary accumulation, so much of our sentence structures and descriptions. It’s the flypaper of the English language.

In learning the verb “to be,” students can begin to learn basic questions and descriptions. This will get them speaking from the first day, building language, confidence and camaraderie. To be is also a verb that needs to continually be reintroduced. It has eight forms and it makes sense that it is so varied – it is so widely used and so important – so it makes sense too that this is where one begins learning the language.

Imperatives are also important, as much for survival and safety as for actual language learning. Granted, our current smartphones limit this problem, but if you get lost or need help, being able to describe your situation and understand directions being given is vital. Being lost or in trouble in a foreign country is exacerbated by the inability to communicate. Language, in a panic, often escapes us, so having these certain skills and hardwiring them may avert disasters and ensure safety.

The beauty of having beginning students is that they arrive as a blank canvas and these initial skills can be a toehold into the English world. They can help students gain confidence quickly, in a restaurant or bar or museum, in places where students can meet, interact, snap pictures and display to the world the fruits of their journeys.

More than a Language Class

For beginning students, their language class can be as much about learning the culture as learning the language. Questions and discussions will arise about all the trappings of daily life: tipping etiquette, where to find cheap children’s clothes, the meaning of the basic phrases the teacher is using.

Case in point: during one of my first days teaching, one of my students, on behalf of the class, stopped me and asked me to write down a phrase I kept repeating. I wrote ‘That’s it’ on the board and explained its meaning and context and it was then that I realized that everything, from teaching to even praise, has to be measured and considered. The last thing you want is to forge ahead, leaving students in your wake.

These seemingly innocuous questions can often lead to interesting conversations, something that binds students together and fosters real communication. This also helps students really focus on speaking in original sentences and not prompts from a book or lesson. These moments can often prove invaluable after hours of poring over grammar and syntax and can also teach the teacher a few things.

As more facets of language are introduced and reviewed, the question of correcting comes to the fore. How much do you correct? Everything at risk of wounding the student’s confidence, or less at risk of coddling them?

I think this all comes down to ones style of teaching. I like to make sure that all to almost all of a student’s writing is perfect. Correcting spoken English can be trickier, as accent reduction and language retention are two different classes.

Sounds are largely meaningless if they’re not linked to the word they represent but correcting students’ speaking one by one can be tedious, boring and largely ineffective. Additionally, some people are just naturally more adept at pronunciation than others. For some it can take years, and a massive amount of diligence, to begin to perfect an accent. If a student is in the country for an extended stay the teacher has to, case by case, figure out which is more pressing: vocabulary or pronunciation.

What is mastered one day can often be forgotten the next. The ideal class starts low and slow and reviews constantly. It’s like shading with a pencil on a piece of paper. You start light and pass over the same areas over and over, slowly making the shadow darker and larger.

With a new class, it’s common for certain students to outpace others. Study habits, living situations and native language similarities can all be factors. When there becomes a clear division or gradation within the class it’s best to try to pair the lowest student(s) with the highest student(s).

This works two-fold. It helps the higher student reinforce knowledge while teaching and it gives the lower student the attention they need that a single teacher can’t provide in a large class. It also frees up you, the teacher, to monitor the rest of the class accordingly and not have to focus all of your time on one or two students.

Beginning students have to be handled with a little more care than high level or TOEFL students. Their task is more daunting and their time in America is likely more confusing. They cannot jump into our culture and they cannot sit back and relax to our TV or movies. Each step has to be slow and deliberate and you sometimes need to hold the lowest students’ hands and lead them along. You must always review and find ways to challenge the higher students while also addressing the lower students.

It’s possible that teachers teaching lower level classes have more to manage – a higher language disparity within the class and a lower ability to communicate with students – but there’s something truly unique and rewarding about giving someone the gift of language and watching it develop.

With beginning students this process is clearly evident. It is a kind of modern magic to see four students, who speak four different native languages and came to America speaking almost no English, have a conversation in English about how a few weeks prior they were still at home planning their trips and saying their goodbyes.