Posted by: Alastair Grant | January 26, 2012

Teaching false beginner adult learners. How to go about it, advice, suggestion and ideas.

Congratulations to all participants of this ELTChat above all others!

Why? Well, from the word (hashtag?) “go”, there seemed to be some debate over what exactly a false beginner is, but NONE of the participants reached for the Google + copy + paste link option! Hooray!

An ELTChat without 253 links? Gettaway. Yup. And hence it felt like a really collaborative chat, as chatters worked through their definitions of the term “False Beginner” and we were treated to some very helpful insights into:

1.    What a False Beginner (FB) is
2.    How to approach teaching FBs
3.    How to progress FBs learning
4.    Skills teaching for FBs
5.    The “D” word: or Dogme (dragons?) in the world of FBs
6.    Attitudes to errors with FB learners

So with no further ado – let the idea-fest begin (not falsely)…

What a false beginner is:

“they know Coca Cola but not fizzy drink” – @harrisonmike came up with my favourite definition!

The ideas bandied around were – (a) do they have zero English, (b) do they have a little which they have gleaned from environmental exposure or (c) did they learn English some time ago and want to start from scratch?

The answer seemed to be a combination of options (b) and (c). To make it clearer – see (yes I know, links…):

How to approach teaching FBs?

So, given the above definition, where to begin? The general consensus was that FBs tend to know more than they think they do, hardly surprising perhaps, given the prevalence of English globally.

It was also pointed out that many countries have a high influx of refugees and immigrants whose motivations are very high both integratively and instrumentally. Assessing motivations is thus perhaps even more important here than for higher level learners.

And with some learners, they may have no ELT background at all. Being “nice but firm” seemed to be the order of the day when it comes to teacher attitudes in class, to acclimatise learners to teacher behavior and class protocol.

With all this in mind:

a)    Teacher needs to bring to light FBs’ existing knowledge. “What words do you know?” Start with what they have seen and heard in everyday life. Very motivating!
b)    FBs may suffer from self-confidence problems due to perceived past failures and teachers must be alert to this.
c)    Grading language is essential.
d)    Asking learners what THEY need and personalisation is very important rather than forcing a syllabus on them (how Dogme).
e)    Bear in mind that some learner cultures may use a different script!
f)    Using songs in English – they all know some famous songs and may have their own ideas of the lyrics!

Using the L1

g)    Use of L1 might be more sanctioned but obviously not so easy in a multilingual classroom!
h)    Use what they know and remember – they know how to think in language from L1 – so help them express thought even if it jumps a unit!


i)    Don’t subscribe to one set methodology – feel free to use an eclectic approach for what you feel works for them.
j)    Lots of visuals / TPR.
k)    Oral drills (sounds a bit Audio Lingualism?) important as their “take home” from the class will be that they have the confidence of knowing they can produce phrases in English from day 1.

How to progress FBs learning

a)    Asking students about themselves, their day, their routines – will build confidence and trust. Lubrication of the pedagogical wheels, as it were.
b)    Building confidence in the teacher is essential with FBs so they don’t feel criticised or stuck from the outset.
c)    Keeping a written record essential.
d)    Use a moodle? Or will online tools in English be too tough for them? Could model in PC room or using IWB (if you’ve the luck of owning such a mythical beast).

Skills teaching for FBs

a)    FBs may be good at one thing (reading) and not another (writing) – is the distinction between receptive and productive knowledge more marked than usual?
b)    Listening is key – as with Jeremy Harmer’s example of the footballer Fernando Torres learning English in the UK:
c)    FBs will talk when they are ready to (very Krashen?) – Japanese learners can be very nervous about speaking from the outset of study.
d)    Learners should be allowed to speak as much as possible to increase confidence.
e)    Writing – is this a bit much to ask of FBs? Twittering friends / using Facebook in English might be a great start.

The “D” word: or Dogme (dragons?) in the world of FBs

This HAD to come up, if only to irritate Shaun. And to add to his chagrin, seemed a popular choice:

a)    Great for FBs as you work with what you have in the room which is the best starting point for these learners.
b)    Syllabus can be built around their needs.
c)    Get them to bring in the English they already have into the classroom.
d)    Task repetition and rehearsal so learners can see how much they are improving.

Attitudes to errorz with FB leaners

Another fave from @harrisonmike here: ‘“I ain’t happy”. Would you say this is an error?’

A range of ideas:

a)    Let it go! Life’s too short at this level!
b)    Correct it but, as @LukeMeddings suggested, by recasting and using a facial expression to signify they need to be “careful” of what they have produced. i.e. “You’re not happy?”
c)    Of course the above isn’t necessarily an incorrect – but alerting them to the full form seems important, innit.
d)    Let them know that errors are all part of learning – make them aware that your class environment encourages this and that they shouldn’t be afraid of criticism.

And one final word – don’t forget they’re adults! There really is something about ELT that is a “leveller” for people, no matter their age/background and they can tend to behave like kids! It’s the “we’re all in this together” type outlook.

But adults still need treating as such – their motivations and goals need to be constantly borne in mind.

There had to be some links, of course…

Here are three of the best:

Basic activities online

A very simple and very visual blog creating programme – well worth a look

Creating activities based on internet content – very interactive and tailorable (this word doesn’t exist, sorry…)

So there you have it. Another useful and challenging ELTChat, even Shaun found himself agreeing with a Dogme teacher on no less than TWO points during the hour. We made a miracle.

Thanks to everyone involved – it’s basically FREE teacher training we do here!

Please share this with your schools, colleagues etc.!

And your experts for the day were (Twitter names / aliases / false passports etc.):

Shaunwilden   Marisa_C
esolcourses    theteacherjames
AnthonyGaughan   TailormadeEng
AlexandraKouk   shamsensei
MarianSteiner   aClilToClimb
BobK99   harrisonmike
TeachEslToday   michaelegriffin
pysproblem81   ShellTerrell
SueAnnan   alastairjgrant
ChristosPas   kevchanwow
mercedesviola   eflresource
LukeMeddings   TituCabral
lu_bodeman   fionamau
JosetteLB   vickyloras
KelConway   lelioaraujo
naomishema   bnleez
vale360   yearinthelifeof
janetbianchini   JulieRaikou
bsmsenglish   tanyamister
eltbakery   Julian_LEnfant
brad5patterson   cunningcanis
vmorgana   mr_magyar
bamarcia   alexanderding


  1. Thanks Alastair and all the others.

    Due to timetabling, I can never participate in #eflchat, so I depend on some gentle soul doing summaries.

    And guess what – I have a new FB coming in on Monday.

    • Thanks Alan – hope it goes well on Monday and that some of the above has been of use to you!


  2. Thank you Alastair for this write up. It was my first #ELTchat. Actually, my first twitter chat. It was interesting to see how those tweets bounced off one another to form a discourse. My daughter woke up at the 45 minute mark, so I vanished after that. Thankfully this summary gives me an idea of the full shape of the chat. Looking forward to the next chat.

    • Thank you Kevin. It took me a little while to get used to following the rather zippy pace and the fact that, by the time I’d written a reply, the conversation seemed to have moved on…

      By the way, the write-ups are always on the ELTChat website if you miss one –


  3. Thank you for such a clear article. It reminded myself when I was learning Italian, and I couldn’t express mysef, so the teacher made me write all the words I knew in Intalian, and I couldn’t belive my eyes when I saw that the list was very long. It was most made up of brands and food items, but it was what I needed, so until I knew the word I used the brand(for example I said: Ferrari instead of machina). I remember I felt very confident and I thought I could speak or at least express myself, I was really motivating.
    Now when I have a beginner (or a false beginner, as you said) I try to make him/her notice that there are thousand of words that s/he knows already, and they can be used until they learn another one, as in your example: coke and Fizzy drink.
    Thanks a lot, it’s was really good!

    • Thank you Agustina!

      And thank you for such a thoughtful personal view on this issue. My first Spanish teacher did the same with me and it really helped my motivation too.

      Interesting note you make about the name “False” beginners – I wonder if the term should be changed to “Near” beginners or something. I think “False” sounds a little odd sometimes…

  4. a good job indeed… , very much informative and practical as well. no words to thank… wud be great to get more through email. .. looking forward../i m optimistic

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