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Teaching Ideas

January 20, 2003

Teaching Beginners

Roger Barnard

Tama Art University

Teaching Beginner Students
I have met many language teachers who prefer to teach advanced rather than low-level learners. Understandable, I suppose, in that higher-level learners can often deal with more demanding topics in greater depth. But if you are genuinely interested in how people learn a language, and how the language teacher can best facilitate that process, there are special rewards in teaching beginners.

For one thing, lower-level learners are often more enthusiastic than their more able counterparts. And it's quite possible that they will be encountering your prized classroom tricks for the first time and gasp appreciatively at each one. They can also make noticeable progress in a relatively short time, unlike many learners who have reached the seemingly endless 'intermediate plateau'.

False Beginners
In Japan, an EFL teacher is unlikely to meet a zero beginner outside of junior high school; during my many years of teaching English here, I have taught only one true beginner, a businessman who had had no English education whatsoever owing to World War II. Over a period of about five years, he made slow but sure progress, but I suspect that I learnt more from his lessons than he did, especially in relation to systematic presentation, practice, and review of material.

Probably the majority of your low-level English classes will be for 'false beginners', learners who have studied English before, but have little or no communicative ability. All of the points I make below can help to make a class at any level more effective, but they are especially important when teaching low-level learners. I apologize if some of them seem too obvious to mention, but I hope they will provide some food for thought.

Planning and Preparation

Plan your course
Have some idea of how much material you are going to cover. Give your students an overview of the course and how much material you expect them to cover. On the other hand, don't make your plan too rigid; you should be able to make changes as you find out more about your students and their needs. If you going to give tests, warn your students beforehand.

Plan your lessons
Whether your class lasts 40, 60 or 90 minutes, think in terms of a starting activity (warm-up), main activity (probably divided into a number of separate tasks), and a final activity. But again, always be ready to modify your plan.

Check your textbook material carefully before a class
A teacher who is unfamiliar with the course materials does not inspire confidence. What needs to be pre-taught before the students refer to the textbook? It could be vocabulary, cultural information, a grammar point, or a pronunciation feature.

Try it out
If you are going to do an activity that is new to you, are you sure you know how to do it? If possible, try it out before you use it in class.

Sequence activities and tasks carefully
Generally speaking, it's safer to start with controlled activities and lead into guided and free activities.

Know the text
If your textbook has a teacher's edition, read it. It may suggest extra activities, point out possible pitfalls, present alternative presentation techniques, and include notes on pronunciation and cultural points. It may also provide photocopiables.

Setting Up Activities

Allow plenty of time to set up activities in class
If your students have not done a particular type of activity before (e.g. an information gap pair work activity) give them time to study the material and ask questions. Then explain the procedure briefly and demonstrate with a more able student. When the students have started, move around the classroom and see how they are getting on. Help out if necessary.

Be Consistent
Try to keep the task instructions and procedures you use consistent throughout the course; eventually, the students will know exactly what to do with minimum instructions.

Pace and Depth

Don't cover material too quickly
One of the most common mistakes an inexperienced teacher makes is to skim through material without giving the students time to digest it. At lower levels it's important to provide a lot of practice with limited language, while maintaining interest and motivation. A well-designed information gap activity is a good way of achieving this.


Balance is Important
Balance simple, low-stress activities such as dialog reading / acting and choral repetition, with more demanding communicative tasks such as questionnaires, and information-gaps.

Balance individual / pair / group / whole-class activities.

Balance controlled / guided / free activities.

Balance listening / speaking / reading / writing activities.

Balance challenging tasks with easier ones. This will help to keep students of different ability levels happy.

Balance activity types that the students know (and which thus provide a feeling of security) with unfamiliar ones that introduce an element of unpredictability.

Correction and Accuracy

Don't correct too much
(although some students will ask you to correct everything). Explain to your class (in L1 if possible) how or when you will correct, e.g. in certain controlled activities only.

Stay Student-Focused
When you correct, follow this sequence: a) help the student to self-correct b) invite another student to correct c) correct the error yourself.

Don't correct all errors
This will adversely students' confidence and fluency. Take notes of important errors as they occur, then deal with them later in the lesson or in a subsequent lesson. This also gives you time to consider the best way to deal with a problem.

Use short dictations for accuracy work
Have students compare their results in pairs, then elicit single sentences from selected student, asking them to spell out certain words, and write on the board. Alternatively, you can ask students to come up to the board and write one sentence each on the board, then ask for comments from the class as a whole.


Help students to relax.
For some of your students, you will be the first foreigner they have met, and your class may well be the first classroom situation they have been in since high school.

Put yourself in the student's shoes. Remember that they usually have other important things to do and worry about apart from English.

Encourage students to help each other.

Help students to get to know each other.

Be patient.

Visual Aids

Use a lot of visual aids
Pictures, maps, menus, photos, diagrams, etc. Use an OHP if you can.

Pay attention to your board work.
If you plan to build up some kind of paradigm table on the board, plan it beforehand. This is especially important when teaching low-level students; sloppy board work can be confusing and lead to students memorizing incorrect forms. It also projects an unprofessional image. Beware of speling mistooks (whoops!). If your board is big enough, divide it into three main areas: build up a summary of the main points of the lesson on the left; use the central area for current work, and reserve the right section for impromptu notes and sketches.


Using Audio
If you use cassettes or CDs, consider allowing students to read the script after the task is completed.

Be Flexible
If you find your textbook listening exercises are too easy or too difficult, rewrite them, or ask selected / additional questions. One effective technique is to dictate, say, six questions or true / false statements about a listening text, then have students check what they have written with each other, then with you, then listen for the answers.

If you play a cassette tape, clearly establish the situational factors the students need (location, relationship between speakers, etc.) to complete the listening tasks clearly.

Play the tape enough times to enable the students to complete the task with relative ease.

Play the tape in short sections if necessary, but don't overdo it.

Asking Questions

Ask Everyone
When you ask questions, ask students in random order, so they are kept on their toes. However, don't inadvertently leave someone out.

Indicate the student who is to answer after asking the question, not before. This means that everyone pays attention.

Direct questions to the whole class some of the time, but don't wait too long if there is no response; Japanese students are often reluctant to answer independently.

Have students ask each other questions and have them ask you questions, too.

When students ask each other questions, have them ask classmates in different parts of the classroom.


Use games if the students enjoy them
Some students don't. Think of your own variations on old favourites such as Hangman, Concentration, Bingo.

A good language game should be 'serious fun'
It should provide some kind of practice, and at the same time add a competitive edge to the class. If a game does not provide any language input or practice, it is not a language game.

Be Imaginative
Many games can be played in different configurations, for example, hangman can be played between a) teacher and class, b) student and group, and c) student and student. Exploit these variations.


Some students will want to write everything down, especially if you write on the board.

During listening and speaking activities, insist that they put down their pens, but if necessary allow them a writing phase later.


Encourage students to do homework regularly. Remember to check it and hand it back.


If you plan to use tests, make sure your tests test what you have done during class.

Conduct informal mini-tests regularly to get students used to the test types you use.

Ensure the students understand your grading system.

Try to use tests that have a positive 'washback effect'; i.e. that influence your lessons positively. One example is a simple speaking test, which students perform in pairs. The preparation for this kind of test can be extremely valuable.

Analysis and feedback

Keep a notebook of your lesson plans
Write notes on activities - did an activity go well, does it need to be modified? Does a handout need to be rewritten? Is there a problem with the textbook unit? Write your impressions of a lesson as soon as possible after it has finished; we soon forget what happens in class.

Encourage students to provide feedback on your lessons
You can use a simple questionnaire midway through a course or at the end.

Roger Barnard
Co-author of Sound Bytes (Longman ELT) and OnLine (Macmillan Language House)

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