6 Tips for Teaching English to Complete Beginners

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Here’s how to teach English to beginners. Think back to your childhood. Do you remember when an adult asked you something and you just stared open-mouthed (not because you were trying to be rude or anything) because it was all gobbledygook to you? That’s exactly how ESL beginners feel in a language classroom. If the teacher starts rambling in a language they don’t understand, they’ll just get nervous and shut down.

Woman at whiteboard with marker ready to write

You’ve got a clean slate to start with when teaching English to complete beginners.

In your first English lesson for beginners, adults or otherwise, you don’t want to scare the sh** out of your students. Put yourself in their shoes—how would you feel if some stranger starts saying weird stuff at you and expects you to reply in the same alien language? It’s nerve-wracking and mortifying, to say the least.

Here’s everything you need to know when it comes to teaching English to complete beginners.

Why beginners are a little more challenging

Absolute beginners are a tough nut to crack because they have no previous knowledge of English. They’ll be coming to you raw, sometimes without knowing their ABC’s, numbers, and common phrases like “Hello!” and “Goodbye!” They won’t know what nouns and adjectives are or how to form a sentence or question.

On the other hand, false beginners think they know English because of past exposure. For instance, they’ve spent countless hours studying the language but can’t hold an English conversation with a native speaker. It’s up to you to diagnose your students’ language proficiency levels and prepare teaching English to beginners material that works on the basics before you get into anything more advanced. 

6 tips to get you through

GIF, Dr. Strange on knees begging Teach me. 

Beginners learning ESL be like… 

Still scampering around trying to plan teaching English to beginners material? Here are 6 steps to teach English to beginners like a pro!

1. Keep it simple, stupid.

This is the one of the most important steps to teach English to beginners. Many newbie teachers make the mistake of using too much English when giving their students instructions, praise, or other feedback. For instance, saying, “You guys, now we’re going to look at a new structure today so let’s get those textbooks out” in ESL beginner lessons makes you sound like you’re from Mars. 

Instead, say something like this: “Take out your textbooks. Okay?” with an OK sign if it’s culturally appropriate in the country you’re teaching in. Gestures are super important and help beginners better understand even when the classroom English seems clear to you. This tip will save your life if you’re teaching English to complete beginners. 

2. Always check for understanding.

A rookie mistake many persons teaching English to complete beginners make is assuming that the students have understood the lesson or classroom instructions. In your first lesson for beginners, adults or kids, your students may not be accustomed to the Western way of schooling where students raise their hands if they don’t understand. 

Instead, they may be feel embarrassed to admit ignorance in front of the class and prefer to remain silent. When teaching beginners English, you need to read your students’ body language to gauge whether they’ve understood and keep checking whether they've understood by asking, “Okay?” Students will let you know directly or subtly whether they’ve got it or not.

3. Give them lots of time to practice.

In ESL beginner lessons, you cannot expect your students to get it immediately. You need to provide lots of examples, check for understanding, and then ensure that your class has enough time to practice what you’ve just taught them. 

When teaching beginners English, this usually means drilling the students (making them listen and repeat the language structure several times after you) and then having them practice it individually or with other students. Make sure to let them know that it’s okay to mess up during practice time so they don’t feel pressured to be perfect on the first try.

4. Show, don’t tell.

One of the steps to teach English to beginners is to show, not tell, in the classroom. Students will better understand what you’re trying to say if you use visual cues rather than spill a lot of words in their direction.

What does this mean exactly? Instead of saying, “Let’s learn the passive tense” practice how to teach basic English by giving clear examples of the target language structure with simple drawings, pictures, short skits, and exaggerated gestures. 

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5. Always use positive reinforcement.

Here’s another one of the steps to teach English to beginners. If someone gives an incorrect answer, don’t yell, “You’re wrong!” Never, ever embarrass a student in front of the entire classroom. You’ll scar him or her for life and he or she will hate English forever because of you. Instead, try to create a friendly atmosphere in the classroom by praising your students often, even when they make mistakes. 

For instance, when doing English teaching for beginners, if they get the word right but just mispronounce it, say something like, “Okay, good!” and then repeat the word with the correct pronunciation so that you don’t shame the student and the rest of the class gets to hear the right way to say it. 

6. Don’t be boring.

English teaching for beginners doesn’t have to feel like pulling teeth. Instead, use lots of games to encourage your students to practice and produce the language you’ve taught. Also incorporate your students’ interests so they want to learn! For instance, don’t use Garfield if they love Hello Kitty!

Also, nothing’s more dull that making students read from the textbook and fill in lame worksheets with lots of text and zero images. The sky’s the limit regarding how to teach basic English: trawl the interwebs for awesome ideas that will keep your students engaged throughout the lesson.

7 ESL beginner lessons + activity ideas

Man pointing to Lonely Planet for kids map with student

No matter the age of your students, follow these steps to teach English to beginners.

Ready to get the ball rolling? Here are some awesome ideas to get you up and running regarding how to teach English to beginners!

Lesson idea #1: Show (But Don’t Tell)

Teaching English to beginners material doesn’t have to be uncool! This game is similar to the party game, Charades. It can be used as a warm up or to practice the target language structure (s) with any age group. It’s a gesture and speaking activity.

Students get into pairs. One student gets a flash card with the vocabulary word but he or she cannot show it to the other student. This student must act out the word with gestures and without using words. For instance, if the flash card says “ball” the student has to act out “ball” and the other student has to guess the word before time runs out (1-2 minutes). The students then switch roles so that the first student gets to guess and the second student has to act.

This activity can be graded informally regarding the number of students who guess the right answer within the time frame.

Materials needed: timer, vocabulary flashcards

Lesson idea #2: Find someone who

Want to know how to teach English to beginners? Try this survey game that works best with teenagers and adults. It’s a speaking, listening, reading, and writing activity. Prepare worksheets with a grid with 6 squares. In each square, write a category with the language structure you’d like them to practice. For example:

Someone who likes dogs: 

Someone who doesn’t like school:

Someone who likes ice cream:

Someone who doesn’t like cake:

Someone who likes the color red:

Someone who doesn’t like to read:


Students walk around the class and find peers who fall into each category and write their names. How can you assess this? The first person to complete the entire activity is the winner or the person with the most points at the end of the time period (one point for each name) is the winner.

Materials needed: worksheets, timer

Lesson idea #3: Shiritori

Teaching beginners English? Try Shiritori, a traditional Japanese game that literally translates “taking the butt.” The class gets into a circle and the teacher starts with a category like animals. He or she then says two animal words like “cat dog” while clapping to keep time. Everyone also claps to keep the rhythm. 

The next person must say “dog” (the teacher’s last word) and a new animal word like “elephant.” If someone can’t think of a new word, repeats a word that’s already said, or doesn’t say the words in time, he or she is out. This game can work with almost any age group and is a listening and speaking game. It’s not really great for formal assessment but works as an awesome warm up!

Materials needed: nothing!

Lesson idea #4: Talk to Three

Confused how to teach basic English? This speaking activity can be used with any age group. It can be used to practice any language structure you teach or as a warm up. The teacher models the activity with three volunteers. He or she approaches the first volunteer and it goes something like this:

Teacher: Hello!

Student: Hello!

Teacher: I’m sleepy. How are you?

Student: I’m happy.

Teacher: Super! Goodbye!

Student: Goodbye.

The teacher then demonstrates the same activity with the other two volunteers and once he’s done, he can sit down. The first students to sit down are the winners! 

Materials needed: timer

Lesson idea #5: Crossfire

Doing English teaching for beginners? This a great warm up for younger teenagers and kids and can be used to practice previous knowledge. All students stand up. The teacher picks a student at random and asks him or her a question that tests the language structure the class has already already learned. If the students gets it right, he or she can choose to:

  1. Sit down by himself/herself
  2. Let his/her row across sit down
  3. Let his/her row down sit down

The teacher continues asking questions until the entire class is seated. 

Materials: none!

Lesson idea #6: Rock, paper, scissors train

This is a good listening and speaking activity for young kids and you need a lot of space to play this game. It’s a great warm up too. All students stand up. Each student is a train engine. Each student meets another student and says the target sentence (s). 

For example:

Student 1:  I like soccer. 

Student 2: I like volleyball.

Then, they play rock, paper, scissors. The loser becomes a car behind the winner. When two trains meet, the entire train that loses goes behind the train that wins. The class plays until there is only one train, the winner!

Materials needed: timer

Lesson #7: Simon Says

This is for very young kids and it’s primarily a listening activity. It’s great for warm ups. The teachers acts as Simon and the other students must do whatever Simon says, as long as the phrase “Simon says” comes before the command. 

If Simon does not say “Simon says” before the command, students are not supposed to follow it. If a student follows a command without a “Simon Says,” he or she is out of the game. You can add your own variations to the game. For higher grades, you can add different actions such as “Simon says play baseball.”  

Materials: none!

Get those beginners on the path to fluency! 

GIF, kid president teachers keep teaching and students keep studenting

Word. 

Teaching English to complete beginners is a fun challenge new and ol ESL teachers. Although planning teaching English to beginners material may seem like a royal pain for the first time, you’ll soon get the hang of it. It’s also super rewarding when your learners get it. It’s amazing to see them move from having absolutely no knowledge to being able to speak basic English! 

If you practice these tips, you’ll soon become an expert at your first English lesson for beginners, adults, teenagers, or kids. Always keep praising your students so they don’t feel discouraged when they mess up. Praise will help them become confident learners who aren’t afraid of a foreign language. Who knows, maybe one day, they’ll thank you for being the best English teacher they ever had!

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