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Beginners in English, experts in life by Kate Pickering

All too often low level coursebooks (and some teachers) start off from the premise that there is a strong correlation between students’ linguistic limitations and their general intelligence. This article will look at different ways to support students’ learning while recognising & incorporating their real-world experience.

When I started preparing to co-author Global, two experiences were fundamental. Firstly I decided to enroll on a beginners’ Chinese course, to remember what it felt like to start learning a language. It was very scary stuff! I found the classes exhausting, so many elements to bring together in order to produce the simplest of utterances; I found myself guessing ahead which question I would be asked so I could prepare it, flipping feverishly from page to page in my notebook to refer to vital phrases; it was like being a juggler with one too many flaming torches in the air. At around the same time, I started teaching a new group. It was a class of complete Beginners in our new Seniors programme, all students over 55. Finding zero beginners is now fairly infrequent in Madrid, but these people were the real McCoy –they knew numbers 1 to 3, but 4 and beyond was uncharted territory, just as scary for them as Chinese was for me. And yet, they were a group of the most wonderful, intelligent people. Among them there was Jesús, a 67 year old theologian who spoke Hebrew and Greek; 70 year old Maria Luisa, who did yoga and had travelled in Vietnam and Burma; Emilio, a retired history teacher; Antonio, a university maths professor; Teresa, a student at the University of the Third Age… All of them fascinating, mature people with a wealth of experience –Beginners in English but Experts in Life.

So the challenge was to strike a balance between these two elements: supporting the linguistic needs of beginners while allowing the students’ intelligence a place in the classroom. Here are some ideas for how to do this.

BEGINNERS IN ENGLISH

Scaffolding for Success: it’s extremely important to support beginners in producing linguistic output. One good way to do this is to start at the end: start by identifying the outcome – what you want students to do, then work backwards to see what language students need in order to be able to carry out the task and ensure you cover this in preceding stages. Just asking students to “Describe your home to your partner” is likely to produce a poor result, causing students stress along the way and denying them the opportunity for successful performance to add to their future motivation. In order to do the task successfully, a whole lot of language is involved, so if you work backwards & lead up to the task with the stages indicated in figure 1, the chances of success are far higher.

Figure 1

Providing useful phrases in a clearly visible place is also very important for low-level students & saves all that flipping around in their notebooks. I also have posters of “classroom scripts” – language they can use everyday to ensure their classroom interactions take place in English. Here’s one for checking answers together:

This increases students’ output in English & gets them using chunks of language for practical purposes long before we’d seen the present simple.

Manageable, productive outcomes: It’s important to find meaningful tasks which beginners can accomplish with minimal language. One example of this is film pitches – a pitch is a 50 word summary, on the basis of which Hollywood production companies select great plot ideas. Here’s an example – see if you can identify the film:

A rich girl meets a poor boy. They fall in love. The girl decides to leave her rich boyfriend. She and the boy are happy. But wait. This story happens on the world’s most famous ship in history.

Film pitches are simply constructed texts in which the present simple abounds. As such they are perfect text types for beginners to emulate.

Success for all: beginners groups can be very mixed in terms of level; elementary classes, in which false and real beginners may be mixed, can be even more diverse. It’s therefore extremely important to ensure you cater for all your students’ needs. One way of dealing with this is by providing mixed-ability tasks. Here is a series of ideas for follow-up pairwork activites after students have listened to a simple dialogue:

Easier tasks:

Students read the conversation in pairs

Students complete a gap-fill of the conversation in which keywords have been omitted

Middle difficulty tasks:

Students substitute underlined keywords in the dialogue to make their own version

Students re-write the conversation from keyword prompts or incomplete sentences

More challenging tasks:

Students invent their own dialogue on a similar theme

Students re-write the conversation from memory

The teacher can assign different students to an appropriate task or leave the choice to students, allow students to work through a progression of increasingly challenging tasks or keep some tasks back for use in future classes – which brings me conveniently onto my next point…

Task Revisiting: All too often we “do” a reading or a listening and that’s it – a lot of effort in one lesson, but then it’s over and done with. What a waste! Texts are a rich source of material and increasingly I find myself going back to texts in subsequent lessons to “do them again” in a different way. Texts can be revisited as dictations, dictoglosses, gap-fills to focus on specific language features or to review key vocabulary; we can focus on text construction and cohesion by chopping them up & having students re-order them, by deleting cohesive devices… This process of “do it, do it again” is something which can be done successfully at all levels. But revisiting texts is particularly motivating with beginners: the difficult first encounter with the text is over and they meet it again with new confidence because their initial comprehension is so much better than first time round.

Now to the other side of the equation.

EXPERTS IN LIFE

Real not invented, real not celebrity: a look at many coursebooks could lead you to believe that students leave their brains outside the classroom door: celebrities abound, there’s a proliferation of texts from women’s magazines (does anyone out there actually read “Bella”??) and it seems that studying English goes hand in hand with some type of “lite” culture. My Seniors had little interest in Brad and Paris and didn’t even know who Britney Spears was. And they certainly couldn’t care less about invented Jenny and the contents of her made-up fridge. So why not make the classroom about real people who’ve done genuinely interesting and valuable or even just normal things. This could be your or your student’s families & friends, or the not-so-famous scientists, explorers, authors who don’t seem to make it into many coursebooks.

Real English: can you complete these 2 quotations, using the same word in both cases?

One machine can do the ______ of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the _______ of one extraordinary man.

I like _______. I can sit and look at it for hours.

Got it? If not, see the bottom of this page[1].   I hope you’ll agree with me that the actual language level of these sentences is not too challenging. Yet these are quotations from turn of the 19th-20th century writers: the first is by American philosopher Elmer Hubbard, the second is British humorist Jerome K Jerome. The language point lurking underneath, you may have guessed is “can” but the main point is that low-level students can engage perfectly with real language provided you choose carefully.

Intelligent interest: in Global we tried to incorporate lots of genuinely interesting texts, but making text accessible at low levels is always a challenge. If you’re designing your own worksheets try the following: divide text into short chunks with a good amount of space or a visual in between – far more digestible; support text and add to content with helpful non-verbal information (photos, diagrams…); if your reading or listening text is challenging, don’t add to students’ burden by giving more language to process – try to use non-linguistic tasks  (eg choosing the chart that represents the statistical information in a text, selecting the best visual to reflect gist, matching each paragraph to a photo etc) – be clear about your aim: if you’re checking students’ reading comprehension then you want to check they’ve understood the text, not the wordy task that goes with it.

So there you have it – with the right type of support & consideration your Beginner students can do all kinds of interesting things, from engaging with real English, dealing with intelligent, adult texts to giving class presentations. The only thing holding them back may be you!


[1] work

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