Beginner and Elementary Learners - problems, needs and techniques.


This article, originally part of our Delta courses looks at teaching beginner and elementary learners (CEFR A1 /A2 levels) and asks:

a)      What are the problems you face in beginners and elementary classes?

b)      What are the needs of these learners and what techniques can you use at this level to promote learning?

Section a: Problems

  • Learners may be expecting a completely different methodology from the one you wish to use (eg if you wish to use a communicative and constructivist approach with an emphasis on active participation and autonomy), and be confused or made anxious by the difference between their expectations and the reality. This may be due to a) previous experience of learning another language with a different methodology – eg audiolingualism; b) experience in all subjects of a “traditional” educational background where it is the teacher’s job to “teach” the language and the L’s role simply to learn the input. This might be particularly true in cultures where the T. is seen as the “authority” who knows exactly what the learners should do and how they should do it  – eg Vietnam(see the further reading below), where this attitude still continues despite governmental attempts to introduce a more constructivist view of learning in schools. In this situation, discussion of the reasons behind the “new” approach, and the gradual introduction of unfamiliar activities starting with “easy” participatory tasks while still incorporating more familiar ones (such as drilling) can help “ease” the Ls into the new approach.  
  • Ls may have unrealistic expectations about how difficult learning is going to be and become demotivated by what appears to them to be “slow” progress and how much more there is to learn. After the first few lessons, they may feel they learn/are able to retain very little of the  language that has been covered.  For learners from Romance languages, introducing as many cognates as possible can help retention – so that they feel they have learnt more although the amount of non-cognate lexis and grammar covered is still at a level with which they can cope. Even if the T. is not an expert in the L1(s) of the learners, googling eg “Spanish English cognates” will bring up a list from which words can be chosen. For all learners, constant recycling is essential, so that Ls get both (massed practice” on the first introduction of the target item and “distributed practice” in later lessons (Stevick, 1976). 
  • “Beginner” may actually cover a range of level from true beginners who have no knowledge of the language to false beginners who have learnt it before but too long ago to have retained it. However, the false beginners are liable to find the lessons easier than the true beginners and to make faster progress as the language is actually only being “reactivated” rather than learnt from scratch. This can be demotivating for both groups – the true beginners feel frustrated because they seem to be less able than the others while the false beginners may feel “held back” by the slow progress of the true beginners.  This situation again needs to be discussed and explained with the group, and emphasis placed on the fact of it being a natural consequence of the different situations and not a case of anyone being “more stupid” than the others. Additionally, differentiated activities can help. Eg the true beginners can have an activity with five items to complete while the false beginners have an additional five – all to be completed in the same time. 
  • Literacy problems  (a): Learners whose L1 does not use the Roman alphabet but a different script will need to be taught to read and write in English as well as learning the other language systems. In monolingual classes, this would mean the course need which will mean the course has to be longer than equivalent courses for groups who already used the alphabet, but it would be a particular problem in multilingual groups where some learners did and others didn’t know the script.  
  • Literacy problems (b): It is also a particular problem with young learners just starting school who may be learning their own script at the same time and could be confused by the introduction of a different system. Even if the Roman alphabet is used in the L1, the letters may have a different sound/spelling correspondence in the L1 (eg in Italian “ch” = /k/ and not /ʧ/). Some coursebooks for the 5-7 age groups therefore hold back the written script, taking a purely aural/oral approach until the children are reading confidently in their own language.
  • Classroom language – whether for explanations of lexis or grammar, instructions for activities or whatever – needs to be limited to what learners can understand, which will initially be very little. Use of visuals, gesture etc can help here (eg pictures for lexis, pairing learners by saying simply “you two, your two, you two” and gesturing to show which learners should work together) but there is also a strong argument for some use of the L1, which can be quicker and reassuring for learners.   This presumes however that the T speaks the language(s) of the Ls, and is therefore often only possible in a monolingual class in the Ls’ own country.
  • Some beginners may be refugees who have had traumatic experiences in their own country, and who also experience “culture shock” on arrival in the country to which they migrate. They will often be unmotivated and even hostile. The T. needs to show empathy and to ensure that they see how what they are learning in the classroom can help them in their everyday life. For example, I once had a Chilean refugee in a beginner’s class who had been tortured under Pinochet’s regime. She was clearly emotionally distressed by the “light” approach of the coursebook we were using which presented humorous but unrealistic situations to present and practise the language, and by the “holiday mood” of other learners in the group who were in London for a summer course and more interested in shopping than human rights.
  • The total unfamiliarity of the language means that a high amount of concentration is needed and this can be very tiring, especially on intensive courses, where overload is a strong possibility, or in evening classes where learners attend already tired from a day’s work. The T. needs to take this problem into consideration when planning lessons, ensuring that there is frequent variety of activity type and consequently of pace, creating a suitable balance between new material and less intense activities recycling previously learnt items or allowing learners to reflect on new TL (eg further receptive exposure after a presentation)  and that there are frequent breaks. 
  • Some false beginners may have had demotivating experiences when trying to learn “the first time round” and may have returned to a course not from personal choice but eg because they have been put on a course by their company. The teacher thus needs to ensure, even more than in other classes, that the lessons are enjoyable, that T/L and L/L rapport is good,  and that the classroom has a positive and encouraging atmosphere where mistakes are seen as “normal”. This is another reason for accepting some use of the L1 – for example, I often tell my Ls, in Italian, stories about funny mistakes that I have made when speaking Italian. This helps both rapport and shows Ls that they needn’t be “ashamed” of inaccuracies. 
  • It may be difficult or even impossible to do a needs analysis with a beginners group – eg in a multilingual group of complete beginners – and the T. may have to start the course with no clear idea of who the Ls are and why they are taking the course. With monolingual groups, if the T understands the L1 this could, however, be done in the learners’ own language, while groups of false beginners may be able to give basic information on their reasons for studying, interests, likes/dislikes etc in English. 

Section b and c : Needs and techniques

  • Need: Even if beginners have specific communicative needs (eg Business English learners) they will still need to learn the basic structures and lexis of the language. Technique: Motivation can, however, be increased by ensuring that these are taught in a context which they see as relevant to their needs.   Eg. For both BE learners and general purpose learners learning because they want to travel, the verb BE can be taught and practised in the context of checking into a hotel  “Hello I’m John Davies. / You’re in room 352 / This is your keycard/ The lift is over there.
  • Need: Many beginners will be learning a language for the first time and will need learner training (ie “learning to learn”) built into the course. For example, effective dictionary use may need to be taught, or they can be shown how to take advantage of “dead time” – eg when they are on a bus, or waiting for a dental appointment - by creating vocabulary cards which can be kept in their coat pockets (or creating equivalent activity types on websites such as Quizlet which can be accessed on their phones) to review language they have previously worked on.
  • Need: Many beginners will be young learners – whether primary or secondary. It is arguable that for this type of learner the teacher must concentrate not only on teaching the language but also on general educational goals, for example, the development of both lower and higher order thinking skills (Bloom’s taxonomy).
  • Need: Very young learners will be non-analytic and still within the “critical period” when the language can be acquired rather than learnt. Technique: They will therefore need an approach based on exposure – to songs, stories, chants etc - and games to help them transfer the language to productive use.   
  • Need: Older learners however will want to analyse and “understand” and will expect explanations. Failure to provide these may cause frustration and demotivation.  Technique: There is therefore a strong argument for some use of the L1. As already discussed above, this presumes however that the T speaks the language(s) of the Ls, and is therefore often only possible in a monolingual class in the Ls’ own country. 
  • Need: Some beginners may not feel confident enough to start speaking immediately and need the “Silent Period” suggested by Krashen. Technique: For these learners, Total Physical Response activities can be used– either as originally intended as a method for the first 60 hours of the course (Asher), or as a “silent phase” in the lesson after the presentation of target language so that the learners have a chance for further receptive exposure before it starts being drilled or otherwise practised. 
  • Need: Beginners who are learning in an English speaking environment will be encountering a lot of ungraded language outside the classroom, which may confuse or puzzle them and which they may want to ask about. Time should be left for this in lessons. However, it is often more useful if the T. does not answer on the spot but “collects” questions to be answered in the following lesson. That way s/he has time to think about the simplest way to explain what may be complex points, and to decide if some of the questions actually can’t be dealt with. Learners need to accept that eg there are some structures that can only be understood after they have reached a higher level. 

References and Further Reading

  • Stevick, E.W. (1976) Memory, Meaning and Method, Newbury House