Teaching low-level English learners is a challenge that some teachers shy away from, while others dive right in. The truth is that, while it can be intimidating to teach a new beginner (especially if you don’t speak their L1), it doesn’t have to be scary or frustrating! Many seasoned teachers will tell you that, after learning some useful strategies, these lower levels have even become their favorite levels to teach!
A1 and A2 level learners have their work cut out for them, there’s no doubt about it. How difficult English is for them will depend somewhat on their L1 and if it has any common background with English. Spanish speakers might find a lot of cognates that help them interpret a text and guess their way through a dialogue, whereas Korean speakers don’t have a similar advantage. But one of the biggest obstacles that all of these learners face is the speaking component of a class– it’s much more active than the receptive skills of reading and listening, and there’s usually less processing time permitted in a speaking exercise. Coordinating the phonetic, syntactic, and lexical information they have all at once to create a spoken interaction is a huge cognitive load for them, and it’s not uncommon for them to shy away from it.
So when you’re the teacher, what do you need to do to get your A level learners speaking and interacting with the target language? Keep reading to see our 3 tips on turning nervous beginners into chatterboxes!
Remember that huge cognitive load we just mentioned? You can reduce it! Give your lower-level learners fewer variables to work with and see how much more willing they become to speak in class. If you want to focus on the pronunciation, invite them to read a full sentence aloud. You can model for them and ask them to mimic you as they read. If you want to focus on vocabulary instead, you can give them a sentence frame with blanks in the places of the sentences where you’d like them to get creative and test out new vocabulary– you take away the grammar questions they might have and allow them to focus on one or two things at a time. And of course, if the grammar is what you’re after, you can give them sentence starters to get things going and let them wrap up the end by themselves. You can also provide word chunks or phrases that they can mix into larger sentences if you’d like to focus just on one particular part of the sentence (give them everything they need to make their sentence but leave the auxiliary verb choice up to them, for example).
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this type of scaffolding cheapens the value of their production in class. It’s the exact opposite– you’re giving your learners useful cognitive tools, exposure to even more useful language, a chance to really focus on one aspect of speaking English, and the confidence to get going. Once your learners have built up some confidence in speaking, they’re much more likely to participate in future activities, take chances, guess, and ask questions. It might take a bit of hand-holding in the beginning, but using these strategies will help your learners grow into confident risk-takers in no time!
Keep some tabs on yourself to see if what you’re doing in class is working. Monitor your teacher wait time (TWT) to make sure that you’re giving learners a long enough time to understand your question or prompt, think about what they might want to say, structure it in their head, and build up the courage to share. A general tip is this: If it doesn’t feel like a slightly uncomfortable silence for a typical interaction, you could probably stand to wait a little bit longer before providing more support or rephrasing your question/prompt.
You’ll also want to mind your teacher talking time (TTT). You might be thinking “If my learner can’t speak English then how am I going to keep my TTT down? I’m the only one talking!” but hang on just a second. A lot of the things you say in class could be flipped to the learner. Even if it’s not free production, ANY production is still valuable in terms of experience and confidence building. So instead of you reading the instructions on an activity, ask a learner to do it. Instead of you reading the text aloud, ask them to do it. Instead of you reading the sentence and asking them to say the word to fill the blank, ask them to read the whole sentence with the blank filled with their answer. There are plenty of production opportunities to be had in a class that aren’t open-ended, and you can look at these as the low-hanging fruit of speaking opportunities– someone needs to say them aloud, but it doesn’t have to be you!
While working on your TWT and TTT, it’s helpful to reflect after the lessons when you try out a new strategy. Reflection is an essential part of a teacher’s growth, and let’s be honest, we’re all balancing too many things in the classroom to reflect in the moment. Print out some copies of our reflection tool and set a goal to fill one out at the end of each lesson for a week. Note what you tried and what the learners’ reactions were, if you saw improvement over the week (or month if you’re really motivated!), and what other ideas come to you based on what happened in class. The things you’ll notice about your own teaching when you reflect on it are invaluable, and the ideas that the process of reflection will spark are, too!
Sometimes a multi-sentence production task will feel too intimidating for a learner to even approach. Other times, a learner might have a hard time coming up with a creative response while dealing with new target language. If you feel like that’s the case with your learner(s), try a bit of gamification. Think about the target language you’re working with in class. If you want to get your learners talking but they need a bit of extra support, or for things to feel a bit lighter and less serious, try issuing them a challenge. See how many “rounds” of a task they can get right if it’s a one-on-one lesson, or have them compete if it’s a group lesson. Issue challenges related to the target language. If you’ve been working on the present simple, you might have them read an incorrect sentence and say it with the correction included. Or you might ask them to change the subject and verb correctly, or change the sentence from the affirmative to the negative, etc. Anything where they’re: a) manipulating the language point you’re working on, and b) sharing their sentence-length responses aloud is a great way to get them speaking and thinking on their feet without the pressure of producing at length.
There are plenty of other ways to reach and encourage lower-level learners, but these three really are game-changers. By checking out your scaffolding plans, reflecting on what works and what doesn’t, and introducing some light-hearted and low-pressure activities, you’re sure to boost your A-level learners’ student talking time (STT). It takes patience and creativity, but once you’ve broken through the affective filter that adult learners tend to put up, you’ll have some amazing lessons together and will enjoy the feeling of watching new improvements happening one after the other (another great perk of working with learners at this level)!