Teaching beginners can be one of the hardest groups to teach in an English class. However, they can also be one of the most rewarding. Seeing the students come to terms with a grammar point or English vocabulary terms can be a great moment in the classroom for everyone.
Unlike many other levels, you will find that you have to prepare and outline every tiny detail of the lesson. ESL experts will say you should prepare for every class no matter what. Almost said with a harumph at the end for good measure.
Sure, we all prepare all our classes, right? <cough cough>
But with for a class filled with absolute beginners, you will absolutely need to prepare every single moment in the class.
You could be in a class where they all share the same language—and then you have the issue of students trying to help each other. Or they could be a class of all different languages — and all staring back at you completely lost.
Apart from preparation, there are some key things to remember when teaching an English beginner class.
I have outlined 17 things you should bear in mind before entering the class.
Read on. And find out what they are.
Drill, Drill and Drill Again
This is something you will have to come to terms with when teaching beginners.
Get into the habit of drilling them on every single thing you teach them. This means endless repetition and going over the same points again and again and again and again.
There is no escape from this. You just have to do it.
Bear in mind that the students are trying to come to terms with all the weird sounds of the English language. None of it makes any sense and when they repeat a word back to you they think it sounds exactly as you said it. Then they get frustrated because you might shake your head at them.
If you have never dealt with an absolute beginner class before all the endless repetition will probably drive you mad. After a whole class, you may be screaming inside your head.
Doesn’t matter — next time you will have to do all the same repetition again.
The difficulty in doing these activities is trying to get the students to understand the rules and procedure of each activity. You just have to mime it out. Eventually, they will get it. Once they have learned the rules once, you’re golden.
A great drilling activity to do with beginners is back-chaining. This can work great with beginners.
It is very easy to do. You just take a sentence you are trying to get the students to recite back to you and do it all backwards.
So maybe you are teaching them the following sentence:
I go to school by bus
Then you get the students to recite:
School by bus
To school by bus
Go to school by bus
I go to school by bus
Try it. It works a treat.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
Our old reliable friend — the KISS technique. You can use this in pretty much every ESL class but in a beginner class, you must use it.
Start with the very basics. Go over that again and again. And make sure they have grasped that before moving on to anything more challenging.
I can’t really add anything to this point.
But use this principle all the time in your beginner class.
This segues nicely to…
Make All Your Instructions Crystal Clear
That means getting rid of any extraneous language — you only say exactly what you want the students to do.
So maybe you want all the students to stand at the front of the class in a line. The last thing you should do is start mumbling something like:
So everyone, what I would like you to do, if you don’t mind, is to come to the front, please, if it’s not too much trouble, thank you so much, yeah, that’s right, just, yeah, you, and you, all of you in fact, right up here…
It will take them ages to figure out what you are asking them to do.
You have to be much more direct than that.
So you could say:
You (pointing to all the class)
Front (pointing to the front of the class)
Now (nod head enthusiastically)
This is no time for pleasantries and social etiquette. You can do away with all the please, thank you’s and do you mind’s.
Direct language that they can all understand.
Better for them. Better for you.
And that brings us neatly to…
Don’t Use any High-Falutin’ Technical Terms
This means that you never mention terms like past simple, future perfect, imperfect pronoun or progressive umlaut (some of those I made up). The students have zero idea what these things mean and it doesn’t help them in the slightest.
It is a waste of everyone’s time for you to stand at the front and say:
Okay, so today we are going to learn all about prepositions of place. That’s right. Say it after me: pre-po-si-tions-of-place.
The students will all just stare back at you wondering what you are going on about.
No need to explain your terms. Just dive in and show them what prepositions of place are and how to use them.
And that takes us squarely to…
Show, Don’t Tell
When teaching beginners it is always much better to show rather than tell. By this I mean don’t make the students read out dialogues and conversations. This is telling.
Instead, get them to show you how to do it by acting out the dialogue in front of you and the rest of the class.
The main skill beginner students need to learn first is speaking. This improves their confidence and they will soon start speaking English and having small exchanges with you and the other students without thinking about what they are saying.
Get them to this point fast by using show don’t tell.
Never Ask Them If They Understand
Because they will all just nod their heads and say yes.
It’s a complete waste of time.
But you can do this…
Do Regular Checks for Understanding
You can check that the students have understood a vocabulary or grammar point by using exercises and activities. Then they have to show you that they understand.
This also makes the class more engaging and fun.
Never do old-school classroom exercises like paper tests or anything like that. And never just repeat the same old lesson again — the students will complain.
Do all revision and checks for understanding via new exercises and activities.
Students are Not Stupid!
This is a very easy assumption to make. I have had moments like this. Faced with a sea of beginners and me repeating the same phrase for the thousandth time and none of the students able to say it back to me correctly.
It is too simple to just assume that the students are stupid. They’re not. They are fluent in their own language; they have brains and can think about a variety of different subjects.
They were not raised by wolves far out in the middle of some unknown forest. Then discovered and brought to civilisation and dumped in your English class.
Remind yourself of this from time to time.
Use Lots of Pictures
For beginners, they need pictures to make a connection with the language. They need a reference point between the vocabulary and the actual object or action it signifies.
So please use pictures. Use video too. This always works well in any ESL class so just source any pictures you can find online and use them in your classes.
Kids usually prefer cartoons. But for adults use photographs. No need to treat them like children.
Use Realia and Real-Life Context
Use lots of real objects and this can also create a link between the language and the real world.
This is easy to do. I wrote about it at length here. Real objects create context to the real world and the students will find it easier to remember the vocabulary.
You can also go outside the classroom and have field trips. Remember when your teacher did this at school? But for beginners, this is a great way to learn English in a real-life context.
A trip to the supermarket or a walk around the park — they can see and hear the English language being used as it is supposed to be used in real life.
Let Them Listen to You
In the early stages, beginners may be reluctant to speak at all. They don’t know how to form the words or phrases yet so they need to listen more than speaking.
So let them listen to you.
That means no rambling on and on. You must use clear language and simple sentences. You will have to repeat words and phrases ad nauseum but this is essential in the early stages with beginners.
Preparation is Everything
And as I said at the beginning, prepare every single moment you are in the class. You can’t just make one activity drag on for twenty minutes. Change exercises and activities frequently. It is unfair to make the students do the same thing for the entire class. They lack the right level of English required, so it is better to change things up and keep them busy.
I would say for beginners you will need to prepare to a much greater degree than with other classes. I have had classes with students just learning speaking or conversation and all I needed was a few topics that I could write on the board.
You can’t do this with a beginner class. Everything has to be planned with military precision.
Make Them Talk to Each Other
You can do lots of pair work or group work so they are talking to each other. They are using the English language and communicating with each other.
They will feel more confident about themselves and that is half the battle.
Get them talking to each other. Even if it is just very simple question-and-response language.
Give Them Plenty of Practice
Beginners need as much chance as they can get to practice. Once they leave the class, they may not practice so much, so make them do as much as they can while they are with you.
This could mean dialogues, a very simple role play and of course, drilling drilling drilling…
Once they get to the stage beyond just listening to you, make them practice as much as possible. You need to reach a point where they are speaking — or at least doing an exercise — more than you are talking.
Encourage Them at Every Opportunity
Beginners feel incredibly vulnerable. They have no confidence in what they are doing so you have to encourage them at every stage in the game.
Never use any negative expressions — never say to them: You did that wrong.
Always give them positive feedback.
Make the Class Fun!
For beginners, a fun English class is a successful English class.
Make sure there are lots of activities in each lesson. This creates a sense of fun and the students will openly take part.
I wrote about using warm-up exercises and icebreakers here. These exercises can be useful in a beginner class.
And the key thing is to be patient and wait for them to catch up.
It will drive you mad as you repeat the same word or phrase for the millionth time but you have to smile and be patient towards them.
Don’t rush them and never show any sign of frustration.
They will catch up eventually. You just have to repeat, repeat and wait for them.
A few key things to think about when teaching beginners.
The main takeaways are:
Drilling — you have to go over and over and over the same word or phrase again and again and again.
Preparation — prepare everything to the exact second.
Fun — make it fun and they will forget they are studying and just start doing the exercise.
Patience — wait for them and keep smiling.
Beginners can be a tough crowd. But if you can follow all the steps above you may find that beginner classes could be the most rewarding classes you have.