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Curriculum & Materials
The Importance of Teaching Survival English to Foundations Students

The Importance of Teaching Survival English to Foundations Students


October 18, 2016


Survival English is a term used to refer to the essential English phrases and expressions a learner needs to know in order to survive, i.e. live or work, in an English-speaking environment.



People typically need survival English phrases and expressions in a number of situations. For example, they could be going on holiday or taking an English course and living with a host family. They might be attending a conference or even a social event such as a wedding in an English-speaking country. When they are in that country they would, for example, need to order a meal, give an address to a taxi driver, ask for a train ticket or ask for the toilet.

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-11-11-02-pmLearners’ needs for survival English vary depending on their circumstances and the environment in which they find themselves. There is no use teaching students how to read a bus timetable if there is no bus service in the town or the village where they are living or working. This means that it would be a much better idea to give your students practical information that they can immediately use to meet their needs. This can be done by carrying out a Needs Analysis (a process of identifying and evaluating needs in a community or other defined group of people).


Why should survival English taught at Foundations?

Survival English is usually taught to beginners and our foundations students, especially Level 1 learners, fit that designation. They are either absolute or false beginners, which makes them ideal candidates for this type of instruction. In my experience as a Foundations teacher, our Level one students arrive at college lacking the knowledge of the basic English phrases and expressions that they need to navigate their first few weeks in their new environment. They find it hard and sometimes impossible to communicate their basic needs to their English-speaking teachers and English-speaking support staff. This could have far-reaching consequences, which are not immediately recognized by those in charge of receiving the newcomers. The inability to communicate essential needs could lead to feelings of frustration and estrangement. As a result, some give up the fight to survive in the new environment and drop out of college.

Below are examples of the basic English survival phrases and expressions our level 1 Foundations students need and which they have used in our classes: 


Survival English


  • Good morning (when you come in the morning)
  • Good afternoon (when you come in the afternoon)
  • May I come in, please? (when you come late to class)
  • I am sorry I am late (when you are late coming to class)
  • Excuse me, Sir/Madam (when you want to attract the teacher’s attention)
  • Where is the bathroom/library/administration/faculty room/gym?
  • May I go to the bathroom, please? (when you want to go to the bathroom)
  • May I borrow a pencil, please? (when you need a pencil)
  • May I leave the room, please? (when you want to leave the classroom)
  • May I go to my locker, please?
  • May I get a drink, please?
  • May I change my place, please? (when you want to change where you sit)
  • May I please go down and talk with Student Services?
  • I am not feeling well; I need to see the nurse.
  • My stomach/head hurts. May I leave the room, please?
  • I need a pencil/pencil sharpener/piece of paper/pen/dictionary/calculator.
  • I need help. Can you help me, please?
  • I am sorry, but I do not understand.
  • I am sorry, but I do not know the answer. (When asked a question for which you have no answer).
  • I am finished. What should I do now?
  • I have a question.
  • What does “………….” mean?
  • What is “…………”
  • What’s the Arabic for “…………”
  • What is the English for “………”
  • I am lost. Can you help me, please?
  • Please speak slowly.
  • Please write it down.
  • Could you please repeat that?
  • Please carry on.
  • Say that again.
  • Pardon? Excuse me? Sorry?



Polite Behavior

These phrases are important for speakers to use because they offer a form of courtesy that is expected. Native speakers will use words when communicating in public that imply politeness. For example, “Hello, could I please have a bus schedule?” or “I would like to have a hamburger and a coke please”. This is common courtesy, and if you do not use it, it appears rude. So, English language learners need to use such phrases posted above to get along in everyday activities. If they do not, or do not know, this is unsatisfactory. It is important to inform learners of this so they can adapt more easily into the environment.



confidence-300x241The ability of your students to communicate comfortably and easily in a new environment is key to their future success in this environment. Their growing confidence and sense of security will ensure that they not just survive, but also thrive and eventually succeed in their academic studies. The icing on the cake: it makes your life a lot easier in the process! 


October 18, 2016
Curriculum & Materials, Teaching & Learning

1 comment

  1. Shifa Desai Shifa Desai says:

    Classroom language comes up every day. Thanks for an article that reminds us to reinforce it.