Ever had a student who can quote any episode of “How I Met Your Mother” but can’t conjugate irregular verbs?
How about a student who can send text messages in English but clams up when it’s time to speak?
In theory, it should be easy to tell what level of English your ESL students have. But in practice, that’s not always the case.
Especially now that so many students are being exposed to English through music, television, films and video games, English teachers often find themselves facing classes that just can’t be placed into traditional categories or levels.
That’s where the term “false beginner” comes in handy.
How to Diagnose False Beginner Students
A “true beginner” is a student who has never studied any English before. This student will come into your classroom with little more than, “Hi, my name is…” if that!
A “false beginner,” on the other hand, is someone who lacks the skills to be considered an intermediate learner but still has some English skills under his or her belt.
But how can you tell who’s a true beginner, who’s an intermediate learner and who’s a false beginner?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself about the student in question:
What are his or her sentence construction abilities?
a. Completely unable to form a sentence in English
b. Able to form a coherent sentence in English
c. Able to use English words to make a sentence, but the sentence isn’t grammatically correct
What’s the state of his or her English vocabulary?
a. Little to no English vocabulary
b. A fairly good grasp of English vocabulary
c. Some English vocabulary, but only in certain categories/related to certain subjects
How would you describe his or her command of English grammar?
a. Basic or nonexistent
c. Good in some areas, but nonexistent in others
If you answered mostly “a,” you probably have a true beginner. Mostly “b” would indicate an intermediate learner. Mostly “c,” and now we’re looking at a false beginner.
Of course, it’s important to remember that each case is different. A false beginner may have a great command of vocabulary and no grammar skills at all, or a complete inability to speak English but some writing competency, depending on how his or her English skills were acquired.
In the past, most false beginners were people who had started English learning, for example in a class setting, and had abandoned their learning for whatever reason. Often, these people had read in English and therefore did fairly well on written exams but were unable or unwilling to speak in the classroom.
Today, false beginners are more often people who’ve spent a lot of time listening to English via music, television, movies or video games, but have had very little formal English training.
This usually results in a student who has a pretty good grasp of vocabulary and even some idiomatic expressions but may get confused when it comes to grammar, forming sentences like “I didn’t knew” or “I speak English good.”
Knowing how many of your students are false beginners and how many are true beginners is essential to ensuring that you work with your class efficiently, so take the time to understand just how much English knowledge your students have before setting your syllabus for the year.
How to Teach False Beginner ESL Students Successfully
It would certainly make educators’ lives easier to have false beginners in one classroom and true beginners in another, but realistically, that’s difficult to accomplish. Besides, false beginners and true beginners do share many of the same learning goals, particularly in the grammar department. Placement tests will often group false beginners with true beginners.
However, with both true and false beginners in the same classroom, some problems can arise.
True beginners can feel eclipsed by false beginners, who may have a better ability to express themselves and therefore more confidence participating in class. Meanwhile, false beginners may get bored when you’re covering material that they feel they’ve mastered (even if this isn’t the case).
Once you’ve sussed out what percentage of your class is false beginners and what percentage is true beginners, there are a few ways that you can handle this situation.
1. Call On Students at Random
This is a good policy no matter what class you’re teaching: it encourages shy students to speak and keeps people from not paying attention or dozing off—if they know that they could be called on at any moment, they know they need to listen!
Plus, false beginners are more likely to have their hands raised first, which means your true beginners might end up feeling anxious or overwhelmed by competition.
Let students know on the first day of class that you don’t call on people with their hands raised, but rather designate students at random to respond to a given question. You can either announce this or just make it known by doing it from the very beginning. It’s up to you.
Because you’re the one calling the shots, you can choose to call on true beginners and false beginners based on the difficulty of the question. For example, you can give your true beginners a chance to work out an answer before calling on false beginners. Or, say you’re asking students to finish the following sentence:
On weekends, I like to…
You might call on a false beginner or two to get the ball rolling, as these students generally have more vocabulary at their disposal. They’ll get the opportunity to put their working knowledge of English to use, while your true beginners will have time to get a handle on the exercise and prepare to chime in when you do call on them.
2. Pair Up False Beginners with One Another
Pair work is a great tool to ensure that your true beginners aren’t feeling overshadowed and your false beginners are feeling challenged.
Just as you get to decide who’ll answer what question, you can also decide who’ll be paired off with whom for pair work exercises.
The benefit for false beginners is that you can pair them with other students who also have some knowledge of English—although their particular skill sets might differ—and they can work together to apply what they know and build on their existing competencies.
Meanwhile, paired up true beginners won’t be tempted to hide in the shadow of a partner who seemingly speaks much better than he or she does.
3. Don’t Let False Beginners Fly on Charisma
Because false beginners already have a relatively firm grasp of English, it can be tempting to let certain mistakes slide. After all, they’re speaking in full sentences, whereas your true beginners are only getting out a handful of words. Who cares if a false beginner keeps dropping articles?
In reality, that’s all the more reason to ensure that you’re attentively correcting your false beginners (as long as it’s on a topic you’ve covered in class)!
False beginners should, of course, be lauded when they get something right. But just because you understand what they’ve said doesn’t mean they’ve said it properly. It’s important to correct them so that they can improve, not just skate by on what they already know.
4. Choose Exercises That Can Be Helpful for Everyone
Choosing the right grammar exercises to help everyone in your class can feel like a struggle, but it doesn’t have to be—especially when it comes to worksheets.
With worksheets, you can easily identify the holes in your false beginners’ educations and work toward filling them. One great way to do this is with a verb tense gap-fill exercise, which you can use after you’ve taught a few English verb tenses.
You can create your own, but there are many effective ones available online (check out the iSLCollective’s stockpile to get started).
The worksheet responses will help you home in on where your false beginners’ knowledge drops off. And with students filling out the worksheets individually, true beginners can feel more at ease venturing answers. You may even discover that they know more than you thought they did.
Guided dialogues are also great for harnessing your false beginners’ familiarity with English communication, and using it to boost everyone’s skills and confidence in a low-stakes environment. Give students a scenario using recently learned vocabulary (for example, if you’ve just done a unit on food, have students act out a grocery store scene).
Give students set phrases to use over the course of the dialogue and allow them to make up a scene using these phrases. The dialogue will gain momentum given the speaking skills of your false beginners, but true beginners will also reap the benefits of informal speaking practice with their peers.
5. Put a Spotlight on Grammar
False beginners come in all shapes and sizes, but for the most part, they have a fairly firm grasp on vocabulary and not all that much grammar to back it up. They have a tendency to string words together to make a sentence that’s comprehensible and yet isn’t an utterance any native English speaker would ever make.
To correct this, it’s important to:
- Identify the gaps in your false beginners’ knowledge of grammar. These often include irregular past tense verbs, subject-verb agreement and preposition use.
- Correct incorrect usage, as needed. Do so kindly, and if you find yourself needing to correct the same problem over and over again, give the student an opportunity to correct his or herself. For example, before identifying the mistake, ask, “sorry, can you say that again?”
- Supplement coursework with additional exercises, as needed. When you’ve identified gaps in your false beginners’ knowledge, consider whether they’ll be addressed by your curriculum or whether additional materials will help balance things out.
6. Don’t Forget the Quiet False Beginners
For false beginners who’ve done a lot of reading and writing in English but not much speaking, oral communication and pronunciation can be a major stumbling block. This is getting rarer in ESL classrooms, but it’s still an issue, especially with some adult learners.
Unlike false beginners who picked up English from movies or music, false beginners who can read and write fairly well are often reticent about speaking. They’re in a unique position because they may be able to form coherent thoughts but have trouble expressing those thoughts to the people around them.
When you notice that you have one of these learners in your classroom, stroke their ego a bit to encourage them to speak, and always highlight a correct answer before making a pronunciation correction. For example: “That’s right, Alice! Now, how do we pronounce this word (write it on the board) in English?”
The goal here is to make sure they don’t lose confidence in the skills they already have once they enter the classroom. Instead, show them that speaking and pronunciation practice is their next step in building on those skills.
Balancing false and true beginners in a classroom can feel like a handful, but when approached in the right way, it’s actually a very enriching experience for all involved.
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