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#EFLproblems – Teaching Monolingual Classes


Sign: English spoken here

Image courtesy of Nadeau&Barlow

We’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Harvey Chanoup’s blog comment regarding the challenge of teaching a monolingual class vs. a multilingual one. Verissimo Toste from the Professional Development Team discusses how to encourage the use of English in monolingual classes.

Harvey Chanoup sent us a simple “problem”; that of teaching monolingual classes as opposed to teaching a class of multilingual students. I have written the word in inverted commas because I think it is best not to see it as a problem. It is a characteristic of the class you are teaching that should be taken into account, as you would with mixed abilities, different interests, and motivation. The difficulty is obvious; monolingual classes communicate in their own language and so don’t need English to get a message across. Multilingual classes, however, would have English as their common language, automatically creating the need to use English to communicate.

The challenge is how to motivate students in monolingual classes to use English in order to communicate. Here are some ideas I have used in my classes, both for teenagers and adults.

Talk to your students

Most students accept that the best way to learn English is to use English. Ask them if they agree and why. Then, discuss if it is difficult to use English in class, and, if so, what makes it difficult. Ask them for some suggestions that would make it easier for them to use English. The main aim of the discussion is to raise the topic with your students. Teaching should not be a secret, so discussing this with them gives them an opportunity to be part of the solution, rather than having rules imposed. Also, knowing what their difficulty is in using English in class will give you ideas for activities that will help them use the English they are learning.

Time for English

Challenge your students to use only English for a specific period of time. For example, before beginning a grammar exercise, I would turn to the class and say, “Let’s see if we can use only English for the next 10 minutes.” Since they won’t need L1 to complete the exercise, I know this is something they can achieve. By creating a 10-minute limit, students see it as a challenge and make an effort to avoid using L1 for those 10 minutes. They also know that if they need the L1, they will be able to use it after the 10 minutes.

What happened in my classes is that students saw that they really didn’t need to use L1 to do that type of exercise. Usually, they would continue using English beyond the 10 minutes, giving me an opportunity to praise them for how well they had done. At the end, I would ask if they had any questions about the exercise. Most of the time, they didn’t. In this way they realised they had been using L1 to confirm what they already knew. It was a crutch they didn’t really need. This raised their confidence. Over time, the class was able to work on a variety of controlled activities without needing L1. Equally important, students became aware of what they could do in English and when they really needed L1.

Traffic Light

One idea that has been very helpful with my classes has been putting up a “traffic light” in class.

I print out a traffic light on an A4 piece of paper. In the red circle I write, “No Portuguese”, for example. In the amber circle I write, “Some Portuguese” and in the green circle I write, “Portuguese OK”. I display the traffic light where everyone can see it. I then explain it to the class:

I hide the red circle and the amber circle with white paper circles, leaving the green “Portuguese ok” visible. I tell the class that when the green circle is visible, they can use L1 (in this case, Portuguese).

Then, I hide the amber and green circles, leaving the red “No Portuguese” visible. I tell the class that when the red circle is visible, they cannot use L1 at all.

Finally, I hide the red and green circles, leaving the amber “Some Portuguese” visible. I tell them that, in this case, they can use L1, but only in relation to the activity we are doing at that time. I use this when they are working in pairs or small groups on an exercise and may need to use L1 to talk about the language.

The traffic light gives students a clear signal as to when they should be able to use only English, as well as when they can use their own language. As their teacher, you can choose when to use each light, and how long to leave it there. For example, I usually have “No Portuguese” as they walk into the classroom. An easy exercise for them to work on is already on the board, so they have something to do. This helps with the transition from their language to English.

Depending on the age of the students, you may want to give them a reward when they are able to use only English. Adult students will usually not need this, using the traffic light as a guide to improve their use of English in class.

Give them a reason to use English

It’s important that students have a reason to use English. If a group is organising their project work, they will probably do this more efficiently in their own language. There is little reason to use only English, especially at lower levels. However, if a pair or small group is preparing to act out a dialogue, they should be using English as they will need this to act out the dialogue in front of the class. I reinforce this idea by not allowing my students to read when they act out. The dialogues they act out are usually short and easy to remember. The pair/group work gives them an opportunity to practice before performing in front of the class. Students easily see that they need to practice their lines, as they won’t be able to read them off a sheet. Having students video their performances further increases their need to practice before actually performing.

Acting out is one example of an activity that creates a need to use English. There are many others. Information gap activities usually create a need to use English. Another activity is for the teacher, or a student, to read a text with the wrong information. Students, who have the correct information, would correct by repeating the complete sentence correctly. For example:

Teacher: (reading) “The capital of the state of New York is New York City.”
Student: (with the correct information) “Excuse me, but the capital of the state of New York is Albany.”

Using L1

Finally, it is important for your students to know when to use L1. Demanding that they use only English all the time may actually hamper their learning of English. Older students can use L1 as a viable learning strategy to better learn English. For many students, being able to discuss their learning in their own language gives them greater understanding of the learning process, and allows them to adapt in order to improve.

There are times when they are learning the language and need to use it in order to practice the pronunciation and the word order. Practicing helps them to make their use of the language automatic. Equally, there are times when they are talking about the language, comparing it to their own, discussing learning strategies. This may best be done in their own language.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about teaching monolingual classes, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 10 January at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

11 thoughts on “#EFLproblems – Teaching Monolingual Classes

  1. The ideas discusses are really innovative and useful. Using L1 in class is such a debatable issue especially in countries where English is not used in the EFL setting. The natter becomes worse if the educational culture in the country is exam-oriented. Thanks.

  2. sorry for the typo mistakes “discussed / matter”

  3. I like your ideas very much especially ‘traffic light’. It is so attractive to students especially young ones. It can keep them attracted and interested as well as attentive in class. Teachers can also use acting to make sure that the students understood the different tenses explained. For example, the teacher can write verbs in pieces of paper, students can come out one after the other to choose a paper, act the verb and the students would express the action in the form of a full sentnece. It is usually effective with the simple tenses. Puzzles and card games are also highly effective in engaging studnets in using English in class.

  4. This was a very well-written, innovative article. I’m guessing you’re Brazilian (Portuguese as L1), or you teach English in Brazil, where English is taught everywhere but few students end up mastering it (I’m Brazilian myself). I’m going back to teaching in Brazil after 7 years away from my home country (and the classroom!), and I look forward to putting your ideas in use. Thanks!

  5. Edited

    The ideas discussed are really innovative and useful. Using L1 in class is such a debatable issue especially in countries where English is not used outside the EFL setting. The matter becomes worse if the educational culture in the country is exam-oriented. Thanks.

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  10. I was directed to this post as further reading for the Oxford Teachers’ Academy Online (Teaching English to Young Learners) session on Classroom Management. I think this blog is very well-written and useful. I imagine teachers here in Taiwan will really enjoy the ‘traffic light’ idea. Overall, I like the author’s ethos of – how shall I put it? – gently persuading his students to persuade themselves that using English is something they actually want to do! I love this sentence: ‘Teaching should not be a secret, so discussing this with them gives them an opportunity to be part of the solution, rather than having rules imposed.’ It’s a very collaborative strategy, subtly placing choice and responsibility in the students’ hands. I see Mr. Toste as the ultimate ‘guide’-style teacher, actively serving the learning process rather than dominating it.

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