What Do You Need To Teach Beginners?

It’s my experience that students at lower levels tend to progress much more quickly, or at least to feel that they are, and this is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching them. It’s also my impression that more ready-to-go materials exist for lower levels than higher levels; when learning any language there are just basics you need to learn and these will be the same or similar no matter which book or particular syllabus you follow. This may be why it seems so easy to find activities and games for lower levels.

I also enjoy the challenges of higher level classes, and once you have experience with any level, it becomes easier to prepare for it or to come up with a game for an extra five minutes or whatever. However I do actually feel like my CELTA prepared me better for teaching lower levels than higher ones, and I certainly don’t think that lower levels are “harder” to prepare for by any means. I suppose you focus on different things for lower levels than higher levels.

Some time ago I interviewed teacher John Hall about his experience teaching English to Kosovar refugees in Canada. I learned about all this via a post he made at the ESL Café regarding the skill of communicating with beginners. I would count this skill, however you might call it, as one of the most important.

In his post, he described it this way (and gave me permission to quote him when I interviewed him a few months ago!):

..”.it is as if you have two minds. One of your minds is thinking about what you want to communicate; the other is always thinking about what the students can understand. (The latter not only includes an awareness of the students’ knowledge of English, but also an awareness of their “cultural consciousness.”) When I am speaking in class, most of the time nothing can pass my lips unless it is approved of by both of my “minds.” It seems to me that this is an essential part of good communication: being aware of not just what you are saying, but also being aware of if and how your audience can understand it.

…I would also point out that this is so contrary to the traditional way of lecturing in universities…When I was a university student, I sat through too many classes in which the professor was talking in English but yet in a subset of English almost entirely incomprehensible to me and most of my classmates. What a waste of time!”

My own additional take on it is this: people often speak disparagingly of paying attention to “what others think” or “how others perceive you.” In many facets of life I think it’s true that doing this will make things much more difficult – it’s exhausting and not so healthy to constantly be thinking about how you appear. But in the right dose it can actually make you a better teacher. The answer seems to be to find a healthy middle ground where you can capitalize on it inside the classroom and then turn it off outside.

I’ve also actually found this skill to facilitate other things, such as travel. I make an effort to learn some common phrases before I go, but obviously I can’t learn “enough” Turkish or Hungarian or Albanian for a week-long visit. Somehow though, it doesn’t intimidate me nearly as much as it might have some time ago to think that I might find myself in a situation where there is no English speaker. The other person needs to be willing to try to communicate of course, but provided they are, we can often get done whatever we need to get done.