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Teaching Absolute Beginners

I have a class before me. They are young, between five and seven, and are all looking at me with a mixture of curiosity and expectancy. And I know that when I open my mouth to speak, they will understand nothing.

Teaching absolute beginners can be nerve-wracking, especially the first few classes. What follows in this article is information about teaching children who are absolute beginners, based on my experience. I hope the information will be of use to anyone teaching children’s absolute beginner classes for the first time, whether they are an experienced teacher or not.

The first obvious hurdle to overcome is comprehension. Your students, if they are learning English elsewhere as well, may know a few words. Many can probably name a few foods and colours. But there is little chance they will understand even your most simple sentence.

The best method to surmount this problem is to show your students, rather than tell them. Use your body. Demonstrate anything you can. Use posters and photos. Draw pictures on the board. The students will gather your meaning. At this level, general comprehension is more important than word-for-word understanding.

You might have a teaching assistant, a local teacher who can translate. Use them only when absolutely necessary. Rely on them early, and your students will get used to having the translations, rather than figuring out the meaning for themselves.

The second problem will be speed. Invariably your students will learn at different speeds from each other. Some will find English easy; others difficult.

The solution is to start off at a snail’s pace. Give praise to someone who can go beyond what you have taught, but also to those who use only what you have taught. I’ve always preferred to start off with the sentences “My name is” and then “What’s your name?”. This might take an entire lesson (or two, depending on length), but your students will feel able to “talk” in English early on, giving them confidence in their abilities. Also, it gives the teacher the opportunity to learning the students’ names easily.

Because your students are absolute beginners, they will not understand you when you ask them to “sit down”. Therefore, it is a good idea to do a “classroom instructions” lesson early on. Key phrases such as “be quiet”, “sit down”, “stand up” and “stop” will help you maintain control of your students in the lessons to come. What’s more, the kids love the movement involved in practicing responding to these phrases.

When teaching absolute beginners, a simple class structure will work. For example, perhaps you wish to teach “What’s your favourite food?” and the response “I like apples”.

One straightforward (but by no means the only) method is to start off with the simplest part. In this instance, that would be the names of foods. They are easy to teach with pictures, and there are plenty of games that can be used to practice food names. From there, move on to “I like apples.” Practice with lots of examples of foods, then let the students choose their own food to use in the sentence. If you like, do an action with each food. For example, pretend to munch into an apple, or peel a banana. The students will like doing them too, and it will help them remember the English more easily.

The next thing to learn in this example will be “What’s your favourite food?”. This will be the most difficult part of this lesson for the students, but at least by now they will probably understand what they are asking. Have the students ask each other the question, so they can practice both the question and the answer. At the end of the lesson, play a game to reinforce all the language covered in this lesson.

Because your students are young, they will thrive in a (loosely) structured class. Start off and finish the class in similar ways every lesson; the students will know what to expect, and feel more confident about coming to class. Also, keep the main sections of the lesson roughly the same, but vary activities and games to keep your students interested and alert.

Beginner classes are often particularly eager to learn at the beginning. Naturally, their motivation will start to wear off after time. One way to counter this is to keep the lessons as relevant to the children’s lives as possible. For example, don’t teach them the question “What’s your job?”. It is one they probably won’t use for the next ten to fifteen years. Instead, teach “Where do you go to school?” and “What do you like to do?” or similar.

Your ability to teach children’s absolute beginner classes will largely depend on your willingness to make a fool of yourself. There is often no other way to get around comprehension difficulties. But there is added benefit in that your students will join in, and help make the lessons lively and interesting. When moving and enjoying themselves they are most likely to remember the target language.

With any luck the information above will help you with teaching your beginners class. Have fun, and I’m sure your students will, too.

Written by Michael Curry for TEFL.net April 2005
Michael Curry is a New Zealand-born oral English teacher in Anhui Province, China. He also works part time as a freelance writer. You can contact him on: michaelandtanzy[at]orcon.net.nz

3 Comments

  • fisti says:

    What about teaching a group of absolute beginner teenagers whose L1 doesn’t use roman alphabets and they have next to none knowledge of English language learning? Is there anyone who has the same experience? I found it really challenging.

  • Joanne Gillespie says:

    I’ve just started with a large group of pre-schoolers (28 in class), and have them for two hours at a time, three times a week. After having taught adults for the last ten years, I am floundering. Your article is concise, and very helpful. Thank you!

  • lamia says:

    i have been teaching absolute beginners for 3 years and still suffer from some problems.
    i got much support from your article thank you very much

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Teacher Technique : Teaching Absolute Beginners