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This is a transcription of the video by Jo Gakonga called "Teaching English to Beginners".


Here's the transcription of the video:

Hello, welcome to this months training video from This month we are going to talk about teaching English to beginners.

Let's start with some thoughts about teaching English to beginners. It can be one of the most difficult levels to teach. I think most teachers would probably agree with this. Arguably in the words of Tracy Chapman, arguably you have nothing to lose. But it's quite hard in the beginning.

The first words are the hardest ones to remember especially if you are coming from a language that isn't related to English. There is a bit of a balance between the good and the bad here. On the good side learners will learn very quickly and they may be very motivated.

If you start with nothing and you learn ten words then that's a big improvement. Your beginner learners will probably love you because they will see enormous progress very quickly. So that's very good. On the down side they may have had bad experiences learning languages before. And learning a language especially in the very beginning stages can be very frustrating.

You know what you want to say and you can't express it. So this can be a very difficult thing and I think it's worth remembering that you need to be very empathetic. Remember that if you are teaching beginners it's quite a good idea that you are learning a language yourself.

I think it does give you more sympathy.

Learners may have a low self esteem in language learning. They may feel that they can't do it. They may have had bad experiences before. So it's really your job to bolster that and give them confidence and success. I think that is important.

They may also have quite different expectations of what a class looks like. You may be working in a way that is quite new to them. So I think it's quite important to explain why you are doing things in the way you are doing them.

A good question is do you only speak English which is L2 or speak their language which is L1 when you are explaining things.

I think that using L1 when explaining things is undoubtedly much more efficient. It will move faster and potentially remove a lot of frustration. However, there is an argument for using L2 as it might be more motivating. If they know that they have to speak to you in this new language then maybe they will be more motivated to do so and it removes a bit of the embarrassment that knowing that someone speaks your language and you're going to have to use a different one.

So there is a question there about that and there is no right answer as it may be different for different people. But clearly it's going to be quite difficult especially if you are coming from a non-related European language to English. It's going to be difficult to do it in only L2.

Another question is: Is the learner literate in their own script? Being literate in their own script is going to make things much easier. It's going to mean that learning is probably going to be a lot more straight forward. They would have to learn their on script if they don't know it.


One of the problems for adult beginner learners is that it is quite easy to feel infantilized. A lot of the things that you are going to be talking about are going to be straightforward and simple. And this might be quite depressing and discouraging.

So you have to really make sure that you don't talk down to them. And that you try to incorporate relevant vocabulary and themes. Getting to know what your learners are like, what their joys and aspirations are can help you really make sure that you don't talk down to them.

Something to think about a bit.

Imagine that you are a beginner learner and you have been going to class for 3 or 4 weeks. Which would you prefer? To learn a small amount of language very thoroughly or larger amount of language not so precisely?

I think your answer to this question kind of depends on the kind of person that you are or learner you are. But I think that is worth bearing in mind that language is organic. You don't have to get each brick in the perfect place before you move on to the next one.

The curriculum is cyclical. Things will come up again. I think that the important thing is to get a general grasp so that you can communicate. I think at first.

So here are some top tips. My top tips for teaching beginners.

One of the problems learners find is that they get into class it all seems like a meaningless torrent of words and they cannot grasp it. So something to bear in mind from this comment is that you need to keep your language very simple.

This... does... not... mean... that you should speak in this completely unnatural way. But you do need to keep things simple. Instructions, aim to use demonstrations rather than explanations. It's hard to understand instructions. With your explanations of language make sure they are brief, concise, simple and that you check the meaning with concept questions.

Visuals. A lot of the language that you are teaching is concrete noun based and visuals can particular help - with all levels of course, but particularly with lower levels.

Get good at drawing. You don't have to be Michelangelo to get your meaning across. Drawing can be really really helpful.

Remember that beginners get tired quickly. Learning a language is cognitively are very exhaustive process. It is tiring. Make sure that your activities are short and varied and that there are a lot of changes in pace. Things where they are expected to produce and things where they have less expectation of production. Things that are a bit easier.

Add energy. I think as teachers generally I think we need to add energy to our classes, but particularly at lower levels you need to inject some energy. You need to give them some motivation in that way. This might be through gesture, mime, your intonation, your general presence in the classroom.

In general you do need to be a bit more upbeat with lower level learners.


So moving on. There's some ideas to hopefully think about. Let's think about what we are actually going to teach. Put yourself in their shoes. As a total beginner what do you think you would like to learn first. You are at the beginning of this journey. What is it that you want to learn? Just stop for a moment and think about it.

It's likely. Now I think you have to be a bit careful because things like colors, numbers, days of the week and time are kinda finite. You can learn like a certain block of language. They are tempting to teach in the beginning because you feel that you can finish them.

I think the difficulty with this you know, spending time on this kind of thing is that they are not very helpful in terms of general communication. If I know all my colors, numbers, days of the week, months of the year I am still not going to be able to say anything very useful.

So whilst I am not saying that you shouldn't teach that. I think that you need to be careful to given priority to language that gives them some language that gives them some ability to communicate something useful.

Greetings. Greetings are the obvious one to start with of course. But also useful phrases. This sort of thing classroom language to learn. Cover the wall with that sort of stuff.

Personalized language. Where do you come from? What do you do? These sort of things. I've got 6 brothers and sisters. I've got a house. That sort of thing. I've got long hair. This sort of language expresses things about my personal life.

Ask learners what they want to say in their first language and translate it for them. You know I think it's with adults they'll know what they want to express. It's quite possible at the beginning there might be a silent phase. So total physical response (TPR) can be quite useful in the beginning.

Not expecting them in the beginning to produce very much, but asking them to understand. So ask them stand up, sit down, walk to the door, give me the pen, give the pen to Sally, whatever it is. That kind of language where you are expecting them to do things to understand, but not actually to produce language. This can be quite comforting in the early stages of learning language.

Functional language of course. How to go shopping. What to say in a cafe. Building dialogues is really helpful. Let the learners... Build it with the learners. Rather than giving them a whole dialogue to start with, build it up with them. Let them do the work.

So if I went to a cafe what does the waiter say? Hello, what would you like? Ok, they are not going to know that, but you can input that.

What do I want? I want a coffee. What kind of coffee? Black coffee. How can they say this? I'll have a black coffee please. Drill this language. I'll have a black coffee please. I'll have a white coffee. I'll have a white tea please.

The waiter might ask you. Anything to eat? Anything to eat? Again drill this language. Do you have any cake? Think about the connected language. Do you have any cake? Yes, we have some nice chocolate cake.

Think about the intonation. Drilling lots and lots. Drilling at this level is very helpful. And their building this up with you. Great, I'll have a piece of that. Thanks, Great, I'll have a piece of that thanks. And you're building this up with them. Practicing this, lots and lots of practice.

When you have this up on the board. Take your white board marker and wipe through this again. And drill it again. Get your white board marker and wipe out a bit more. Get them to do it again. And a bit more. And a bit more.

So eventually you are weening them off of the text and you're giving them more of an idea of learning this thing.

Drilling is really really helpful at lower levels. It's not really fashionable these days since as audio-lingual methods went out a long time ago. But it's still very very useful at lower levels. It's really comforting and reassuring for learners and useful for learners to keep getting sounds around their mouths I think.

Drilling doesn't have to be boring. You can do it in a lot of different ways. Choral drilling the whole class, in pairs, in groups, half the class, individuals. There are lots of ways in which you can drill.

Mumble drilling. Say it to yourself under your breath. I'd like a cup of coffee. I'd like a cup of coffee. I'd like a cup of coffee. I'd like a cup of coffee. Four times. You can get them to do this kind of thing maybe. Again it's just getting it around your mouth.

Chanting. Jazz chants, chanting to music. It can be really motivating and enjoyable for learners.

Teaching grammar at this level I think should largely be in chunks of language, so more on a functional level. It doesn't need to be greatly analyzed. So did you go to the cinema? Did you see the film? did you have dinner with your friend. So that simple chunk of language gives you a lot of opportunity to ask past tense questions.

Would you like? I'd like... Would you like? I'd like... You don't need to analyze what's there. You just need, I think just a chunk. I don't won't. So we have negative auxiliaries here. We don't need to analyze that in any way. It can be used as a chunk.

There's a... There's a table in the room. There's a chair near the table. We don't need to analyze this particularly.

Words. Beginners need words. They need lots and lots of vocabulary. You want high frequency vocabulary and words with high surrender value. Words like big, for example. You can use it in lots of circumstances. You can use it in any situation.

Small. Verbs like get and give and take and put. Very high surrender value words. These are really useful. This is something that you need to focus on.

Cognates are helpful if you are learning from another European language. This gives you some confidence. Do exploit this, but do beware of false friends. Sensitive, sympathetic these kinds of things. Beware of them.

Recycling is hugely important. People don't learn the first time they learn something. They tend to need a lot of repetition. You can have flashcards. You can keep a vocabulary box. Keep recycling the words that they know. And not just words, but chunks of language. Chunks of grammatical language. Chunks of... a cup of coffee for example.

Words, phrases like this are really helpful.

Cards can be really useful. You can do some nice work by putting some words on cards and making sentences with them for example. It can be a nice activity. Again it's a lower requirement of energy activity.

It can be a kind of a down time activity if you had a lot of activities where they had to produce something.

Situational PPP. Again not so popular anymore, but great at lower levels. They don't know this stuff. They have never come across this stuff. Situational present, practice, produce type lessons can be really helpful.

book cover

It doesn't have to be very infantilizing. Again this is a very old book, but this is one of my favorite listenings, ever for low levels. You've go this lovely picture of Fiona who is clearly not that interested in Charles who is at her feet.

And the listenings entitled I Want You Fiona. It's a perfect adult theme, but actually the language is very straight forward. I am going to play it for you. Plays the recording.

So although that theme is adults and it's quite funny I think you've got very straight forward language. I want you. I need you. I love you. I don't want you. I only want James. So it's very straight forward language. Although it is quite interesting.

Another place for good listening for lower level learners is They have good listenings for all sorts of levels, but they certainly have got lots of authentic or semi-authentic listenings for lower level learners. So that was what I was looking at.

So basically you have the listening, the transcript, you've got suggestions on how to use it. You have a quiz. So it is quite helpful I think. Inside the classroom or outside the classroom.

Picture stories are really great for both reading and for speaking purposes. Again this is a very old... I don't even know where it came from. It came from the very beginning of my teaching days, but I still really enjoy it. Perhaps it looks a little dated, but I like it.

Picture stories generally, you've got again visuals supporting comprehension which is really important. Give them the pictures. Get them to just identify things: buildings, lift, old man, hat, numbers, this sort of thing.

Then you can read them the story or give them the story. Here's the story:

A country woman goes to the city for the first time. She sees buses, cars and tall buildings.

She goes into a building and looks around. She sees and old, old man standing next to some doors. He presses a button and the doors open.

He goes inside and the lights over the doors change 1-2-3-4-5 and back again 5-4-3-2-1.

The doors open and a young handsome man walks out. The country woman said "That's fantastic - tomorrow I'm going to bring my husband!"

Again it's a silly joke. But it's a nice little story. The language is very straightforward. You can get them to read this. You can get them to answer questions on this. You can get them to try to retell the story. Again having the visuals there will help them retell the story.

The main thing as with better levels, but in particularly with lower levels is just that you need to practise and practise and practise and then revise it all.

There is no short cut to this. There is a lot of new learning that takes place and it's had when you've got nothing else to relate it to. So this is why the lower levels are quite difficult.

This book by Peter Grundy has got lots of nice ideas for teaching beginners. So that's what I recommend if you are looking for a book. And I hope that has been a little bit helpful and has given you a few ideas about teaching lower levels. Good luck with it. See you next time. - Jo Gakonga, elt-training

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