How To Teach English to Students Who Don’t Speak English, and You Don’t Speak Their Language Either

Someone just asked me a question wanting to know if it is possible to teach English to people you can’t communicate with, and my answer was, “Only if you know what you are doing.” In Korea, they invite lots of people who don’t understand language or grammar to teach students how to speak English that they don’t talk to. It turns into a terrible struggle for everyone, but it doesn’t have to be. A Japanese teacher taught me to speak Japanese without knowing how to speak English, and she did a great job. I have taken a lot of notes from what she did, but I have also added to what she did for my classes. Here are some good suggestions that work.

Students love to get up and sing and dance around. Collect songs that help them do it. I know lots of songs that helps students speak English.

If you re teaching children, teach a lot of songs with hand actions. There is a method in Korea called “listen and repeat.” Teach it to them a line at a time getting them to repeat line by line or section of a line by section of a line, slowly adding more and more of the song. Eventually, you will have them singing. When they sing, they remember, and if you have hand actions with your songs, they figure out what it means, I was an adult, so my Japanese teacher didn’t do this with me. My French teacher did when I was a little girl. It is a method that works with a class of children.

If they can[‘t read English letters, these kinds of cards a very useful. All good language teachers teach the alphabet first. My Spanish teacher taught the Spanish alphabet first. My Japanese teacher taught the Japanese alphabet first.

Also, if you are teaching children or anyone else who doesn’t read English letters, they need to learn the alphabet early on. If not, you can’t teach them to read, and they need to read. I use large flash cards I made with the letters on them and drill the class. I play games with the cards. I let them hold a card if they got it right, but I keep the card if they got it wrong. The person at the end with the most cards wins. Even little four and five year old kids like to do this, but you can also use it on college age students. It is good for all ages.

“Where is the pen?’ “The pen is on the book.”/This is how to teach prepositions.

Bring objects and teach the students to talk about them. This is what my Japanese teacher did at the beginning. She brought a match box. She taught us, “This is a match,” “That is a match” by holding the match in her hand when she said “this,” and putting it away from her to teach “that.” She also taught us how to say, “this is a box, that is a box,.” After that, she put the match on the box, in the box, beside the box, on the box, under the box, etc. Each time, she drilled us and taught us prepositions in whole sentences like, “The match in on the box.” She just replaced the preposition every time. She taught us to recognize the question, “Where is the match?” We learned to answer her when she asked us where things were by using the match and the box. I do the same drill with my students by using a pen and a book. I put the pen on the book, under the book, in the book, etc. and teach the students to answer questions.

Ask her, “Where are you?” She answers, “I am at the door.” As the students, “Where is she?’ They answer, “She is at the door.”

Next, I teach them places in the classroom. I teach them things like “I am in the front of the classroom.” The understand because they have learned “in front of” from talking about the book and the pen. I walk to the door and say, “I go to the door.” After that, I say, “I am at the door,” Slowly building on this, I can teach them all the verb tenses just by putting it in the right situation. I can also teach them pronouns like that.

First walk out and peek back in at the students saying, “I am outside.” They will understand. Say to the student, “Go outside.” The laugh and go outside. You can then ask, “Where are you?” They respond laughing saying, “I am outside.”Ask the other students, “Where is she?” The other students will respond, “She is outside.” The student outside at this point sometimes figures out how to say on their own, :”Can I come in?”

I tell a student to go to the door. When they get to the door, I say, “Where are you?” They learn to say, “I am at the door.” I then send them to their seat by saying, “Go to your seat.” When they get to their seat, I say, “sit down.” When they sit down, I say, “Where are you?” They answer, “I am on my chair.” The next time, I go to the door, and while I am walking, I say, “I am going to the door.” When I get to the door, I say, “I am at the door.” I walk back to my place in the classroom and say, “I am going to my place.” When I arrive, I say, “I am at my place.” “I went to the door.”

“Where are you?” I am on my chair.” Where is he?” “He is on his chair.”

Next, I tell one of them to go to the door. While they are walking, I ask them, “Where are you going?” It helps if you choose someone you know speaks more English than the others, but if there isn’t anyone like that, you can coach them on what to say. they answer, “I am going to the door.” You ask the classroom, “Where is he going?” The students answer, “he is going to the door.” When he gets to the door, you ask him where he is, and then ask the class where he is. You go through the whole rigmarole with him as you went through when you went to the door only asking questions and letting him say what you said. You also go through it with the students in the class talking about where he is and what he is doing. You do several students one at a time. You end up teaching, “I, you, he, and she.” like this. After you have done this, you can say to two or three students to go to the door and ask, “Where are you going?” and teach them to respond, “We are going to the door,” You ask the class “Where are they going?’ The class responds, “They are going to the door.” You just keep adding and drilling.

You can talk about reading books. You can talk about looking out the window, opening and closing the door and the window. They love to be told to go outside the classroom. At which point, you can teach them “I am outside.”

Cards or large pictures like these are a very valuable teaching tool.

I also have a deck of cards I use that have pictures on them. The pictures are mostly of animals. First, I teach them the names of the animals. After that, I can teach them verbs with the animal names. I drill them and ask them lots of questions like “Where does the camel live?” They learn to say, “The camel lives in the desert.” or “The camel lives in Africa.” You can ask, “What does the monkey eat?” and they respond, “The monkey eats a banana.” You can teach them, “Do you like cats? What do cats eat?” Cats eat fish. Cats eat mice. What do fish do? Fish swim. Where do fish live? fish live in water, etc. Just keep drilling them and building their noun and verb vocabulary.

After that, you can teach them things like, “What color is the dog?” or “The mouse is small.” “the elephant is big.” After that, you can teach them the elephant is bigger than the mouse. Do it all from context. You can let students come to the front of the class and show them which one is the tallest of three tall students. etc. You can also teach them adverbs like “quickly” and “slowly.”

Keep drilling and building. Write things on the board and let them copy what you write. You can teach grammar by writing, “A cat eats a mouse.” or “Cats eat mice.” I teach them to write everything I write and go home and copy it saying it to themselves.

I write all the verbs they have learned on the board and make a chart teaching hem to conjugate the verbs.

I write all the verbs they know on the board. I make one big chart and teach them past tense, simple present tense, future tense, the past participle, and the “ing” form. I let them try to tell me what conjugation of the verb to put in each column. I teach them what they mean from context. I make them write the chart on their papers. I teach them to sue their verb charts and write diaries in English. I model an easy diary page on the board.

Slowly, I can speak more and more English to them. I did a class like this in Romania once, and when we got to the verb chart, I noticed many of them were speaking English to me, and I was surprised and said, “I thought you couldn’t speak English!” The response was, “We couldn’t but you taught us to speak English.”This method really works well.

A children’s reading series that doesn’t use a lot of huge words helps.

Something else that helps is the Lady Bird reading seines. It is a reading series that starts one word at a time slowly adding words, one at a time. The pictures go with the words they are writing on the page.. The theory of the author was to collect the most used words in a language and teach those first, and then the kids could learn to read faster, It works with teaching a second language too. This is one of the ways I learned to speak Romanian without a Romanian text book because Romanian as a second language books didn’t exist then. My teacher wasn’t a Romanian teacher, but a Romanian English teacher. He asked me what he needed to teach me because he had no idea, so I told him to teach me the words in those books, and then present, past, and future of the verbs, and that got me started and able to communicate to learn more. When I have taught kids one on one, I have used those books to teach them to speak English, and they work. The Lady Bird Reading Series comes form England.

I hope this blog has helped anyone who was at a loss at how to teach students English who you can’t speak to. One of the problems I have encountered here in Korea is that I didn’t always have free rein over my classes. My boss supplied the books and expected me to use them, so I integrated the ideas here into trying to teach the book I was given.. If you look back a little on my blogs, you can see a set of verb quizzes I used to help me teach students who had vocabulary in English, but couldn’t make a sentence or conjugate verbs. I also invented a verb game that works really well, but i don’t’ know enough about computers to get my game on the computer for people to play. I keep hoping my daughter will be able to do it because she is a computer major at the university. The verb game really works. I made it so that my students learned to conjugate English verbs at the same time I learned to conjugate Korean verbs. You also learn to make sentences from the verb game and the verb quizzes. I wrote a book and put sentence patterns, verb conjugations, and a load of mistakes Korean students make in English in it, and I explained it all in Korean. I used as much creativity as I could to help my students. I hope this helps people who are asked to teach English to people they can’t talk to.

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