Teaching very low-level learners

Sandy Millin gives five tips for teaching very low-level learners of English

When you don't share a common language with your students, it can seem very challenging to work with very low-level students. However, it can also be incredibly rewarding as this is the level when you can see the most progress in your students over the time that you work with them. Here are 5 things to remember to help you have PRIDE in your teaching.


Learning a new language is very challenging, and it takes longer than we realise. It's important to be patient with your students and give them time to internalise new language. The older they are, the more likely it is that things will take time to stick in their memories. Teachers need to give students time within lessons to remember new information, and show them strategies to help them to do this. We also shouldn't get frustrated if it takes students a long time to remember something we have taught them.


It's important for students of any level to see new language repeatedly, but it's particularly important for very low level students who are seeing this language for the first time. Each time you work with the language, try to make it slightly different to give students more 'hooks' to hang their memories on. For example, include the language in reading and listening activities, and encourage students to use it in both speaking and writing. Seeing language in different contexts and with different images attached to it can also help memorisation.


Learning a new language challenges our identities, as we have to see the world in a different way. Adults in particular may find this challenging, as they find themselves unable to communicate in even very basic situations, and sometimes illiterate depending on the language they are learning. They can feel like a child, and this can threaten their self-worth. A lot of people quit language learning because of this. It is our job as teachers to build their confidence, and to remind them that with time this will pass and it's worth the effort to keep learning.


For me, this is probably the most important thing a teacher can so with low level students, but it's also one of the most neglected. When you drill pronunciation, you are also helping students to memorise new language, you are increasing their confidence in their ability to produce sounds in the new language, and you can help them to focus on accuracy in a supportive way. In my experience, teachers often don't drill enough as they feel awkward or they think students will get bored. Providing you do it in a varied way, and you pay attention to students' body language, stopping when they have had enough, students really appreciate the chance to have controlled spoken practice of the language, and they often ask for more of it! 

Expect more

Just because students have a very low level of English, it doesn't mean that they aren't creative, adventurous people. By giving them chances to play with the language, students often surprise us. They have often picked up words and phrases from watching TV shows or listening to music, for example, and they enjoy the chance to use these in their own languag. Aim to include some freer, more creative activities in every lesson to give your students the chance to experiment and show off what they can do. Examples might include making an advert about a hotel to stay in or extending or rewriting a short dialogue from the coursebook as part of a short film project.

So these are my five tips for teaching very low level students and having PRIDE in your work:

  • Patience
  • Repetition
  • Identity
  • Drilling
  • Expect more

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