An article offering suggestions and advice on teaching absolute beginners.

Photo of students in a classroom working together with their teacher.

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My organization is setting up a new classroom for pre-beginner, Adult ESL learners. We expect that most of our learners will speak no English, or very little English. Along with TPR, can you suggest additional pre-beginner materials and teaching methods?

Jeanne Myers

Pre-beginners! Wow. I’d heard of pre-intermediate, and noticed that some coursebooks prefer the term pre-elementary to beginners. But pre-beginners! I think that’s what used to be called absolute or real beginners. In this day and age – with English in every TV commercial, Internet website, or comic book – absolute beginners were thought to have disappeared, like the dinosaurs. Obviously this is not the case, and there are still some lurking out there in their pre-beginner, ante-natal, pre-lapsarian state.

What to do with them? I think you’re absolutely right about TPR (Total Physical Response) so long as it’s not a big class, and you have room to move. The last time I had a beginners class – not absolute, real, or pre-, admittedly – I went to the local department store and bought a bag of plastic fruit and vegetables, and these became the staple of a great number of TPR activities of the type: Juan, put the apple between the two oranges… Eva, hand the banana to Jorge. … Mercedes, put the onion on the floor and walk around it…. etc. Of course, these instructions were staged over several lessons, going from the very short and simple (Point to the apple… touch the pear…) to the longer and more complex (Take the thing that is next to the red pepper, throw it to Ana, and then open the window).

I did this over a period of about six 90 minutes lessons, with students saying very little at all, except some basic greeting language at the beginning of the lesson, in dialogue form (Hello, Teresa, how are you today? etc). These dialogues were modeled by me and written on the board, with more and more words erased over successive lessons.

The idea of the TPR was to relax the students and not force them to produce language before they were ready. By about lesson 7, they were reading TPR-type instructions aloud to each other (that I had written on cards), and then, finally, inventing their own. The transition from understanding language to producing seemed fairly effortless and quite natural. But – be warned – some adult students need persuading of the value of this approach, and may feel that throwing bananas at each other is a bit infantile. It may help to explain the rationale – and the analogy with child language acquisition is one that most learners can appreciate.

Other techniques that work well with absolute beginners: 

Technique 1
Making short sentences out of words on cards – it helps if they have tables to work at, so they can move the cards around and compare results in groups. They can then read out the sentences they have created.

Technique 2
Memorizing and repeating short dialogues, especially where these have “high surrender value” , i.e. they can be used immediately in a communicative context – such as the greeting exchanges I mentioned above, or short shopping exchanges.

Technique 3
Focus on vocabulary (including lexical phrases) rather than grammar – especially for production. A “critical mass” of useful, high frequency words and chunks is going to be more communicatively useful than knowing how to formulate present simple wh-questions, for example.

Technique 4
Cover the walls with useful formulaic language: What does X mean? How do you say Y? I don’t know. I don’t understand. Can I … please? etc.

Technique 5
Use direct method teaching techniques – mime, gesture, visual aids, wall charts – all that paraphernalia that had been consigned to the basement of language schools since the advent of the communicative approach, and the (supposed) extinction of the absolute beginner.

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