Teaching English to beginner students can seem very challenging. You may wonder where to start and how to make content accessible when students have very limited or no knowledge of the language. However, beginner-level students can advance quite quickly, and therefore they can be very exciting and rewarding to teach.
There are several things to keep in mind when teaching a class for beginners. First, beginners need a classroom environment that gives frequent opportunities to acquire and practice everyday language. A daily routine that uses familiar, repeated language structures and procedures is an excellent way to establish this. Ideas for how to establish such a routine will be discussed in Week 1 of this month’s Teacher’s Corner.
Beginner-level students also need to grow their vocabularies significantly. These students need to be deliberately taught many new words as well as have multiple opportunities to practice these words. During week 2, we will provide an easy-to-use vocabulary chart and accompanying activities to help students review new words over several class periods.
Finally, teachers need to offer ways for beginners to access information and participate in the classroom in meaningful ways. In week 3, we will present different types of questions (or modifications to existing questions) that allow beginners to demonstrate their knowledge at an early stage in their language development. During that week, you will also be presented with several non-traditional ways of letting beginners respond to questions. We’ll discuss how to use language supports such as words banks and sentence frames to help beginner-level students feel ready to communicate in English during week 4.
Beginners learn quickly when they feel comfortable and have the tools needed to take risks with language in the classroom. This month’s Teacher’s Corner will share strategies to help beginners gain vocabulary and language skills needed to succeed.
All students need multiple opportunities to practice English in the classroom, but providing opportunities to practice is especially important for beginner-level students who need to grow their confidence with the language. Incorporating a few simple, interactive activities into your daily lessons can help your beginner-level students to learn and use essential basic language structures and vocabulary.
Discussing Days and Dates with a daily Calendar Activity
Understanding and communicating information related to dates and days of the week are important basic language skills. A classroom calendar can be used to teach these concepts as well as provide an opportunity for students to interact with the information at the beginning of each school day or class meeting.
Educational supply stores often sell calendars, or you can make one yourself. For information about materials to create your own calendar, see Using a Daily Routine for Language Practice from the September 2016 Teacher’s Corner. Additionally, posters that show the months of the year and days of the week can help students interact with and remember this information. Below are ideas for how to utilize the calendar and accompanying posters.
Months of the year
Poster listing months of the year, calendar, song/chant
Teacher or student leader points to the months as students chant the names. (Search YouTube for many songs or chants that can be adapted for any age.)
Days of the week
Poster listing days of the week, calendar, song/chant
Teacher or student leader points to the days as students chant the names.
Discussing the date and days of the week
Calendar, sentence frames:
The date is [month] [day], [year].
Today is [day of the week].
Yesterday was [day of the week].
Tomorrow will be [day of the week].
Teacher or student leader adds the number for the current date to the calendar grid. Teacher or student leader can call on students to complete the sentence frames using the calendar. Then, class can repeat the sentences together to practice the structures.
Discussing important events or holidays
Calendar, sentence frame:
[Event/holiday] will be on [day of the week], [month] [day], [year].
As important events or holidays approach, they can be noted on the calendar, and a sentence frame can be added to tell when the event will occur. The teacher or student leader can include this frame in the daily recitation leading up to the event.
At the beginning of the course, the teacher can lead the routine activities around dates and calendars in order to model the procedures for students. Once the class becomes more comfortable with the routines, a student leader can be designated to lead the daily calendar routine each day. One easy way to choose a student leader is to display a list of students’ names with a moveable clip, such as a paper clip or clothespin, which can be easily moved down the list to designate the daily leader. Having students lead requires some practice, but once they become comfortable, learners will feel more confident using English to discuss the concepts they are learning.
Practicing greetings, goodbyes, and basic questions and responses with a Daily Mingle
A daily mingle activity is a great way to let beginners practice using greetings, closings, and basic vocabulary. Once students understand the basic procedure for the mingle, you can easily adapt the content to what you want learners to practice. Depending on your students, you may have them practice the same greeting or concept for one or two weeks at a time. Then, you can add more content or change the content to newer material.
Time: About 10 minutes at the beginning or end of class (including teacher modeling and the mingle itself)
Goals: To provide students interactive practice with greetings, closings, basic vocabulary, and questions/answers. To give students a chance to practice speaking and listening.
Materials: Sentence frames or a list of vocabulary words (these can be displayed on the board), music (optional)
Preparation: Decide what greetings, vocabulary, and questions and responses you would like students to practice. If helpful, you can create a calendar with the language structures you would like students to practice. It is recommended that the mingle also be used to practice vocabulary that students are learning. For example, if teaching the names of fruits and vegetables, you can create a question such as “What are your three favorite vegetables or fruits?” and students can use the new vocabulary to respond.
- Begin by explaining to students that the purpose of the daily mingle is to practice ways to say hello and goodbye and to ask and answer questions in English. Tell students that you will write the targeted language structures on the board and model what to say before each mingle.
- For demonstration purposes, write the following on the board:
- Greetings: Hello and Hi
- Question and response: How are you? –I am fine.
- Explain that you will play music and students should walk around until the music stops. When it stops, they should find a partner to practice the greetings with. Choose a student to model the greetings and question and response with you.
- Once students understand how to interact with a partner, ask two additional students to come up and join you. Play (or mimic) music to show how students should move around and find a new partner each time the music stops.
- Allow time for any questions from your students. Then, practice the procedure with the whole class by having everyone get out of their seats and move around. Play music and stop it periodically so that students can mingle with several different classmates to practice the language structures. Provide guidance or corrections as needed.
- Once students are familiar with the procedures for the daily mingle, you can change the content based on what you would like the class to practice. You can also use a mingle as a closing activity to give students a chance to review specific information from a lesson or to practice saying goodbye, etc. Below are some ideas for content to practice during the daily mingle.
Hello, hi, hey, good morning, good afternoon, good evening, etc.
How are you?
How are things?
How’s it going?
I am fine/I am doing well.
Things are good/okay.
It’s going well/fine.
Goodbye, bye, see you later, take care, talk to you soon, see you on [day], etc.
Talking about oneself
Birthdays, ages, nationalities, languages, other personal attributes, etc.
When is your birthday?
How old are you?
Where are you from?
What language(s) do you speak?
My birthday is _____.
I am ___ years old.
I am from ______.
I speak ______.
Talking about your family
Family members such as mom/mother, dad/father, brothers, sisters, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, cousin, etc.
How many people are in your family?
Do you have any brothers or sisters?
How old is your _____?
What is your ______’s name?
My family has _____ people.
I have ___ brothers and ___ sisters.
My _____ is ___ years old.
My _____’s name is _____.
Likes/dislikes or favorites
Foods, colors, animals, sports, activities, movies, TV shows, music, etc.
Do you like ______?
Do you like to ______?
What/Who is your favorite ______?
Yes, I like ______.
No, I do not like _____.
Yes, I like to ____. No, I do not like to ____.
My favorite ______ is ______.
Using structured daily activities such as the two presented here can help beginner-level students feel successful using English. Because the activities are familiar and highly predictable, they help beginners relax and be more willing to take risks with the language to practice what they are learning. Additionally, as learners progress over time, you can make these activities more complex to help support their growing English skills.
Vocabulary development is an important part of teaching English to beginners. Students not only need to learn new words, but they also need multiple opportunities to interact with the new vocabulary in order to recall and use the words independently.
This week’s Teacher’s Corner will focus on creating a vocabulary chart that can be used to teach new words as well as to review them with beginner-level students. It is suggested that the chart be completed over one or two class sessions, depending on how many words you include and the length of your class sessions. Each of the review activities can be used as a warm-up in a subsequent class. The review activities can also be repeated to provide students with multiple chances to practice the new words.
Creating a vocabulary chart
Time: 20-30 minutes to discuss and add new vocabulary to the chart
Goals: To help students learn new vocabulary words and definitions. To create a vocabulary tool to practice new words multiple times.
Materials: One chart for each student (photocopied or copied into student notebooks); pencils; a list of words and definitions; visuals or examples for words (such as photos, objects, diagrams, videos, illustrations, or actions), if available.
Preparation: Choose 5-10 vocabulary words you would like to teach students. The words can be related to a topic you are about to teach, or can come from a text that students will read. It is recommended that you introduce the vocabulary words and complete the chart with students before they encounter the vocabulary in a lesson or text. Prepare definitions for each of the words, being careful to write the definitions in a way that beginners will understand.
- Begin by providing students with copies of the chart, or by writing it on the board for students to copy into their notebooks.
- Explain to students that the chart will be used to write down information for vocabulary they will encounter in an upcoming lesson or text. You can write the topic or the title of the text at the top of the chart to help students connect the vocabulary to the lesson or text. For beginner students, it is recommended that you write everything on the board as students are expected to write it in the chart.
- Start by writing the first vocabulary word in the WORD column and by saying the word clearly. Have students repeat the word several times. If desired, you can also note the part of speech.
- Next, tell students what the word means, preferably by using a simple definition. Write the student-friendly definition in the MEANING column of the chart.
- It is also helpful for beginners to have a visual to explain the word or concept (see “Materials,” above, for examples). If an object, photo, or illustration is available to show students, use it to help explain the definition of the word. For very low-level beginners, you can replicate the visual as a simple sketch in the PICTURE column of the chart. For beginners with a bit more experience or language ability, you may ask them to create their own quick sketch or visual, either at this point in the class or at a later time as part of a reinforcement activity.
- If your students are very low-level beginners, provide a simple sentence using the new vocabulary word. Write the sentence in the EXAMPLE SENTENCE column of the chart. If your students are more proficient, you can ask them to think of example sentences and then choose one to include in the chart. (The NEW SENTENCE column of the chart should be left blank at this point.)
Review activities using the vocabulary chart
Time: 5-10 minutes for each practice activity
Goals: To provide students with multiple opportunities to review and interact with new vocabulary words and their meanings.
Note: Each of these activities should be thoroughly explained and modeled the first few times students try them. Eventually, students will remember the procedures for each one and should be able to complete the activities on their own.
Activity one: Partner Quiz
Materials: Students’ individual vocabulary charts
- Assign partners, or allow students to choose partners.
- Explain that the two partners will quiz each other using the vocabulary charts they created. One student will read the meaning of a word from the chart and the other student will try to identify the vocabulary word being defined. For this part of the activity, the student who is trying to guess the words should cover all the columns on his or her chart except the WORD column.
- For students who are very low-level beginners, this activity can also be teacher-led. You can provide a definition and students can work in their pairs, using their charts, to identify the associated vocabulary word.
- Partners should switch roles after one student has finished quizzing the other.
Activity Two: fill in the missing word
Materials: Example sentences used in the vocabulary chart, pencils, vocabulary words listed on the board
- Tell students that they must put away their vocabulary charts for this review activity. List all of the vocabulary words on the board. Have students write the numbers 1-10 (depending on the number of words) on a paper or on a page in their notebooks.
- Explain that you are going to write sentences (from the EXAMPLE SENTENCE column) that are missing one of the vocabulary words on the board. Students must determine which word belongs in the blank for each sentence and then write the word (or sentence) next to the number on their paper.
- This activity can be completed individually, in pairs, or in small groups. Additionally, a worksheet of sentences with blanks for the missing words and a word bank can be prepared ahead of time and given to students rather than writing on the board.
- As a further modification for very low beginners, provide only one sentence at a time. Rather than using the whole list of words as a word bank, give students 1-3 options to choose from for each sentence.
Activity three: vocabulary mix and match
Materials: Index cards or pieces of paper cut into approximately 3-inch x 3-inch squares (you will need four cards per vocabulary word), pencils, vocabulary charts
Note: This activity will use four cards per word, one card for each of the following: the word itself, the meaning, a sentence with the word missing, and an image (such as a sketch, a photo, an illustration). See the example below. The cards will be mixed up and randomly distributed to students, who will have to mingle and match all four cards to form a complete group or set. Consider the size of your class and how many words your students are learning in order to determine how many cards you should make. If needed, you can repeat words by making extra sets, or combine the word and image onto a single card (so that students will only match three cards total), etc.
- Cards for the activity can be prepared ahead of time, or you can have students make them in class using their vocabulary charts. If you decide to have students create the cards, assign one word to a group of four students. Explain that they should make one card for each of the components above using the exact information from their vocabulary chart. Have students put away their vocabulary charts when they finish creating the cards.
- Gather all of the cards and mix them up well.
- Tell students that the goal of the activity is to form a set of four correct cards (word, definition, sentence, and image) for each word.
- Before you distribute the cards, tell students you will place a card on their desk face down and that they shouldn’t turn it over until you give the signal to begin. Pass out one card to every student.
- Give a signal (such as clapping, blowing a whistle, or starting music) and allow students ample time to mingle and find their matches. You should also move around the room to assist any students who may need help or have questions.
- When students have all found their matches, each group can share what is on their cards and the rest of the class can check for accuracy. If there are any mismatches, the student(s) with the mismatched card(s) can step aside until the group with the correct matching set comes up and shares their word.
- If desired, once students become more comfortable with this activity, you can make the game competitive by offering an incentive or prize for the group who correctly assembles their set of cards first.
Activity four: Partner/small group sentence writing
Materials: Students’ individual vocabulary charts, paper or notebooks, pencils or pens
Note: This activity should be completed after students have already had a chance to interact with the vocabulary words in multiple ways through the other activities. If you have very low-level students, or if you have ten words in your chart, you can split this activity over two class meetings, and use a third meeting for students to share.
- Have students take out their vocabulary charts. Review the sentences in the EXAMPLE SENTENCE column. Explain that during this activity students will work together to write a new sentence for each of the vocabulary words.
- Assign each student one or two partners to work with (or allow students to choose partners)
- Students and their partners should complete the NEW SENTENCE column of the vocabulary chart. If needed, the sentence can be similar to the example sentence already on the chart, or you can provide a model sentence starter for each of the words on the board.
- When students finish writing new sentences, have them find new partners and share the new sentences they have written for each of the words.
Creating and using this vocabulary chart multiple times during a unit of study can help beginners retain vocabulary. The practice activities also allow learners to interact with the words in familiar ways, which increases their ability to use the words independently.