how to teach a language to beginners

Begin at the Beginning: 10 Tips for Teaching Any Language to Newbies

Did you just get assigned a class full of beginners? Great!

Are you worried about what to do with them? Don’t be!

Teaching beginner language students may seem daunting, but don’t fret. You will soon find working with them to be the most rewarding teaching experience you will ever have.

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Why Is Teaching Beginners So Rewarding?

Everything is new

It does not matter if your class of beginners is made up of adults or kids, there will be a world of new material that you will be sharing with them. From moving their mouths around strange sounds to learning how to say “hello,” beginning students are often like sponges, and the new language you are teaching them will become a great point of interest.

Progress is more easily seen

Further along in language study, student frustration can arise because they cannot readily see their progress. This is not the case with beginning students! From the first day, when they learn to greet one another in their new language, through the weeks that follow, each class will offer them a milestone that they can easily mark and see.

Motivation is high

Think about how excited you were when you took your first language class. You were probably excited to meet new people who shared the same goals as you, that is, learning to communicate in a new language.

For adults, the motivation may come from their desire to start feeling more secure when traveling or finally getting that promotion the second language offers them. Younger students will be motivated to take part mainly because, in general, kids love to learn new things.

Types of Tips for Beginning Learners

Here we are going to discuss three main types of tips that will help you out when getting ready to enter a classroom full of beginning students.

Organization tips

Organization is very important in any language class. It supports the teacher’s authority on the subject area and makes the students comfortable knowing what is expected of them each class. Organization is not just about class planning, though. It includes how your class will be set up, where the students will be sitting, how you interact with them and how they interact with each other.

Presentation tips

As a teacher in a beginners’ language class, a lot of your work will involve informing students by sharing information. New vocabulary, verb conjugations, ways to write the language, presenting all this info can seem a stressful task, especially if you do not know how to speak their native language. These tips will give you some ideas on how to make your presentations both effective and fun.

Evaluation tips

Even though beginners can more readily see their advances in the new language, it is important to keep and show records of your evaluations of their progress. These tips will give you some ideas on how to visually remind your students how well they are doing in their new language.

Begin at the Beginning: 10 Tips for Teaching Any Language to Newbies

Organizational Tips

1. Structure your class into small sections

When you structure your class, you give your beginning students something to lean on when things get rough. They will know what to expect each time they enter the classroom and will feel comfortable with the challenging learning tasks ahead of them.

When structuring your class, you should do so in increments of time spent on each activity. Not a lot of people would enjoy sitting through an hour-long grammar lecture every time they enter class. By creating a varied structure you keep the students on their toes and anticipating the next section.

A very basic structure for your class might include:

  • greetings and getting settled in (5 minutes)
  • warm-up activities for voice and body (10 minutes)
  • presentation of the day’s theme and exercise (10 minutes)
  • doing the day’s exercise (20 minutes)
  • evaluation of the work done in class (10 minutes)

Part of any new language will be learning its structure. Even beginners will need to get a handle on a number of structures to be able to move ahead. When you look at the structure of the language you are teaching, you will find additional, practical structure you can put into your class. Doing this reinforces just what you want your beginners to learn without lecturing them on it.

2. Always follow the basic structure

Once you have established (and explained!) your class structure, follow that structure each and every class period. From time to time you can totally part from your structure; however, there are several reasons why a strictly structured class is advantageous.

  • Planning: When planning your class, for example, you need only think of material to fill in short segments. It is so much easier to plan for a five-minute warm-up exercise than it is to plan a 25-minute explanation of a grammar point. An active exercise section gets the students doing a lot of the work themselves, leaving you free to observe for later evaluation.
  • Behavior: Students will probably be better behaved if they know that something they enjoy is coming up. Since you’ve structured your class in small segments, there is little chance of students acting out because of boredom. Agile movement from segment to segment makes the time fly and does not give “trouble makers” time to make trouble.
  • Class time economy: Finally, if you and your students know that these minutes are dedicated to this activity which is followed by another related but different activity, time is more economically spent in the classroom. Students will not have much time to dwell on what was difficult in the warm-up because you will be moving right along to explaining the main language activity of the day. You also avoid getting caught up in lengthy explanations, since you will be wanting to get the actual exercise underway and give your students a chance to practice in front of you.

3. Include quizzes and games in the structure

When you are structuring your class, make sure you include both quizzes and games regularly. If you make sure the students know that every two weeks there will be a quiz, there will not be as many groans when you present it.

Games are a very important activity in the language classroom. Although they may be useful as rewards, if you regularly schedule games into your structure, your students will find your classes entertaining and motivating. This helps foster a positive learning attitude among your beginning students.

4. Experiment with alternative classroom setups

Rows of desks, students looking at the back of the head of the one in front of them, a big table with students sitting around, all looking at the teacher, these are common classroom setups. If you have the flexibility where you teach, try regrouping your students into patterns they don’t expect. For example:

  • The semi-circle: Push all the desks and tables against the walls and put the seats in a semi-circle, leaving a big space in the middle for students to stand in when doing warm-ups or pair-work.
  • Face-to-face: When pairing up your students, get the tables out of the way and have them sit in their chairs facing their partners, randomly scattered around the room. Make sure to leave room between pairs so you can move around and listen in on their practice.
  • Back-to-back: Useful when practicing telephone speech, this setup tends to make students listen more to what is being said by their partner.

Presentation Tips

5. Learn to draw

You’re going to have to explain a lot of things to your students.

One of the easiest tools for explaining vocabulary, verbs, even many adjectives, is drawing. You don’t know how to draw? Spend a bit of time learning the basics of shape drawing so that when you have to teach words like “cow” or “ugly” you can quickly sketch something for your students to see. This method of presentation is also a great introduction to “pictionary” activities during game time.

6. Use scripted role plays

Don’t be afraid to give your beginners scripted role plays.

A lot of language at the beginning stage involves using basic and familiar patterns. By giving your beginners a script to follow, students don’t have to think about what they need to say, they just practice the everyday language. Some useful situations would include:

  • Ordering in a fast-food restaurant
  • Buying a train ticket
  • Sending a package by post
  • Asking for directions on the street
  • Getting a phone number from information

7. Use song, video and games instead of lectures

Students of all ages will enjoy the break a song will bring to class. Songs let you do cloze exercises with the lyrics, sing-alongs and kareoke are fun activities. Just make sure the songs are somehow related to the language point you are practicing.

Videos, like those found on FluentU, are excellent ways to help your students see language in action. Any video you show should be short, sweet and full of language. Realistic dialogues in films are best and, the shorter they are, the better they are assimilated and can be used for future practice.

Again, if you were to ask your beginners to choose between a lecture on frequency adverbs and a game that lets them play with them, which do you think they will enjoy more? I bet the vote will be on the “game” side. Don’t hesitate to use a game to get a point across, they will often stick in student’s memories (and be more easily understood!) than 20 minutes of you talking and making graphs on the board. You will enjoy them as well.

Evaluation Tips

8. Use student passports to record daily achievements

A student “passport” is simply a small notebook that looks something like a passport. Templates can be found online, or you can custom-make one that best suits your teaching style.

You will record their achievements in class in these little notebooks, with notes, quiz grades, gold stars. They are also great to handle discipline with younger students! Make sure to include a space for parents to initial when they have seen the latest teacher’s note, be it good or bad!

9. Only quiz on practiced material

Quizzes should always cover recent material that you have covered. Avoid pop quizzes and trick questions: You want to know if your students have been paying attention and if they are catching on to what you are teaching. Keep quizzes short (no more than ten questions) and easy to grade.

When you have given a quiz, note the result on the “quiz page” in each student’s passport. Or you can hang a star poster on the wall where students can see their progress and improvement. Tests can be hard, but quizzes should be easy. Getting a good “grade” on a quiz should be no problem for most beginners, and accumulating those grades is a wonderful motivation for drilling forward.

10. Reward students often and equally

Almost everyone likes to be told that they have done a good job. You should get into the habit of motivating your students with praise and rewards. Sometimes simply saying “good work” can make the difference between a beginner being motivated or becoming frustrated. Stars and stickers are visible rewards. Special game sessions can break the habit of your regular structure.

Celebrate a target language holiday by bringing in a tray of goodies that are often shared on that day, for example, candies for Halloween, dried fruit for Ramadan, turrón for Christmas. Make sure that your beginners know that you think that they are moving forward and improving and make sure to spread that good feeling to all of your students frequently and equally.

Teaching a group of beginners can seem like a stressful task, but the truth is, you will find your experience with a beginner language class a more manageable challenge if you are structured, prepared and weave fun throughout the experience with them. Remember that you will present them with their first step on the journey of learning that new language.

A big responsibility is yours to keep them interested in the task, but it is a responsibility that comes with ample rewards for both your students and yourself.

And One More Thing…

To give your students an immersive, interactive learning experience, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. It’s designed to get students familiar with foreign vocabulary in a fun, friendly, totally approachable way. FluentU makes it possible to learn languages from music videos, commercials, news, inspiring talks, cartoons and more.

With FluentU, your students will learn the real language—the same way that natives speak it. They’ll hear their new vocabulary words in context, spoken naturally and casually. Every student is guaranteed to find videos they love to watch, and you’re guaranteed to find videos that meet your teaching needs. FluentU has a very wide variety of videos (browsable by category and level), as you can see here:

FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to instantly pause the video and see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is easily within the reach of any student, at any skill level, thanks to the interactive transcripts.

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You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s unique Learn Mode, which asks questions based on what each student already knows. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

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Plus, FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that your students are learning. It uses that information to give students a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples just for them.

You can organize chosen videos into “courses,” name your courses and assign them to your students for homework or in-class activities. They can each sign in using nothing but a secret password that we bestow to you, the teacher.

Then you can track their progress individually and as a group. How many videos and activities have they progressed through? What percentage of the exercise questions are they getting right? You’ll be able to see all this information and more.

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.

 


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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