This research article will highlight and investigate two major aspects of preparing and starting an EFL course to beginner-level students. They are; 1) the approaches (i.e. the mindset, theoretical beliefs and methodologies that a teacher applies to the course, short and long term), 2) the techniques - (i.e. the specific assignments, arrangements and tools/aids utilized to carry out the teacher&acute;s approaches and achieve the student&acute;s goals). The article will move through the various, early stages of planning and teaching an EFL Beginners Course, in (roughly) chronological order. Its focus will only be to shed light on common, recommendable teaching approaches and techinques for an EFL Beginners Course. Along the way, a teacher - in reality - would encounter more, and have to be prepared for even more. However, my interest is limited to the two aspects listed above, as they apply to the following: 1) Identifying the type of beginner, 2) The two most common approaches to teaching EFL beginners, compared and contrasted, 3) How to get started: Day One & The First Lessons.
1. IDENTIFYING THE TYPE OF BEGINNER To simply label an EFL student with little or no knowledge of English as a "beginner", then mentally group them together as a homogeneous entity, would be both naive and foolish. There most certainly will be important distinctions worth drawing, both related and unrelated to the amount of English that they know. It is difficult to deny that grouping students together according to the measurable amount of knowledge of the English language is a solid practice. However, in my opinion, it is just as beneficial to try to understand a little of the history - the "backstory" - of the students. An EFL teacher that has both learned and considered the "level" and "type" of students in their course is a teacher that is better-equipped to approach that course is most effective manner possible. Below is a brief list of some of the different types of beginners that an EFL teacher may encounter, along with some of the implications that are likely to come along with each type:
ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS- Students with no knowledge of written or spoken English. There is no knowledge to elicit from the students. The most basic knowledge must be taught to the first, before the students can be asked simple questions or to complete simple requests.
FALSE BEGINNERS- Students that have previously studied or been exposed to English, but have learned or remembered very little. Generally, they will have some knowledge (familiarity with the alphabet/sounds, common polite and introduction phrases) to elicit responses to simple questions and requests. They will need a review and/or clarification of basic language points, more often than needing to be taught.
BEGINNERS WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE OF ROMAN ALPHABET- Students that have 1) not learned written English, and 2) been raised in a country where the language is not written with the Roman Alphabet. While this does not necessarily mean the student will be an absolute beginner (they may have some knowledge of spoken English), it does mean that the teacher will have to afford extra attention to basic literacy skills in the earliest stages of the course. ADULT BEGINNERS- Students at the age of 18 or over. Typical generalisations attributed to this type of beginner include:1) More likely to be motivated and attentive, 2) More likely to build a rapport with their teacher and each other, 3) More likely to have well-defined expectations for their teacher, their course and its style, and their success (and what consitutes "success"), 4) Less likely to easily grasp new language introduced and have less language awareness, 5) Less likely to cause disciplinary problems. YOUNG BEGINNERS- Students at the age of 17 or under. This can also be further sub-divided into three additional types of young beginner; Teen (13-17, Adolescent (8-12), Child (7 and under). Typical generalisations attributed to this type of beginner include: 1) More likely to cause disciplinary problems, 2) More likely to easily grasp new language introduced and have greater language awareness, 3) Less likely to be motivated and attentive, 4) Less likely to have well-defined expectations for their teacher, their course and its style, and their success (and what consitutes "success").
MONOLINGUAL BEGINNERS- Students who only speak one language, a native language with which they were raised. This type of student will either have, 1) no experience in foreign language learning, or, 2) no success in past attempts in foreign language learning. Either way, it is more likely that they will be nervous and reluctant early on. It is also more likely that they will try to compare and match their own L1 to English. They will need tips and guidance on how to study foreign languages. MULTILINGUAL BEGINNERS- Students who already speak two or more languages. This type of student will probably be more confident, as well as more fundamentally and conceptually prepared to learn English. They possess an awareness of some "do"s and "don&acute;t"s of language learning, and they&acute;ll have had past success. However, this can come along with unrealistic expectations (i.e, "my progress should be fast and easy") and rigidly-defined thoughts/beliefs as to the best way to approach teaching/learning a foreign langauge. It is worth noting that the types of beginners listed above are no more of an all-inclusive, rigid definition than the term "beginner" itself. Very often, beginner students will have characteristics from more than one category; That is to say, they are not to be used categorically. They are general descriptions of a stereotype: psychological sketches of a sort. However, they may provide an EFL teacher with some insight on what to look for and how to prepare for such students, after they have been identified as having characteristics belong to one of the above types. It is also worth noting here that cultural awareness takes on even more importance than usual with beginners. The reason for this is two-fold: 1) Beginners are far-more likely to be reluctant and nervous about their EFL course because, quite simply, it wil be difficult for them to communicate, to understand and to be understood. A teacher that utilizies that which is culturally comfortable for them, while avoiding that which is culturally uncomfortable for them, has gone a long-way towards reducing these impediments to learning, 2) Language is a gateway (or at least, "a view") into a culture. To understand some or much of the English language would give foreign language students an idea of why their teacher speaks/behaves in a particular manner, or their activities/tasks are designed and carried out as such. However, beginners will not have any such insight into English-speaking culture, due to the language barrier, and a teacher can not overlook this. Misunderstanding could reign supreme if the teacher does not slowly assimilate the students into both the language and the culture of English.
2. TWO COMMON APPROACHES TO TEACHING BEGINNERS The great majority of EFL teachers will approach the initial stages of an EFL Beginners Course using one of the two methods below: Approach A: 1) Select simple structures and vocabulary, 2) Move from one stage to the next slowly and carefully, 3) Emphasize accuracy Approach B: 1) Choose functional and common material, 2) Present and practice a variety of structures in each lesson, 3) Emphasize fluency Certainly, both of these approaches have their advantages. If an EFL teacher has a clear preference for one of these, it may reflect greatly on their own conceptualization of how to best teach beginners. From my own independent research, I have formed the opinion that the choice of methodology should only be made after having some understanding of both the individual students and class as a whole. The course curriculum do not need to be fully formed from the first day of class, nor does their even need to be a proper lesson on the first day. I would recommend that an EFL teacher dedicate some time, early in the course, ascertaining information that will help them best understand exactly what type of class it is that they will be teaching (beyond language level, or a specific needs course). Knowing such information, then using it to choose an approach accordingly, can facilitate student learning, comfort and enjoyment. To demonstrate this point, I will compare and contrast the use of these two approaches, if they were used with various types of beginners. Absolute Beginners would probably be better served by Approach A. This would set a more comfortable pace for them than Approach B. The speed and care with which tis would be conducted would allow for more choral repetition and pair/small-group work; Both essential to lessening anxiety and raising participation with these types of students at this stage. To reduce the anxiety of not having any knowledge of the language to produce or comprehend, simple, repetitive structures that are worked on until mastered would provide confidence. Subsequently, to go from zero knowledge in English to producing a few things accurately would be viewed as the great accomplishment that it is. While False Beginners would also benefit from the above, Approach B can (and in some cases, should) be used effectively. It is worth determining what the goals of the students are, as well as their personality - individually, collectively and culturally. In some cases, the students may be more adventureous, willing and restless to experiment with what knowledge of English they have - and eager to collect more. If that is the case, and the students are anxious to achieve some level of English- speaking fluency, Approach B would be more suitable. Beginners Without Knowledge of the Roman Alphabet likely will need to be taught in Approach A. Fluency will be of little use to them if they can not read or write much of what they can accomplish in a dialogue. Much of the learning of literacy goes beyond a simple knowledge of the letters and corresponding sounds of the alphabet. In large part, particularly early on, it is the memorization of words. They help illustrate what phonics are all about. Approach A will provide these students with the opportunity to slowly absorb this new, strange writing and its pronunciation. Young Beginners, especially children, will require Approach B. Generally speaking, young students do not have the attention span nor the self- motivation necessary to apply Approach A. They tend to dislike repetitive drilling, overcorrection and lengthy, monotonous exercises and homework. In nearly all cases, they would be better served by the variety and chance to experiment with speaking, in a way that they find "useful" (functional). While certain individuals/groups of the Adult Beginner type might also desire and flourish in Approach B, they are about as likely to prefer Approach A. This is type of beginner student in which more information will be needed, in conjunction with this type, to determine which approach to use. As a rule, I would think that Approach A is more suitable (as these students are often the &acute;polar-opposite&acute; of Young Beginners), but the needs, desires, objectives and expectations of many Adult Beginners (especially, specific needs groups, like Business English) will necessitate that Approach B is used. Culture is a large factor here, as well. Monolingual Beginners may benefit more from Approach A. The main reason for this is simple; Beginner students, especially older ones, want to compare and match the new language to their L1. After acquiring some knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, they will try to "Directly Translate" between the languages. This is a dangeroous practice, and completely contrary to the necessary mindset needed to learn a foreign-language. Approach A makes that practice more difficult, as the student is required to accurately produce the language, while having time to fully absorb English on its own terms. Multilingual Beginners also might find Approach A both preferable and beneficial, but for entirely different reasons. These students will have not only confidence and experience in foreign-language acquisition, but very likely more patience and a desire to be accurate because of the aforementioned. Therefore, Multilingual Beginners are far-more likely to appreciate the challenge of listening to taped dialogue and the benefits of repetition. I have already touched on the reference I made in Section 1 about the greater awareness of the culture above, but I will also devote a brief mention to this point exclusively, on its own terms, independent of any specific type of beginner. Neither approach is more "culturally sensitive" than the other. However, there very well could be a preferable approach for any culture that an EFL teacher find themselves. It depends entirely on the location, and the specific culture may dictate which approach would best applied. An easy (yet stereotypical) TEFL example of this would be to East Asia. Generally speaking, EFL teachers there find that their students are both: 1) very sensitive about making mistakes: They desperately want to be accurate, and 2) very reluctant to participate freely in speaking activities. Combine these two factors in with all that it is to be a beginner in a foreign-language and, clearly, Approach A usually would be the suitable approach to starting a Beginners course. While I have dedicated my attention above to drawing differences, comparing and contrasting the strengths and weakenesses of these two approaches as the apply to certain types of students, the following should be noted. Firstly, an EFL teacher is under no obligation to utilize either approach. These are simply the two directions that many shcools and textbooks will lead an EFL teacher toward using. If they have an approach that is sensitive to the type of beginner that they are teaching, and have given the term "beginner" the deeper examination it requires, than this is more than acceptable. Secondly, these two approaches to teaching beginners will still be part of initial lessons that are more similar than they are different. They will have similar, short-term goals (learning basic information exchange, numbers, greetings). They will also emphasize the same techniques to achieve these ends (visual learning) while avoiding other activities (those that require lengthy or complicated dialogues/directions). Thirdly (and perhaps, most importantly), if a class of Beginners is so varied, sharing a balance of so many characteristics of the various types that I have cited above, then these considerations can be voided. Unfortantely, if nothing close to a concensus can be reached as to which of these two approaches would be most suitable, then, by default, the decision of which approach to use does fall to the teacher.
3a. HOW TO GET STARTED - DAY ONE There will be a lot of faces, with varying degrees of nervousness and eagerness written all over them, looking at their English teacher. However, they can not really communicate with their new teacher, nor can the teacher speak as freely as they usually would in English. What to do? There is nothing close to a concensus upon w at is the best handle the first day of an EFL Beginners Course. Which, in part, is what makes this particularly terrifying in the eyes of so many EFL teachers that have yet to go through the experience. On the otherhand, there is no shortage of ideas, opinions and values floating around on the subject. Bearing this is mind, there really is no need for the fear of this moment that exists in the field TEFL. With a little bit research, an EFL teacher should be able to find some combination of task/activity and technique/approach that they feel comfortable with, that they can use to get things started. Below, I have categorically listed some suggestions for "Day One" of an EFL Beginners Course. I will also re-iterate one suggestion previously mentioned; Use this day to ascertain information (through close observation, questions, survey, etc.) that will provide some insight into what type of beginners are in the class and what they want/need. CONCEPTUAL VALUES- *Do not demand that the students speak. It is counter-productive and, quite possibly, futile. It is of more importance that the students are attentive to, engaged with and comprehending the task/activity. *Do not be overzealous in discouraging L1. It is completely unrealistic on Day One with most types of beginners (only Multilingual and False Beginners might even attempt to abide by an &acute;English Only&acute; rule at this stage). Whatever a teacher&acute;s view is on the usage of L1 in foreign-language classroom, an EFL teacher would be well-advised to be both pragmatic and patient with restricting L1 usage. Far-more important objectives at this stages - objectives that will go a long way toward decreasing use of L1 - are creating a classroom atmosphere built on respect, encouragement and patience, and decreasing the prototypical, Teacher-to-Student power dynamic. Students will choose to use English more often in the classes to come, once they feel relaxed, confident and valued. *If a teacher suspects/knows that their Beginners Course will lack motivation to study English (generally, because they haven&acute;t chosen to study it), they should make an extra effort to instill a sense of desire to learn English, from Day One. Students that are motivated will make for an enjoyable and successful. They are many known &acute;motivators&acute; that a teacher can use (some specific to TEFL), so an EFL teacher has options. One interesting technique that I had read about would be an excellent way to establish this value: Prepare a written text in L1 (or, if the teacher can speak L1, they could deliver a dialogue) for the students to read at the start of the first class. The text should list and elaborate on the many reasons why the students should be excited about having the opportunity to learn English. METHODOLOGIES/TECHNIQUES - *Communicate without relying solely on the spoken/written word. Various ways to replace and supplement speaking and writing include sound-effects, gesticulation, exagerrated intonation, pictures/physical objects (with or without words attached) and mime. If the course is mainly or exclusively Absolute Beginners, a teacher should plan on utilizing some or all of the above for everything that they say or write. Controlled language on its own will not be sufficient. *Sit in a circle with the students. It is more inclusive, more relaxed and reduces the Teacher-to-Student power dynamic. It fosters a sense of equality - "We&acute;re all in this together". This method is strongly-recommended for Young Beginners and many cultures without knowledge of the Roman Alphabet, who often view teachers as figures of authority. Such a seating arrangement is also highly-conducive for conducting Activities #1 and #3, listed below. ACTIVITIES - *Introduce yourself (with visual accompaniment, if necessary). Encourage the students to do the same. First, collectively, then, to the teacher and each other. Be sure to give prompts. This activity, along with the two below, are particularly suggested because they serve a practical purpose for the teacher as well: It gets the necessary task of learning all of the student&acute;s names out of the way. *"The Ball Name Game". Gather the students and yourself into a circle. Demonstrate how people introduce themselves in English. Then, toss a ball to another student. When they catch it, remind/prompt them to introduce themselves as you have just done. Get them to continue in this manner, passing the ball to one another, and introducing themselves after they catch it. Ideal for Young (Child) Beginners. *Introductions with a "Speech Bubble". This can be used as part of the above activities, or stand on its own (with the exception of Beginners Without Knowledge of the Roman Alphabet). Draw two faces, with speech bubbles, on the board/large sheet of paper. Draw arrows pointing from each face to the other, then number them 1 (first speaker) and 2 (second speaker). Inside the speech bubble, insert the necessary dialogue of introductions. To help this process along, the teacher can write the name of the students speaking under the faces. This can be done collectively and, maybe later, in pairs. *If the teacher suspects/knows that the students have some knowledge of English vocabulary or phrases, any activity that will make them realize this. Encourage and enable them to share what they do know. Just as being able to introduce one&acute;s self will be confidence building/anxiet reducing to Absolute Beginners, eliciting any sizeable amount of English from False Beginners will do the same. They will realize that they are not starting from absolute zero, they can communicate in English if necessary, they can learn English. TASKS - *Have the students study the English alphabet. Teach the names and sounds of the letters. If the teacher finds that this focus is necessary and/or desired, and time permits, they could continue with either of the following; 1) Have the students practice writing their names, or 2) Studying the International Phonemic Alphabet (relate to English alphabet, demonstrate how it will be used when consulting the dictionary). Ideal for Beginners Without Knowledge of the Roman Alphabet. *Have the students study some common, useful classroom expressions. Examples would include: "How do you say/spell?", "May I go to the restroom?", "Excuse Me", "Please", "Thank You". "I don&acute;t understand", "Can you repeat that?". The terminology of instruction (look, listen, repeat, open/close book) and classroom materials (pen, paper, notebook, textbook, board, desk, chair) are other teaching ideas for this type of task. This can be very practical, some of these expressions will need to used from the very beginning of the course, while still others are not easily mimed or demonstrated.
3b. HOW TO GET STARTED - THE FIRST LESSONS Now that the class has met, the ice has been broken, and the teacher has had an opportunity to consider what type of students are in the course, the entire class is better prepared to begin with their lessons. At this point, a teacher can begin soldifying the individual lesson plans and course curriculum (although it would be best to still allow for some flexibility and not to plan too far- ahead). Short-term goals can be established: objectives to be achieved in the early stages of a Beginner Course might include learning to conjugate common verbs, giving and asking for personal informations, understanding numbers, time and calender dates, the vocabulary of food and weather. Particular activities and study exercises for individual lesson plans can also chosen at this time. Here&acute;s an interesting example of an early stage, Beginners Course teaching technique that would work well within an Approach A teaching-style. The author has dubbed this technique "The Human Tape Recorder": Have the students repeat chorally, then study individually, short dialogue exchanges. The students then need to practice the text until they can do it from memory. They should work on this study exercise until it has been memorized and can be reproduced without errors or long pauses. After this has been achieved (or done to the best of the student&acute;s present abilities), the teacher can either combine the newly-absorbed dialogue within the stage of the lesson to follow, or simply distribute/ask questions to check comprehension. The belief behind this technique is that memorizing the vocabulary and grammar will create a repetoire to draw from, sharpen intonation and pronunciation and develop the students motor skills (which, along with cognitive skills, produce language). Obviously, being intended for a Beginners Course, the dialogue should be both simple and highly-practical: As the author admits, the technique is designed more for "ordering a hamburger than critizing government policy". It is more designed to instill a confidence in students to communicate frequent, everyday needs than develop greater language awareness in English. At this stage, the author feels that this can wait until another day. Below, I have listed general approaches and techniques that are frequently and successful applied in the intial lessons of a Beginners Course. I have selected to highlight those which are most universally recommendable to all types of EFL Beginners: *Allow rehearsal of the known. After this, introduce new vocabulary and grammar slowly and systematically. The order and pace in which new language introduced is very important. *Come prepared with extra material, more than you ever would think to need. At this stage of the course, they will be very little previously-learned knowledge to refer back to. Free conversation will not be an option. Essentially, running out of exercises and activities here would be "dead time", resorting in review ad-naseum or ending class early! *Encourage the students to talk and read in unison. Usually, this discouraged in classrooms. However, this would be a case in which the students are getting much-needed practice in two skills at the same time. *Assign homework for every lesson. Again, it gives the students much- needed practice. At this stage, they will still need to encouraged to think, produce and receive English outside of their lessons. Practicing a foreign-language classroom alone will never be sufficient enough to improve significantly. *Teach through positive reinforcement. Praise and encouragement, often used in an EFL class to motivate and relax, also can be directly involved in teaching-learning. Instead of using the typical strategy of catching a student doing something "wrong", then correcting them, catch a student doing something "right", and enforce it. Make the positive the example! Students do need to know if what they are doing is correct or incorrect, to have a basis for improvement. However, this can partly be achieved through reinforcing the positive. *Strategically group different types of beginners together. The most commonly-utilized grouping of beginner students that are identified as distinctly different is "weaker" with "stronger". Another possibility of combining students would include the "pairing the opposite" strategy: Young and Adult beginners, Multilingual and Monolingual beginners, Beginners Without Knowledge of the Roman Alphabet and Beginners With Knowledge of the Roman Alphabet. In these cases, at least one person in the pair/small group will have a skill, strength or knowledge that the other does not. At times, the exchange will be multidirectional.
SOURCES O&acute;Neill, R. (1978). Kernel One. Logman Schmidt, Yoda. Short Conversations. Retrieved December 1, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://bogglesworldesl.com/TEFL_article4
BBC British Council: Talk: Questions and Answers. Retrieved December 1, 2006 from the World Wide Web:http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/talk/questions/absolute_beginne rs.shtml
ESL Newsletter: June, 2005. Teaching Beginners. Retrieved December 2, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://www.efl-esl.com/esl-newsletter/June05
Author: Byron Jones
Date of post: 2007-04-09