How to Teach English to Beginners 

By Camille Turner
August 21, 2019
ESL Teacher with Young Students

The idea of teaching English to beginners (who have little or no knowledge of English) can strike fear in the hearts of new TEFL teachers, especially if they don’t know the students’ language. Teachers may wonder if it’s possible to teach this level or where to even start. Don’t worry – it’s quite possible, for any teacher! We’ll give you practical advice on how to teach English to beginners and tools you can use in your classroom (such as props and matching games) to get them excited about developing their English skills. 

What is the definition of a beginner ESL student?

First things first – let’s start with an overview of student levels. English students are typically classified (by a placement test or interview) as either beginner-level, intermediate-level, or advanced-level learners. Some schools have levels between these, too, such as high beginners.

There are also several popular, more in-depth classification systems, such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which assigns students to six different categories. However, using the general three terms (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) is a worldwide practice. The following is a breakdown of the principal characteristics of each level.

Beginner


A beginner English student is focused on learning essential vocabulary, such as family names, household objects, basic adjectives, and place names. Beginners are also becoming familiar with subject pronouns, frequently used verbs, and modal expressions. They may study some grammar and syntax, but these lessons will mostly focus on basic concepts, such as asking questions or constructing simple sentences.

It’s worth noting that most students are not total beginners, as they have had some exposure to English, whether through movies and music or basic school lessons during younger years. These students are known as “false beginners” because they don’t have enough skills to be considered intermediate but still have some basic English knowledge.

Intermediate


An intermediate learner has mastered the basics, can communicate most ideas in a basic way and is moving on to learn more difficult verb tenses and grammatical structures. These students usually show more rapid progress and may seek to expand their vocabulary in order to vary the language they use.

Advanced


Advanced English students able to easily communicate and are fine-tuning their language skills and striving to sound more and more like native English speakers. They learn more autonomously and may be interested in working with authentic English resources, such as journal publications, magazine articles, and podcasts.

Is it difficult to teach ESL to beginners?

TEFL certification courses prepare you to teach English language learners of all levels; however, teaching beginners can be more difficult for the obvious reason that they won’t understand most of what you say in English. This can make giving instructions for activities more difficult and using immersion teaching (teaching completely in English) more of a challenge. Sometimes, immersion teaching will be the preferred method of the school or institute where you work, and other times it will be necessary due to teaching a class of students with various L1s (first languages). However, these difficulties can be overcome, and there are plenty of effective ways to approach teaching beginners.

TEFL Teacher in Thailand

Where is it common to teach total beginners English?

Total beginners are taught all over the world, and these students are a diverse group of people. You can find opportunities to teach immigrant adult beginners in your native English-speaking home country, or you can travel abroad and teach a range of ages.

While adult total beginners can be found in most countries, Asian countries like China and South Korea put a strong emphasis on children learning English, so most situations involving teaching beginners are with young learners. There are tons of job opportunities to teach these young learners in Asia if you’re looking to go abroad!

South American countries are another place where it’s becoming more and more common to send young children to bilingual schools or after-school English programs, and you can find a number of jobs teaching total beginners in countries in this region, such as Ecuador and Peru, as well.

Search TEFL jobs on the Bridge Job Board.

Do new TEFL teachers usually teach English to beginners?

Most often, new teachers will not teach many classes of total beginners because the local, bilingual teachers at a language school or K-12 setting tend to teach lower-level students until they’re ready for 100% English immersion. However, that isn’t always the case, and many ESL teachers are required to teach a range of levels, so you may find yourself with a class of total beginners as part of your daily teaching schedule.

Is it possible to teach beginner ESL students without knowing their language?

You can certainly teach beginners without knowing the local language! In fact, most TEFL teachers don’t know the language where they teach. Sometimes knowing the language won’t even benefit you if you have a class full of people from all over the world. Other times, your employer may want you to abstain from using the students’ native language even if you know it, to provide an immersive English experience. Immersion teaching is a method that has become more widely accepted in recent years, and there are plenty of benefits for students to learn this way.

What are some tips for teaching English to beginners?

These are some examples of the types of techniques you’ll learn in BridgeTEFL courses to prepare you to teach beginners and other students.

Use Total Physical Response (TPR)


Total physical response (TPR) is a fantastic way to teach English to both adult and young beginners. TPR is a method that prescribes using your body and facial expressions to relay meaning. TPR is so successful because no matter where in the world you are, everyone can understand certain gestures and expressions. For example, when using TPR to teach “cat,” you might hold your fingers up to your cheeks to imitate whiskers, or when teaching the word “hop,” you could demonstrate the action.

Show images to teach ESL vocabulary


Show plenty of pictures


Another great way to get beginners to understand you is to incorporate images into your lessons. Pictures are a nice way to relay meaning without confusing students, and they work well for learners of all ages. Plus, students may benefit from associating the images with the English words, which can aid memorization.

Use minimal language


When you’re teaching beginners, you want to do your best not to overwhelm them with long, complicated sentences. When giving instructions, be clear and concise, demonstrating them as you go along. When teaching new vocabulary or grammatical concepts, use as few peripheral words and phrases as possible so that students can focus on the important or target part of your speech.

Incorporate props


All beginners will benefit from incorporating props into your teaching. It helps convey meaning and reinforces your lesson material. You can use either props or realia (real-life objects) to teach vocabulary, form the basis of an activity or game, or test comprehension.

Learn more about realia and how to use it in your ESL classroom!

How do I make a lesson plan for beginner English students?

When creating a lesson plan for beginner ESL students, you, of course, want to take into consideration whether you’re teaching young learners, teens, or adults and make sure you’re presenting information in a context that’s relevant to them.

Just like with any class, when teaching beginners, you’ll want to consider your teaching objectives, the overall curriculum, and any time or resource constraints. Also, remember to diversify the skills you target (speaking, reading, writing, or listening) with different types of activities. And, even at this level, it’s important to devote a large portion of the lesson plan to student talk time (STT). For beginner students, you can help facilitate this by writing key phrases and vocabulary on the board or providing dialogues for students to read.

Your lesson plan might include the following components:

  • Objective: What will students know how to do by the end of this class?  (Ex: Students will learn vocabulary to introduce themselves to others)
  • Warm-up: Incorporate a starter activity at the beginning of the class to get students relaxed.
  • Review: Go over what you taught in the previous lesson to reinforce the concept and prepare to build on it.
  • Present: Introduce a new concept, aligned with the objective, in a relevant context.
  • Practice: Provide structured activities to students to practice the concept, perhaps in pairs or groups.
  • Production: Give students the opportunity to produce the new language in a less structured context.
  • Concept Check: Incorporate fun ways to check students’ comprehension of the material (such as with CCQs.)

What are some fun activities for teaching English beginners?

 

 


Activities for adults


Role-play

Role-play is one of the greatest ways for adult beginners to learn, as it facilitates real-world situations that they may encounter. Pair students off and give them a scenario (and script if you choose) to practice what they’ve recently learned. You can role-play just about any situation, such as making plans with a friend, going to the doctor, paying at the grocery store, etc.

Vocabulary journals

Having your adult beginner students keep a record of the new words they learn can be very beneficial when they want to look something up, recall a word, or review what they’ve been taught. It also serves as a physical reminder of the progress they’ve made and the lessons they’ve studied.

Matching games

I love to use matching games with adult beginners to practice just about any new concept. You can have them match vocabulary words and their definitions, images and words, fill-in-the-blank sentences and pronouns, minimal pairs for pronunciation, or any number of things you want them to master. Matching games can also serve as an excellent review technique or to get students talking with partners or small groups.

Activities for kids


Learn a song together

Teach students a short and simple song that relates to whatever vocabulary or thematic concept you’re teaching at the time. Kids love to dance, so make sure you create movements that match the vocabulary in the song so students can be active and have a great time while singing.

Get inspiration for your classroom with these ESL songs and activities. 

Act out words

Rather than just using TPR to teach new vocabulary or ideas, get students involved in the process by inviting them to participate in the TPR with you. Kids love acting out action words, animals, and really anything that lets them move around and be silly. Plus, they’ll be more likely to remember the English words if they’ve acted them out.

TEFL Teacher in China

Have them make crafts

Young students absolutely love to create fun craft projects, draw pictures, and show off their creative skills. Incorporate plenty of fun crafts and art projects for students to reinforce the lessons. As a bonus, display their creations around the classroom so students feel proud of what they’ve made while learning.

You don’t have to fear teaching beginner students!

It’s understandable that you may feel intimidated if you don’t know how to teach English to beginners! However, keep in mind that most new TEFL teachers will have few classes with students at this level. If you do, approaching the class with patience, confidence, and some tried-and-true activities for teaching beginner students will help both you and your students succeed.

Need some more ideas you can use with your class? Check out these 10 ESL icebreakers you can use with your students on the first day or throughout the term!