How to Teach English to a Non-English Speaker

I agree, that foreigners who have not mastered the English language, should not work at the drive-thru window. But, before condemning a foreigner for not speaking English, first consider its difficulties. The English language can not be spoken the way it is seen on paper. For example, the word knight has 3 silent letters in it and no indication that the “i” in the middle is a long vowel (sounding like the letter “i”).

Furthermore, once it is on paper, even if it is said remotely how it is spelled, we English speakers change it. Case and point: Are you going to want to get a hamburger later? is said Are you gunna wanna get a hambuger later? It’s no wonder that foreigners have a difficult time understanding English. So where does one begin in teaching a language to someone who doesn’t speak, read, or write it? Think of the Tarzan scenario.

Me: teacher
You: student

Another consideration to the teacher is that there are two different types of language learning. There is “street talk” (gunna wanna), and there is “formal English”. Although the formal English is not learned as quickly as the lingo in the street, having a base knowledge of the structure helps in the long run.

Begin with the verb “to be” – which is really tough because “be” is an irregular verb (meaning that it does not change in the regular way that most verbs do.) An example of a regular verb is live – lives – lived, as opposed to the irregular “be” verb of am – is – was. But, either way, it is the first thing that a language learner must know, and that is how to introduce oneself.

Depending on the need of the student and the availability of the teacher, it is important to note that the truly bilingual person can read, write, hear, and speak the language particularly if the person wants to go to school. If the student wants only to learn conversation so he or she can converse in English at the health club, then reading and writing may not be necessary. However, if the person is living in the U.S., reading is imperative at the grocery store, on street signs, and in legal matters. Writing may be necessary on the job, to get a job, or to fill out a credit application. So if there’s time – do all four.

Repetition is the key to learning, especially with lower level language learners. Although it seems boring to the English teacher to say, “I am – you are – he is âÂ?¦” the student finds comfort in this repetition. Set out a plan to teach a certain amount of grammar in a set amount of time.

If the instructor is more serious, he or she should acquaint themselves with basic English stuff like verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and questions. Although there is a ton more to learn about English, mastering these few basic principles will get the learner through a busy day at home or work. After this, they can pursue a more formal education at a local international center, community college, library, or university.


Write your (the teacher’s) name on the board that you want the students to call you for the first couple of days.

Write this on the board every day for the first two weeks:
� I am
� You are
� He is
� She is
� It is
� We are
� They are

Practice variations of these sentences. Instead of speaking loudly as I AM THE TEACHER, it’s more effective to speak with pauses between the words, so that the student can process groups of words. For example: I amâÂ?¦âÂ?¦the teacher, You areâÂ?¦..the student.

Make flashcards with these sentences. Have the student hold the flashcard and say the following sentences. Flash cards can be made up with a blank space where the noun goes. (I am a ___________.) (woman, man, carpenter, mother�etc.)

1 – I am a student.
2 – You are a teacher. (or student if speaking to a classmate)
3 – He is a student.
4 – She is a student.

Retention is better when the student reads while speaking. It also breaks the ice for a new class. Having to speak out loud is very intimidating for a new student. They don’t want to say anything wrong. Be patient. Tell them the answers if they don’t know them.


Remember to speak slowly. Put flashcards in the room that say SLOW to remember.

Review. Always review yesterday’s material for about ten minutes. This gives time for those who are a few minutes late to get in the door, and it also gives time for the foreigner’s ear to start “hearing” in English. When not in the classroom, they always speak in their own languages. It takes a few minutes to think in English. Review is good for this reason.

Then, introduce the new sentences. After introducing these sentences, ask a question about yesterday’s sentences.

5 – We are students.
6 – They are students.

Beginner students love games. There are many games, books, ideas, and online resources for teaching. Teach one topic for about 20 minutes, then, take a break and do something different. Write an example or two on the board. For example, have the students write sentences (as long as it takes), then go around the room and have each student read his or her four sentences. At the end of that, do a different activity like listening to music. Or, the teacher can read a short children’s story. Art is always an excellent medium for expression.
After the students draw or paint a picture, have them discuss it. If Carlos says, “This my country. I happy,” simply validate and say, “Good!” and write the correct sentences on the board. This is very encouraging to the students and it doesn’t insult them for making a mistake.

On the board: This is my country. I am happy.

Remind them to use I am – you are – he isâÂ?¦.and point to the list on the board. As stated earlier, this may seem boring to you, but this simple repetition is what beginning students like.

Teaching beginner level English is not for everyone; it takes patience and understanding. Never force anyone to speak in English. If the students need to converse for a moment in their native language in order to understand, tolerate it, but encourage English immediately after. Most importantly, remember to have fun and to be natural. Good luck.

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