You’re running a little late for your first ESL class.
When you enter the room, you find it filled with unknown people waiting for you at their desks.
They may be chatting among themselves and slowly hush.
They may not share a language and you’re faced with a general silence.
You smile and say “Good morning.”
No one has understood a word you’ve said, and you’ve only said two words!
You’ve got a class of absolute beginners.
The Challenge of Teaching English from 0
In today’s technologically-overrun world, English content is available to anyone with access to a smartphone, tablet or computer. Even so, there are still people who have had little to no contact with English, either in formal class study or in everyday life.
If you add to this zero-level English background the fact that you don’t share your students’ native language, or that there are multiple native languages in the classroom, you’re seemingly in a tight spot.
How are you going to teach language if you can’t communicate with your students?
Well, not all is lost. Comfort yourself knowing that you’re not the first ESL/EFL teacher who has had to face this challenge. That’s where it’s really exciting for you—teaching absolute beginners is a challenge, but it’s one that will certainly enrich your experience as an English teacher.
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When Will You Meet Absolute English Beginners?
There are many situations in which you may find yourself teaching absolute beginners:
- Children who have moved to an English-speaking country with their family.
- Very young children who have been signed up for their first English class.
- Adults who have studied a second language other than English, mandated by the school system in their country.
- Anyone with limited access to modern technology.
The Basics of Teaching English from 0
No matter what the demographic in your classroom, there are some basics to keep in mind that will help you to jump-start those students.
Your goal? Get them saying and believing: “I speak English well.”
These basics fall into four main categories: Physical language, mental language, spoken language and finally, shared language.
In each, we’ll see some common denominators between native language and English. We’ll also look at how to take advantage of each of these types of language to get the ball rolling and to build upon for ever-increasing proficiency in English.
A simple exercise or activity is included in each category. You can expand upon each one according to your own objectives and plans for your absolute beginner English class.
Teaching English from 0: How to Give Absolute Beginners a Jumpstart
1. Physical Language
Our earliest communication is the non-verbal language our mothers and fathers and siblings understand.
Babies and very young children use gestures and facial expressions to communicate. You can do the same with your beginning students to demonstrate that communication is possible, even when words fail.
How To: Use Gestures Before Words
Imagine you’re in a world where speaking is a privilege earned, and people must otherwise be totally quiet.
Before you “burden” your class with oral commands like “wait,” “quiet down please” and “open your books,” spend a couple of days only using gestures.
You can easily establish gestures to signify basic classroom behaviors:
- An open palm pushed slightly forward means “wait.”
- Fingers to lips means “quiet down.”
- Opening an imaginary book.
- Writing on an imaginary sheet of paper.
After those days of silent instructions, begin to use the words when you gesture. Don’t worry about explicitly teaching the vocabulary or even the utterances you use, just make the gesture and say the instructions. Your students will rapidly connect the dots.
Similarly, you can try this next game in the first few classes.
Activity: The mime game
- Situation flashcards
- Short videos of common, everyday situations
- A little bell to ring
While it may seem counterproductive in a language class, this entire activity should be silent. No words spoken either by the teacher or the students.
This “silent treatment” is like saying “no” to a kid or a husband: It will likely make them want to do just the opposite of that “no,” which is speak out—and that’s exactly what you want them to do!
Now, here’s what to do.
- Show your students a video of an everyday situation, like meeting someone for the first time, without sound.
- Silently highlight the gestures used. Pause the video when each gesture is used and mimic it yourself, for the whole class to see.
- Have your students mime the same situation.
- Play the video with its English dialogue.
- Ring the bell when it’s time to change pairs, and move on to a new everyday situation.
This exercise can be used when introducing any language usage.
To take things a step farther, hand out a situation card to one pair and have the two students mime the interaction in front of the class—the classroom audience will call out their guesses of what’s happening in the silent situation.
For the end of each pair presentation, teach your students the silent applause: Show them your hands up in the air, palms outward and shaking from side to side. Give a round of silent applause when each pair finishes miming!
How To: Combine Body Language with Meaning
Body language is present in all human interactions. Though reading body language is often a case of interpretation based upon the situation and the people in it, everybody uses body language when speaking.
You can use body language to teach many different types of language, for example emotional language like happy, sad, excited, tired, bored, expectant and so on.
For starters, try the “If you’re happy and you know it” song.
Activity: If you’re happy and you know it
- Emotional / physical states flashcards: happy, sad, angry, headache, tummy ache.
- Gesture flashcards: clap hands, rub eyes, stomp feet, rub tummy.
Without the song, pull an emotion card. Mime an appropriate movement.
Sing the line involved, for example:
“If you’re angry and you know it stomp your feet!”
Once students have done the action, stop and move on to the next card.
As can be seen in this version, each of the actions accumulates and is repeated before moving on to the next action.
Activity: Show vs. tell
Your students have to get what they want without opening their mouths. If they can’t say it in English, they can’t tell you or their peers what they’re after.
They’re going to have to show it.
Until students can spontaneously use English to get what they want, you can use this charades-type exercise to get them to focus on the motivations behind what they want to say. This will also be a great warm-up for the “what do you want?” activity described below.
Show, but don’t tell!
- Flashcards of things: a ball, a book, a fishing pole, a cat.
- An egg timer to limit turns to one or two minutes.
Pull one student to the front. Have them choose a flashcard, which only they see.
That student mimes an action with the thing that he wants.
Students raise their hands and the mime calls on them one at a time.
If the guess is correct, that student becomes the mime. If not, the mime calls on the next or continues miming.
If no one guesses before time runs out, you mime the item while repeating its name and encouraging all to also mime and repeat.
Keep this activity agile by limiting the time for mime and answer to just a minute or two.
How To: Use Total Physical Response (TPR)
TPR seems to be the latest fashion in language teaching methods. Generally, behind the method is the valid idea that connecting language with related physical movement helps both in understanding and acquiring that language.
With appropriate training, you might be able to base your entire teaching method on TPR.
However, for teachers who have a busy objectives list, you can skim the cream from TPR and combine it with other techniques.
Along those lines, then, here’s a fun variation on the well-known “Simon Says” game:
Activity: Simon doesn’t say
- Active verb flashcards: jump, sit, walk, laugh, clap.
- Several red “silent” cards mixed into the deck.
Pull a card from the stack and say “Simon says eat!” Everyone should eat.
Continue until you come to a “silent” card. The next card you won’t say, but rather mime.
Students must shout out the word that represents the action.
An alternative is to put students in a circle and have each one, in turn, act out what Simon Says. When the silent card comes up, rapidly go from student to student until one says the action verb correctly. That student becomes Simon.
2. Mental Language
How To: Process Before Producing
Linguists have studied language learning and acquisition for decades. They’ve drummed up some pretty interesting theories to explain their observations. From a physical Language Acquisition Device buried somewhere deep in the grey matter through a Social-cultural Interaction theory, there are a number of opinions on how we first learn to speak.
One thing all theories share though, is that language begins with thought. One of the most motivating thoughts we share from birth is wanting something. We want a hug, we want our breakfast, we want a special toy, we want to watch TV. “Want,” or motivation, is behind a great deal of the language that we produce.
Take advantage of this basic “want” impulse to produce simple, then ever-increasingly complex language. The following activity lends itself to expansion:
Activity: What do you want auction?
- A bag of props
- Some paper money
Then, get the activity into motion:
- Hand out a fixed amount of dough to each student.
- Pull an item from the bag of props, hold it up to see and describe it without saying what it is.
- Begin the auction with a “Who will bid $100 for this [thing]?”
- Students call out ever increasing amounts they’re willing to pay for the item.
- Move the bidding quickly, sell the “thing,” but don’t hand over the thing until the highest bidder can name the “thing.”
- Ask, “Do you want it?” and the student answers with “yes,” or “Yes, I want it.”
How To: Demonstration and Repetition
Demonstrating language patterns and having students repeat them is one of the keystones of the Audio-Lingual approach. Teachers would pull out a couple of puppets and act out the everyday scene, drill a specific sentence structure, drill the scene, then have students produce the scene.
Today, teachers seem to shy away from drill activity in class, mainly because it has a reputation for being drab and uninteresting. Who wants to play drill sergeant to their English students?
Yet, there are ways that this type of activity can be incorporated in the ESL class without putting your students in a trance. Try this one!
Activity: It’s a plane, it’s big, it’s a big plane
- A print-out of pairs of pictures that differ in a basic aspect, described using a single adjective. For example:
a big plane / a small plane
a beautiful woman / an ugly man
a full glass / an empty glass
- A guitar or autoharp to strum out a few chords.
Begin with “It’s a” (or “It’s an”!). Run through the entire page, marking the time, 1 – 2 clapping the rhythm:
It’s a plane. It’s a plane. She’s a woman. He’s a man.
Once you’re pretty sure everyone has most of the basic nouns, change to the adjectives:
It’s big. It’s small. She’s beautiful. He’s ugly.
A couple of rounds of adjectives and you’re ready to combine nouns with adjectives:
It’s a plane, it’s big. She’s a woman, she’s beautiful.
Keep the rhythm going, 1 – 2 throughout.
The next-to-the-last step is modifying nouns with adjectives:
It’s a plane, it’s big, it’s a big plane. She’s a woman, she’s beautiful, she’s a beautiful woman.
The last step is returning to simple “It’s a” + noun / “It’s a” + adjective, as a repetitive song.
T: It’s a plane. – Ss: It’s a plane.
T: It’s big. – Ss: It’s big.
T: It’s a plane. – Ss: It’s a plane.
T: It’s small. – Ss: It’s small.
Make up the melody yourself and keep the rhythm, especially on longer words, like “beautiful,” where those three syllables have to fit into the same space as “big.”
How To: Combine Sound with Meaning
Edgar Allen Poe gave us an enchanting lesson in onomatopoeia with his poem “The bells.” The descriptive language he used brings to mind the sounds each bell makes:
- silver bells: tinkle, tinkle, tinkle (and don’t forget the tintinnabulation!)
- wedding bells: molten, gloat, swells, dwells
- alarm bells: brazen, shriek, clang, clash, roar
- iron bells: tolling, rolling monotone
While this poem is delightful, it’s hardly appropriate material for a beginning English class. However, you can use onomatopoeia to cement words into your students’ minds through the concept of sound as meaning becoming a word.
Activity: It sounds like….
- Onomatopoeia word list. Slip in a few silly words even if they aren’t common.
- Different props: cars, bell, telephone, etc.
Using images and sound, introduce your students to a couple of these each day. For example:
Push two toy cars about your table, making motor noises. Have one accelerate, screech to a halt. Then have one crash into the other. There you have three onomatopoeia:
motor (mmmrrrrr); screech (eeeeeee!); crash (kkkshshsh)
Now teach the words associated to those sounds.
3. Spoken Language
Fun and mime games established, it’s time to get students using their minds and their mouths to produce language.
How To: Teach Utterances, Not Vocabulary
A lot of teachers, faced with absolute beginners, think it’s better to teach individual “words” instead of complicating things with so-called “complete sentences.”
Think about it, though, just how often do you speak in single word utterances? How would you react if someone entered a room and simply said “table?” You’d be missing out on what that person meant, most of the communication would be in his or her head.
Teach your beginning students complete utterances, that is, strings of sounds that communicate, rather than lists of words. Being able to count from one to twenty doesn’t mean a student can automatically tell you how many fingers you’re holding up (without always beginning at “one”!)
Try teaching the very basics of classroom utterances through simple song.
Activity: Write your own ESL song
Using basic nursery rhyme tunes, you can build useful English utterance songs that will stick in your students’ heads for years. Let’s start with “Here we go ’round the mulberry bush.” On your part, it’s simply a task of replacing the original lyrics with the phrases you want to teach:
Here we go ’round the mulberry bush
- Can I go to the restroom, please?
- Can I borrow a pencil, please?
- Can I answer the question, please?
Pull this song out when needed. In my beginners classes, if any student wanted to borrow a pencil but was unable to use the accepted question, I’d stop everything, pull down the guitar and we’d all sing “Can I borrow a pencil please?” a couple of times.
I had another, called “Please and thank you,” that I used whenever manners were forgotten.
How To: Enter the “Universe of Discourse”
The Universe of Discourse, or context, is fundamental when using language. It isn’t enough to simply teach vocabulary and grammar. Students will need to know when it is appropriate to use everything.
Among other things, universe of discourse will implicate who is speaking, where they’re speaking, what they’re speaking about. Highlight these aspects of conversation with activities, like this one:
Activity: What do you say when….
- A couple of dozen situational cards, like:
- Meeting someone for the first time.
- Arriving at an already-formed waiting line.
- Opening lines for each of these situations:
- Pleased to meet you.
- Is this the line for…
- Reply lines for these:
- Nice to make your acquaintance.
- No, that line is over there.
Word descriptions of situations can be replaced with simple drawings, since focus should be on what is said in the situation, not the situation itself.
Divide the class in half. Give each member of one half a situation card and an opening line card. Give the other half reply line cards. Have the pairs find one another matching their situations with the appropriate opening/replies, then practice together the short dialogue.
Monitor the practice then have each pair present their short play, while others try to guess the situation they’re in.
4. Shared Language
How To: Encourage Conversation
People use language to communicate thoughts, opinions, efforts to get what we want from the other person.
On the other hand, we also use language to discover what has been going on when we’re not together. Being interested in your students’ activities between classes is not only a linguistic opportunity to practice past tenses. It shows them that you’re interested in them as people. This motivates them to make efforts to share with you.
Activity: What did you do last summer?
- Everyday activity flashcards: play soccer, go to the cinema, do homework, meet friends.
- Include extreme or unusual activities: go scuba diving, swim with sharks, climb Mt Everest, fly to the moon.
Pass out the cards to your students and ask them: “What did you do last summer?”
In the beginning, allow students to charade their summer activity.
Let others call out the noun that represents the action. Gradually have them add the verb, then the pronoun.
How To: Build Relationships
Except for more casual exchanges, like asking a stranger for the time or dealing with a shop assistant, our conversations are with people we either have relationships with or are building relationships with. Mom, dad, boyfriend, workmate. We speak with these people daily.
Build a healthy teacher-student relationship with your students. This is a pretty easy: Show interest in their lives. For example, with younger students, you can ask them the time-worn question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?
Activity: What do you want to be and why?
- Occupation flashcards (include some out-of-the-ordinary ones!)
Review the patterns:
- I want to be a…
- Because [I can / I like to / I enjoy] + verb form
Hand a card to a student and ask your question. Ask the first student, then they ask the person to their left, and so on.
How To: Celebrate Communication Achievements
Finally, reward will come in many different forms and colors. Be consistently positive in all comments you make in class. “Good” and “well done” should effortlessly rush from your mouth.
Students applaud one another when presentations are made. Teach congratulatory language early on, use it often and encourage your students to use it among themselves.
Activity: Group praise session
Arrange your students in a circle. You begin.
“Juan, you’re a very good student.”
Juan continues with the person on his left, perhaps throwing a beanbag to her.
“María, you’re a very good student.”
When the beanbag comes back to you, change the compliment:
“Pedro, you pronounce words very clearly.”
You can help your students out by having compliment flashcards prepared that they can pull from.
How To: Share a Strong Language Learning Philosophy
This one is mostly for us as teachers, though we should share and nurture this type of idea with our students.
My classes, of all levels, began with a simple set of concepts I called the “Four Rs.” These four were: Regularly, Repeat, Review and Reward.
Regularly: Our students need to build good study habits and regularly attend to their English learning and use.
Repeat: Language habits can be learned and remembered through repetition. Habit is so often just the repetition of action, like how we make coffee every morning or how we greet coworkers on arriving at the office.
Keep repetition from becoming a rote, parrot-like behavior. It should be a reflection of how much we actually repeat in real world communication.
Review: Also an important part of language learning at all levels, but especially so at early, beginning levels. Students will need multiple exposures to new material before it ceases to be new material. Build upon previously studied material and reserve time to review that material before laying on the new.
Reward: Work well done deserves recognition. Always remind your students that they’re advancing through recognized rewards: game play, smiley stickers, an end-of-term party.
Absolute beginners will come with one language under their belt. Some will come with more.
The all know how to communicate, they simply don’t know how to do so in English.
If you accept the premise that communication is possible despite not knowing English, you will have overcome the biggest hurdle in getting your students jump-started and on their way to learning English.
Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into teacher training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.
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