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Using First Language (L1) in the ELT Classroom

Using L1 in the ELT ClassroomPhilip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP.  In this post he discusses the use of L1 in the classroom and shares some guidelines for its use.

The majority of English language teaching takes place in classrooms where both the students and the teacher share the same L1 (first language). In these contexts, the L1 is often banned from the classroom, and for many good reasons. Many teachers and heads of department forbid the use of L1 because an all-English speaking environment is prized since it actively encourages communication in English. Another reason is that the L1 can easily take over if not restricted. While there are many reasons for banishing the L1 from the classroom, there are also good reasons for using it. What I believe is needed are clear guidelines for effective use of the L1. Below I set some guidelines in three levels; from basic to more in-depth.

Level One: Functional

Level one can be used by all ELT teachers to help the class function more effectively without essentially compromising the popular principle that English should be used at all times. The use of the L1 is quite restricted and the teacher is always in complete control so there is no chance of the L1 taking over the class.

  • How do you say ____?: Students are allowed to ask how to say something from their L1 in English.
  • Can I say something in my language?: If students have something important to say but do not have the level of English to do so, they can request permission from the teacher to speak in their L1.
  • Time out: Just as in Basketball, the teacher can indicate that they will create a short space within the regular class to use the L1, and then return to the English class. This is especially useful when something needs to be discussed which could not be done in English.

Level Two: Strategic

In this second level, the teacher has at their disposal all the uses outlined in level one, but now encourages students to draw on their knowledge of their L1 and English to develop language learning strategies. This is essentially done by asking students to make comparisons between the two languages. The teacher is able to do this without the need to use the L1 themselves if they do not want to. Again, if the teacher fears losing control they can use the time out idea to create a ‘window’ from the exclusively all English atmosphere in the classroom.

  • English you already know: When there is a new word that has some relation to a word from their L1, the teacher asks students, “Does it look like a word you know in your language?”
  • Finding patterns and similarities: When there are grammatical patters or phrases that are have similarities between English and the L1, the teacher can ask, “What is the equivalent in your language?” or “Is it similar or different in your language?”

Level Three: Discourse

Level three uses the L1 to develop language awareness, higher order thinking skills, and to explore and comprehend features of discourse in English. The teacher also incorporates the ideas from levels one and two.

  • Discussing register: When looking at a phrase in context that has a particular register or degree of formality, the teacher asks students for an equivalent in their L1. This opens up discussions about appropriacy and register.
  • Just for fun: All bilinguals are aware of words and phrases that are easily mistranslated and produce funny consequences. By highlighting some of these and encouraging students to play with the language, we not only bring some light relief into the classroom, but encourage creativity and heightened language awareness.
  • Translating: Students work together and translate extracts or short texts from one language to the other. The teacher encourages students to discuss and justify their choice of words and phrases. This develops insight into features of context, appropriacy and register, develops higher order thinking skills, and promotes greater awareness of both languages.

These ideas are designed to encourage teachers to make principled use of the L1 in their classroom without feeling guilty about doing do so, while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that are often associated with its use. It is hoped that all teachers will feel comfortable using some of these ideas and will consider the possible benefits of others.


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Janet Enever reflects on the #ELTJ Debate at #IATEFL 2014

Janet Enever at the ELTJ Debate at IATEFL 2014At this year’s ELTJ Debate, Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) argued against the motion that ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good‘. Janet shares her thoughts on some of the points that came out of the debate. Catch up on the highlights in our Storify story of the event.

Firstly, I’d like to say how pleased I was to hear so many interesting and relevant points raised at the ELTJ Debate. Together, they provided fruit for a really valuable round table event – perhaps this would be a more productive format for developing shared understandings and creating networks than the adversarial stance of a debate.

Here, I’d like to pick up on a few points raised that I felt were particularly important – just to start the ball rolling for additional perspectives to be aired.

There’s proof in the pudding

Firstly then, the exciting new evidence from Eva Wilden in Germany! A study of over 6,500 children at the end of the German primary school phase (aged 10/11 yrs). She reported clear evidence of greater progress in receptive skills by approximately 50% of the sample who began English earlier. This large scale study is very significant evidence. In addition, the study linked higher achievement with stronger reading skills in German (national language – which may or may not be the children’s first language). Can we extrapolate from this that higher level literacy in the language of schooling/L1 works hand-in-hand with higher achievements in English?

I’d like to add a note here on the broader question of literacy and politely take issue with Fiona [Copland]. There is now strong evidence on the potential of early language learning to contribute positively to literacy in L1. The references are now too numerous to list here, but perhaps I can include one quote and suggest that for anyone interested, it would be worth following up on this particular source. So: Fernandez (2008:8) summarises evidence, that:

far from detracting from the development of literacy, learning a second language actually enhances and enriches children’s language experience and offers unique insights and opportunities for the development of cognitive skills, which are unavailable to the monolingual learner.”

It seems possible that Eva from Germany has evidence of just this happening – I’m glad to say that she has now agreed to present at our conference in Umea this June – so join us if you can to hear more! Of course, OUP are one of our proud sponsors!

Political buy-in

Secondly, I’d like to mention the contribution of a colleague from Bangladesh. I haven’t had the chance to spend time there so cannot pretend to be knowledgeable on the challenges, though I’ve heard this account many times and seen many of these challenges elsewhere in the world. The current problem for Bangladesh seems to be that there are very few positive aspects to this policy decision! Here I will take up just one.

From the ELLiE study we learnt that primary English teachers need a fluency level of at least B2 if they are to be able to respond to the unplanned, informal everyday requirements of English in the primary classroom. In many contexts this continues to be a distant goal, but this does not diminish its importance. At a language planning stage we need to ‘help’ politicians to fully understand this and strategically plan to achieve this target. Years ago when I worked in Poland (soon after the political changes), I witnessed thousands of teachers of Russian losing their jobs. Some, astonishingly, managed to speedily turn their hands to rapidly learning English and became excellent English teachers instead. The shift in language choice that has occurred there over the past 24 years is certainly remarkable, with a national policy now established for introducing the first foreign language (mainly, but not only, English) from the start of schooling. However, in a country of 40 million, this has taken a generation to implement – and they are still working on it. Evidently, Bangladesh has much greater challenges – probably not only in the teaching of primary English, with large classes and a struggle for adequate resources.

How much is too much?

The final point that I’d like to discuss relates to the question of ‘how many languages are possible at primary level?’ This is indeed a difficult question to answer – probably impossible! A delegate from Switzerland outlined their current debate. Last year I attended a national discussion forum on this in Bern where I learnt that English was creeping up the agenda in a number of cantons, and concerns were rising particularly about the decline of their fourth language – Romansch. From informal coffee break conversations I gained the impression that the German speakers in particular no longer saw French as so important/valuable as English.

This topic links also to the question raised by a British Council representative from Senegal in Francophone West Africa. Similarly, there, current discussions consider whether children will suffer from overload if they have to cope with learning two languages in addition to their home language/mother tongue/language of schooling (various terms may apply in different contexts). In response to the question of: ‘How many languages are too many?’ we can cite countries such as India where it is often the norm for young children to shift between 3-4 languages in their daily lives – but these are generally languages that are widely used in the community. We can also cite smaller-scale examples where three languages are taught in schools from an early age – e.g. Luxembourg, Belgium, some regions of Spain such as Catalonia and the Basque region. However, again, at least two of these languages are widely used in the community, whilst the third (English) is seen as a high status international language.

From this and other evidence then, we know children can cope, but we have to ask whether the contextual conditions are sufficient to provide enough support for them to make progress. With good teachers, good resources and a supportive wider community (both in and out of school) I’m sure it can be done. However, achieving this on a wider scale takes substantial national/political commitment. Of course, it also takes a significant amount of class time so it’s important to consider the priorities and take care not to create a primary curriculum that suffers from overload. In Africa, I know it’s a real dilemma, with some former colonies having opted for non-local language as the medium of instruction from the start of schooling and then later recognising this might result in only limited progress in basic education. The theme of Medium of Instruction deserves a separate discussion I feel – and was not the focus of the Debate. Here, we are discussing the introduction of a foreign language, together with the teaching of a former colonial language (English or French mainly).

My expectation is that the outcome is unlikely to be balanced bilingualism. Nonetheless, the experience of learning two languages early, in addition to the first language, will certainly provide a valuable foundation for later further development – assuming the conditions are sufficient to ensure good provision. Of course, Harry Kuchah’s contribution from Cameroon serves as a salutory reminder on how difficult it can be to achieve satisfactory conditions for learning.

There are so many more points I would like to discuss, but I hope the above provides some food for thought and provokes further discussion. As you can see, there are so many perspectives to consider.

If Janet’s points on the ELTJ Debate have interested you, or you’d like to challenge them, feel free to leave a comment below. And don’t forget to watch the recording of the Debate or read our Storify highlights.


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How do I stop students from using their mother tongue?

Solutions Speaking ChallengeGareth Davies, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer gives his thoughts on the first of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: reducing the use of L1 in class.

In a recent survey on speaking challenges run by Oxford University Press, teachers were asked to vote on their top speaking challenge. The problem that received the most votes was ‘in group or pair speaking activities, my students chat in their mother tongue’.

I am not sure if this is good or bad news, in some ways it is comforting to know that teachers all around the world have similar problems to ones I am facing, but on the other hand I know that speaking is an important part of the learning process and the final exams, so I know my students need as much practise as possible. So how do I get my students to stop using the comfort blanket of their mother tongue and encourage them to speak in English?

Taking away the comfort blanket

My first answer to this question is don’t worry about it. This might sound controversial but in my experience the more you nag teenagers, the less likely they are to do what you ask them to do. There’s an old expression: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. So our job is to explain why it’s a good idea to use English and create the right environment but not to force the students to do it. So I suppose the question could be: how can I create the right environment to encourage my students to stop using the comfort blanket?

If we know what is stopping the students from using English then we might be closer to the answer. I think there are three main reasons why students don’t use English in pair work and group work.

1. They are scared to make mistakes

School culture often makes students scared to make mistakes; it might not be what we are doing in our English lessons but what is going on when they are not being taught languages. That means we need to work hard to overcome their resistance to error rather than highlight every error the students make. Often students are scared that if they make mistakes they will be marked down, so let’s let them know that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process.

To do this we could have ‘quantity not quality’ days where we tell the students they will be marked on how much they say not on how they say it. Also we could have a dice or spinning wheel with typical mistakes written on it. For each speaking activity we spin the wheel and whatever it lands on is the mistakes the teacher listens for and corrects. This shows students they can learn from their mistakes. Finally, as a teacher it is really important to respond to the content of what is being said. So if your student says “I went in Rome”, initially respond to the fact they were in Rome rather than the fact they have their preposition wrong.

2. They don’t have any ideas

An oft heard quote is that students don’t have any ideas, but in the feedback to the survey many teachers said the students were on task but just not using English. So can we use this to our advantage? Could we allow the preparation time to be in the students’ L1? Allow them time to come up with ideas and then translate them. Would this give them the tools to give more than just one- or two-word answers?

Whatever we do, I think for speaking activities to work, preparation time is a necessity not a luxury. I also think it is important to give students a chance to work in pairs to plan what they are going to say before changing pairs and asking them to do the activity. It is often a nice idea to repeat the activity with a new partner, the students will feel the first one was a rehearsal and they feel more relaxed second time around, (maybe even stealing some of their previous partner’s ideas.) Finally, you could give the students opinions; maybe students are too shy to say what they really feel for fear of being ridiculed, so if we tell them they have to argue against X or in favour of Y then they can hide behind the ‘role’ they have been given.

3. They don’t see the point

I often hear teachers say that students don’t see the point. Maybe a reason for this is that if they are in a class of twenty then they realise the teacher can’t listen to all of them at the same time, so they only feel they are learning when the teacher is listening. One thing we could try is to ask the students to record themselves using their phones or other recording devices. They could send us their recordings so we can use something from it in the next lesson and they can keep a record for themselves.

A lot of respondents to the survey said their students don’t listen to each other. This is a common problem, turning speaking into a series of monologues. One way to combat this is to have an activity within an activity. For example, ask your students to answer as a famous person or as another student in the class, or try to get random words into the speaking activity, or to slip in a lie. Their partner has to listen and guess who they are, or guess what the word was or what the lie was, training them to listen.

So throw away your ‘No L1’ signs, stop worrying when L1 pops up, and allow students to have their comfort blanket when they need it. But let them know why you want them to speak English, let them know that you actually welcome mistakes not frown on them, they are part of the process of learning, and encourage students to listen to each other by bringing fun to speaking activities and hopefully you’ll soon have them leaving their comfort blankets behind by themselves.


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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.


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#qskills – When should L1 be used in class?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: When should L1 be used in class?

Nigel Caplan responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.