Teaching beginner students is one of the most rewarding experiences a foreign language educator can have. It is also an enormous challenge even for the most experience teachers. Beginners come to our classes, whether online or face-to-face, with little or no knowledge of the language, and it is our mission to help them feel comfortable enough to jump to the pool and start producing sounds they've never made before.
Though challenging as it may be, working with true beginners gives us the opportunity to be part of a rapid change in their fluency and performance. After only a few lessons, students are able to produce enough language to communicate with others in a basic and predictable way. This might not seem like a big accomplishment to many, but it is for anyone out there (myself included) who has ever embarked in the learning of a foreign language. The feeling of engaging in their very first prosperous interaction gives students the necessary courage to continue trying, and the gratifying confidence in themselves as perfectly capable of reaching their goals.
Here are some tips that have proven to be very effective when helping students produce spoken language when they are just starting:
1. First and foremost, our attitude as teachers and facilitators of their learning. We need to be (not just look!) approachable. Students need to feel like they can rely on us, and they need to be assured that we are here to help them, not judge them. Some strategies to be more approachable are: smiling; being soft-spoken (we are not talking ASMR here, but definitely controlling your pitch/tone/speed, etc.); establishing eye contact with the student; allowing them to ask questions; using your body language appropriately; or providing regular positive feedback focusing on what the student is doing well.
2. Let students know that it's ok to make mistakes. They are here (or in class) to learn, and I always tell my students that if they already knew how to speak Spanish, they would not be needing my services, and that would be a huge loss ;) (humor, as always, is key to lower their anxiety to speak).
3. Model your activities. Many of us use a communicative approach in which the use of target language approaches 90% of class time from day 1. This is hard on students, and a lot of them can feel frustrated by their lack of understanding, or by comparing themselves to their peers. Every time I introduce an activity in class (or online) I model it myself first. For instance, if your goal is to get learners to introduce themselves in ______ (language), you might want to introduce yourself first, and support your statement with some visual aids or some hand gestures, so that they can have a better understanding of what's going on.
4. Repetition. After you model your activities, you'll often find that students still don't respond as you would like them to. Don't fret! This is completely normal in the early stages of learning. That's when teachers need to repeat, or even rephrase, what they are saying. An important note here: repeating does not equal to saying the same thing LOUDER. We are not training puppies, we are helping human beings develop a new set of linguistic rules in their brain, and we need to be as understanding and supportive as possible. (Disclaimer: if you are a professional puppy trainer, don't take offense! Also, lucky you! 😄 )
5. React. Another important aspect of the learning process. Every time a beginner student utters a word or a sentence, they want to know if they said it right, and their first hint to find out is our reaction. I'll use the earlier example again. Let's say that you are teaching a student how to introduce themselves. Then, you introduce yourself first (modeling), and you ask the student what their name is. If they respond appropriately, you might want to respond to them with "nice to meet you", and a hand shake (if it's allowed where you are teaching), or a head nod, if you are teaching online. This is letting the student know that they were successful at getting their message across. If the student does not necessarily respond as you consider appropriate, you would need to repeat the process, and consider supporting your message with some extra pointers.
In general terms, most students respond very well to these basic strategies. Learning a foreign language is an incredible adventure, and a substantial effort for students. We, the teachers, should provide them with the necessary tools to ensure this adventure is safe, fun, and fruitful.
-Borja Ruiz de Arbulo, M.A.
Spanish Lecturer at Boston University