How to Teach ESL to Total Beginners

How to Teach ESL to Total Beginners

As an ESL teacher, there is a good chance that you’ll find yourself teaching a class of total beginners.  This doesn’t just mean that they will struggle with basic sentence patterns or pronunciation – it means that when you step into the classroom and say “Hello, what’s your name?”  you’ll be greeted by blank stares and the sound of crickets chirping. 

Kindergarten scoutStarting from nothing might seem pretty daunting, but it’s actually fairly easy, and very rewarding, to teach English to total beginners.  Here are a few tips to get you off on the right foot.

Enlist the help of a co-teacher who speaks their language

Of course, the class is about learning English, and you want to get your students immersed in it as soon as possible.  But you’re going to have a hard time being effective as a teacher if you don’t lay down some ground rules as far as classroom expectations, what they need to bring, rules, consequences, etc.

This is certainly possible to do without someone explaining it to your students in their native language – but if you have that resource available to you, make good use of it for the first couple of classes, until students are comfortable with the rules and basic flow of your class.

Start with key phrases

There are some basic linguistic tools that your beginner students will need before you can really start teaching the alphabet, grammar, or vocabulary.

Certain key phrases like “stand up” “sit down” “take out your grammar book” “take out your pencil” “raise your hand,” “repeat after me,” etc, and the numbers 1-10, are going to be your starting point.

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The good thing is that these are mostly simple, highly kinesthetic, and easy to teach using movements and visuals.  You can turn this into a fun game.

Simon Says (or Teacher Says) is a great way to get started, as long as they understand that they should only do something when you say “Teacher Says” before it.

They don’t need to be able to say any of the phrases at this point, just understand them well enough to follow along with what is going on in class.

Use lots of visuals, movements and gestures

You’ll have to be pretty high-energy to effectively teach ESL to beginners.  You can’t communicate with words, so you’ll have to rely on body language and images.

Flashcards are great for teaching vocabulary, especially nouns.  If you are teaching them commands like “stand up,” “sit down,” “raise your hand,” etc, the best way is for you to visually demonstrate what you want them to do.

As they start to build their vocabulary and you introduce words like “take,” “go,” “jump,” “run,” be ready to move around a lot.

Don’t get too caught up in the ABCs

Yup, the alphabet’s crucial, and it’s the obvious place to start for complete beginners.  However, it will take your students a while to get their ABCs nailed down, and you need to make sure that you are balancing out your classes with speaking, word recognition, and comprehension.

They don’t have to know how to write and pronounce every letter in the alphabet before they can start recognizing words or learning important phrases – and knowing the alphabet isn’t going to do them any good if they don’t have any context for it.

Take the ABCs a few letters at a time, and remember that it will all start to come together for them in a few months.

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Use songs and chants

Putting words to music and rhythm is a great way to make them stick.  Especially at this level, remembering the foreign sounds of English can be a challenge, so anything that you can do to make them more memorable is going to be a huge help.

It doesn’t hurt that songs and chants are a lot of fun.  Find some simple kids songs and teach them to your students – they don’t have to know all the words at this point.  Repeat the songs often, have fun with them, and as they build their vocabulary, they’ll start to pick out the words.

A very useful one is the alphabet phonics chant – A, A, ah-ah-ah; B, B, buh-buh-buh; C, C, kuh-kuh-kuh; D, D, duh-duh-duh. It’s simple, but it really helps students remember the names of the letters and what sound they make.

Speak slowly and clearly

Eventually, students will need to get used to understanding English at normal conversational speed. At the start, though, it’s going to be hard enough for them just to pick out the vocabulary words that you are teaching and the sentence patterns.

So make sure that you pay attention to the speed that you are speaking, and to what words you are using.  Try to only use words that they are familiar with.

Once they get a little more advanced, or once they have learned certain phrases very well, you can start to speed up your speaking to get them used to normal speech, but it takes time.

Be prepared to do most of the talking

At this level, your students will be able to say very, very little.  You’ll be doing most of the talking, and that’s okay.  Language comprehension comes before language production, so focus on making sure that you are using simple language and that your students can understand everything that you are saying.

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Ask them comprehension questions: Where is the apple? What color is this?  What is red?  Whether they answer in one word or just point, as long as you can be sure that they understand what you are saying, their speaking will come along later.

Make sure students talk to each other, too

You’ll be doing most of the talking, yes, but it’s important for your students to get used to hearing different voices, accents, and pronunciations.

By a couple classes  in, they should know some simple conversations, such as “Hi, my name is ____, what’s your name?”  Let them practice in pairs, and switch the pairs up often, so that they get to hear lots of different voices speaking English.

Remember to take it slow and be patient

Especially because the language itself is so new to them, it will take them a while to remember words.  For the first few lessons, you will probably feel like you are treading water and getting nowhere, especially if they only meet a couple times a week.

Don’t try to do too much at first.  Aim to learn a few letters, four or five vocabulary words, and one or two new phrases, plus practicing what you learned in previous lessons.

A few ideas for easy games and activities:

“Teacher Says” – This is a great game for teaching verbs or any movement-based phrase.

Matching Cards – match the capital letter to the lower case letter, or you say a sound and they have to grab the right alphabet flash card.

Duck Duck Goose – There are a lot of variations you can do with this game – have them use the names of animals you’ve recently learned (dog dog cat instead of duck duck goose), or have them say their ABCs as they go around the circle and then say a number when they want to be chased.

Sticky Ball Face Game – Draw a large face  on the board (or a whole body), and then draw a blank face for each team.  Have them throw the ball at the large face.  Whatever part they hit, they draw on their team’s face.  The first team to get all the parts (two eyes, a nose, and a mouth), is the winner.  Great practice for learning the names of body parts.


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