The Difference Between "False" and "Absolute" Beginners


By: Janna Neniouc

Most ESL / EFL teachers agree that there are two types of beginner students: “Absolute Beginners” and “False Beginners”. When teaching in countries with mixed population groups (immigrants and native speakers) such as the USA, Canada, Australia, or Israel, chances are that most beginners will be false beginners.
Teaching false beginners requires a different approach to teaching absolute beginners:

False beginners have had some English training at some point in the past. Most have studied English at school, many for a number of years, or have learned English by watching TV programs or listening to music in their early childhood. These learners have some understanding of the basics of English and may have been exposed to the language from an early age (sometimes unintentionally), but feel that they have little command of the language, can’t use it very well and want to begin “from the top”.

Teachers can usually assume that these students are able to understand basic conversational English and questions such as, “Where are you from?” “Do you speak English? and so on. Often these learners are familiar with grammar concepts and teachers can discuss sentence structure and have the students follow along reasonably well.

These are learners who have had no contact with English at all. They often come from developing nations and often have had very little education. These students are often more challenging to teach, as the teacher cannot expect learners to understand even a minimal amount of English. The question, “How are you?” will not be understood and the teacher must begin at the very beginning, usually with no common language with which to explain the basics.

With these differences in mind, I would like to make a few suggestions about teaching absolute and false beginners:

When teaching absolute beginners, there are a number of things to keep in mind:
> Absolute beginners have had no contact with the English.
When teaching someone who has had no (or very little) prior contact with the language, the teacher needs to choose carefully what is presented. Here is an example of the type of thinking that needs to go into planning a lesson:

If I begin the first lesson with, “Hi, my name is Diana. What is your name?” I am presenting three (!) concepts at once:
1.The verb “be”
2. Possessive pronouns, “my” and “your”
3. Subject and verb inversion in the question form

It would be much better (and more comprehensible) to the students if I began the lesson with, “Hi, I am Diana”, and then gesture to the student to repeat a similar phrase. In this way, the student can repeat by rote and begin with something easy which can then lead to something like, “Hi, I am Diana. Are you Diana?” – “No, I am Liz”. By limiting the linguistic concepts absolute beginners can more easily assimilate the pieces.

> Do not assume familiarity with linguistic concepts.
This may seem rather obvious, but is often ignored by many teachers. If you write a grammar chart - even a simple one - on the board, you are assuming that students are familiar with grammar charts. Students may not have had the type of education that involves charts and representations. By keeping things aural and visual (gestures, pictures, etc.) you will be appealing to learning styles that students are sure to have acquired in everyday life.

> Use exaggerated visual gestures.
Using gestures such as pointing to yourself and saying, “I am Diana”, and then pointing to the student to repeat helps students understand what you want of them, without confusing them by more language such as: “Now, repeat”.
Develop specific gestures as codes for certain linguistic operations.
For example, to illustrate the idea of inversion in the question form you can extend your two arms and say, “My name is Diana” and then cross your arms and ask, “Is your name Diana?” This gesture can then be repeated as linguistic skills become more advanced and the students will understand that a question needs to be asked.
For example, “I live in Tel-Aviv” and then cross your arms and ask, “Where do you live?” When a student makes a mistake asking a question, you can then cross your arms and the student will understand that he / she needs to invert in order to ask a question.

> Try to pick up a few phrases of the learner's native tongue.
This is purely a psychological trick. Learners who are learning English with no prior experience are not only undergoing a difficult learning experience. In many cases, they are also learning how to learn a language. If you put yourself on the line by expressing the desire to learn a few phrases of your students' native language, you can go a long way towards building a rapport with students which will help them feel easier in class.


Keith Adams, Rachel Doval, Low and False Beginners, 2002 Marc Helgesen, What is your real level? 2003 Trish Scott, Native Language, 2003.



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