What do beginners need most?

A rather rushed response to Karenne’s comments on the previous post. Go on, point out the typos, I can take it!

Here are the obvious candidates for what beginners need most (not all of which I agree with):

1. The foundations on which their future English will be built, e.g. a good groundings in the basics of English grammar, some grammar jargon, numbers, basic functional language, basic language for politeness, the phonemic chart

2. Survival English, e.g. travel English for their next journey; being able to answer the phone at work and put someone through; tactics for breakdowns in communication such as typical classroom questions, mime and drawing; being able to read signs in English, one past and one future form that they can use and just about be understood with, time clauses

3. Confidence that they can learn a language and communicate in it, e.g. by getting them using words that  also exist in their language, manageable tasks with personalisation and other real communication from day one,  the teacher speaking only in English to show them that it is possible, avoiding language you can’t explain (however useful it might be), lots of revision of things you know they remember

4. Language and skills to improve their ability to cope with and gain from the language around them, usually meaning reaching an Intermediate level of comprehension as quickly as possible, e.g. skimming and scanning, large amounts of high frequency vocabulary, moving to a monolingual dictionary as quickly as possible

5. Good habits- Not being allowed to get away with inaccuracies, study skills, avoiding translation

Generally, my business students need number three and number four will lead to a real acceleration in their progress if they are motivated and is always my aim when I arrive in a new country, but all of it is worthless if I can’t install number three. There is evidence that not enough emphasis on accuracy early on can lead to fossilisation of errors in certain students later on, but as reaching that later point at all is far from certain, I tend not to worry about number five.

And you?

More on beginners:

Games for beginners and false beginners (as recommended by Jason Renshaw!) – LINK FIXED

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8 Responses to What do beginners need most?

  1. Wendy Shaw says:

    In my case, as I teach in the greek state ‘system’, my beginners are youngish (8), and due to changes in aforementioned system, likely to get younger, so what they need most is some tantalising incentive to learn. In school, English is just another academic subject and at low levels is hardly taught in a way that connects it to any sort of living reality.
    The children are generally enthusiastic and enjoy their lessons, but I think that right from the start what they need is to connect what they’re learning with the real world….the fact I’m English and very few (if any) other teachers in primary education are native speakers certainly helps!

  2. See number 5 is my biggest goal :-) good habits right from the get-go, though I wouldn’t phrase it as “getting-away-with” !

    But 5 is strongly linked with 3 because I tend to constantly let them know through 5 that they’re getting there and are all related to the other numbers.

    I guess what I was trying to say on the other post was reaching a level of “mastery” at whatever level you are, gives one the confidence to keep moving forward. It’s very motivating to feel like you “can.”

    I noted what Wendy was saying about past tenses and agree in part – the thing is that “time” and how we discuss the things that are important to us is actually very culturally dependent.

    Depending on where the students are from then the bulk of their conversation will be driven by reflections, opinions, hypothesis, ambition and this may or not be in past, present or future – different say, from how we ourselves discuss these things.

    So if you can get students to master the basics – simple present, past and future forms (and there is way more to the present than daily activities… although one could argue that daily activities are daily and therefore make up a massive time of our communication)…

    then they gain the confidence to try out other forms – in fact, I don’t teach grammar in sequence at all. Once the basics are in place, the need for a specific tense naturally emerges and then that’s when it gets either

    briefly explained (depending on the level – there’s no real point in going too deep into the future perfect with beginners) if someone asks a question which would need this form as an answer – then I add reassuring words like “well this is how we’d say xyz in English but don’t worry you don’t have to learn it now – how do you do that in your own language – interesting isn’t it, what you’ll be learning soon.”

    deeply explained, context provided, multiple contexts elicited – language explored (for higher levels – say pre-int on) no matter even if they have not yet explored the normal general line-up. If they are asking about the tense then it came up in a meeting, in an article they read, in an email they need to write.

    Hope that helps,

  3. Elliott Brett says:

    Re: Point 1. The Phonemic chart?! How do you justify calling learning a whole new system of symbols a must need for beginners? Seriously, they have enough on their plate with the alphabet and basic spelling, not to mention grammar rules & vocabulary including collocations, plus intonation, stress – both tonic and sentence which are more immediate.

    Honestly speaking I would never introduce them to the symbols unless pointing out that such a thing exists if they personally choose to learn it or take notice of it. O.k. show them the phonemic symbols exist on a chart & in their dictionaries and some text books, but paying close attention to them? Not for me at this stage. These are symbols that require memorisation & I’d rather have students notice/memorise words & sentence patterns e.g. morphology/syntax or other phonological basics instead.

    Pronunciation comes from your mouth or the CD, so for me at a beginner stage, it’s enough. And once the learners get used to the basic sounds after some months, and show confidence in basic sentence patterns etc., then I will start paying more attention to the symbols.

    To me it’s like introducing the rules before speaking, deductive/inductive learning: I’d rather the students picked up sounds aurally before visually.


  4. Alex Case says:

    Hi Elliott

    Thanks for your contribution, but

    “How do you justify calling learning a whole new system of symbols a must need for beginners?”

    please re-read the sentence at the beginning in brackets! Also, it doesn’t say “the whole phonemic chart”.

    Personally, I don’t “teach” the phonemic symbols to beginners (though I have done the whole chart with Elem students with English File), but I do use the symbols to mark sounds that I am correcting from day one

    Interesting forum thread on the same question:


  5. Wendy Shaw says:

    I introduce phonemic symbols for the first time with 3rd person singular ‘s’ in present simple and ‘ed’ with past simple regulars. These rate among my favourite lessons, actually – kids reading words in different ways, deciding which sounds better, they usually think it’s a game. At this stage (years 2- 3) they’re ready to learn some groovy new symbols, and we do ‘schwa’ as well. Greek students are quite receptive to the phonemic alphabet because some symbols come from their alphabet anyway, so maybe they have a bit of an advantage.


  6. Adam says:

    What are the ‘basics’ of English grammar, by the way?

  7. Teach English in Italy says:

    I would think this would vary per country. I teach English in Italy, and I concentrate mostly on building students’ confidence in their ability to relate personal data and express opinions/preferences via simple grammatical structures. Speaking and listening usually take precedence over reading and writing. http://www.teach-english-in-italy.net/content/view/45/9/

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