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Beginner and Elementary Learners - problems, needs and techniques.

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    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:

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

    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. 
      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.
      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
    • 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.
      Motivation can, however, be increased by ensuring that these are taught in a
      context which they see as relevant to their needs.
      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
      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.
      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


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