Teaching English as a second language - beginner level

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 »  Articles Overview  »  Language Specific  »  English Grammar  »  Teaching English as a second language - beginner level

Teaching English as a second language - beginner level

By Arina Evtikhova | Published  10/18/2009 | English Grammar | Recommendation:
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Quicklink: http://fra.proz.com/doc/2713
Arina Evtikhova
anglais vers russe translator

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I am an adherent of the Communicative Teaching Approach and many of the following pieces of advice will be based upon its postulates. It is not ruled out that some of these tips can be applied mostly to European-based L1 learners, as, unfortunately, I can share no experience teaching Asian, Arabic, or African L1 students. Based on my experience, I will provide examples from teaching English to Russian and French students.

I often start my first class with a metaphor: in language learning the instructor is like a road sign, and it is the student who is driving. It is important that students understand that we are here just to guide, prompt, and warn against dangers, and unless they do the “driving” (make effort to learn), they will not advance.

Another metaphor I like is the comparison of language acquisition to building a house: words are bricks, pronunciation is the material that the brick is made of, grammar is mortar, and syntax is the construction drawings and plans. Without good material you won’t have a good brick (= won’t understand what is being said), many bricks (= sufficient vocabulary) are needed to build a whole house, and bad mortar (= grammar) would not hold your house together. Correct drawings and plans are necessary to build a good and comfortable house (well-spoken language). This metaphor makes it easier for students to understand why all of the four aforementioned components are indispensable and a must to master.

How can a language instructor, just like a good foreman, facilitate the work on their “construction site”?

With non-Latin L1 alphabet students you want to be sure they know each and every letter and do not mix them up. I found out that students master the alphabet faster and easier if it’s presented not in the traditional ABC chain but rather in batches:
1. letters that fully coincide with L1 in writing and pronunciation (often AKMOT)
2. letters that partially coincide with L1, same writing but different pronunciation
3. letters that have no equivalents in L1.

The alphabet should be drilled at the beginning of each class until you are sure that your students are stone-solid comfortable about it.

It is very important to explain to your students how to pronounce the sounds correctly, which is where exactly to place their tongue to reproduce a certain sound. Both drawings and verbal explanations are good, it is not a bad idea to have students bring small mirrors to class in the beginning, to verify they are using the right articulation points.

Try to exploit “modified” L1 sounds as much as possible. At the same time, one has to be careful with such “modifications”. For instance, when teaching how to pronounce one of the toughest sounds for both Russian and French students, English [Ѳ] or [ð], a common mistake is to advise “to place your tongue between your teeth and say “s” or “z”.” This very often leads to mispronunciations like [Sin] instead of [θɪn] or [Zis] instead of [ðɪs]. At the same time, if you replace S with T and Z with D, the result will be much closer to the desired one.

Insist that students learn phrases instead of separate words – it will help them have a better grasp of L2. For example, instead of “listen TO the music” a Russian-speaking student is most likely to say “listen music”, or a French one would rather go for “listen the music”. However, if from day one they learn a phrase and not just independent words, the amount of such minor mistakes, that do however disfigure L2, will be diminished.

I noticed that sometimes students retain new vocabulary better if you explain their etymology, the composing elements for compounds (jelly + fish = jellyfish), or provide some fun facts about words.

It is useful to stress the similarities between L1 and L2 that are not always evident to an untrained eye: e.g., Eng. mi l k – Rus. mo lo ko, Germ. Mi l ch. Once I even went as far as touching upon the historical phoneme mutations to explain differences in certain sounds; my students were very excited to find out about it and asked for more. Unfortunately, the classroom format does not allow for many “lyrical digressions”.

Whenever possible, it is good to skip the L1 link in the concept > L1 word> L2 word chain. Visuals, props, and even gesticulation are extremely helpful for replacing a L1 translation of a new word with a concept, represented through a picture, an object, or a gesture. It makes preparing for a class much more of a hassle but is very rewarding in the long run.

When approaching a new grammatical structure, try to make the subject matter less daunting, e.g., use international and borrowed words, cognates. Students always find it fun to pronounce familiar words with a “foreign” accent whilst also being able to concentrate on the grammatical structure. Luckily, nowadays, the arsenal of borrowings in many languages includes printer, scanner, computer, sandwich (perfect for drilling constructions like “I have”, etc.) Names of professions and countries are cognates in many languages.

Warm-ups are a perfect way to recall what was learned during last class and to tune students in for the new one.

Slow but sure works perfectly well at early stages – students will be much happier if they leave the class having memorized two or three new phrases and a few new words than after a class “packed” with new material which often goes in one ear and out the other.

In the beginning, you may want to go a little lighter on linguistic phenomena that do not exist in students’ L1. For instance, Russian and some other Eastern European languages do not have a notion of article, so the English a/the will be an unfamiliar concept to native speakers of such languages. Undoubtedly it should be explained, but when teaching grammar on material other than articles, don’t stress it. If your student makes a mistake, it is better to give the correct sentence emphasizing the correction with your voice and move on. Beginner students are often nervous and lack self-confidence, and if we keep insisting on the correction of each and every error they may prefer to keep silent instead of practicing L2 in class.

Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” - you are only human. Check the question out at home and take the answer with you to the next class- your students will respect you for your honesty and dedication.

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