You’re standing in the middle of a class; It’s full of students staring at you with blank looks and incomprehensible body language; Some may whisper together in an unknown shared language, or they even can’t understand each others’ language so there’s only silence who speaks in the class. You may try to communicate with them in simple English: Some of those looks don’t change, no matter how much you try. But some nodding heads show signs of understanding, smattering a few words clumsily.
Take a deep breath and speak with the universal language: smile as wide as you can at those aliens looking barely at you! You should bear in mind that all of these eyes have a brain, they’re are not stupid. They already knew one or maybe more languages. They’re here because they want “you” to teach them another language. And “you” are the one who should know them well so that you can help them turn from “zeros” to “heroes”. The first step toward this ambitious goal is identifying your beginner students with their characteristics and to be able to categorize them into different groups. This will provide you with some insights and you will be able to prepare to teach them based on their characteristics.
False versus absolute beginners
As a good language teacher, you should be able to differentiate instantly the false beginners from the absolute ones. Do they respond to your simple greetings smattering or do they remain mute? Do they nod in response to your simple “yes/no question” or continue staring at you? At the very first step, you should be able to group your beginner students into two groups: Zeros & False ones.
Although it’s rare to find absolute beginners in English, they do exist(due to some cultural, political, or personal reasons). They never encountered English before; they don’t even know the alphabet; English phonemes sound strange to their ear; they don’t know where a word finishes and when the next begins? They do not dare even to blink an eye or move a limb as they’re afraid to convey a wrong message to the teacher.
Nearly all the beginners have already studied or been exposed to some English even minor (in school or via the internet or any other sources); These learners are called false beginners; they may have studied for many years in school but even can’t make a full sentence; Most of them know the alphabet, the sounds, and some basic and frequent words; They can answer to simple greeting but effortfully.
Monolingual versus Multilingual beginners
All human beings are raised with at least one natural native language, but some are fortunate enough to be exposed to a second or even third language during their lifetime. A monolingual who decides to learn any foreign language has no experience in learning a second language; Naturally, the monolingual beginner with no previous experience is more likely to be reluctant and feel jumpy in the class. They will need your assistance more in ‘learning how to learn”.
The bilingual or multilingual beginners have more confidence due to their experience in language learning (and sometimes exaggerated confidence that may bring about disappointing results)
Beginners with versus beginners without knowledge of the alphabet
Some beginners do not know the Roman alphabet because they may not know written English or their native language uses some kind of non-Roman alphabet (e.g . Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Russian, etc.) The first thing you should consider is teaching how to write the alphabet correctly, how each letter sounds prototypically and having them identify each letter in words in the early stages. If you’re dealing with younger beginners, you could teach the alphabet by singing to them.
Adult versus young beginners
Scholars believe that the typical age of attaining adulthood starts at 18 when the formal education in schools is over. Adults are normally either false learners or have gained some levels of English proficiency during their education. Adult English beginners can have very different characteristics than younger ones. They’re usually :
- More motivated
- More disciplined
- More attentive
- More friendly with teachers and with their peers
- More likely to have clear goals and expectations of their learning process
- Less likely to have language awareness
Young beginners are usually students attending schools; In some countries, students start receiving formal English education from elementary school; but some countries, (especially the developing ones) prefer to start English teaching in higher grades which usually are unfruitful; Students in this environment usually take extra English classes outside the school. They’re all false beginners who have been exposed to written language, but usually have serious problems with writing and speaking skills. Contrary to adult beginners, youngs usually are:
- Less motivated
- Less disciplined
- More likely to grasp the language cause they have greater language awareness
- Less likely to have well-defined goals and expectations
Although we tried to classify the beginners into several categories, there’ are no clear-cut categories; beginners can have several characteristics of each group. But this kind of approach will help English teachers to be well-prepared for dealing with all kinds of beginners; In this way, they can gather useful material for each group based on their immediate needs; they could discern who needs to learn basic survival English to communicate with others in an English speaking community and who needs alphabet to start reading and writing in English.
To cut long story short, beginners of all sorts are tough nuts to crack! They should be dealt with with extreme care!