Monday, July 30, 2018

Right from the Start: Teaching True Beginners

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

This past academic year, I taught a class that was brand new to me. It’s always weird to be doing something completely different when I’ve been teaching ESL for as long as I have (25ish years now), and that’s one of the things I love about this field. You never know where you’re going to find yourself if you say yes to stuff on a regular basis.

My instructional sweet spot is high intermediate, but I’m one of the administrators of our English Language Center, so I teach what is needed. This past year, what was needed was a teacher for a brand new academic pre-beginning all skills class. We’re talking students whose English proficiency is so limited that they can’t say where they are from, they don’t know colors, they may not be able to decode letters the alphabet, and they can’t understand basic commands. Gulp. So, way back last August, I panicked for a bit, and then I attended a professional development session, googled “teaching true beginners,” talked with my generous mentor, took a deep breath and jumped in.

It’s been quite a year. I am painfully aware that I still have a lot to learn about teaching true beginners. In my experience, pretty much any first pass with a class is destined to be a bit of a train wreck, as I experiment with supplemental materials and figure out what works and what bombs. True to form, I made lots of mistakes. But, that’s how we learn, right? And, even though I am admittedly not an expert in this area at all, I wanted to share some of my observations about the differences between teaching true beginners and teaching higher level students.

1. Deliberate Teacher Talk is Key!

Obviously, people who don’t speak any English have a hard time understanding a stream of well-meaning teacher talk. Teacher talk is something I struggle with (see a past blog series, The Gift of Gab? for more on all that) and I knew it would be something that I really needed to keep in check with my pre-beginners. But, even though I was conscious of this and prepared visuals and other supports, the first day of class really hit it all home for me. After several instances of blank stares, I very quickly realized that every single word that came out of my mouth had to be carefully chosen. Every. Single. Word. Every time I spoke, I had to consider if the students had the proficiency to be able to understand it, and if (inevitably) not, was it crucial enough for me to be willing to spend time helping them understand.

This had two consequences for me. First, I wasn’t able to build rapport with chit chat and humor the way I usually did with my students. I had to work harder on body language to reassure my nervous, shy students. My face hurt from smiling after the class. Second, I wasn’t able to explain to students why we were doing activities. Normally, I think it’s important for students to understand the purpose of everything we do in class (see another blog post, Starting with the WHY in Teaching and Learning); however, how can you simplify the language sufficiently to explain to a group of true beginners that we are using rubber bands to feel the stress of words, and this is important because this is how proficient English speakers store words in their brains and when L2 learners miss-stress words, we have a really hard time understanding them? I had to forgo a lot of the explaining I tend to do. Luckily, however, the students were content to trust me (I think) and gamely pulled on their rubber bands every time we learned new words.

2. Modeling is Essential!

When I teach an intermediate level class, I tell students what they’ll be doing before they engage in an activity. I also model it, but that part might be a bit rushed. I mean, who wants to listen to me when we could all just get on with the activity already? Usually, as soon as a scant majority of the students gets what the task is, we are off and running and the others figure it out as they go along. But, with pre-beginners, I had to spend a lot of time (way more than I had ever imagined) modeling an activity with my teaching assistant before the students got up to do it. If we didn’t model a new activity at least a couple of times, the activity tended to dissolve into chaos. Simple activities like board games, running dictations, card matches and surveys all had to be modeled. In hindsight, it’s clear that the ones who understood right away what they were supposed to be doing didn’t have the English to explain to their confused classmates. In the end, I don’t think there was a day I didn’t over plan for my lessons. Everything always took a lot longer to set up and get going than I anticipated.

3. Play it Again, Sam!

Because learning a new class activity was such a drawn-out process, once activities became familiar, they tended to resurface at a pace that I wouldn’t even consider in a higher level class. The students were more comfortable with predictability and repetition than my higher level classes appeared to be. They liked playing the same games again and again. Usually, I recycled old activities with new content. I think we did card matches every single time they learned new vocabulary. But, sometimes we even did the exact same activity again the next day because it was difficult and they needed another pass with it. Again, in retrospect, it’s clear that the monotony was actually comforting to my true beginners because they could easily figure out what was expected of them and they could get on with the business of practicing the target language.

4. Learning is Fun!

After years of teaching grumpy high intermediate and advanced level learners, it was a genuine pleasure to teach pre-beginners. They were happy every day to be in class and they never once rolled their eyes or challenged a grammar explanation. This isn’t because they were nicer people than any students I had taught before. It was because at the true beginning level, everything learners do in class teaches them something new. They learn new things all the time. The words and grammar structures are useful because they allow my students to communicate things they couldn’t before. They are delighted to memorize all the vocabulary I could throw at them and they always (truly, always) do their homework. In contrast, my crabby higher level students aren’t learning as many new things; rather they are mostly tweaking and fine tuning things they already know. Even learning a new verb tense, like the past perfect, is an exercise in frustration because it’s hard to distinguish from other past tenses and it communicates nuance, not the main message. It seems to be a bit hard for many people to get excited about focusing on the finer points of a language when they are able to communicate their main ideas pretty well already.

So, the semester is over and my students are on their summer vacations. I won’t see most of them again in my classroom unless my teaching assignment changes for the fall, but I hope they learned a lot in my class and that they feel more confident about their ability to interact in English. I also hope they enjoyed the class. I certainly did.


Comment from Karen
August 3, 2018 at 9:19 am

I’ve found two types of activities that help beginners get some vocabulary.
1) Real stuff & toys – we call this “The Dirty Dozen” because you can learn a dozen vocabulary items “quick & dirty” (Works for 7-15, but “Dozen” sounds good.)
Start with 2 items.
It begins like this. No need to repeat because you’ll be saying these words many, many times during the activity.
Man. Woman. This is a man. This is a woman. Where is the man? Where is the woman? (You may need to gesture to get them to start pointing.)
Add 1 more item.
(Point to self) “I”. This is “I”. Where am I? Where is the man? Where am I? Where is the woman?
(Add boy, you sing, girl, you plural, baby, we, and using two additional dolls for he, she, & they -O NE NEW ONE AT A TIME!)
Always teach vocabulary in sets – that’s how your brain “files” new vocabulary.
This can be used for animals, parts of a classroom, things in a classroom, parts of a house, things to eat with, things to cook with, fruits, veggies, things we drink, etc.)
2) Mixed in you teach verbs by adapting the activity and using TPR: (You act out each action as you teach it!)
(Demonstrate so they hear the word & see the action)Sit. Stand. This is sit. This is stand.
(Motion them to join you and have them do with you)
Sit. Stand.
Add 1 action – (Demo) Walk. (They join you) Walk. Sit. Stand.
Continue adding actions, 1 at a time. (Be sure and teach stop before you teach run or you will have some tired students!) Stop. Run. Jump. Lie. And we often add Clap & Dance to add some fun.
Once they know these, move on to:
Mary, walk. Mary is walking. John, run. John is running. Stop! Mary & John, clap. Mary & John are clapping.
Another extension is to use the animals they have learned and give directions for the animals to do the actions.
Never ask them or the animals to do an action they have not previously learned!
They do not speak during these types of activities for the first 30 hours. After that they listen first, hen go back and do the activities while speaking.
This is because your speaking vocabulary is built on what you understand. If you skip Understanding, the learning process is slowed down to a much slower pace. By focusing on listening and responding, their focus is much higher.
If you introduce vocabulary and try to have them speak, you have reduced their focus to new vocabulary to close to 60%! And their retention rate plummets.

Comment from Tamara Jones
August 3, 2018 at 10:15 am

Thanks VERY much for sharing these great ideas. I’m not sure I could convince my pre-beginners to hold off on speaking for 30 hours, but both of the activities you’ve shared incorporate a lot of repetition and action, two things both my students and I love!

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