Teaching false beginner and elementary students

How do you teach students with very limited English?

Learning English can be very daunting for very low-level students. They often lack confidence and are not sure how to go about organising their learning. This means that teaching very low-level students is as much about guidance and encouragement as it is about language. At times you will need to be very patient.

Learner training

  • discuss the best way to organise notes
  • encourage revision
  • help set realistic goals

What may need teaching or reviewing

On a short course it is impossible to cover everything that a learner needs so you will need to judge what their priority areas are. The following list indicates a typical elementary syllabus.

  • Basic question forms. This allows you to develop interaction and independence
  • Everyday expressions  and vocabulary areas such as travel, food, money, numbers
  • Basic verbs, adverbs, adjectives and prepositions
  • Present simple and past simple tenses, ‘going to’ for future reference
  • ‘can’, ‘could’, ‘would’, ‘have to’
  • Use of articles and countable/uncountable nouns
  • Pronunciation:  Word stress eg ‘baNAna’, vowels and diphthongs

Mistakes and when and how to correct

  • What to correct. Focus on your main teaching point. Try not to correct every mistake as making mistakes is a normal part of the learning process.
  • When to correct. During presentation and practice but only occasionally during other times. Too much correction is very demotivating and doesn’t take into account the time it takes to ‘digest’ and integrate new language.
  • How to correct. Allow self-correction where possible as mistakes are often just slips. You can use your fingers to indicate word order problems and omission of small words such as articles and prepositions.

Language activities

Low level learners are likely to remember new vocabulary most effectively when it is associated with an activity or experience.  You can use what you have around the house eg

  • how to make a cup of tea
  • countable/uncountable goods in your cupboards
  • new foods to provoke reactions (Marmite?)
  • use hats and jackets for spicing up role plays

Dialogue building. Start with a short interaction and extend a little each day. Dialogues don’t need to be 100% authentic or realistic. They are used for fluency (through repetition), pronunciation and fun!

  1. Are you hungry?
  2. Yes
  3. What would you like to eat?
  4. Some toast please
  5. Are you very hungry?
  6. Yes
  7. What would you like to eat?
  8. Some toast and marmalade and a cup of coffee please
  9. Are you very hungry?
  10. Yes I am
  11. What would you like to eat?
  12. Some toast and marmalade,  a cup of coffee and a strawberry yoghurt please.

Word maps. Encourage your learners to draw word maps that show connections between items of vocabulary. You can also present new vocabulary as a word map. A word map relating to TRAVEL could be built from the following vocabulary (unfortunately I cannot draw the connections on this blog but try for yourself!):

drive, walk, cycle, take/miss a bus, find, get/be lost, take a trip, go on a journey, go sightseeing

scenery, view, map, luggage, bag, ticket, travel agent, directions, timetable, hotel, hostel, B&B

Verbs and nouns can be associated, adjectives added and themes extended. Word maps can be used for revision, conversation practice and in writing.

Diary. Learners can keep a simple diary of their time in GB. Could be checked daily.

Word box. A repository (small box etc) for new vocabulary is great for quick revision.

Planning for independent time

Homework. Depending on the student and their energy level, homework could include grammar and vocabulary exercises, short writing and simple reading. You can also suggest appropriate low-level graded readers (and cassette/CD) that can be used for reading and listening practice. You may have suitable films with/without subtitles that are good for increasing your student’s exposure to English.

Trips. Very low-level students usually need help when planning independent trips eg for sightseeing or shopping. Make sure you discuss local travel arrangements (bus, train etc) during the initial orientation and have suggestions for independent travel ready.  Where appropriate cover reading brochures, timetables, role-plays etc in lesson time.

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One Response to Teaching false beginner and elementary students


  1. Gil-R says:

    I used to think all students should try to listen in English on tours from the get-go etc. Now I encourage lower level learners to listen in their first language for their first few trips to boost confidence, knowing that they will move to English commentary later in the course (this is especially effective if they do say, two London bus tours – listening in English the second time) – the payback of course, is that they have to tell me and write about their trips in English!

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