Begin at the Beginning: 13 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.
With these tips, you will soon find working with them to be the most rewarding teaching experience you will ever have.
- Organizational Tips
- Presentation Tips
- Evaluation Tips
- Why Is Teaching Beginners So Rewarding?
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 during 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.
1. Structure your class into small sections
Structuring your class gives 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 attend 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)
- Homework and goodbyes (5 minutes)
Further, 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’re teaching, you will find additional, practical structures 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’ve 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 for 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’ll be wanting to get the actual exercise underway and give your students a chance to practice in front of you.
3. Include quizzes, games and group work in your lessons
When 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 also a very important activity in the language classroom. They can get students moving and laughing together. Dynamic games are almost like team building, bringing students closer and lightening the mood.
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.
Similarly, group work is a good tool for fostering participation and communication. Sometimes it’s easier for beginning students to be interactive in a small group when the teacher isn’t directly present.
Though there are numerous benefits of group work, we have to be careful with anxious students. A student who doesn’t feel comfortable speaking will nod in approval and deflect questions while the other group members carry the discussion.
One way to make group work effective is to have roles that alternate. For example, each student will be put in the hot seat to answer questions directed at them by the other students in the group.
4. Choose the right topics to discuss
In any language classroom, but especially with beginners, we want to encourage fluency of speech. This means we want our students, as often as possible, to speak without hesitating or searching for words and phrases. (This is not to be confused with “grammatically correct speech,” of course.)
The easiest way to facilitate student discussions that flow? Choose the right topics.
There’s a reason the first day of language class doesn’t begin with a debate on nuclear weapons or gun control, after all. Instead, we start with lighthearted, approachable subject matter.
And let’s face it—most people like talking about themselves! “Myself” is a subject that everyone knows something about, i.e. their hobbies, family or hometown.
When students talk about themselves, they don’t have to think about what to say. All they have to focus on is how to say it in a foreign language.
Because the topic is keeping them engaged, they’re getting a better feel for the language without even realizing it. Thinking on our toes and being creative is hard enough to do in our mother tongues, so utilizing topics your students know well is a great way to ease them into the language.
To further encourage this, ask direct questions. If you have a student who’s passionate about football, ask him about football every now and then. He’ll be more inclined to talk with you. As time goes on, you can start to ask questions that make him branch out to subjects with which he’s less familiar.
5. Experiment with alternative classroom setups
Imagine… Rows of desks with students looking at the back of the head of the person in front of them; a big table with students sitting around, all looking at the teacher.
These are common classroom setups. If you have flexibility in your classroom, 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 their partner says.
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, etc.
Presenting all this info can seem like a stressful task, especially if you don’t speak your students’ native language. These tips will give you some ideas on how to make your presentations both effective and fun.
6. 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 and even adjectives is drawing.
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!
7. Use scripted role plays
A lot of language at the beginning stage involves using basic and familiar grammar patterns. Don’t be afraid to give your beginners scripted role plays to help them get comfortable with these structures.
By giving your beginners a script to follow, students don’t have to think about what they need to say, they just practice saying 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 someone’s phone number
8. Help your students get involved
Many beginner language students (especially shy ones) feel incredibly nervous about speaking in a foreign tongue.
If they think that an interruption or correction will come at any second, this often magnifies their apprehension. They can sense when the teacher and class are getting restless, so they’ll often give up prematurely.
Make your classroom a place where moments of silence are okay. What’s an extra 30 seconds of waiting if it means that a shy student will feel comfortable trying to speak?
Encourage the class to wait patiently too, as your more outgoing students may feel the urge to interject and help each other along. It’s important to let the selected student give it a shot first.
In fact, you can think of asking students a question like you’re passing them a ball.
Those who are more comfortable speaking tend to keep the ball longer and dribble around, elaborating on your question and giving detailed answers. When you pass the ball to students with a fear of speaking, they throw it straight back, answering in as few syllables as possible.
If they simply need some extra time, give them the space and silence to think. But if they need a little more of a push, have a follow-up question ready, one that’s open-ended and requires a bit of an explanation.
9. Use songs and videos instead of lectures
Students of all ages will enjoy the break a song will bring to class. You can do cloze exercises with the lyrics, and sing-alongs and karaoke are fun activities as well. Just make sure it’s somehow related to the language point you’re practicing!
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.
You can find plenty of videos to choose from on FluentU, where authentic videos meet learning tools for an optimized experience for your students. You can hand-pick videos from a variety of options like movie trailers, music videos, vlogs, inspirational talks, news segments and more.
Or, you can pass the ball to the students’ side and let their interests guide them to videos they actually want to learn with.
Since FluentU videos are organized by difficulty, students will be able to stay at an appropriate level. They’ll also have the support of interactive subtitles, with on-demand definitions and flashcard-creation capabilities from any video.
FluentU also tests students on their knowledge of vocab words (at their pace) and you, the teacher, can see their progress and areas of difficulty.
Even though beginners can more readily see advances in their new language, it’s important to keep and show records of your evaluation of their progress—not just for the administration’s sake, but for your students’ too!
These tips will give you some ideas on how to remind your students how well they’re doing in their new language.
10. 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 students’ achievements in class in these little notebooks, with notes, quiz grades, gold stars and so on.
They’re also great to handle discipline with younger students. Make sure to include a space for parents to initial when they’ve seen the latest teacher’s note, be it good or bad!
11. Quiz on practiced material and allow for presentation prep
Quizzes should always cover recent material that you’ve covered in class. Avoid pop quizzes and trick questions.
You want to know if your students have been paying attention and if they’re catching on to what you’re teaching. Keep quizzes short (no more than ten questions) and easy to grade.
When you’ve 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.
In the same vein, make sure not to surprise your students with speaking assignments, either. Giving them the chance to prepare in advance will help boost their confidence. For example, on Tuesday you can tell them that you’ll be asking them to describe the plot of their favorite book to the class on Wednesday.
Again, as is the case for many new language learners, chances are they’ll already be worried about speaking in front of the class and in a foreign language.
By letting them prepare the content in advance you’re removing one source of stress, at least initially. Eventually, you’ll be able to throw impromptu questions and presentations their way.
12. Encourage making mistakes
Arianna Huffington once said, “Failure is not the opposite of success; it’s part of success.”
When students are trying to communicate but know they’re making a mistake, encourage them to finish the sentence. Say something gentle like, “That’s fine, keep going…”
Language gurus like Benny Lewis swear by the belief that you should go out and make as many mistakes as you can, as quickly as possible, in fact.
Remind students that mistakes are good and so are corrections. By making mistakes they’re helping themselves and their classmates grow and learn. Adults tend to have more trouble with this than children because they often come from a corporate or home environment where being wrong isn’t okay.
So remember to lead by example! If you make a mistake, lose a handout or forget what you were saying, laugh at yourself. We’re human, and these things happen.
Of course, you can’t let every language mistake slip by—your students do need to learn, after all. But instead of pointing out the error and correcting it like that, you can emphasize corrections in your responses, like so:
Student: “I like to go to the movie.”
Teacher: “Great, I like to go to the movies too. What is your favorite movie?”
This is a gentle way to incorporate a correction while building the student’s confidence. Later on, we’ll be more direct, if the error persists.
It will take a while before you’ll be able to undo this mistakes-are-terrible brainwashing, but reminders help. Try hanging some quotes around the room that support the environment you want to create. It sounds cheesy, but it helps!
13. Reward students often and equally
Almost everyone likes to be told that they’ve 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 lesson structure.
Celebrate a target language holiday by bringing in a tray of goodies that are shared on that day—for example, candies for Halloween, dried fruit for Ramadan and turrón for Christmas.
Make sure that your beginners know that you think they are moving forward and improving, and make sure to spread that good feeling to all of your students, frequently and equally.
Why Is Teaching Beginners So Rewarding?
Everything is new
It doesn’t matter if your class of beginners is made up of adults or kids, there will be a world of new material that you’ll 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’re 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, and 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.
Teaching 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’re structured, prepared and weave fun throughout the experience.
Remember that you will present them with their first step on the journey of learning that new language.
A big responsibility is to keep them interested in the task, but it is a responsibility that comes with ample rewards for both your students and yourself!