Teaching ESL Beginners: Tips from Two Longtime Volunteers

Mary Janice Dicello and Marcia Rucker have taken on one of the most challenging tasks at Language ETC: teaching Basic level. Mary Janice started teaching at Language ETC back in 1993 as one of the very first volunteers, and she has also taught ESL at Carlos Rosario. She’s a member of the LETC board. Marcia, trained in Russian and linguistics, has been at Language ETC for about three years. She has years of previous experience teaching in a master’s degree program to train ESL teachers and in high school and adult ESL programs. Marcia and Mary Janice enjoy teaching beginning students and were happy to share some ideas about what works in the classroom.

How are Basic classes different from the higher-level classes at Language ETC?

Mary Janice: The students in Basic A speak almost no English. Also, the average beginner student at LETC has six years or less of formal education in their country. They may have very limited literacy in their native language, which in most cases is Spanish. We have to teach them how to write the letters of the alphabet, how to begin a sentence with a capital letter and end with a period. We can do a lot with them if they don’t have a foundation of literacy in their own language, but it’s very challenging.

Marcia: With a beginner class, explanation is pointless. Teachers have to show what they mean and then supply the language that carries that meaning. We do many of the things parents do with children — pointing, using gestures and facial expressions, showing pictures and real objects, so that learners can grasp what the words being used must mean.

Mary Janice: Because of their limited schooling, the students aren’t familiar with classroom routines. We orient them to the classroom setting. Using a textbook is a skill in itself — they have to learn to read and follow the instructions. I give each student a pocket folder to keep their papers and homework in, with a date on each paper, so they can see their progress.

Marcia: They haven’t had experience with test taking, so we have to teach those skills. I remember one young woman, very attentive and bright. She had just one year of schooling, and she had no idea how to take a test — not even that the answer follows the question. It’s obvious to us, but it wasn’t to her.

Mary Janice: On the other hand, we also get a few Basic students who are highly educated, who went to university in their countries, though they have no English. They can do written exercises very quickly, so you need supplementary materials for them. The big challenge is to find a way to meet the different needs of all the students, with particular concern for those who are preliterate.

Mary Janice Dicello teaches Basic A on weekday mornings.

When students have so little English, how do you communicate with them so that they understand?

Marcia: The first misconception you have to get past is that you open your mouth and say something and everybody understands. A beginner class doesn’t understand your explanations. You have to use body language, show rather than tell. I ask myself: how would I get my meaning across if I had laryngitis and couldn’t make a sound? I would find another way to express myself.

Mary Janice: I speak very slowly and clearly. I want students to hear, say, read, and write, in that order. If I’m speaking too fast, the students aren’t really hearing it. They can’t process language that they can’t hear. If the language is not at their level, they get discouraged. It’s also important to give them “think time” after you say something. Beginners process language slowly.

Marcia: We move around a lot. I get everybody up on their feet. We walk in a circle, and I say several times, “I’m walking.” Then I look at the students and ask, “What are you doing?” I make clear that they should repeat what I said, as they’re walking. I want them to be doing and saying at the same time.

Mary Janice: We do a lot of listening and repeating — choral repetition and individual work on pronunciation. I have my students clap the syllables when they learn a new word. It’s a very physical kind of teaching — you’re demonstrating with your body, pantomiming, using your mouth to show how sounds are made.

Marcia Rucker teaches Basic B on weekday mornings.

What kinds of classroom activities work well with beginners?

Mary Janice: For Basic classes, you have to prepare much more than is in the textbook lesson. You can’t just rely on conversation to fill in any gaps, as you sometimes can at higher levels. We start with easy questions and answers, using limited vocabulary. There’s a lot of rote practice; it’s not free conversation at this level. We do a lot with personal information — spelling your name out loud in English, for example.

Marcia: On the second day, we give students a grid with spaces for names and countries. We practice “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” and “How do you spell that?” Then they go around and ask their classmates those questions, and fill in the grid with the results. In general, we try for activities where students are exchanging real information.

Mary Janice: We make it fun. I break them into teams for competition with vocabulary words. We play Simon Says — it’s great for learning parts of the body, left and right, verbs like turn, jump, and so on. Also Bingo, Memory, Hokey Pokey, Go Fish. We sing songs and say poems.

Marcia: Sometimes, after we’ve practiced a question-and-answer routine and they know it, the two teachers sit down and point to someone, saying, “We’re tired. You be the teacher.” The first time, they look flabbergasted, but then they do it. It has to be an exercise the class has already practiced, of course.

What are some of the rewards of teaching absolute beginners?

Mary Janice: Because they come in with a clean slate, so to speak, I can see their progress clearly. I get great satisfaction out of that. Beginners are so eager. Their attendance is good. Everything you teach them is useful in their daily lives.

Marcia: At higher levels, students may have picked up some English, with little or no instruction, from just living here a while. Others have studied written English in their home countries but have never heard how English actually sounds here in the US. Both situations lead to students repeating — and needing to unlearn — a lot of mistakes. Beginners have further to go, but very little to undo.

Learning English is so hard. How do you get beginners to stick with it and not get discouraged?

Mary Janice: Show respect for them, whatever level they’re at. Keep a certain lightheartedness in class. Offer positive words when they get something right. Encourage. Compliment. Smile.

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One Response to Teaching ESL Beginners: Tips from Two Longtime Volunteers

  1. Aaditi says:

    Thank you, Mary Janice and Marcia for providing some words of wisdom! This has been my second term with LETC, and my first teaching Basic A – and the concepts of students needing to be able to hear what you’re saying, and assumptions around classroom routines have really struck true.
    My biggest learning so far happened when I realized that I would have to teach our students (1) that it’s ok to ask questions, and (2) how to ask questions in the first place! It’s been most rewarding to go from blank stares to feeling comfortable about being forthright when you don’t understand something.

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