Teaching low-level learners can be a challenging task in a traditional classroom. It can be even more daunting when you’re in an online ESL teaching environment.
What do we mean by low-level learners? These are learners that can be classified under ACTFL Guidelines as Novice learners, or under the CEFR as A1 users. Whatever classification system you use (and there are many out there), the bottom line is, in terms of speaking, low-level ESL learners are those who:
May produce unintelligible pronunciation at times.
Need significant time to express themselves in familiar topics.
Cannot engage in conversational activities.
Cannot speak beyond predictable topics and responses.
Speak with isolated words or phrases, but not in complete thoughts.
Difficult to understand unless effort is made.
Are not functional with basic grammar rules.
Can be somewhat tiring to interact with.
As you can see from these general points, it would be a challenge to have an ESL lesson with one or a group of low-level learners. However, we have a few tips to help you manage such classes and help your students and you walk away with a sense of satisfaction.
1. Speak Slower Not Slowly
As is often the case, people seem to think if they speak slowly, the foreign language speaker will understand them better. But honestly, it makes us look a little silly when we do that. Plus, people don’t usually speak like that anyway. So, when we, as teachers, speak to our students in an exaggeratedly slow manner, it can be insulting to them.
The best thing to do is slow your speech to a more intelligible speed. In other words, throttle back your normal speech to a slower rate to give learners a chance to process each word. Low-level learners tend to focus on individual words instead of the idea being conveyed. So, give them a chance to pick the words up by slowing down.
2. Speak Clearly
As was mentioned in a previous blog, try to enunciate your words. When we enunciate, we emphasize the consonant sounds that give greater clarity to each word. This gives learners an opportunity to catch specific words and synthesize each one into a complete thought. Speaking clearly helps lower-level learners feel as if they’re participating in communication. And this can help build confidence.
3. Use High-Frequency Vocabulary
Frequency refers to how often words are used. High-frequency vocabulary means words that are common, such as big, small, tall, happy, pretty, nice, etc. Low-frequency vocabulary refers to words that aren’t as widely used, such as enormous, minute, towering, ecstatic, adorable, enjoyable, and the like. Try to use high-frequency vocabulary when speaking to low-level learners. You’ll be using words they’ll be more familiar with than the less-common ones. Again, this can help build their confidence communicating in English.
4. Drop the Idioms
“I didn’t catch what you mean.” Imagine, if you were a low-level English speaker and someone said that to you. It might not make sense. But they would likely understand, “I do not understand.” True, those words may sound unpleasant, but they may be the only words for that situation learners recognize. By using less idiom and more direct wording, you can help facilitate more communication.
5. Skip the Courtesy for Now
If you’re like me, with a background in customer service, you have a habit of using courteous speech. That works pretty well with customers who speak the same language. But it doesn’t work as well with low-level English speakers. Saying such polite remarks as, “would it be possible for you to type your name in the chat box” or “kindly tell me a little about yourself,” will likely be unintelligible to them.
To promote communication, try going what may feel like the discourteous route for now. Saying something like, “type your name … in the chat box” and “introduce you” may be the only way to get the message across. It may not feel comfortable to you, but it will have to do until your students can develop their skills further.
6. Use Phrases Instead of Sentences
Instead of, “please tell me a little about yourself,” we can use, “introduce yourself.” Sometimes, the old ‘caveman’ speaking method is the best. We can’t communicate complete thoughts to low-level learners because it will sound foreign to them (pun intended). To overcome that obstacle, try using short phrases, or even broken sentences if need be. The point is that we want to communicate with them, and they want to develop their English skills. Often, that means one step at a time.
7. Ask Targeted Questions for Limited Responses
Rather than asking low-level learners, for example, to introduce themselves, ask them specific introductory-type questions such as, “where are you from?” Or, “what is your job,” etc. Asking learners to create unique or complete thoughts might be an overwhelming task for them at that their level. In fact, if they could do that, they wouldn’t be low-level learners.
Try helping them out with their introductions by asking them specific questions. Then, type it out for them, and teach them how they can say it on their own. What I like to do is show them an introduction with missing information like this:
1. Hi! My name is ____.
2. I’m from [city, country].
3. I’m a [your job title] in a [type of company].
4. In my free time I like ____.
5. I want to improve my English because ____.
6. That’s a little about me—thanks!
As they answer my questions, I fill in the blanks for them. By challenging them to fill in the blanks, they are creating something personalized for themselves to use in the future. And they’ll likely appreciate it.
8. Type as Well As Speak
Doesn’t it get tiring repeating yourself several times? I mean, you have six or eight classes lined up each day. If you keep repeating yourself each class, your voice is going to give out by the fourth class. So, instead of repeating the same thing several times, why not type it out? Give them a chance to see what you’re saying. Then say it again. Learners can now see and hear what’s being asked of them. I like to repeat the same thing a couple of times to reinforce the concept. In time, you won’t need to type it out because they’ll recognize those word combinations.
9. Draw as Well as Speak
You’ve heard the expression, a picture’s worth a thousand words; well, it works in the ESL classroom as well. I’ve found myself at times drawing some interesting things on the screen: buttons, classroom objects, faces, people siting and standing, and the like, just to aid learners.
I’m no artist by any stretch of the imagination, but students can understand what’s being communicated. It doesn’t always happen by voice, but through image. And if you’re using a classroom environment where you can access Google images, you have a treasure chest of images to help facilitate word building and communicating complete thoughts. If you’re not using that, you’re missing a fantastic tool!
Let’s face it, sometimes teaching a low-level class can be downright frustrating. There’s no argument there. However, when frustration shows on your face, you’re telling your learners that you’re bothered. Consequently, they may likely feel awkward or uncomfortable. Some may even get upset. Either way, wearing your negative emotion on your sleeve in an ESL class isn’t conducive to learning.
Train yourself to keep a smile on your face, even when its rough. Believe me, I know how difficult that can be. If you need to, turn off your webcam for a second and mute your mic just to re-compose yourself under the guise of a momentary technical issue. Whatever you need to do to keep your composure will go a long way in helping everyone make it through the class with a positive outcome.
Try These Tips to Maximize Your Low-Level ESL Classes
Now that you have a better idea of how to manage low-level ESL learners, give it a try! A teacher who speaks slower, clearer, uses common vocabulary, less idiom, short phrases, types, draws, uses direct speech, and smiles, will likely have a far greater impact than others who don’t. And please, feel free to share your experiences with us here.