How do you teach English to someone who knows zero English? This is the most common question people ask me about what I do, and is actually an insightful one . They ask this question because even if they aren’t teachers they realize one very important rule of language teaching:
There must be SOME communication in order to teach language.
Teaching must begin with communication. But what kind of communication?
If a teacher were to begin with a level zero student without curriculum to guide the instruction, her process of figuring out how to approach the student would look something like this: “I know I have to communicate something, but I can’t communicate anything. Where do I start?” After some reflection, the teacher would likely have a list of impossibilities, each one prohibitive in its own way. The teacher might conclude:
I cannot explain meaning.
I cannot give instruction.
I cannot ask for output.
I cannot ask a question.
It is helpful to know more about “why” we cannot accomplish the above so that we can then identify any “openings” in the obstructions that would allow us to break through. This table may help to identify the problems with any of the above impossible tasks. As you can see, there are obstacles for each approach in the concept cycle:
real life application
student doesn't have the vocabulary to understand verbal explanation
student doesn't have the vocabulary
Student doesn’t understand verbal instruction
Request output (ask a question)
student doesn't have the vocabulary used in the request
student doesn't understand that there is a request for output
student cannot verbally express himself
Ask a question.
student doesn't understand the vocabulary used in the question
student doesn't understand yet what makes a sentence a question
student cannot verbally express an answer
Student doesnt have the ability to navigate a conversation
The teacher must choose the course of action with the fewest obstacles and build from there. Based on that, the order should be: 1) explain or demonstrate meaning, 2) give instruction, 3) request output, 4) ask a question.
Notice that the student cannot understand a verbal explanation. The explanation will have to be physical. Changing the explanation to physical rather than verbal removes the final obstacle to explaining meaning. She would then resort to one of two modes of communication to explain meaning that even Tarzan and Jane knew how to use:
- The teacher will show and name objects
- The teacher will demonstrate and name actions.
The problem with this approach is that the teacher could very well show and name every animal, every vegetable, every person, and demonstrate a multitude of physical actions without knowing whether or not the student is comprehending. Likewise, since the student is doing no work to engage, he or she may simply be a spectator observing the spectacle that the teacher is putting on. Because of these concerns, the teacher will want to quickly incorporate the next task of giving instruction (while continuing to employ the first) to encourage active learning and to gauge understanding.
A thoughtful teacher will be thinking ahead to this step while physically explaining meaning in the above step. She will choose to teach verbs representing actions that the student can carry out immediately in the current setting. Actions like, “sit,” “stand up,” “jump,” and “clap” are convenient favorites. The teacher encourages the student to perform the actions along with her as she gives the command form for them.
Bridging the gap from one task the next can be difficult. Demonstrating “stand up” is quite easy. Having the student do it with you can be more challenging. However, teachers usually hit a bit of fortune here if they are very good at encouraging the student with gestures (hands: “come on”, pointing “you” and then the action.
Forms of “Come on!”
Forms of “you”
For most students, these actions will communicate for them to join in. Many at first will only partly or half heartedly join in. The teacher must immediately enthusiastically confirm that theirs is the correct response in order to communicate, “yes, this is what I wanted.” Nodding and exaggerated smiles usually get the point across.
Students are ready at different times to begin speaking. Some need more time than others, and generally should not be forced to speak until ready, although gentle encouragement is a good idea. When a student is ready to begin speaking, there is an order in the types of output you can expect.
There are generally three types of output.
- (Rote) repetition
- Meaningful utterance
A student will not be able to jump immediately into dialogue with a student. Best practice is to at first just get the student saying something, anything. Repetition at the first stage in the process is viable.
There is some disagreement among teaching methods about rote repetition and its role. More specifically, there is some question about whether the student should be repeating single words or placing them into sentences at this point. Many schools go ahead and have their students use full sentences from the start. The thinking behind this is that words are rarely used by themselves in a real life situation; they are always used in context. However, having a student repeat an entire sentence can confound the student’s understanding of the word in isolation. For example, if “apple” was taught in the above section, jumping to “I have an apple” for the student’s first utterance can be beyond their comprehension. The student may as easily think that “I have” means “apple” for a time. While some schools disagree, it is beneficial to ask ourselves whether it is important that the student understand all they speak at this stage.
It is the opinion of the author that the student should understand his or her utterances. ( I certainly do not go about repeating sentences given to me which I do not understand. Why should my students?) If at all possible, the rote repetition should extend only to concepts that have been fully taught before moving on. This way, when the student moves to output type 2, meaningful utterances (or full sentences) the utterances are actually also meaningful and resonant for the student. Proceeding with the author’s preference, the step of repetition should incorporate the stand alone words demonstrated in the above steps. The student can repeat “apple” with the teacher when an apple is shown. The student can say “jump” along with the teacher’s commands. Some students may naturally say the words along with the teacher from the very beginning, naturally bridging the steps. Others will need to be encouraged to move on to the step of repetition.
The simplest meaningful utterance that can be elicited from the student is a command. Commands can be one word or phrasal verb, and are already familiar to the student because they were used in previous steps. So, this step should include the student choosing which commands he or she wants to give. The expressions are meaningful because they are chosen, and elicit a reaction (from the teacher who obeys the command).
Expressing to the student that you now want them to give the command can be more difficult. I prefer to use the following techniques which I call:
“Whisper and wait” (This one is mentioned in one of my videos.)
“Pass the torch” (I’ll discuss this one more in a post on TPR.)
This step will take the longest to achieve, and frankly, many methods and schools rush this step a bit. The first two types of utterance can be achieved very quickly. In fact, it is often possible for a teacher to guide a student through all the tasks (explain meaning, give instruction, and rote repetition) in a single session. Some students will even take initiative to do all three simultaneously with minimal effort from the teacher. However, moving from these three steps that involve simple cognition, to the much more complex idea of exchanging ideas verbally, is a huge leap.
The first three tasks could be utilized for an extended period of time to cover many topics before ever progressing to dialogue. In a perfect world, the teacher would teach everything from “sit” and “stand” to “have” and “want” before moving on to dialogue. Then, when dialogue did happen, it would occur naturally out of a student’s desire to express his OWN thoughts rather than just repeating the teacher. Another alternative however, which would accomplish both my goal of waiting for full utterance until it is meaningful, and the school’s goal of getting full utterances from the student rapidly, is to incite or cultivate a wish to speak on the part of the student. Some simple examples of how this works are:
Using a prop, I intentionally misplace an item or complete a task wrong. This could be anything from adding 2+2=5 (on a whiteboard, not spoken) or placing Mr. Potato Head’s arm in the hole where his nose would be. Most students cannot just sit by and watch the Teacher make a mistake like that. Many will jump in with gestures if they don’t know how to say “no, teacher.” Then, you can teach them “no, teacher” and make the signs for them to repeat. And there you have your first meaningful utterance. The student expressed his or her own idea. This is a big step and should be celebrated enormously.
Just because a student can express ideas doesn’t mean he or she is ready for question and answer. Often, students will not recognize a teacher’s words as interrogative. Additionally, answering questions involves real life, real time skills and an ability to process two sides of a conversation in their target language. When a student is ready the above technique used to begin dialogue can be employed. After colors and “have” are taught, the teacher could say “I have a blue shirt” while clearly wearing, not blue, but the color the student has on. The student will contradict the teacher. The teacher can then say “who has a blue shirt?” while pretending to notice the student’s shirt. The student will notice too, and to answer, will need to repeat the phrase the teacher already modelled, “I have a blue shirt.” For me, using these methods for dialogue are much more meaningful than rote repetition. As I said earlier, I prefer to save rote repetition for stand alone words and ideas at the beginning of a concept cycle.
Bringing it all together: Completing and revisiting the Concept Cycle
For each concept covered, the teacher progresses through each task in the concept cycle. It is not intended that the teacher exhaust the explanation task before moving on to giving instruction, etc. Likewise, it is not recommended that a teacher move through all of the tasks for one concept, never to return to complete the cycle. Rather, it is recommended that the teacher revisit the concept cycle for each new concept covered, at least until the student is proficient enough in the target language to understand explicit instruction in meanings, grammar, tenses, etc.
So THAT is how you begin to teach a student who doesn’t speak English. It is a building process. The teacher brings the bricks and manipulates them into learning opportunities for the student. The teacher continues to bring more ”bricks” until a solid base of understanding is formed, after which, the teacher can begin to teach english to “someone who knows a little English.”