Where Do We Begin to Teach Beginners?

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An interesting opportunity has presented itself. A friend has asked me to teach her English. As a busy mother of three, she hasn’t had the opportunity to take formal classes since her arrival in this country. Now that her children are a bit older, she can manage a few hours of weekly study. Her desire is strong, and that’s good because her present knowledge of the language is very limited. If you’re going to undertake a big task, intrinsic motivation is key. Don’t you agree?

Now I must reassure myself that I can help my friend reach her language goals. Can I rise to the challenge of helping someone climb that first set of stairs and possibly go beyond? It’s been quite some time since I’ve worked one-on-one with someone at this level. I’d label my friend as a false beginner. My private students over the past three years have ranged from low intermediate to advanced. As I gather my thoughts and my materials, I welcome your input. Where do we begin when we teach beginners?

One tool at my disposal is the student’s native language. My friend is from Moscow, so up until now we’ve communicated in Russian. However, since moving from EFL to ESL back in 2001, I’ve gained confidence in teaching students whose first languages I don’t know. Of course, it’s useful to have a common language in order to handle questions and concerns voiced by beginners, but I know from experience that it’s possible to teach only in English starting from Lesson 1. (Actually, in the first school I taught at, I was asked by the director not to use my Russian, but it was handy to understand the whispered comments of my students!)

One of the first things I’ll have to establish is a working relationship with my friend. When I wear the hat of a teacher, I won’t allow too much use of Russian. I do intend to allow some Russian during our lessons when a simple translation will clarify a point. However, I’ll have to help my friend develop a new mindset that embraces English immersion. I suppose one benchmark of success will be my own feeling that I’ve lost a Russian conversation partner!

I plan to create some videos based on our lessons, so you’ll get to observe my efforts. I’m ready to start this month. Her goals have been established, our materials have been identified, and we’re now working on a schedule to accommodate our busy lives as parents. Wish us luck!

Related post: The Language Dilemma


86 Comments Add yours

  1. Pedro Alvarez Espinoxa says:

    To help her successfully, you need to make your student aware of Russian syllabification and stress. And also teach her syllabification in English and how stress dictates the syllabification. Most if not all accent reduction courses don’t focus on the foundations of stress.

    For instance, there is a productive heuristic for the -ic prefix: just stress the penultimate syllable. Another heuristic: there exists at least one unstressed syllable between the primary stressed syllable and a secondary stressed one.So far, so good. There is a greater point that L2 speakers should know: stress dictates the quality of underlying vowel. Let me illustrate with the following example.

    algebraic: ,al-ge-‘BRA-ic

    Here, the first and the third are stressed. Even though the underlying graphemes are same (“a”) and stressed, the quality of vowels is difference: one being tense, the other being lax.

    Imagine another word: ,al-ge-BRAT-ic . Here, the primary stressed vowel is lax (and the syllable is closed).

    The moral of the story: one can predict whether stressed vowels (syllables) are lax (closed syl) or tense (open syl).

    Compare the stress of the following words: compulsive, elusive. Also check the stress of the words “compusive (no l) and eluxive (x instead of s).

    The other part is: American accent reduction courses and specialists are not aware of the theories of Intonation. For instance, Pierrehumbert’s theory of intonation developed from Bolingers theory of pitch accent. There are five to six pitch accents in American English. The more knowledge the leaner possess, the better he/she can perceive vowel qualities, pitch accents, cadence (phrasal accent, phrasal accent + boundary tone), etc.

    Mere knowledge of phonemes and allophones in American English is like learning very very basics, which don’t help perceive other features.

    1. Thank you for sharing this, Pedro. Having insight into stress patterns can unlock the mystery of how to make one’s speech sound more natural!
      I appreciate your careful explanation.

  2. Muhammad Tawfeeq says:

    Good luck and thank you very much for all your wonderful lessons.

    1. Thank you.
      Best wishes to you!

  3. Kate says:

    Hi Jennifer!

    Good post; you’re right, it’s hard teaching a friend or someone with whom you usually speak in another language.

    I find Timothy Ferris’ “How to learn a language in 3 months” very interesting from a teaching point of view.

    I don’t think all his conclusions apply, but he talks of the importance of memorizing the most common written words in English, for example. If a student learns these, it will help them construct simple sentences and comprehend the bigger picture of what is being said. Especially at the start of learning a new language, little victories can be of huge importance.

    Also, he speaks of “How to master a language in an hour” by deconstructing how the language is built. I find this fascinating, and it has worked for me in the past. My native language is English and I have taught it for many years; however this year I began learning Hindi and using part of his methodology helped: by translating 6 specific sentences we are able to deduct lots of conclusions, such as placement of indirect objects and how verbs are conjugated based on speaker.

    For adults, I think this logical learning can be a good starting point.

    Looking forward to your videos!

    PS. These are the links I was talking about:

    1. Thanks very much, Kate! I didn’t know about Ferris’ work. I’ll check it out. Thanks also for the links. I like the idea of including “deconstruction” as you describe it. I think my approach to teaching is a combination of bottom-up and top-down. I don’t think preference for one should mean that you must exclude the other. 🙂 Good luck learning Hindi. Wow! Now that’s a challenge.

  4. nliakos says:

    Good luck teaching your friend, Jennifer! I think the key is having a good text that the motivated student can practice with between lessons, which can be reserved for presenting new concepts, practicing them with a person, and dealing with confusion. I once tried to do this for my niece’s husband; I used the first Focus on Grammar book, which I like because it combines all the skills. But due to a variety of factors (distance, no driver’s license, lack of time), we had to give it up. Now it’s six years and 2 kids later, and he can function in English but at a pretty basic level. I wish he had been able to focus on English back then, because I think he would be in a better place now. But as you know, language learning depends on so many things. Besides the above obstacles, he was older (in his 40s) and dyslexic. It all proved to be too much of a challenge.
    PS 2 more ideas: News for You or another similar newspaper (maybe there are some online by now), and children’s books (she can practice reading them to her after you two drill the pronunciation together!).

    1. Thank you, Nina. I’ll admit that I’m worried about how long we can sustain our drive toward our goals. That’s one reason why I added another element: the YouTube factor. I’m going to make some videos based on what happens in these lessons because a good number of YouTubers have asked me to start from the beginning – the VERY beginning. A-B-C, Hello, My name is… I want to help my friend function in her new country. She wants more confidence on a daily basis. We both will be helping others start their studies as well. If the videos receive good feedback, it will be added incentive to continue. When I know someone is depending on me for help and I’m in a position to provide it, it’s hard not to agree. 🙂 It’s actually quite wonderful that I have a friend who’s in need of instruction from the beginning and is willing to have her efforts to learn English be a model for others.

      We’re both busy moms, so we will likely meet only once a week. We began last week, and we’ll meet again tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it!
      Stay tuned. Videos on YouTube to come!

  5. Ирина Репинская says:

    Здравствуйте Дженнифер
    Очень понравились Ваши уроки. К сожалению, у Наташи проблемы со звуками. В русском языке нет R, th, ing. Для меня, как учителя англ. языка это проблема- отрабатывать эти звуки с учениками. Наташа должна правильно ставить свою мимику. У Вас есть отличные уроки с объяснением транскрипции.Это облегчит Наташе понимание произношения слов.
    Что касается лексики, то это очень интересно, узнать тонкости ежедневного английского языка.
    Спасибо Вам за интересные уроки.

    1. Hello Irina! Thank you for checking out my new series and giving some feedback. Pronunciation will be a challenge at times, and I’ll address it to some degree as we move along. What you see on camera is only part of Natasha’s studies. I assign a number of tasks for her to do independently. As her proficiency increases, she’ll be able to watch my pronunciation videos on YouTube as part of her independent work. I’ll be curious myself to see where we are at the end of 2012!

  6. Resa says:

    Hi, my dear Jennifer:
    Thank you very much.

    1. shahbana says:

      hi jennifer how r u i m very impressed for ur good teaching

      1. Hello. Thank you. I hope you will visit my website for learners, too.

  7. Hello Jennifer! If I were to teach someone just once a week, I’d have them listen to recordings in English in-between the classes. I mean, why doesn’t Natasha put on headphones and listen to simple dialogues, beginner level stories, suchlike. I’m sure, you’ve got plenty of recordings for English textbooks. She could use the time usually taken away from studies by routine chores, like cleaning the house, cooking, etc., doing listening and cleaning. I believe it works well when you want the language to surround you. I’m a bit surprised, though. You ‘re writing Natasha has lived in the States quite for a while and still at the basic level?! How could that be possible?
    Regards, Dennis

    1. Thanks, Dennis! Yes, I’ve assigned resources on other websites that give Natasha additional practice. Many of them are listening-based. I think I should recommend turning on the radio to fill the house with English music (when the children aren’t napping, of course). I like your idea of “surrounding” her more in the language. This is very much what is needed.

      You see, she arrived in the U.S. with one child, and soon after had two more. As a mother of three (two of whom are still very young), it’s been a challenge to study the language. She’s been able to rely on her Russian husband for communication outside the home. She has a circle of Russian friends, so there’s been little need her in personal life to learn English. There’s also Russian TV on cable, so it’s been possible to remain immersed in Russian. However, with the children now starting to attend school, she must interact with new people who speak only English. With the children in school, she also now has an open time slot in her schedule to study on a regular basis, which she didn’t have before.

      I think there are plenty of others in similar situations, not only in the U.S., but in other countries with high immigrant populations. I really hope that my new series with Natasha will reach those who need to learn English, but have (for whatever reason) been unable to in the past. 🙂

  8. Sisavanh says:

    Thank for teaching me on Youtube.

  9. mouad says:

    yOu help me with your videos for learn english,,,,,,,,,,,,thank you teacher !^_^!

    1. Thank you for commenting. Have a good day!

  10. Nguyễn Đăng Hoàng says:

    Cảm ơn cô giáo Jennifer. Tôi là Nguyễn Đăng Hoàng, tôi là người Việt Nam. Tôi đã từng học tiếng anh tại trường học từ nhiều năm trước nhưng tôi không thể giao tiếp bằng tiếng Anh. Được theo học tiếng anh trên youtube cùng co giáo hi vọng trình độ Anh ngữ của tôi sẽ được cải thiện. thank you Jennifer!

    1. Hello! Pleases start with this playlist.

      Best wishes to you!

      1. Marcela says:

        Hello teacher Jennifer, I want to study english with you !!!!

      2. Hello Marcela,
        Would you like to visit my community forum? I welcome questions there. Some visit just to practice writing a little in English each day.

  11. hwawon says:

    I love your teaching that is good for me.
    Thamks a lot my teacher, jennifer

    1. Thank you for the support. Kind regards!

  12. wonderful time learning how to teach an adult english as a second language.l know the language,but to teach is different.l was nnot knowing how to start and where to start..Thank you very much for your nice piece of knowledge.lt was fun learning how to start a language.Again,thank you Jennifer.

    1. Thanks for reading the post.
      Kind wishes!

  13. Xuyên says:

    hello, jennifer. I’m Xuyen. I want to speak English fluently as native people. I’m watched video Learing English with jennifer for beginers. I really interested in your lesson. Can you show me how to study and what videos I should watch next ? thanks you very much!

    1. Hello.
      1. Please use my Study Tips. http://www.englishwithjennifer.com/study_tips_new.php
      2. You can post questions on my forum. http://www.englishwithjennifer.com/forum2/
      3. You can use this playlist. http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0A0C8CFFE9712B76&feature=plcp After that, you can use other playlists.
      You may like these:

      Good luck to you!

  14. Jill says:

    I just started teaching ESL this year. I love your videos. Can I find them off youtube? I can’t get youtube in school. Do you know if I can save the videos onto another file? Thanks, Jill

    1. Hello Jill. I’m happy you found my videos and this blog. You should be able to use a free YT downloader and then play the videos in your classroom. See one tutorial about downloading among my Favorites on YT. http://www.youtube.com/my_favorites

      Some of my videos are on Vimeo, but not many. I also posted my beginner series on a Chinese-based site. http://us.see2know.com/Learn/?que=jennifer.

      I hope you’ll be able to share my lessons or excerpts from them with your students.

      Thank you for stopping by.


  15. nguyễn doãn luân says:

    Dear Jennifer
    through her ​​lessons very well, I want to learn her lesson, she was the Vietnam should learn English conversation very difficult, please mail or facebook me want her to be able to post more frequently asked, because he can not speak, do not speak, nor write, and did not understand much of english so I had to use google to write this said, it may not be ready but it’s her heart, a student Vietnam does not know anything about English, including grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, with the desire to overcome the language barrier to go to the world I hope that she will remove a little bit of time to help children to overcome this challenge obstacles english is limited.
    I sincerely thank you


    1. Hello. I welcome questions on my forum. Please know that resource is free and open to all.

  16. crosbi dos santos says:

    I like your study

  17. Elhana says:

    It is a methodic error to ignore the student’s L1 language as you do. He is wasting energy and losing concentration trying to follow your instructions and guessing your meanings, instead of focusing on the lesson’s topic. It is OK to use only L2 with intermediate students, but (false) beginners should not be demoralized with it.

    1. Hello Elhana. Thanks for joining the discussion.

      I believe there are different paths that can lead to the same goal. I think especially in a one-on-one setting a lot depends on the teaching and learning styles as well as the preferences. What I ended up posting on YT was not everything Natasha and I did together. Natasha and I continued to speak Russian together, but during our studies we limited the use of Russian. That was particularly true on camera, when I knew speakers of other languages would be watching.

      My own personal experience learning languages sometimes included too much use of English, which prevented the growth of communication skills. However, there were times when translations were very much appreciated.

      I agree that no learner should be demoralized, but I feel that a supportive environment is still possible in a classroom that limits the use of the L1. Self-esteem and willingness to take risks are important to have when putting oneself in the role of a language learner. We teachers can help by creating a positive atmosphere on Day 1 and continuing to encourage and support the learners throughout their studies.

      Best regards,

  18. Fady Saad says:

    Good Job

    1. Thank you for reading the post!

  19. A. Adham says:

    I am a teacher od English at a very basic level to Polish adults.
    Absolute beginners. I just couldn’t find a way to teach someone who did not even know the alphabets, until I stumbled on your videos.
    Thank you very much Jennifer, you saved the day

    A. Adham

    1. Hello. That’s wonderful to hear. I’m glad my videos were able to support your instruction. Best wishes to you!

    2. gusti says:

      We are the same, can we talk more about students in speaking practice

      1. Hello again.
        Here are some resources to consider.
        Look under listening practice. It ties nicely with speaking skills.

  20. gusti says:

    That is a very useful vidio for learning since lots of mistake have been made, I would like learn more with correct pronounciation, would you like give me more please

    1. All my videos are listed here.
      Thank you for studying with me.

  21. jyotip45 says:

    hey jennifer
    i have been following your videos since long and i must admit you have a wonderful soothing voice also the way you teach and explain the concepts is interesting.I just wanted to know how did you add an audio clip in the beginning of the blog?Which software did you use to post your audio ?

    1. Hello!
      Thank you for stopping by. I had started to add audio to see if some visitors preferred that delivery. In the end, I decided to focus on text and PDF handouts. On the posts I do have audio, I simply created an audio file either with Sound Recorder (free on Windows) or Camtasia Studio (video editing software that also allows audio files to be edited). My WordPress account allows me to upload any media, so sound files like an mp3 are uploadable.
      Thank you for the kind words of support!

      1. jyotip45 says:

        Thanks jennifer for the information.I too have started a blog on wordpress https://jyotip45.wordpress.com/ if you find time pl do visit the blog and suggest any changes required.thanks again.

  22. TRANG HOANG says:

    Hi Jennifer!
    Thank you so much!
    I very like your lesson, I usually study learning english with you.
    Now, I can’t speak English, but I hope in future can study and speak more than by English.
    I hope can study more than your lesson

    1. Hello. Please see all my videos listed here. http://www.englishwithjennifer.com/youtube_videos.html
      For online learning opportunities, please see this link.http://www.englishwithjennifer.com/teaching_schedule.php
      Kind wishes!

  23. I want learn speak English please help me

    1. Hello. Please visit my website and Facebook page for learners. I’m also on Twitter with everyday vocabulary.

  24. Wandson says:

    Oi Jennifer… Sou brasileiro e tenho tentado aprender inglês por conta própria com conteúdos grátis na internet. Quero te falar que desde que encontrei seu canal aprendi muito com você. Saiba que Deus vídeos são muito importantes para mim e acho que pra muita gente. Quero parabenizar você pela iniciativa. Continue sempre assim. Muito obrigado!
    (Sei que americanos não curtem muito abraços (risos) mas um abraço grande e forte pra você, sou seu fã)

    PS: Daqui uns meses espero está te escrevendo em inglês! 🙂

    1. Thank you for stopping by. Please also visit my website. http://www.englishwithjennifer.com I’ll be updating it soon with new resources for students.
      Thank you for studying with me. I have some Brazilian friends, by the way, and I do love warm hugs. 🙂
      Muito obrigada! Um abraço grande!

  25. Maitha Naseir says:

    I want learn English language.

    1. Hi. Please follow me on YT, Facebook, and Twitter for free language practice each week. Here are some study tips: http://englishwithjennifer.com/study-tips/

  26. Walat says:

    Hi how are you

  27. chea keun says:

    I want to study with you.

    1. Hello. You can use my YouTube videos. They’re free. https://www.englishwithjennifer.com/students/yt-videos/ I also have short videos on Instagram. @englishwithjenniferlebedev
      You can inquire about private instruction through my website.

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