Number one for English language teachers

Introduction to Absolute Beginners

Frances Marnie introduces a series of ESOL lesson plans aimed at beginner-level students with little or no previous experience of English. This article provides guidance on how to approach the series and tips on how to prepare for the first lesson.

The series

Absolute Beginners is a two-part series designed to teach basic survival English to students who have no knowledge, or practically no knowledge, of the language, and can be used as a lead-in to a beginner coursebook. The first part, consisting of ten units, is complete. The second part, consisting of a further ten units on themes including food shopping, home and out and about, will be published monthly.

The first few units have two sets of teacher notes and two sets of student worksheets – one for students with knowledge of the Roman script and one for those without. Teaching of the Roman script is based on whole-word recognition.

How to use the units

Each unit provides material for approximately 90 minutes, although students with no previous knowledge of Roman script may need longer to assimilate the new vocabulary and learn the alphabet. The units build on the language covered in previous lessons and many units have additional resources to allow for further practice when required.

The step-by-step Teacher’s notes provide clear and detailed guidance for the teacher, allowing the worksheets to remain as simple as possible. They include:

  • A summary of what needs to be done before the lesson
  • Notes for an interpreter
  • Helpful tips and explanations

With beginner-level students, it is necessary to rely on visual props and cut-outs, therefore there will a reasonable amount of preparation involved. The lesson plans contain a variety of resources including flashcards, alphabet cards and letter formation worksheets.   

Target learner profile

This series is aimed at students who have had little or no formal education, may be unfamiliar with the Roman script and may be unable to read or write in their mother tongue. Many will be learning English in order to comply with Home Office regulations. They may be in Britain to be with their spouse or they may be working alongside other people of the same nationality. Others will be learning English prior to coming and settling in Britain. They usually have no contact with English outside the classroom – hence the relatively high proportion of revision in each lesson.

The importance of an interpreter

In order to ensure that there are no basic misconceptions from the start, it is vital to be able to check the students’ understanding on a regular basis. Unless you personally have sufficient knowledge of the student’s mother tongue, the easiest way to do this is by enlisting the help of a family member, friend or colleague who can act as an interpreter when required. The ideal time to identify such a person is when the student is being registered for the course. In fact it can be part of the registration process.

The role of the ‘interpreter’ is confined solely to checking that key points have been understood correctly and clarifying any issues.

There are various ways that the interpreter can interact with the teacher. Depending on circumstances, they can communicate:

  • face to face – preferably at the end of the lesson
  • by phone
  • by e-mail
  • by leaving notes in the student’s folder.

If no family member or friend is available, consider enlisting an independent interpreter for a few lessons.

Some general advice

  • Find out the names of the students and clarify what is considered to be their first and last name. This shouldn’t be too difficult as usually a family member or friend will have registered them for the course.
  • Ascertain if the students are at all familiar with the Roman script.
  • Try to find out which students have absolutely no English and which ones are already familiar with Hello and What’s your name?
  • Find out as much as possible about the students’ background and needs. This information can be used to adapt the lessons, if necessary. For example, if a student works in a restaurant, then basic food-related vocabulary items should be introduced at an early stage. Similarly, if a student stays at home looking after children, then vocabulary related to family life will be important.
  • Adapt the lesson to each student’s pace.
  • If possible, provide the student with a folder to keep the worksheets in order.
  • If the student is literate in their mother tongue, suggest that they invest in a bilingual dictionary and that they bring it to every class.
  • Keep your language simple and to a minimum. Use gesture as a means of communication. (Check that a nod means yes in the student’s culture!)
  • Remember that a smile is understood by everyone. Smiling will help create a positive atmosphere.
  • Introduce and practise basic functional language as the occasion arises. Students will probably want to express Sorry, I don’t understand – thank you – please etc. at various points throughout the series. Give them the appropriate phrase when they need it. Display it on the wall for future reference and use every natural occurrence for further practice.
  • Encourage the students to adopt the LOOK – SAY – COVER – WRITE – CHECK method when learning new vocabulary (see below).

The LOOKSAY – COVER – WRITE – CHECK (LSCW) method

The LSCW method works because the student has to be ’active’ and say the word, write it, check it, correct it and do it again.

1. The student writes the word they want to learn on a piece of paper – making sure it’s the correct spelling!

2. The student should then LOOK at the word carefully, noting the letters and shape of the word in as much detail as possible.

3. Next the student has to SAY the word. Encourage them to break it down into syllables (e.g. Monday) and to notice any silent letters.

4. The next step is to COVER the word.

5. Without looking at the word, the student now attempts to WRITE it.

6. Finally the student should CHECK the word carefully, making sure each letter is in the right place, and correct any errors.

7. The student is now in a position to correct any mistakes. Remind them that mistakes are an important part of the learning process. Therefore, they shouldn’t worry and simply learn from them!

8. Repeat as often as necessary until the spelling has been learnt.

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