Low Beginner Introductions: Where Are You From?

Here’s an introductions speaking task for low beginner ESL answering the question “Where are you from?” I love tap sheets (see below). You could have students cut out the words and then arrange them into sentences, but you could also use it as is as a tap sheet, over and over.

Break students into pairs. Hand out one sheet per pair. Have each student write their country into one of the empty boxes on the sheet. Then have Partner A begin speaking and simultaneously, with a finger or the eraser side of a pencil, tapping on the words on the page to form the sentence in order:

Partner A will tap: “Where (tap) are (tap) you (tap) from (tap) question mark (tap)?” Partner B will tap: “I (tap) am (tap) from (tap), [country name] (tap) period (tap).”  The roles are then reversed. 

Students do not say the punctuation out loud, but they must tap on it. You may notice I have replaced this font’s letter I with a serif I because students at this level often confuse lower case l with upper case I.

Click on the image below to download the tap sheet for use in your own class. 

You can follow up this introductions speaking task with an introductions writing task. Have students read and fill in the blanks, using a scaffolding approach until they are able to reproduce the entire dialogue.

Again, click on the image below to download it for use in your own class. 

Let me know how it works in the comments below. Do you love tap sheets as much as I do? 

Teaching Vocabulary

Many sources suggest limiting teaching new vocabulary to under ten new words a day. Attaching a story or a context when you teach a word is more effective for student retention than simply teaching the meaning. The more times students encounter a word, the more easily they will remember it. Some sources suggest students need to use a new word about ten times before they will remember it. Cramming might work for imminent tests, but less so for long-term retention. To remember new words long-term, students need to review them a day, a week, and a month later.

I have students make word cards, with the English word on one side and the translation on the reverse. I punch a hole in the card and put it on a silver binder ring like below.

Students can review vocabulary on the bus or whenever they have time—maybe during a spare moment in class. Words can be added to the ring each day. Once students believe they won’t forget a word, I have them remove it from their ring.

Here below is a classroom poster to encourage students to develop the habit of reviewing new words multiple times. Click on the image below to download it for use in your own classroom.

Garage Sales and Thrift Stores

New immigrants may see something as they walk around their neighbourhoods that they don’t have in their home countries: garage sales. Likewise, they will likely come across thrift stores or flea markets in their neighbourhoods. 

A lesson on thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets could be incorporated into a lesson on community. It could also fit into a shopping unit or one on the environment. Buying second hand comes under Reduce in the 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) of being environmentally friendly.

Attitudes toward second hand shopping have changed a lot in North America in the last 25 years and immigrants’ attitudes may differ. Unlike in some immigrant cultures where buying something second hand might be an embarrassing secret, North Americans will often brag about a money saving second hand deal

The following beginner reading exercise has questions on garage sales, flea markets and thrift stores. (Click on the image below to download. )

Task: Asking for Change

Here are some exercises for Canadian and American English language learners to prepare for the real world task of asking for change.

Start by making sentences used in asking for change. (Click on the image below to download this worksheet.)

Brainstorm with students what they may need change for: a washing machine, a parking meter, a bus, a shopping cart, a pay phone and a vending machine are common answers.

Here is the Canadian worksheet with the answer YES. (Click on it to view it large on your computer and download it.) 

Click on the flag for the American version of the worksheet with the answer YES.  

Here is the Canadian worksheet with the answer NO. Click on the image below. 

Click on the flag for the American version of the worksheet with the answer NO.  

Once students have mastered these dialogues in class, they may be ready to leave the classroom and practice asking for change in the real world. I take students to a gas station convenience store. I approach the clerks first to ask if they are willing to assist in the activity. I assure them we will move aside if customers enter. I provide lots of change for the clerks, so they are not required to give away change. I exchange my coins for the clerk’s bills and hand them to the students. 

Students often tell me that their hearts are racing before they head up to the counter. What a feeling of success when they return with correct change! For many of them, it’s the first time they have used English in a real life setting to accomplish a task. It’s a memorable activity that brings the classroom study into a practical, useful context.

Reading on a Thrift Store Business Model

Thrift stores are becoming more popular with middle aged clothes shoppers. If you don’t want to wear yoga attire to work, thrift stores are some of the best sources for clothing made from a wider variety of fabrics.

Even if the environmental ethic of reducing consumption or the excitement of a rare find is difficult to convey to students, cultural differences in attitudes toward second hand shopping are a worthwhile topic to explore in the English language learning class. 

Attitudes towards second-hand purchases differ significantly across cultures and are worth making students aware of. For North Americans, finding something at a remarkably cheap price at a thrift store or garage sale can confer on the item a certain cachet, even bragging rights to the consumer. Ask your students if the same applies in their cultures and many may reveal such a purchase would be a source of shame.

While students will pick and choose the aspects of our culture they wish to adopt, part of our job as ESL, ELL or EFL teachers is to improve students’ bi-cultural fluency, thereby enhancing their soft skills

Here are two worksheets, one for beginner and one for intermediate, on a thrift store called Value Village. It’s part of the Savers chain. This is a company with a very successful business model even students uninterested in second-hand shopping usually find very interesting. A for-profit company, Savers gets its merchandise from and shares its profits with over 160 non-profit partners. 

Click on the image below to view the intermediate level reading exercise.

The beginner exercise covers the basics. Click on the image below to view it. 

Let me know how it goes!

Soft Skills: Low Beginner Name Introductions

Here’s a speaking task for low beginner English language learners. I love tap sheets (see below). You could have students cut out the words and then arrange them into sentences, but you could also use it as is as a tap sheet, over and over and over and…..have you taught really low beginners? 

Break students into pairs. Hand out one sheet per pair. Have each student write their first name into one of the empty boxes on the sheet. Then have Partner A begin speaking and simultaneously, with a finger or the eraser side of a pencil, tapping on the words on the page to form the sentence in order:

“I’m (tap) [his name] (tap) [period] (tap). What’s (tap) your (tap) name (tap), [question mark] (tap)?” Partner B will tap, “My (tap) name (tap) is (tap) [name of student] (tap), [period] (tap). Nice (tap) to (tap) meet (tap) you (tap), [period].” The exercise ends with partner A’s sentence, “Nice to meet you, too.”

Students do not say the punctuation out loud, but they must tap on it. I’ve omitted the usual comma before “too” to make it easier. You may also notice I have replaced this font’s letter I with a serif I because students at this level often confuse lower case l with upper case I.

Click on the image below to download the tap sheet for use in your own class.  Do you love tap sheets as much as I do? 

You can follow up this introductions speaking task with an introductions writing task. Have students read and fill in the blanks, using a scaffolding approach until they are able to reproduce the entire dialogue.

Again, click on the image below to download it for use in your own class. 

Telephone Voice Mail Messages

Many new immigrants answer the phone in their own language. A Korean might answer, “Yabusayo?” Chinese might answer, “Wei?” Their thinking may be that most people who call them speak their language and those who don’t will understand they are simply answering in their own language.

English speakers, however, may be as likely to assume Yabusayo is the name of the restaurant. Wei may be assumed to be the last name of the person who has just answered.

I’ve always made a case for “hello” being a fairly universally understood telephone greeting. 

Even if your students do not plan to answer the phone in English or ever record a voice mail message in English, it is worth practicing voice mail messages to increase familiarity. Feel free to click on the voicemail exercise below to view it large on your computer and download it. You can also download the audio that follows to play on your computer for a little listening exercise.

Writing About Household Repairs

I’m a big fan of using picture dictionaries to teach ESL, particularly to beginner and intermediate levels. Oxford Picture Dictionary, Heinle, Word By Word, I use them all. While they are all excellent and worth purchasing, I prefer the illustrations in the Oxford Picture Dictionary. Oxford also has different levels of picture dictionaries. 

When teaching a Housing unit with related vocabulary and tasks, I particularly like the Basic Oxford Picture Dictionary’s section on Household Problems. I scanned page 33 to give you a sample.  The pictures are very clear and most common household problems are depicted.

I made a worksheet for a beginner class to accompany this page for writing practice. Each sentence states a household problem or repair needed and whom to call for help. I find pattern practice is an effective way to teach writing to beginner level students. Feel free to click on the image below to view it large on your computer and print it out for use with your own class.

Soft Skills: Bargaining

Bargaining (or haggling) takes place all over the world. North Americans often think of it as restricted to places like flea markets or garage sales, when in fact bargaining takes place in a wide variety of business transactions. Think of the negotiation involved in the purchase of expensive items, such as cars or real estate.

One of the challenges in adjusting to a new culture is cracking the cultural code on when and how, or often how soon, to bargain. This topic is rife with opportunities to teach soft skills, the skills beyond language that are so needed for successful social interactions in a culture.

Students from other cultures often overlook the importance in North America of the brief exchange of pleasantries before launching into negotiations. This kind of language exchange is referred to as the phatic function. Phatic language doesn’t really convey any information. Its function is social. In a garage sale setting, it might involve talking about the weather. In a more hectic setting, it might be reduced simply to saying “hi”, but without it, in North America, the transaction is less likely to satisfy both parties and may result in negative first impressions.

Another notable difference between North America and some other countries seems to be in the way North Americans will often start the “creating value” stage of the transaction. Take a look at this interaction from the excellent video Linc 2:19 Buying a Used Bicycle:

Notice how Tasha begins the creating value stage of the transaction by complimenting Luigi on the bike. Over the years, I’ve had so many students tell me how different this is from their own cultures where a criticism of the item would more likely be the way to start negotiations.

Staging a garage sale in your classroom is a great way to practice the idioms related to haggling as well as important soft skills.

Smiling Man and Woman at Yard Sale

This dialog sheet for conversation practice uses a variety of common bargaining idioms. You are welcome to download this free handout for use in your own classroom. Clicking on the image below will enable you to view the PDF large on your screen and then print it out.

Low Beginner Personal Info Game

Anyone who teaches very low beginner ESL knows you spend a lot of time going over basic personal information questions and answers, often trying to come up with yet another new way to approach the same old material. 

A competitive game can shake things up and bring some excitement to what amounts to study of the exact same material. Add play money to the game and suddenly, you find students actually paying close attention to the grammar of their sentences, for what may seem like the first time. 

Here below is a simple game I use with play money that you are welcome to download. It’s more fun if you start with the questions covered, showing only the dollar amounts.

Divide your class into two or three groups. Individuals choose a dollar amount to try for. Then you reveal the question. Correct answers get the play money for the group. If the answer is wrong, another group can try to steal that question. 

Click on this image to view the game large on your computer and/or download it for use in your own class. Enjoy!

Teaching Family Vocabulary

Were you aware that not all languages use the same one word for father’s sister and mother’s sister the way English uses aunt? Likewise, many languages have different words for the grandmother from your father’s side and the grandmother from your mother’s side. Family vocabulary is one of the few ways in which learning English is comparatively simple!

The Family jigsaw at the beginning of Callan’s Thematic Jigsaws 1 and 2 can be used as a basic review of family words and springboard to further study in an intermediate class or as a final review activity for a family unit in a beginner class.

This supplementary activity below works well in a beginner level family unit as a review of family words before attempting the jigsaw. It’s a partner info gap exercise in which each partner has a set of family words and a grid upon which to place the words in positions indicated by their partner.  (View it by clicking on the image below.)

Click on the image above to download the full exercise including instructions.

Geography Vocabulary Speaking Game

When studying about Canada (or America, Australia, etc.) with a beginner class, students need to know some basic geography words. Here are nine essential simple geography words: 

  • mountain
  • hills
  • prairie
  • ocean
  • lake
  • river
  • island
  • valley
  • forest

Download this set of matching cards below for your students to practice this geography vocabulary by clicking any of the images below. Each photograph featured is in the public domain under a CC0 licence so can be copied. 

Scroll below for a fun speaking game to practice the vocabulary. 

Geography Vocabulary Speaking Game

This speaking game has always been a hit with my students.

Show students the geography image cards and ask them, “Which one of these is most like you?” Are you a mountain? A river? A prairie?

Explain (using vocabulary suitable for your class’ level) that a person who identifies with a mountain is very dramatic and extroverted. He or she is known by everyone and has a voice that projects well. My experience is that after this first explanation, students understand and anticipate easily which human characteristics are identified with each geographical feature and you can usually elicit the characteristics with a bit of prompting.

Here are my associations: The person who identifies with the ocean has dramatic emotional variability but may not be the centre of attention the way the mountain is. The person who identifies with a hill has some ups and downs, but is less dramatic than the mountain and ocean. The person who identifies with the prairie is very open and sunny with no real mood swings. The person who identifies with a lake tends to be calm and maybe romantic. The person who identifies with a river never stops moving. The person who identifies with an island tends to be a loner. The person who identifies with the valley tends to be depressed. The person who identifies with the forest is an introvert who is not easily understood.

First ask students to write down which geographical feature they identify with and to think about why. Ask the class to guess each student’s choice before students share their own choice and explain their reasons. This game makes for a fun discussion and getting to know you exercise. 

Quite surprisingly, each year, my classes have identified the same geographical feature for me—one I actually had not thought of for myself—calling out, “You’re a river!”

This vocabulary game is useful for Callan’s Beginner Canada Jigsaws and Callan’s New Canada Jigsaws:

Teaching the Alphabet: Literacy 101

Adult literacy students range from pre-literate to non-literate to semi-literate to those from non-Roman alphabets. Some do not know how to hold a pencil. I’ve had students with no idea when their birthday was because they came from cultures where no one knew dates or years. Some students from non-Roman alphabets may know the names of all the letters of the alphabet but have little knowledge of the sounds of any letters. Trouble writing on the line, confusion between upper and lower case, and some letters backwards or reversed are all clues that a student may fit in this category of students. 

Just as in all lower level classes, because literacy students do not yet know the spelling and grammatical conventions of English and are learning them from you, it is very important to be consistent in your use of upper and lower case in board work.

When you assign alphabet practice for homework (or classwork), take time to go over each student’s work in class with a coloured pen. I suspect the reason many teachers don’t do this is because they don’t want to talk down to adult students or to place too much emphasis on something they deem an elementary school skill. The fact is if you have true literacy students, they put a lot of effort into an exercise like this. Tasks requiring fine motor skills take time to learn. Taking time to check their work acknowledges this effort and shows that you deem it important. Your students will correspondingly value the exercise more. I go over each letter and take time to point out when a letter is beautifully formed. I also point out when the proportions are not quite right.

Here are some tips for teaching the alphabet. At the bottom, you’ll find some alphabet sheets free for you to download and use in your own class. 

     1.  Start by introducing letters that have similar shapes, for example c, e, and o or l, i, t.  

     2.  Discriminate between shapes.  Focus the attention of students on differences. Don’t assume they already see them. Write the lower case alphabet on the board, naming each letter as it is written and repeat that several times.

     3.  Use alphabet hand-outs that have students trace over the letters and then write them themselves several times on the line. 

     4.  Name letters and have students circle them on a hand-out.

     5.  Demonstrate stroke order on the board, insisting that students use the correct stroke order. 

     6.  Teach upper case.  Use hand-outs with exercises asking students to match upper and lower case.  At this point, you might wish to draw students attention to the typewritten and handwritten lower case a, which often confuses students.

     7.  Play a concentration game with students matching upper and lower case letters.

     8.  Teach students when to use capital letters. 

     9.  Move on to sounds after students have fully memorized the names of letters. 

Check out Callan’s Beginner Essentials, which moves systematically through the sounds of the alphabet, using a scaffolding approach to build on knowledge. The book is “sanitized for your protection” in that there are no difficult to depict words or words students would be unlikely to encounter. Virtually every word is 6 letters or less and follows the spelling conventions of English. There will be plenty of time later for students to get discouraged by all the exceptions to the rule!

Click on the page below to download some alphabet practice pages for your own use. 

Soft-Skill: Correcting Name Pronunciation

Of course it is important as teachers to learn to pronounce our students’ names correctly. It is also important to empower students to advocate for the correct pronunciation of their own names. We teach beginner and intermediate ESL students name introductions  but do we teach them how to politely correct people who mispronounce their names? 

Watch Hasan Minhaj as he teaches Ellen Degeneres how to pronounce his name  and discusses the, er, ethnocentrism involved in which names we make an effort to learn to pronounce and which we give up on:  https://twitter.com/hasanminhaj/status/1113952740596768771

Feel free to download this simple practice below for use in your own classroom by clicking on the image.

Check out another Introductions lesson here.

Page Directions for Low Beginner

I’ve created an interactive activity for low beginner ESL to practice page directions. Your class will run smoother if you can draw students’ attention to where the class is looking on the page you’re working on and make sure everyone is following. You’re welcome to download my materials to use in your classroom.

I let students take turns calling out different page directions and having their classmates move shapes at their desks to follow the instructions. This game can be played over and over until students feel very familiar with page directions.

First, students will need to learn vocabulary such as: up, down, left, right, in the middle, at the top, and in the corner

My activity uses the shapes circle, square, triangle and rectangle. You will need a set of shapes for each student (or each pair of students). Download them here.

First, you need to practice the vocabulary:

You can view it large on your computer and print it out here.

. Then, here are two worksheets for practicing the directions:

Vocab and page directions

You can download the activity here.