On Teaching Beginners…

I love teaching complete beginners to speak English! For me, it fees like starting a project from scratch and then watching it develop.

I like teaching the basics and then seeing students connect the dots in their minds as they learn new things. (For example, if they learn “I don’t understand,” on day 1, they often have a lightbulb moment when I teach them to form negative sentences three weeks later.)

I like the feeling that if I train them well from the beginning, I can help them avoid the common basic mistakes that more advanced students make all the time (“go TO,” not “go IN!).

I love when a few weeks in, the occasional beginner student looks at me all bright-eyed, and says something like, “Wow! I understand everything we learn!” or “Wow! English is easy!” or “I can’t believe I like English!” And then they share a horror story about a nightmare teacher who told them they were bad with languages and would never learn English, or about getting stuck in a class where they didn’t understand anything. Beginners are really appreciative, and when I’m doing my job right, I know it.

Luckily for me, none of the other teachers at my school seem to share my enthusiasm for teaching low-level learners, so when they come along, I’m usually the one asked to teach them. A lot of teachers who I’ve spoken to seem to think that it’s harder to teach beginners than to teach intermediate and advanced students, but for me it’s the opposite. (Advanced students ask hard questions!)

This month, my goal is to put together of series of posts to help other teachers who need help with their beginner classes. If you’re one of those people, I’d love to hear from you:
-What questions do you have about teaching beginners?
-What are some problems you’ve had in the past?
-Do you have any beginner horror stories?

Or if you’re like me, and you do love beginner classes:
-What do you like about teaching beginners?
-What tips do you have for anyone who is struggling?

Please take a moment to answer a question or two in the Comment section.  🙂

How long does it take to learn a language? Spoiler alert: I have no idea

How long does it take to learn a language?

Before I started teaching, sometime in between college and grad school, I was living abroad and taking language classes. I thought that I would become fluent in the language pretty quickly because I had started learning it as a child and was already pretty confident with the basics. It turned out that language learning was a lot harder than I had anticipated.

My teacher was an older woman in her mid-seventies who had been teaching forever. She was nice but usually really blunt with her opinions. (On the last day of class, for example, she went around the room and gave us all individual, informal critiques in front of the whole class. She told me something like, “You’re an amazing friend, but you’re just an average student.” Um..?)

Anyway, near the end of the course, buried in flashcards and still not fluent, I approached my teacher feeling kinda overwhelmed.
“How long does it take to learn a language?” I asked. “How much longer until I’m completely fluent and don’t have to carry a dictionary around with me everywhere?”

I don’t remember her answer, but I do remember that the next day she brought in a little story for our class to read. It went something like this:

There was once a young man who was walking to the beach through an unfamiliar town. He walked and walked until he saw an old man sitting near a hill. 
“Excuse me,” he asked the old man. “How long does it take to get to the beach.”
“Go on, go on, keep walking!” The old man grumbled.
The young man walked away confused, wondering if he had said anything offensive. When he reached the top of the hill, the old man called after him, “About twenty minutes.”
“Uh…Thanks, but why didn’t you tell me that before?” The young man asked. “I thought you were mad at me.”
“Mad? No!” The old man said. “I just had to see how quickly you walk.”

And the moral of that story, my teacher said, was that she has no idea how long it would take us to learn the language. Everyone learns at a different pace, everyone has a different language-learning background, and everyone puts in a different amount of effort. It’s hard for a teacher to predict how long it will take each individual student to learn.

It was thoughtful of my teacher to bring in a whole story to answer my simple question, and I appreciated that, but at the same time, that wasn’t then answer I wanted. Now that I’m an ESL teacher myself, though, I totally know what she means. Students often ask me how long it will take them to speak perfect English. Sometimes they’re impatient and disappointed in themselves for not jumping from pre-intermediate to super-advanced in two months. All I can really say for sure is that it’ll take a lot longer than two months.

I’ve heard from others that if you start from scratch and live in a country where the language is spoken, it should take about two years. But not many of my students are complete beginners when they arrive, and most don’t live in the U.S. They go home after a few weeks or a few months. Some will continue to take language classes a couple of times a week. Some will watch English movies and listen to English music. Some won’t.

So, unfortunately, it’s hard to give students the concrete answer they’re looking for. I can relate… I know what it’s like to be learning a language and worried that you’ll be learning forever. I can assure you that if you really work at it and you keep on walking, it won’t take forever. But I don’t know how long it will take.

What do you think?

How do you answer, “How long will it take?” And have you succeeded in learning a second language fluently? How long did it take you?

Please leave your comments in the box at the bottom of the page. Thank you!



A student who was about to go back to his country once told me that he loved my class because I taught him something that he’d been confused about for his whole life. I expected him to say present perfect or past continuous or some big, important thing like that, but nope.

His life-changing epiphany was when I taught a mnemonic to tell the difference between the words Tuesday and Thursday:
Tuesday sounds like the number two, and it’s the second day of the week,
so Tuesday = 2-sday. So easy!

I’m sure that wasn’t a planned part of my lesson. I probably mentioned it casually when a student stumbled over one of those words in conversation. But he was really excited about it. He said that throughout all of his years of school, he’d always had trouble with the days of the week, but not anymore! Isn’t it funny when you realize that things that seem little and insignificant to you are the things that your students end up remembering the most?

A cool thing about conditionals – When grammar meets psychology

After I teach real and unreal conditionals, I like to show my students the following example:

Speaker A and Speaker B are both entering a competition. Based on the following statements, who do you think is more optimistic about winning?:

Speaker A: If I win, I’ll be really happy.

Speaker B: If I won, I’d be really happy.

The answer: Speaker A probably is. He used a real conditional, while Speaker B used an unreal conditional.

If you teach grammar to ESL students, you know that we use real conditionals when we think that something is realistic (If it rains, I will being an umbrella), but we use unreal conditionals when we think that something is unlikely to ever happen (If I were president, I would give everyone free ice cream on Fridays.) So in the example above, Speaker A subconsciously thinks he has a good chance at winning, while Speaker B is not really so sure.

While it’s likely that neither speaker was thinking about the psychology behind their choice of words, it’s cool to think that your feelings are subtly reflected in your grammar.


What’s your favorite subtle grammar point to teach? Please share your ideas in the comment box at the bottom of the page.

Icebreaker Fails

Icebreaker Fails

My First Failed Icebreaker

I remember my first big class after finishing grad school and getting my TESOL degree. It was an Intermediate ESL course at a community college in the United States. I faced a room full of Chinese students, mostly in their 20s, who needed academic English to survive in college classrooms. I started the class with a name game.

Yes…A name game. If you have a degree in education, I’m sure you know the type. I don’t remember the details, but it was the kind of activity where the only objective is for everyone in the room to remember everyone else’s name. My students played along politely, but a lot of them had these blank stares, which I interpreted to mean, “Did we come all the way here so that this American kid can teach us how to remember each other’s names?”

Sure it’s important for students to learn each other’s names, and I know that this sort of activity can be really fun with some groups of students, but I realized right away that it just wasn’t the right way to set the tone in this particular class. I guess that was the moment when it struck me that not every great communicative activity that I’d learned in grad school would work with every class. Luckily, my lackluster icebreaker wasn’t the end of the world. The course turned out just fine, my students learned lots of useful things, and I learned to be more selective with my activity choices.

The Icebreaker I’d Never Try

Are there any icebreaker ideas that make you cringe? Ones that you’ve read about on the internet or learned about in a professional development workshop, but would never ever ever try?

For me, its that toilet paper one. You know that one that seems to show up on so many Top 10 ESL Icebreaker lists? If you don’t, here’s the gist: You casually pass a roll of toilet paper around your classroom and say, “Take what you need,” with no further explanation. When everyone has some toilet paper, you ask students to share one fact about themselves for each square that they took.

Um… Has anyone actually tried that out with real students? I imagine that if I were to begin class on a Monday morning with a roll of toilet paper in my hand, my professional adult students would take one look at me and lose all faith that they would ever learn anything from me.

I know…I know…I’m being overdramatic. But this just seems forced funny. I have a silly sense of humor, and my students are always giggling as they make grammar mistakes, but… toilet paper? What’s the point? Why don’t you just ask your students to share 5 facts about themselves? Or to roll a dice? And what if one student takes the entire roll? I’m sure that the rest of the class doesn’t want to spend the day listening to that person’s entire autobiography. Maybe it could work if you teach middle school students who find toilets hilarious, though…

What do you think?

Anyway, I like a good ice breaker as much as any other teacher, but I also love a good fail story, so please leave your comments, stories and ideas in the box below. Here are some questions for you to think about:

  • What’s your icebreaker fail?
  • And what icebreaker would you never try?
  • Have you attempted the toilet paper thing and lived to tell?

Leave your comments below. I’m listening!

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Working Hard or Hardly Working? - a cliche worth teaching, and some grammar to go with it

I didn’t think that anyone used that line outside of comedies about stereotypical offices. But a few years ago, there was was this one guy who worked in the Sales department at my school. EVERY time I bumped into him at the coffee maker (we didn’t have a water cooler), I knew what was coming:

“Working hard or hardly working?” He would ask and grin as though it were the first time he’d made that zinger.
“Uh… Just normal working, I guess,” I would stammer, because how are you supposed to respond to that question? Is it rhetorical?

I hadn’t thought about that guy in a while, but an advanced student of mine recently made a mistake that reminded me of his favorite one-liner. On an essay about women in the workplace, the student wrote, “100 years ago, many women didn’t have jobs, but nowadays women hardly work.” 

I love that mistake because she was pretty much saying the opposite of what she meant, and she have me a great example to help illustrate the difference between “hard” and “hardly.”

Teaching Hard vs. Hardly

If your student makes the hard/hardly mistake, here’s what you need to know:

1- “Hard” can be an adjective or an adverb.

  • One meaning of the adjective is “difficult.”
    • English is hard.
    • Teaching is a hard job.
    • Life is hard, sometimes.
    • That was a hard test.
  • The adverb means, “did the action with a lot of struggle or difficulty.”
    • If you study hard, you will pass the class.
    • I always work hard.
    • Work hard, play hard. (Another cheesy line.)

2- “Hardly” is an adverb. It can mean barely or rarely.

  • She just arrived in the United States, and she hardly speaks English.
  • I hardly ever drink coffee in the evening.
  • He hardly works because he can’t find a full-time job.

Lesson Plan Tips

I don’t have a full-blown grammar lesson plan for you, but here’s a loose suggestion on how you might introduce the topic:

  1. On the board, write: 100 years ago, most women didn’t have jobs, but nowadays they hardly work.
  2. Ask: What’s wrong with this sentence?
  3. Give examples (see the ones listed above), and ask students to come up with some of their own.
  4. On the board, write: Are we working hard or hardly working? If students chuckle, you know they get it.

Ideas or Comments

Have your students made any memorable mistakes with Hard vs. Hardly? Do you have any other suggestion to add for teaching it?

What other confusing word pairs can you think of?

Please leave your comments in the box below!

Writer Me vs. Teacher Me – a conundrum over cliches

ESL Teacher Conundrum - teaching cliches

Before I started teaching ESL, I was a college writer. I carried adorable little observation journals everywhere, I lived for jotting down details, and of course, I avoided cliches like the plague (I know, I know, I can never resist that one).

Now, as an ESL teacher, it’s my responsibility to teach everything about the English language… Including the stuff you aren’t supposed to use… Including those dreaded cliches. And I admit, I like teaching cliches. They’re colorful and descriptive and funny, especially when they don’t quite translate.

Here’s my mini-conundrum: For students to fully understand the language, they need to be able to understand cliches. At the same time, I have to convince them that that it’s usually better to avoid them, at lease in writing.

To see what I mean, here’s the outline a typical food vocabulary lesson vs. a typical cliche lesson.

A food vocabulary lesson, for example, goes something like this:

Step 1: Teach new food vocabulary.
Step 2: Practice new vocabulary by responding to conversation questions.
Step 3: Students write about their favorite restaurants.
Step 4: In groups, students create their own ideas for new restaurants.
Step 5: Students role play restaurant situation conversations.

A typical lesson on cliches is more like this: 

Step 1: Teach new cliches.
Step 2: Practice new cliches by responding to conversation questions.
Step 3: Teach students to never ever ever use cliches again.

The struggle! What’s a teacher to do?