Diary of a Newbie Teacher Part Two: Teaching beginners

At the end of last week I was asked to take on a class in place of another teacher at 8am on Monday morning. Aside from being slightly offended by the ungodly hour, I asked for more information about the company and was told it’s a property company. I was also told it’s a good opportunity as we are taking on more and more classes in the same company. Our School Manager explained to me that the class comprised five ‘lovely middle-aged East German ladies’ who had had five lessons with their previous teacher and otherwise no English classes since school.

The previous teacher was kind enough to prepare some materials for me beforehand, on the topic of prepositions of place and ‘There is/There are.’ He had, however, left their class file at home so I was unsure of what they had done with him in the five previous lessons, which concerned me a little as I had never taught beginners before.

I looked over all the materials he had prepared, and looked at some Internet resources on the same topic for the same level (A1.1) but I still had a bit of a panic on Sunday night before the 8am class on Monday. I’d never taught below A2 before, and we hadn’t done much work on teaching beginners on the CELTA so I felt quite underprepared, particularly since I was using someone else’s materials. It also didn’t help that I had a very good friend visiting, because it meant I couldn’t devote the time I’d have liked to preparing the night before.

I therefore put out a plea for help under the hashtags #ELTchat and #ELT on Twitter, and a few lovely people very kindly offered the following advice:

– Tom Flaherty (@tom_Flaherty) advised me to not go near a coursebook and just be as animated as I could manage, over-exaggerating CCQs for comic effect (which I knew would require some serious caffeine doses beforehand!)

– Anthony Ash (@ashowski) suggested the visual idea of taking an object to locate around the room for ‘on’ and ‘next to’ etc.

– Naomi Epstein (@naomishema) spoke of her experience teaching low-level adults and recommended using silly sentences like ‘the book is in the freezer’ as well as getting students to move themselves according to instructions using the new prepositions. She also suggested having my students vote on silly sentences versus logical sentences, which I will definitely use once they’ve come a bit further!

– finally, Marisa Constantinides (@Marisa_c) proposed I hide sweets around the room!

All these fantastic tips reassured me a little, as I had already packed my little wooden owl, who I decided to call Oliver, in order to visually demonstrate prepositions of place.


Oliver the Owl, my visual aid

I also had a few exercises from textbooks, but not whole pages so I didn’t overwhelm my new class. So far, so good, thanks to the wonderful online ELT community πŸ™‚

Anyway, Monday morning rolled around and I was up and out of bed by 5.30am, in my usual paranoia to be late for the class due to not being able to find the building. A few other teachers at school have classes there and had given me good instructions, but I was of course over 45 minutes early in the end!
The building was outrageously secure, so it took me a while to get to the room, but thankfully I’d left myself more than enough time!

I also thankfully beat my students to the room, so I sorted my things out, opened the windows (I get very flustered when I’m nervous!) and assessed the paper flipchart situation – also a first for me.

Four of the supposed five ladies arrived in excellent German timing just before 8, and the description had been quite accurate: they were lovely, jovial ladies who seemed bizarrely awake for a Monday morning! I opened with a few very slow lines of English, but then on seeing their faces, realised that German was required urgently. I asked them to tell me if they needed anything explained or clarified in German and they replied that their previous teacher had actually done almost everything in German. This was my first surprise because nobody had warned me just how much German would be needed – luckily my German is good enough to be able to explain everything I wanted to, but nobody had double-checked that it was, and I think I’d really have struggled otherwise.

This is what interested me, though: I’ve read enough ELT blog posts and literature to know that it’s very common to teach beginners whose first language is unknown to the teacher – we had a whole lesson on the CELTA immersed in Polish to prove this exact point – but even still, I’m not sure I could do it!

The ladies were really clinging onto German as their safety blanket, although I was delighted that they were getting the answers right and seemed to be following what I was saying.

It was a really eye-opening experience, actually, and one which I enjoyed far more than I expected to. We worked through all the prepositions with the help of Oliver the Owl, which they liked, and then learnt some new vocabulary for rooms and objects in the house so they could explain where things were in some textbook pictures. We did an exercise to practice and then somehow it was 9.30! I couldn’t believe how quickly the time went.

At the end, I felt like something of an artist as they all took pictures of my board scribbles on their smart phones, and then ripped off the sheet of flipchart I’d written on to take back to their desks!

I’m actually looking forward to my next class with them: I only got through half of the material I had with me, so I know to take everything very slowly and give the class lots of practice, but it’s a brand new experience in my very short ELT career so far and I look forward to honing my skills working with such beginners.

So, if anyone reading this has any tips for teaching beginners, I’d be incredibly grateful of them! I’ve since learnt that they’ve learnt the conjugation of ‘to be’, some times and dates and some basic verbs, but that’s all!

About BerLingo

My name is Rachel, I am 25 and I love Germany. I studied German, Spanish and Italian at Durham University for four years, one of which I spent living in Europe, and then worked at Routledge academic publishing house for almost 3 years. Towards the end of 2014, I decided it was time to finally fulfil a long-held ambition to live in Berlin, and so in April 2015 I completed the CELTA qualification (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults, adminstered by Cambridge University) here in the German capital. Now qualified, my blog berlingo18.wordpress.com charts my experiences as a new English teacher in my favourite city... (More information about my plans can be found in my first ever blog post.)
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12 Responses to Diary of a Newbie Teacher Part Two: Teaching beginners

  1. I can’t offer you any help as the only beginners I’ve taught have been German speakers and I give the explanations in German. I know there are differing views on this subject but I work one-to-one and have found this to be a good strategy at the beginning.
    I just wanted to say “I love the idea with Oliver the owl!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • BerLingo says:

      Hi Kirsty, thanks so much for your comment and I’m so sorry it took me so long to reply!
      I am glad my German is good enough to be able to help them actually; I would be much more nervous otherwise, I think!
      And thanks for the compliment about little Oliver – that was an idea stolen from someone on #ELTchat the night before!


  2. gemmalunn says:

    Hi, I used to teach in a similar situation in a company class in Barcelona and remember activities which were very simple with lots of repetition worked best. Pics of famous people are always useful to have for basic descriptions, likes etc and practicing ‘to be’. I also would have struggled wothout using Spanish. Good luck πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • BerLingo says:

      Ooh celebrities is a good idea! Thanks πŸ™‚ Second class tomorrow – and they must have liked me because they’ve asked for no replacement to be sent the week I’m in England haha!


  3. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Rachel,
    Hope your beginner classes are going well. I have quite a few posts on teaching beginners, including from multilingual classes where I didn’t speak their languages. I have to admit that it’s a lot easier when you speak their language, although it’s important to use it as a last resort rather than to rely on it IMO. You can find the posts here: https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/tag/beginner/ I love seeing the progress beginners make, and knowing that that’s partly because of me – it’s never quite the same with any other level πŸ™‚
    As Gemma said, repetition is key. If they like using their smartphones you could also introduce them to Quizlet (you can find my A1 beginner group via this link: http://independentenglish.wordpress.com/quizlet) which has lots of in-built opportunities for repetition, and which they can use for extra practice at home.
    The last link I have is my beginners bookmarks: https://www.diigo.com/user/sandymillin/beginners Hopefully you’ll find a few things in there.
    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    • BerLingo says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Sandy! I have already browsed a few of your posts on beginners but thank you for linking me to the relevant section in your Diigo treasure trove πŸ™‚
      Our school policy is also to use as little German as possible, but with this particular class, I did try that approach and they asked for more German because they’re quite nervous…
      They are already more confident speaking now though, especially since the numbers have dropped from 5 to 3 so the class is even cosier πŸ™‚
      I also already recommended Quizlet to them, but they’re *ahem* a little bit older, and already seem to resent working in front of a PC all day, so additional work involving a screen didn’t go down as well as the recommendation does otherwise elsewhere. I have 30 pictures of the concrete noun vocabulary we have amassed so far though, ready for a big vocab review once I’m back from England.
      Thanks again for all the advice!


  4. I’m teaching a beginner class starting in a couple of weeks and I’m so excited – and also absolutely terrified – so thanks so much for writing this post, I really need all the help I can get! I’m doubly scared because it’s the first time my language school have ever offered a beginner class, so the pressure’s on. Eek!

    Liked by 1 person

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