Teaching Pre-literate and Beginning ESL Students
Make Sure Personal Connections Come First
Before teaching any aspect of language, get to know each student individually. Learners should want to communicate with you first before you can begin to help them learn to communicate in their second language. In the case of adult learners who are refugees, you must first attempt to step into their shoes and ask yourself why they would want to talk to you. They have encountered many people who have walked in and out of their lives and since their lives have been so transitory, you should seek to develop a sense of community in the classroom--which means they must see you as someone who they enjoy talking to. Delay the scripted lesson plan and make the class about people getting to know one another. For example, learn not only the students’ names, but also the names of their family members. In other words, talk about what matters to the students first.
Use Interruptions as Teaching Moments that Trump Whatever Lesson You Planned
If a student arrives late, use that as an opportunity to allow the class to discuss public transportation, numbers or as a review on telling time. If a student has a sick baby, use that as an opportunity to discuss medical issues, body parts or terms for various symptoms. If a student brings in photos of his or her family, use that to springboard into a discussion about family. The bottom line is to be spontaneous. The students will remember and learn real-life language as it unfolds naturally, far better than they will recall a pre-planned lesson that is more abstract.
Try to Minimize the Students’ Cognitive Burden
This tip is regarding teaching technique. When teaching pre-literate students it’s best not to write a lot of information on the white board and have students copy it down while you continue to explain concepts. We can easily forget that pre-literate students CANNOT multi-task with their current language proficiency level and it is important to break down tasks into smaller components. If students are busily copying down information from the board, they will not focus on what you are telling them because there are just too many things for them to focus their attention on.
Feed Their Stomachs Sometimes, Not Just Their Minds
Watch for cues that your students may be hungry and share snacks together as a class. Likewise, make sure students can see and hear the lessons. Some pre-literate students may never have had their eyesight or hearing checked. A student who appears resistant to learning may simply have needs that have not been expressed.
Try to Meet Students Half-way
Make an effort to learn words or phrases in the students’ language. They will appreciate your effort to learn their language, and they will see you more as a partner in the learning process rather than someone who has all the answers. For example, when teaching English to Arabic women I struggled to learn a few words of Arabic at the same time. My students enjoyed helping me learn a few new words each day, and I was able to gain more empathy for my students’ struggles to learn English.
Communicate Slowly, Clearly and Directly
Students typically do not understand subtlety in the second language, and there may be times when you need to explain a sensitive issue such as personal etiquette or hygiene. In such cases, it is helpful to use role play to get the point across in a non-threatening yet direct way.
Avoid Using Books that Are Too Childish
Even though your students are at a beginning level, it’s important to utilize or create material that is relevant to an adult. Every adult learner brings a wealth of life experience and sophistication to the learning process. Picture dictionaries can be used but avoid the cutesy beginning kids books.
Remember that with beginners you are your students’ textbook and study guide as well as their teacher. Provide review sessions at the beginning of every class so students will practice what they’ve learned and acquire the language.
Don’t be afraid to make sound effects, play music, and take walks around the neighborhood to reinforce concepts. Sometimes the best learning doesn’t even take place in the classroom, and it doesn’t have to be serious to be effective.
Don’t Assume Students Know Why You Are Teaching Them
For instance, do a role play to demonstrate how bad it would be if they got lost and couldn’t communicate. This will show students why they need to memorize their phone number. If they understand why a concept is important they will be more likely to remember it.