Though I'm a relative beginner myself, with just over 3 years in the open water and no freestyle swimming at all before that, I've spent the past two years helping beginners in the open water. Basically, I started in, and never left, TCSD's (the Triathlon Club of San Diego's) beginner open-water swim clinic. I first stayed around as a helper, and now (amazingly) as an assistant coach.
I work with a rotating group of 20-50 beginner swimmers every week. Along with the leaders and senior coaches in our clinic, I suspect there aren't too many people around who regularly coach more true open-water beginners.
Our primary approach is to make open water swimming fun and enjoyable. We've found that if a swimmer is comfortable in the water, then speed and distance will come simply because they will want to practice. We don't get technical in our clinic, we don't focus at all on speed, and we focus on distance sufficient only to prepare them to survive and enjoy their first sprint triathlon.
"It is not possible to win a triathlon during the swim, but it is easy to lose one there." - Common triathlon proverb
We focus primarily on 'functional form', and we teach a one-size-fits-all freestyle stroke that anyone can learn, a stroke that is optimized to get any beginner comfortably through the open water. We don't explicitly target efficiency, and instead focus on teaching beginners to monitor themselves with every stroke and stay within their limits.
While I won't go into all the details of the stroke we teach, a primary component is to minimize all twisting of the neck. We ask them to imagine trapping a small ball between the chin and upper chest. That means in order to breathe, you must rotate your body!
Since we generally wear wetsuits in San Diego (the air is warm, but the ocean is cool), one of the greatest afflictions for new open water swimmers are neck rashes, more popularly known as 'wetsuit hickies'. The cause isn't the fit or design of the wetsuit: Eliminating neck rotation completely eliminates this problem at its source.
Surprisingly, we don't focus at all on bilateral breathing, other than to mention the reasons why it is a Good Thing. What we do emphasize is having fully symmetric body rotation on every stroke, so that you always get one eye out of the water, even on the non-breathing side. When a beginner later chooses to try bilateral breathing, their head will already be in the right position for it.
Yes, this may seem to be quite a lot of head and body rotation, and some folks do indeed experience dizziness or mild nausea while adjusting to it over the course of a few hours practice. When this occurs, we suggest swimming with an extremely low stroke rate, about one arm per second.
We find that a low stroke rate not only makes the rotation more tolerable during the adaptation phase, but it also helps the swimmer focus on their whole body, especially the core, back and legs, instead of focusing only on using their arms to make progress through the water. Many beginners twist and contort their bodies as they swim, and slowing things down helps them observe and correct this behavior on their own.
Many beginners lack upper body strength and endurance. Here again, a very slow stroke rate has immense benefits, helping beginners avoid exhaustion and anxiety or panic (and the subsequent perception of wetsuit tightness we call 'neoprene smothering'). We focus on 'slow form' because, quite often, that's all the beginner swimmer can handle!
If you first find form and fun, fitness and fastness follow!
Another benefit of our 'no neck rotation' form element is that when the swimmer leaves sheltered water and encounters chop, surge and swells in the open ocean, they will then be able to easily add some neck rotation to get their mouth further away from the turbulent surface and thus make breathing more successful.
I've seen several fast open water swimmers with minimal shoulder rotation who experience nausea whenever they encounter even mildly unsettled conditions, claiming it was due to the 'rough water'. I would tend to disagree: I believe it may have more to do with their having to add unaccustomed rotation to their stroke in order to breathe. It seems best to address motion sensitivity while still a beginner.
Full, symmetric rotation not only supports a straight stroke, but also prepares the beginner for bilateral breathing and rougher conditions.
Another advantage of always getting an eye out of the water on the non-breathing side is that it vastly improves 'situational awareness' during a race. We teach our beginners to draft to make the swim leg of a triathlon faster and easier. When swimmers pass close by, it is tough to draft them if you never see them!
Proficient pool swimmers making the transition to open water often have the greatest difficulty learning 'full rotation'. It seems they are so used to staring down at that black line that they often have great difficulty not only with rotation, but also with spotting/sighting in the open water. They also tend to get the most wetsuit hickies.
Another complicating factor for pool swimmers is their insistence on kicking. In a wetsuit, kicking provides little or no benefit, unless you have such a large motor that you have the energy to spare. So another component of our beginner open-water stroke is minimizing kicking. Most are able to eliminate it entirely, though a few folks need one kick per stroke to aid rotation.
The immediate benefit of eliminating kicking is that the body's energy stores are reserved for use by the arms. For our beginners, it is important their energy lasts for the full session, and isn't exhausted too soon.
Since beginners tend to spend a long time in the water during their first few races, we do teach them to kick during the last 50 meters of the swim in order to get their legs warmed up and ready for exiting the water: This tends to eliminate the all too common "stand-up-then-face-plant" event at the end of the swim. It is also useful for everyone at the end of an Ironman swim.
One more thing about pool swimmers transitioning to the open water: I've seen proficient pool swimmers be surprised and panicked after their first 100 meters in the open water due to unexpected exhaustion. Removing the pool wall removes the flip-turn which in turn removes the long recovery glide their bodies are accustomed to having at the start of each length of the pool. If they want to become good open water swimmers, I suggest they 1) don't let their feet touch the wall, 2) sight on the lane dividers instead of the black line, and 3) practice with a pull-buoy.
Back to the topic at hand: The stroke I've described is taught to beginners to help them become comfortable swimming in the open water and to ensure success in their first sprint triathlon. After that, we encourage our 'graduates' to get lots of practice and to start attending the more advanced swim workouts and clinics our club offers several times each week.
I hope this hasn't sounded too heretical, but all I can say is that I've seen it consistently work well for many open water beginners. We don't try to turn them into competitive swimmers, nor do we even try to help them find their personal, ideal stroke. We try only to give them a basic foundation that works well, is easy to learn, and doesn't get in the way of having fun.
What may be a bit more heretical is that we also teach our beginners to glide. We found that simply doing a slow-motion stroke is often not the best way to swim with a low stroke rate. It is often better to combine a powerful stroke with a glide. This not only provides a brief recovery period during each stroke, but also builds strength and muscle memory while simultaneously helping the beginner become acutely aware of the overall shape and position of their body in the water. If your body isn't straight, you will see yourself head off-course during the glide. And, importantly, a short glide also momentarily halts rotation, further helping limit dizziness and nausea while learning 'full rotation'.
STROKE, glide, look-to-the-side, STROKE, glide, look-to-the-side.
The best thing about beginners learning with a glide in their stroke is that as fitness and conditioning improve, it is easy to reduce then eliminate the glide. Conversely, if an intermediate swimmer becomes over-tired during a swim, briefly restoring a familiar glide can permit them to recover without stopping. A glide is a Good Thing for an open water beginner to learn.
Though I've not discussed all aspects of the basic stroke we teach, some of the parts I have described may in some ways seem counter-intuitive or even wrong. All I can say is that it absolutely helps beginners swim straight and far, then permits them to smoothly progress toward improved conditioning and higher speed.
Most importantly, it creates open water swimmers who have a blast in the water and race really well, staying on-course in the midst of a crowded field, even in unsheltered open water.