Posted by: Andy | February 27, 2011

How to teach: Beginner

I often find it difficult to convey to family and friends exactly what we do in a typical day.  We try to share food and interesting stories about places we have visited or cultural experiences we have had, but a large part of our lives here is spent teaching and I don’t feel we’ve done a great job of letting you inside of our classrooms.  I like sharing funny stories or interesting quotes, but perhaps you are asking yourself, how does one actually teach English?  So, I’ll share my insights with you starting from the very beginning…Beginner Level, (but first some general things to know about our classes).

Week 1, Day 1:

Now when I say beginners, I mean beginners.  Most students who start a beginner level class know a grand total of less than 50 English words.  So the class literally starts with me saying, “Hi, I’m Andy” writing my name on the board and doing a lot of gesturing to ensure they would know what I was talking about even if  I weren’t using words.  I then ask, “What’s your name?” and “How are you?” and hope they know what to say.  I usually spend the first day testing their ability to answer very simple questions like “Where are you from?” and “How old are you?” and “What’s your job?”  If they can comprehend those things, I enter the grammar a bit, teaching them subject pronouns (I, you, we, they, he, she, it) and the verb to be in present simple (am/is/are).  Usually, they can get that much in the first day and we can start to move forward.

Week 1, the rest:

Still only using the verb to be, we get into adjectives a bit saying simple things like “He is tall.”  Or “She is rich.”  I’m not joking when I say some students vocabulary will double within the first week.  Mainly, the first week is about developing a connection with the students.  I do my best to let the students know that this is a safe place to learn and learning in only English, even from this very primitive level will be possible (and hopefully fun).  The difficult thing to remember is that you have to speak rather slowly, enunciate clearly and smile a whole lot.

Week 2:

Stephanie with some beginner students.

After they’ve mastered the verb to be, I introduce “have/have got” in the context of family.  “I have two brothers and one sister.”  They learn lots of vocabulary for family and also see the “possessive s” along the way.  “My father’s brother is my uncle.” And things of that nature.  Week two also enters into a few more questions that you would find on an identity card like “How tall are you?” and “What color are your eyes?”  (not to mention plurals)

Week 3:

This is a big test for most students as we move into using other verbs in the present simple tense.  I show the difference between “I live…” and “He lives…” and we learn a lot of verbs and try to use them.  I generally teach a lot of vocabulary in the beginner level through flash cards with pictures.  While this does tend to annoy some older students, if they’re at a beginner level, they usually know that they need it and people learning new languages tend to gobble up vocabulary when it is actually taught and presented.

A problem with teaching Turks is that while English uses the present simple as its general tense, used most frequently for routines, habits and facts, Turkish prefers the present continuous as its general tense.  So from the onset, the ability to translate is lost in the very first tense because of that basic difference.  While you would say, “I want ice cream.”  The translation from Turkish for the same sentence would be, “I’m wanting ice cream.”

Week 4:

While present simple continues, we add things such as the bane of many English students, prepositions.  We begin with the only sets that have rules, prepositions of time (in, on, at).  There are general patterns for when these are used at least and students tend to understand them.  But then, we move on to prepositions of place and movement (in, on, at, between, in front of, next to, near, behind, over, under, above, below, through) and things begin to get a bit confusing.  Week four also introduces frequency phrases like once a week and twice a month as well as words like always, usually, sometimes and never.  This week also talks a lot about hobbies and using the verbs like, love, dislike and hate.

Stephanie and another beginner student.

Week 5:

This week tends to be easier than the previous two.  While there is still work with prepositions, we largely focus on the phrases “There is..” and “There are…” along with household and school vocabulary paired with the prepositions of place they have been learning.

Week 6:

I spend this week wrapping up loose ends, reviewing things (especially am/is/are and have).  I tend to tailor things to the specific class as to what I review.  If they’re a weaker class I do more actual review.  If they’re a stronger class, I’ll give them some extra things to chew on such as conjunctions, more difficult prepositions (of, to, about, by) and further vocabulary.

The last day of class is the exam which consists of three parts: Listening (10 points), Skills (mainly reading and writing worth 40 points) and Grammar (using multiple choice, fill in the blank and short answer questions worth 50 points).  We don’t test for speaking which I believe is on the whole unwise, but I’m not in charge.

Students usually have about 3 hours to complete all three components given on paper with me serving as proctor and helping them along if they struggle with anything.

I had one student get a 98 once, and anything above 90 I consider exceptional.  Most students get a score in the 80s and anybody who can’t reach 60 is generally failed or to use a euphemism, asked to repeat.

I do my best to incorporate a reading, listening and writing activity every week.  Of course, those are always going to be happening, but exercises specifically geared towards them are often quite helpful.

I love teaching Beginner courses for the basic reason that it is the level where you can see the most improvement in the students.  They go from barely being able to say what their name is with a vocabulary of perhaps below 50 to a vocabulary as high as 500 words and capable of holding a rather basic conversation.  Also, for whatever reason, students seem to remember who their first teacher was and love them for no real reason and that always feels nice.  When I started, I had three beginners as my first three courses.  I think of those 40-50 students, only two are still attending classes at our school, both in Upper Intermediate Levels.  It’s amazing how much they’ve improved since they walked into my class on their first day.

I’ve only actually had two other beginner classes since those initial three, but beginner remains one of my favorite levels to teach.  It takes a lot of energy and the willingness to look a bit silly, but it is always worth it.

For more information on other classes, check out Elementary 1, Elementary 2, Pre-Intermediate 1, Pre-Intermediate 2, Intermediate 1, Intermediate 2.



  1. […] about the specifics of Beginner, Elementary 1, Elementary 2, Pre-Intermediate 1, Pre-Intermediate 2, Intermediate 1, Intermediate […]

  2. […] I’ve already explained the ins and outs of how to teach beginner, I’ll now move on to the second course at our school, Elementary 1.  (A reminder that you […]

  3. […] from teaching students who may or may not know how to say, “I’m from Ankara” in how to teach beginner to students being able to speak about their past vacations in how to teach elementary 1.  But […]

  4. […] giving lots of speaking practice.  The biggest challenge of P1 as we call it, is timing.  While beginner and elementary 1 are five units and elementary 2 is four units, pre-intermediate 1 is six units, so […]

  5. […] more information on other classes, check out Beginner, Elementary 1, Elementary 2, Pre-Intermediate 1, Intermediate 1, Intermediate […]

  6. […] more information on other classes, check out Beginner, Elementary 1, Elementary 2, Pre-Intermediate 1, Pre-Intermediate 2, Intermediate […]

  7. […] more information on other classes, check out Beginner, Elementary 1, Elementary 2, Pre-Intermediate 1, Pre-Intermediate 2, Intermediate […]

  8. […] class and my last real class were in the same room.  A girl who was in my first weekend class as a beginner was in my last weekend class in intermediate […]

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