I remember going into a level one classroom one semester with certain expectations in mind.
Every time I had taught that class, students had some knowledge of English vocabulary even if they didn’t know any grammar, and they were able to understand instructions when I taught. This time, I had a class of three, and none of my students knew a thing about English. They didn’t understand instructions. They didn’t know any vocabulary. They couldn’t recite the memorized dialogues my other students had all known. (Hello, how are you? Fine, thank you, and you?) One of them didn’t even know the alphabet! They could not fuction in the real world. Needless to say, it was time to change my normal plan of instruction. If you have ever found yourself in a situation like this, maybe you felt what I did: panic, confusion, hopelessness. The good news is those feelings passed quickly. Thankfully I had some tools ready for teaching absolute beginners, students who needed to learn English to survive. So if you need to know how to survive survival English, here’s what you need to know.
5 Tips on Where to Start with Absolute Beginners
Keep Things Physical
Your students may not be able to speak English, but more likely than not, they can move their bodies. The teaching technique called Total Physical Response is great for teaching absolute beginners and students in survival English classes. In this technique, students make a physical movement in association with every piece of language they learn. They might point at objects that you are teaching vocabulary for or hold those objects in their hands. They might do certain actions whose verbs are on your lesson plan, verbs such as stand up, sit down, and open your book. When students move in association with language, it activities additional sections of their brains and helps them retain what you are teaching them.
Don’t Ask Them to Talk
What? In a language class? Why wouldn’t students talk? That’s because of the natural language learning process in the brain. As you probably already know, there is a difference between receptive language and productive language. Receptive language is what you understand when you hear it, and everyone’s receptive vocabulary is larger than their productive one. Your receptive language is also what develops first. Unlike receptive language, productive language is what you can produce without any prompting. This includes both vocabulary and grammar skills. Language points become receptive knowledge before they become productive knowledge. If you focus on making sure your students understand what they are hearing before you ask them to produce what you have presented, you will be working in tandem with the brain’s natural learning sequence. As a result, the language learning process will be less stressful for both your students and you. Ultimately, do ask your students to speak, just not when they are first learning a concept.
Keep Your Topics Practical
Sure it’s fun to teach a unit on personality traits and describing people, but beginners who are learning survival English probably don’t have a great need to say whether their mail carrier is confident or aloof. What they do need are practical skills to help them survive in the real, English speaking world. Skills like ordering food at a restaurant, asking for directions, reading a bus schedule, and filling out a job application. This is where you should start your instruction. Use authentic materials in class, and teach your students how to navigate through them. Think about the things they do in their everyday life or should be doing, and plan your lessons around the skills needed to complete those tasks.
Know Who Your Students Are
Survival English students are probably not like your typical English program students. They have special circumstances and specific needs. Keep these in mind when you are planning your lessons and teaching your classes. While you are bringing real life materials into class, be selective about the ones you choose. Since the students learning survival English are almost always adults, they have different needs and expectations than younger students. They may be offended by or disinterested in childish materials or cartoons. They will be more hesitant to speak for fear of making mistakes, so you’ll need to make your classroom a judgement free zone. Encourage attempts to speak and let mistakes pass whenever possible. Make sure you are praising even the little successes your students achieve. Get to know them on a personal level. Ask about their families and where they live, what they do for a living, where they are from. Take some time each day to forge these relationships and it will show in how eager and successfully your students learn what you are teaching.
Don’t Stress Out
Most of all, when you are teaching survival English, you will need to be patient with your students. If they are adults living in an English speaking world, their normal days are bound to be filled with a steady level of stress. Don’t add to that by being stressed out yourself. Take your time. Don’t put pressure on your students. Don’t worry about testing skills as much as encouraging communication between your students. Remember that your students aren’t taking your class for academic advancement or profit in the business world. Survival English students are just trying to get along in a world that speaks a different language. If they ask questions about something that isn’t on the syllabus, go with their interests. Meet their real needs rather than the needs you perceive them to have. If you do, your students will learn the English language, gain the skills they need to function in the world around them, and feel good about themselves and their achievements. When you see that happening, you are sure to feel good, too.