Teaching EFL Beginners: the final frontier?

Fear of blank stares or confused expressions?
Possible miscomprehension or comprehension impossible?
Perfect planning required or planning discouraged?

Anything there sound familiar? Then maybe it’s worth reading on….I’m sure you’ll see something worth having a think about!

Even for the veteran EFL teacher who has dealt with a huge variety of students from France to Timbuktu, it’s unlikely that not even a drop of sweat wouldn’t form on their forehead…if you told them they would be teaching EFL beginners in the next lesson. I wouldn’t even be that happy if I’m being honest, but I’ve been through the drill a few times, so I at least know what to expect and what I should consider when making effective and also crucial teaching decisions to make a beginners lesson run well. So no sweating, but definitely plenty of thinking at the prospect!

What are you thinking..what are they thinking?

“What if they can’t understand me? How am I going to get them to do this roleplay? Can they understand anything I’m saying??? Will I ever be understood?!”

…are really natural and quite sensible questions to ask, but looking at a lesson from the point of view of the rather vulnerable yet eager beginner may be the best point to, well, begin with.

First Language? It has been quite rare from my experience to have a beginner from a European language background, but if you do, there’s often a large number of cognates (words common in Engish and their language), similar grammatical features e.g. Subject Verb Object, tenses. This will guide their expectations of what to find in English.

If the student comes from a non-European language, but the first language still uses the Roman script then heavy amounts of attention will be paid to any written language available and loan words. They may ignore the teacher and examine/translate/(frantically) read anything that they write because this is the only thing which is familiar to them, and they can be sure of.

If they don’t come from a European language background nor a language using the Roman script, this may make the learner feel extremely vulnerable. Unless they’ve watched some TV programmes or know a few expressions, they’ve got no language nor familiar script to fall back on. They’ll probably spend ALL of their time looking at, focusing on, listening to and responding ONLY to the teacher.

Learner’s Specific Situation? Has the learner come from an academic background? Does the learner work? Does the learner have friends in the school? Does the learner have a partner with them? Does the learner have children?

If the learner lives in the country or in the city of the school, they’ll be familiar with the country’s various systems e.g. transport, children’s schools, etc. They’ll also be familiar with certain cultural aspects of the UK e.g. Oyster cards in London, haggis in Scotland, Liverpool Football Club. If the learner is a recent student or graduate from their country, we can perhaps expect that they’ll have easily-accessible note-taking skills and reading habits but also expect structured target language presentations or logical, consistent usage patterns for vocabulary.

Feeling less scared now by any chance? The beginner’s point of view always gives you a general sense of where they come from so you can decide what their needs are – a young French beginner teenager will want to see similarities with French and topics of familiarity for them, whilst an older Chinese beginner restaurant worker having lived in the country would have ESL needs (i.e. English as a Second, not Foreign, Language) – mastery of the English alphabet, basic practical phrases and connection with their own knowledge of the country.


First Lesson: easy and natural does it

This is often the easiest lesson, in my experience, yet very often the most feared. If it is the absolute first lesson, there’s unlikely to be much target language to teach and that needs to be thought about is…what makes sense for a Beginner.

The Beginner will expect…

  • you to say hello, introduce yourself and show them how to do the same
  • NO pressure to understand or produce any language they have no capacity for at this stage
  • a warm, welcoming, understanding yet take-charge teacher to lead the lesson and for them to follow
  • you to understand their current abilities!

As a confident, qualified and capable teacher, all you really need to do is…

  • model and practise greetings – hi, how are you, I’m fine, and you?
  • show and drill nationalities – where are you from, Britain/France/China/Kazakhstan
  • Roman script users: write up the words after drilling
  • Non-Roman script users: type up and hand out the lesson’s vocab or show them how to write a few words (Non-users of the Roman script are almost non-existent unless you work in Further Education colleges which take in many refugees or illiterate learners. I’ve only ever had to teach the alphabet to one learner in my whole teaching career!)


10 Final Tips and Tricks

Still not confident? Still scared? Okay, okay – I’ve got a few more bits of advice up my sleeve, so let’s see if I can’t make you feel more relieved.

1. Use the same expressions for instructions each time e.g. Work in pairs -> not get into pairs, work with your partner, talk to the person beside you, etc.

2. On that note, keep instructions short and give them only when necessary e.g. ‘Work in pairs’ then demonstrate asking and answering questions with another partner to set up a discussion activity.
Do not say anything like the following:

I’d like to do an easy discussion task now, which is a few of you getting together to talk about these questions on the whiteboard. We’ll need to work in pairs so can you work with the person beside you? Then, let’s give each other our opinions, okay?

3. Use vocabulary or expressions from the previous lesson(s) at the start of the next lesson – the revision will reinforce language and the sense of achievement will encourage self-confidence, especially for any more target language in the lesson.

4. Use non-verbal gestures as much as possible – hand gestures, facial expressions and visuals are invaluable, and will give learners the clues they need to make connections between language and meaning.

5. Produce verbal language at natural speed – unnaturally slow vocabulary one syllable at a time doesn’t help anyone. Beginners have no way to recognise vocabulary they don’t know and they need to hear naturally-spoken and chunked language, which will expose them to features of connected speech too.

6. Do pronounce strange or difficult sounds for them with exaggerated pronunciation or mouth movements. This will actually be a very useful model for them to imitate.

7. Use any language with them in tiny/miniature exchanges whenever you can – this will make them feel like they can socialise with you and express at least some part of their personality. It will also encourage them to try and be creative with their language.

8. Always use gentle correction with them. Personalities vary but, in general, frequent direct correction i.e. ‘No, that’s not right.’ will damage their self-confidence and affect their participation in your class. Use indirect facial or hand gestures to elicit correct language.

9. Aim for a variety: learning styles, drilling patterns and interaction patterns. This will stand the highest chance of ensuring maximum engagement and appeal to their variety of learning styles – after all, they’re only starting to discover it in languages for themselves.

10. Present all new language with visuals, demonstrations or modelling – instructional language will be very incidental for new language or complex activities at this level.

Remember, above all else, keeping it simple and predictable for them will stand you in good stead – no matter how you feel.

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