Apr 6

What NOT to teach adult beginners

my opinion

Don't teach these...

What language do you teach learners right at the beginning? If your answer to this is 'Colours, numbers, days of the week...' PLEASE watch this video to see why I think these are terrible things to spend class time on!

Video transcript

What do you need to teach learners of English right at the beginning? The colours? The numbers? Days of the week? What would you say if I told you that I think these are TERRIBLE things to spend time on in class? Interested why I think this? Keep watching.

Hi- I’m Jo Gakonga, I’ve been teaching English for over 30 years and training teachers on CELTA and MA TESOL programmes for over 20 of those. I’ve also got a website at ELT-Training.com where I make material to help English language teachers at all stages of their careers.

So- beginner learners. It’s actually not all that common to have adult learners who are COMPLETE beginners- usually people are ‘false beginners’ who’ve learnt some English in school… but if you DO get a very low level class, then let’s look at some things that you might teach them.

Stop me for a minute, look at this list and see which YOU think are important in class. Go on, do it!

Asking for things in a shop/ café etc
Body parts
Please/ thank you
Days/ Months
I’m sorry, I don’t understand
Telling the time
Personal information - I’m from/ I’m married/ single/ I’ve got two children/ three dogs

Did you do that? I hope so… right, let’s see if we agree!

Numbers and colours, days of the week and months, body parts – it’s tempting, isn’t it? They’re closed sets of words, they’re common enough and useful and there’s a kind of satisfaction in learning them and knowing that you know them… BUT it’s really just a case of memorising them. Why don’t you just send them home with Quizlet or Duolinguo for this- much better than using valuable class time on words they’re not going to use very often and which you can’t make into a meaningful conversation.

Directions and telling the time – These are my pet HATE! Why do you need to tell the time when you have a watch or a phone? Why do you need to know how to ask for directions when Google maps exists??!! Again, I’m not saying you should never teach these but they’re certainly not a priority.

So what SHOULD you teach in class? In my humble opinion, the thing to focus on at the beginning, in your valuable and limited time in the classroom, is functional language that will make learners feel as if they can SAY something and communicate in a meaningful way, even if it’s limited.

Greetings – yes. Language like ‘I don’t understand’ and ‘how do you say __ in English?’ Yes. Asking and answering questions like ‘What’s your name?’, ‘where are you from?’, ‘what do you do?’, ‘are you married?’, ‘do you have any children?’. And having conversations in shops, markets, cafes and restaurants: ‘can I help you?’, ‘do you have any?’, ‘I’d like some… ‘, ‘how much is it?’. And definitely words that will help oil the social wheels- please and thank you.

If you get these things going first, you’re learners are likely to feel that they’re really making some progress right from the get go.

Finally, one other pet hate of mine and one that I see crop up on Facebook posts sometime: please don’t teach your adult learners nursery rhymes! Because they’re for children, doesn’t make the language in them useful or even often easy and if I were a learner of a new language, I wouldn’t want to be singing ‘the wheels on the bus’. It’s hard enough not to feel infantilised when you can’t express your adult self yet! Don’t make this worse!

OK. Apologies for the rant! I’m very interested to see what other teachers think about this. Please do leave your comments below!

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