What does it mean to be a beginner language learner?
A ‘beginner language learner’ is not the same as a baby or a small child beginning to learn their first language. A very small child is in a unique situation where their linguistic, as well as all of their cognitive and social abilities, are developing. A person learning an additional language is not in this same position. Their cognitive and social abilities and capabilities have already developed to a certain extent but they are learning to communicate and function in new ways, after already knowing how to communicate and function in other ways.
We use categories and terms such as ‘beginner’ to describe a learner’s current language ability, what they understand and can do in the language being learned. These terms are linked to internationally recognised criteria that unify language learners and the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR) is one such standardising structure.
A Basic user in the Common European Framework of Reference for Language
Used worldwide the CEFR categorises learners into three groups, Basic users, Independent users or Proficient users, and then further subdivides these into six levels from A1 and A2 (Basic users) to B1 and B2 (Independent users) through to C1 and C2 (Proficient users) (Council of Europe, 2021). Standardising learners this way helps teachers and learners themselves understand where they sit on the language learning continuum and what and where they need to develop.
A Basic user is defined by the Council of Europe (2021) as someone who can comprehend and use basic phrases. They can introduce themselves and ask and answer questions about where they live. They can interact with others as long as the speaker speaks slowly and clearly.
Stress causes the body to release the hormone cortisol and high levels of this hormone negatively affect learning and memory (Ramirez, 2014). It is important as a teacher to be aware of this as when a person, especially a young person or a child, is in a new, uncertain situation, such as a class with a teacher who speaks a language they don’t really understand, they can experience high levels of stress, and in this state, no real learning can occur.
The first step in teaching any English language learner, but especially a beginning language learner, is to make them feel safe, that they are in no physical, emotional or social danger, and that you are not a direct threat to their well-being. You can achieve this by ensuring that the environment is kept calm, that you are welcoming and friendly to all of your students, and by making sure that you speak slowly and clearly and give enough time for the students to process what you are saying or trying to get across.
Teaching is relational (Otero & Chambers-Otero, 2000) and I cannot emphasise this enough. Building a caring bond with each of your students is fundamental to their learning success. This statement may seem extreme especially considering some of the experiences you have probably had as a student yourself, teachers are definitely not all caring, considerate mentors, but I can assure you that it is not. Students need to feel cared for and valued, this is actually, for many students, a necessary and precursory requirement for them to care about school. Build positive relationships with your students, find out more about them, care, share professionally and age-appropriate information about yourself so that they can get to know you too.
Create a community of learners. This is of great importance also in language learning classrooms because there are many effective or emotional factors that can positively or negatively influence language learning.
- Students’ self-esteem
- Students’ self-efficacy (belief in themselves)
- Their willingness to communicate
- Their inhibition
- Their willingness to take risks
These are all improved when the students in the class feel a sense of belonging, that all members are valuable and that making mistakes is ok.
The code of conduct you draw up with the class and the supportive environment you therefore create will help students feel good about themselves, be confident that they can be successful in learning English, brave to take risks even if they get things wrong whilst cultivating a shared understanding and empathy between students.
We’re halfway through and you haven’t told me anything about teaching beginner language learners!
It may seem so but I included these first three tips because they set you and your students up for success, they are the foundation of everything that you do in the classroom after that. Establishing just what kind of classroom yours is will speak volumes to the students
Start slow, don’t be afraid to spend time getting to know your students. Your voice and your facial expressions are the most powerful tool for most students in this stage. Your tone, smile or frown can quickly tell many students if they are behaving as you expect. Don’t be afraid to be a little dramatic especially with children, it can be fun and the extra emphasis can help their understanding. Use non-verbal gestures to aid with communication but check to make sure none are considered rude! Learn at least a few words in your students’ language(s). These can help to break down barriers and the students will probably enjoy hearing you mispronounce words just as they probably will in English.
Create clear classroom routines that see the day run in a similar way each time. You can use pictures to create a visual timetable at the front of the class, the students will be able to see what they will be studying throughout the day and they will know what is coming up next without having to ask. This will let the students know what to expect which will reduce anxiety and help decrease some of the behavioural issues that otherwise might appear. It will also save you some time and effort explaining as the students will already know what is coming up in the day and what to expect.
Annunciate and slow your speech. Trying to catch words as they fly into sentences at regular fluent speaker speed is tough and if you have ever been a language learner listening to native speakers speak you will know how hard it is to keep up. Start with the basic knowledge that your course is designed to teach, check that your students have understood and provided lots of time for practice. Remember to have students practice what they are learning in different ways so speaking and listening in pairs is good.
Beginner English speakers in some ways can be the most rewarding to teach because you can clearly observe just what they have learnt in class. It can be very satisfying to watch students who were struggling to put a few English words together at the beginning of the year string sentences together excitedly by the end of the year.
Ramirez, A. (17 October, 2014). The Science of Fear. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/the-science-of-fear-ainissa-ramirez
Otero, G. G., & Chambers-Otero, S. (2000). Relational learning: Towards a human ecology in 21st Century schools. Incorporated Association of Registered Teachers of Victoria.
Council of Europe. (2021). Global scale: Common Reference levels. https://www.coe.int/web/common-european-framework-reference-languages/table-1-cefr-3.3-common-reference-levels-global-scale