How to start teaching English to beginners: step by step

Teaching English to beginners in a classroom

If you’ve never taught English to absolute beginners before, the idea of spending a whole lesson communicating with students who don’t understand a word your saying sounds a bit daunting.

Any ESL teacher can tell you that teaching absolute beginners is slightly different from teaching other classes. 

Sure, it’s challenging, but it can also be one of the most fun and rewarding levels to teach to. 

At this level, every new word your students learn counts, and the best way to teach is to get creative, and even a little silly. Make learning English fun!

That’s why it’s best to prepare yourself. Luckily, there are many TEFL courses out there to help you teach English as a foreign language. 

But, either way, here are seven ways to start teaching English to beginners, step by step:

  1. Break up lessons and categorize vocabulary. 
  2. Repeat everything.
  3. Use plenty of props.
  4. Embrace your inner mime.
  5. Check for understanding.
  6. Get into group activities.
  7. Give plenty of encouragement.

1. Break up lessons and categorize vocabulary.

Think about how hard it is to learn a foreign language. It can be overwhelming at first. Learning English is no easy task.

ESL students need structure. Try creating lesson plans with small activities broken down into manageable chunks to help them absorb and remember everything. 

Teach your students English with vocabulary categories. Categorizing vocabulary makes learning new words sticky! 

For example, you can group vocabulary in categories like animals, dining, directions or things you find in a supermarket, to name a few.

Let’s say you’re doing a listening activity with a dialogue in a supermarket and questions. Introduce key vocabulary first and ensure that the students understand the questions before you hit play. 

As activities are shorter and more structured at beginner levels, you might also find you’ll need more resources. Thankfully there are plenty of free resources for ESL lessons online.  

2. Repeat everything

Don’t be afraid to be a broken record. Getting in the habit of repeating things will help your beginner students understand the lesson and retain key phrases and words better.

If you begin every class with a greeting like, “Hello, how are you?”, students will quickly get comfortable with replying to and using this greeting.

Most instructions in the classroom can also boil down to a few surprisingly simple words. Listen, read, write, look, stand up and sit down. 

Focusing on repeating the same words in your instructions means students with no experience with the English language will learn those words quickly, and understand better.

You can also extend the concept of repetition to your classroom routine. 

Try starting every lesson with a vocabulary revision game (repeating new words from the last lesson) and finish every lesson with writing homework and tidying the classroom. 

Even if students don’t understand every word you are saying, over time, they will become familiar with the routine, and understand what they should be doing. 

 

how to start teaching English to beginners

3. Use plenty of props

Imagine how you might describe what a cat is to someone who doesn’t speak English. 

The reality is you can say whatever you like, but the simplest thing would be to show them a picture of a cat or draw a cat on the board.

Part of your lesson preparation for teaching English to beginners might be finding pictures or objects that can help you explain concepts quickly and accurately in the classroom. 

It’s also a great idea to print some common classroom language to put up on the wall. 

"Can I please go to the washroom?" is a long question for a beginner to remember in English. But if they can see the question on the wall, they can try to ask. Or in worst-case scenarios, point at it.

Encouraging your students to use classroom language in English is also a great way to help them to speak in full, correct sentences, using language they have seen modeled by you and other students.

If you don’t want to make your own, Pinterest is an excellent source for classroom posters.

4. Embrace your inner mime

There will also be times where you need to explain what a cat is, but you don’t have a picture to reference or space on the board to draw one.

So, what’s the next most straightforward thing you can do? Let out a couple of meows and act it out. 

How into character you get depends on what kind of teacher you are, but making good use of gestures (and not minding looking a little silly in front of your class) will help you get your message across in many situations.

And honestly, you might feel a little ridiculous at first, but once you see how much it helps your students, you’ll find yourself miming along to everything you say.

You can also get students involved too! 

Asking students to act things out can be a great way to check vocabulary comprehension, get them involved in playing games or even let them communicate how they are feeling. 

5. Check for understanding

Even after you’ve given great instructions, shown a picture, and done an Oscar-worthy mime, you’ll still sometimes end up with a class of clueless faces looking back at you. 

When teaching basic English to beginners, it can be hard to gauge how much students understand. And often, through no fault of their own, they may completely misunderstand what you’re asking them.

To help everyone stay on track, you’ll need to check students' understanding all the time. To do this, ask concept check questions. 

For example, imagine you want students to do a speaking activity where they ask ten questions to different students and write their answers down. You could ask if they understand, but chances are they may just yes even though they don’t.

Instead, try asking specific yes/no questions related to the activity. You could ask:

  • How many questions will you ask?
  • Will you speak to one student or ten students?
  • Will you write the answers or just listen?
  • Does everyone have a pen?

Asking these questions to the whole class at once will give you instant feedback on what students understand (or not) and will also reassure students that they have the right idea of what they should be doing.

6. Get into group activities

Sometimes it can be hard to get students in beginner classes to form a bond, especially if they are all from different countries and don’t share a common language. 

Singing songs and chants is a great way to build group activities into a beginner class while improving fluency and focusing on repetition.

The British Council Kids website has tons of simple songs that classes can sing together, as well as games and videos. 

Or, you could also try watching simple shows as a group. This is easier with younger learners, who watch kids shows. But it’s also a great option for adults. Try Peppa Pig! 

Watching shows in English gives students something to enjoy together, and you’ll probably notice your students using common phrases.

And don’t forget to play games together. Simple games like Pictionary, bingo or Scattergories can all help build a friendly, supportive atmosphere in your class. 

7. Give plenty of encouragement

For learners at this level, everything is new and they are bound to make mistakes when they speak and write in English. 

They know this as much as you do and might need more praise and encouragement to keep going.

Making mistakes should be embraced because mistakes lead to learning. 

Steps that seem small, like being able to say a full sentence, or pronounce a new word, are huge achievements for your learners and should be treated as such. 

So give plenty of praise and encouragement! 

Remember, you’re a beginner too!

Of all the different tips for teaching in ESL classrooms, when it comes to starting teaching English to beginners, the most important is to meet them at their level. 

If you want to help your beginners out, remember to: 

  1. Break up lessons and categorize vocabulary. 
  2. Repeat everything.
  3. Use plenty of props.
  4. Embrace your inner mime.
  5. Check for understanding.
  6. Get into group activities.
  7. Give plenty of encouragement.

If you need a little more help, doing a  TEFL certification course will give you a deeper understanding and arm you with the skills you need to teach English to any age group and any level. 

In any case, it will take time for your students – and you – to get to grips with what they are learning. So don’t rush! Take things step by step.

Best of luck!