Teaching English to Absolute Beginners
Today’s blog is a guest entry by Joan Taber, a highly experienced educator, and someone with a lot of worthwhile things to say. Have a look at her entertaining and informative blog here. Joan also maintains a fascinating series of academic papers on ESL, language, and translation that is well worth reading. Today, she’s talking to us about teaching English to students who have no ability in the language whatsoever. How do you start? How can you help them to improve? Take it away, Joan Taber.
Teaching the basics
People often ask me how I go about teaching English to students who have no English-language background. For me, the best place to begin is on a trusty page of commonality--that is, the world map. Here, north and south are in the same position in any language, the equator always runs through Ecuador, the poles are “frrreeeeeezing” (at least for now), “the ocean is blue,” but Greenland isn’t always green.
With the help of the map, “Where do you come from?” is transformed into a real place. Students are invited to “come to the map,” point to their country of birth, announce whether it’s north or south of the equator, east or west of the Prime Meridian. I show them where I’m from, where my mother was from, where one finds the most beautiful people (Italy, of course), where the climate is “sooooo hot,” where ordinal and cardinal directions lead to every part of the globe.
Using the map
So, during the first forty-minute lesson, students can distinguish directions, indicate “near” and “far,” acquire the lexicons of map study-continent, country, city, river, ocean, color-and travel-airplane, airport, train, taxi. They get a feel for syntax: “On this map, Europe is red and Africa is green.”
They learn idiomatic expressions related to climate--it’s hot, it’s cold--and feelings: “I sad I go from El Salvador.”
“Yes, you were sad when you left El Salvador.”
Joan on textbooks
I’m fortunate to work in a school district that gives me the liberty to teach without prescribed texts. However, I have been stuck in teaching positions where I’ve been handed a “textbook” of sorts and forced to use it as the sole teaching prop. If that happens to you, you’ve just got to shut the classroom door and cheat.
If you’re nervous about keeping your job, then search the text for ways to transform phony dialogue into real situations. ”I see the yellow bus” can become a virtual bus ride. Have your students “board” the bus, ask if a seat is free, ask the driver where to get off, bump into someone and say “Excuse me.” At the very beginning, you can provide students with written prompts in the form of cloze dialogues or a few cue cards.
Joan on grammar
I think it’s against current academic law to utter words such as “adjective” or “verb.” In fact, just whispering the word “grammar” might incite a mob of theoretical academics to throw rocks through your classroom windows.
If you’re just starting out your teaching career, please remember that some of us need to understand structure. If we’re over the age of eight or nine, we’re simply not equipped to learn language the way we did as babies. We need it all-reading, listening, speaking, writing, acting, repetition, and grammatical explanation, yes, even at the beginning.
There’s nothing wrong in saying, “In English, the adjective comes before the noun” or “In English we don’t have our years; we are our years.” (Babelfish or IGoogle translators can be helpful with this, but never assume they’re completely accurate.)
That world map is your springboard into language acquisition. You can rearrange and group desks into continents or countries, create cultural and culinary feasts with your students, conduct “map Olympics” and dole out gold and silver medals made of chocolate. You can turn your classroom into a solar system, a theatrical stage, or an airplane. Or, you can follow the text, and your students will be able to say: “The big yellow bus goes to the little red-brick school.” (Okay, I admit to hyperbole, but I think you get it.)