A lot of what we do as ESOL teachers relies on our students’ prior knowledge, building on their current level of vocabulary and grammar, exploring topics that they can talk about, and extending their ability from their existing skill-set in English. However, when teaching absolute beginners (CEFR A1 level), learners may not have much, if any, existing language to draw on in their study. Learning new language is like learning to ride a bike, tie your shoes or swim. The first few lessons are the challenge that they are because you don't have any experience to draw on, but with steady repetition and lots of patience, it can become like second nature. So how can we build a set of skills and language in learners from scratch?
Take your time
As you may expect, the lower the level of English your students have, the longer it will take fro them to apply new language from scratch. At this level, there is a lot of influence from language and sound patterns in their first language(s), and they may not have had to deal with speaking in another language before, so conceptual ideas of grammar, vocabulary structures and how to form words with a totally new set of sounds is a huge challenge.
All of this means that you should be prepared to go slowly in class - leave a lot of thinking time between any information that you present, and be ready to allow for lots of error correction and encouragement along the way. Again, with very little previous knowledge to draw on, even the smallest success is a huge milestone, and will be the foundation for further learning at a faster and faster pace. At first, however, slow down and don’t expect too much from your learners.
Be ready to review and recycle
At any level of study, it takes more than one exposure to a piece of new language for students to be able to use it correctly, and this is more true at a beginner level of study than any other. Be prepared to return to key grammar and word-order examples, vocabulary and pronunciation points again and again, and you will see progress as learnt forms are retrieved and re-used in later classes.
If you see a word or phrase that you taught a few days ago appearing in a text, refer back to the previous lesson and ask students to remember how they worked with it then - the more times they return to these learning experiences, the more likely it will be for them to retain what they are learning.
Work with concepts first
Just because a student does not have any language to access when studying, it does not mean that they do not have any knowledge to draw on. At beginner level, a lot of the work is focused on applying English language items to concepts that the students know, but just cannot communicate in English.
Separating meaning (concept) and form (language) is a fundamental skill for teachers, and is never more evident than when teaching low levels. Isolating concept, and removing any potentially confusing language, is the first step to helping students at this level to identify and use new words and structures. This means using non-linguistic prompts as ways in to learning. Non-linguistic prompts include:
Video (without people speaking)
Realia (actual objects)
Using these kinds of resources to identify pure concepts, which are probably understood by the learners, and then naming these items orally, before working with the written form, can help absolute beginners take on new language quickly from a zero starting point.
Communicate non-linguistically, then linguistically
As with the conceptual prompts above, your own language needs to be carefully planned at this low level of proficiency, as most verbal instructions will not easily be understood (your own language will be as much of a challenge as the language that they are studying).
Find ways to use non-verbal or paralinguistic communication to support the examples you are teaching - use gestures, body language, facial expression and acting out scenes physically. These physical prompts will add meaning to the words you are working with in a way which may cut through the language barrier and support understanding.
Using these nonverbal methods initially, then reducing slowly to just words, can help low-level students to rely more and more on your words, and less on their visual understanding as you work through a lesson, or even a whole course.
Teach by demonstration, not explanation
Part of the benefit of the above physical approach is that actions directly demonstrate concepts, rather than having to use complex explanations to tell learners about the language they are learning. The language of explanation is by its nature higher in complexity than the subject of that explanation, and when the learners are working form a zero starting point in the area you are teaching, that simply means that too much teacher talk, and at too high a level, will cause stress, demotivating and lack of engagement. Demonstrate, don’t explain, and think about how you can do this when you plan to teach new language at this level rather than making things up on the spot.
Take a plurilingual approach
Finally, if you (and your students) are lucky enough to have several speakers of the same first language in the group, this can be used as a valuable backup resource. A lot can be shared between learners using their L1, especially aspects of theory, or differences between English and the first language, which can support learning and increase awareness of language and sound patterns more quickly than lengthy examples and demonstrations.
That said, be careful not to ostracise individuals who do not have same-language partners in the class. Make sure everyone has a partner to have these discussions with, or it may put the individual language speaker at a deficit in class.
However you aim to overcome the challenges of teaching at a beginner level of study, do not be disheartened! It is one of the most rewarding (if also the most challenging) teaching situations there is. Done well, you are literally giving your students a whole new way of communicating, step by step, and once you start to see them apply it, especially outside the classroom, it really makes the job worthwhile.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in an entirely online mode of study, and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.