barefoot with beginners


A few weeks ago I started a new class. An A1.1 class.  It’s been a long time since I’ve taught beginners. Or I should say it’s been a long time since I taught English to beginners. It’s a small class. It’s held in the morning so it’s a very adult class. To date the youngest member is 40 and the ages span more than 20 years. At the school where I’m teaching this class there’s a no-coursebook policy. There’s a suggested syllabus but the onus is very much on negotiating the contents with the students and working with emergent needs.  When I was offered the class, I jumped at the chance – barefoot with beginners – I couldn’t think of a nicer challenge.  And a great reason to start blogging again.

I’m going to use the next few posts to process my thoughts and reflections about our first lessons and help me make the most of the experience.  They’ll take the form of a kind of retrospective lesson plan I guess, with the inevitable tangents and asides. They’ll be largely personal and anecdotal and comments from anyone in a similar situation would be really interesting.

For the last couple of years I’ve been teaching the Unknown Language component of the Trinity TESOL certificate course. This basically entails teaching four hours of a new language to the trainees in the initial stage of their course to give them a taste of what it feels like to be in a language classroom.  I teach Welsh ( I’ve written about it here and here).  I don’t use any published materials for the class. I have a few flashcards and simple worksheets and I have a fairly clear mini syllabus.  The contents are not negotiated.  It isn’t a real course after all, it’s more a chance to display a range of activity types and interaction patterns.  What the trainees actually learn from a language point of view is pretty much irrelevant. In order to give the lessons a shape I work towards a final speaking task – a chat-up scene in a pub –   as an accumulation of the four hours.

This experience has really helped in the first few lessons with my new class and I’ve noticed I’ve transferred quite a few basic skills. One of the things I really emphasise in the Welsh classes is the sound and the sounds of the language. To a lot of trainees it’s completely alien. They may never have heard it before.  (You can check it out here if you want).  It has a reputation of being unpronounceable.  Once we’ve got over the initial niceties (Hello, how are you? What’s your name? Pleased to meet you) I use Welsh names as a way to introduce some of the more difficult consonant sounds and the basic sound/spelling rules.  The great thing about names is that you can concentrate on the sound without worrying about meaning.  The only task I set was for them to listen to the names and guess whether they  are male or female. And they feed nicely into further practice of the basics of introductions.

In my English A1.1 class we did something very similar and it was only later that I realized that I’d brought it over from my Welsh classes.  English, of course, is not an alien language to people in the south of Spain. They may not speak or understand it, but they know what it sounds like (see the short film Skwerl  on what English sounds like to non-English speakers).  But pronunciation is still an issue – in fact more of an issue, because instead of introducing something that’s completely new and fresh with no (or hardly any) preconceptions, there are a lot of ingrained (fossilized possibly?) attitudes to how English words are sounded. So in this case rather than supplying the names myself, I asked the class to supply the names.  They were clichéd and classic (John, Mary, Arthur, Elizabeth – I think the average age was showing here!)  but gave a lot of scope for looking close-up at some problematic sounds for Spanish speakers: the  /d3/ sound in John –  being able to point out this sound-spelling relationship and contrast it with the sound-spelling relationship in Spanish (where a J is aspirated rather like an h) set up a great short cut for corrections later on; the  /z/ sound in Elizabeth and Liz and Lizzy -in fact Elizabeth was a real gift –there’s the /b/ sound, the schwa, the final th – all problem sounds for Spanish speakers, and being able to isolate them in the names was great. The names were familiar and we hammed up making them sound as English as possible.  We threw the names in a bag and they fed back into the practice of the basic language of greetings and introductions that had kicked off our first lesson.

I don’t think I’ve ever given so much attention and importance to sounds in a first lesson before – this is definitely something I’ve developed since teaching Welsh.  Some of the names from that lesson have carried over from lesson to lesson and become virtual members of our class. My focus on pronunciation has focused the class’s attention too and there’s a lot of “how do you say that?” being used in the classes.

I think another thing I learnt from the Welsh classes was how important it is to break down communication into tiny building blocks, but at the same time to make sure those building blocks are generative and come back together to form different meanings.  We’ve now had six lessons together, and in traditional grammar syllabus terms (ie the verb system) we haven’t strayed much further than the present simple of the verb to be.  But we’ve built up a lot of lexis and confronted a couple of meaty questions.

Here’s a short extract and example from the lesson summary for lesson 1:

Where are you from? 

I’m from … (a small town, a village, a city)

Where’s that?

It’s near…/in the mountains /on the coast / in Spain / in the province of Madrid

It’s famous for its history/cheese / lamb

The question of the difference between a village, town and city came from the students when one of the students named a small village in Extremadura (central Spain) in answer to “Where are you from?”.  (We established that direct translation of the terms didn’t necessarily help by matching names of places to the three categories in English.)  This led to the need for the question “Where’s that?”  which in turn led to the expression “in the mountains” and the thorny question of the difference between in and on. This is a classic problem for Spanish speakers. The two prepositions roughly translate (in many of their uses and meanings) with the single preposition en in Spanish.  So in the mountains (surrounded by mountains) wasn’t a problem, nor was on the mountain (on top of one single mountain). They pushed to explore further wanting to add on the coast, in Spain, in the province of Madrid .  We all wrote names of towns, cities and villages in Spain on pieces of paper and took it in turn to take them out of a hat and explain where they were. At this point they wanted to say more and the phrase “it’s famous for …” came up.   You can see above some of the things the towns and villages were famous for.

This led to me talking about my hometown and as I answered the questions we built up a short text on the board describing my hometown.  (At this point I’m going to add a gratuitous photo to liven things up!)  This served as a model for the students’ own texts about one of the villages and towns we’d talked about during the lesson.  It was a nice “outcome” for our first class and one I think we were all happy with.

View from Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth, West Wales

And I think maybe that’s a natural time for me to pause. There’s so much more I want to think about and write about.  In the next post I’ll be looking at lesson two, working on basics, setting up systems and taking the learning beyond the classroom.

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7 Responses to barefoot with beginners

  1. Great post. Your excitement can be felt so clearly! Its good to teach beginners from time to time, there’s something inspiring about it.
    And isn’t blogging the best tool for putting your feelings about teaching in order?

  2. Sandy Millin says:

    Welcome back to regular blogging Ceri! There are so many great ideas here, and lots of things to think about in terms of how you’ve organised the lesson. I wrote a few posts about teaching beginners a couple of years ago which might come in useful, if only for the recordings.
    Looking forward to the rest of the posts!

  3. Great post, Ceri. Glad to read about your classes again. I’m interested not only in your A1 class adventures, but too that in your TESOL course, do you teach a 4-hour lesson or a series of lessons that add up to 4? In mine, I remember just being taught an hour’s lesson in Japanese, but that was to show how one teaching style was not particularly helpful, more or less.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Ty,
      Sorry, wasn’t very clear on that point. The Trinity TESOL certificate includes 4 one-hour lessons of an “unknown language”. The lessons are actually 50 minutes as the trainees then get 10 minutes to complete observation notes at the end of each class. They then need to complete an assignment (the Unknown Language Journal) reflecting on the experience and contrasting the new language with English. It’s their first assignment and helps them to start reflecting on teaching approaches, classroom management issues and initial language analysis. It’s great fun to teach 🙂

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