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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.


Speaking in the monolingual classroom

Group of adult students talkingMike Boyle has taught English to adult learners in Japan and the United States, and is now a materials writer in New York City. He is the co-author of the Starter level of American English File Second Edition. In this article, he shares his thoughts on creating effective speaking activities for monolingual classes.

We often hear that people who have a lot in common tend to have the best conversations. But if you teach a class of learners who all have the same native language and all live in the same town ­– and maybe even work at the same company – you’ve probably noticed that this isn’t always true.

While some monolingual classrooms are vibrant, chatty places, others can be quiet and awkward. Here are a few of the main reasons why this can happen and some ways to address the problem.

“We’re all the same, so there’s nothing to talk about.”

This is a common feeling among learners in monolingual classes. Unfortunately, some teaching materials worsen this problem with questions that assume an international classroom, for example, “What’s the most popular festival in your country?”

For a speaking activity to succeed, learners need to feel that they are saying something truly interesting that their partner doesn’t already know. In monolingual classes, this means choosing, writing, or adapting speaking activities so they are local, personal, or elicit differences. For example, the ineffective question above could be changed to:

  • What do you like about the New Year holiday? What don’t you like?
  • What’s your favorite holiday? Why? Is there a holiday you dislike? Why?
  • How does your family celebrate the New Year? Do you have any unusual traditions?

“I can’t explain it in English. Why can’t I just use my own language?”

This often happens when learners feel they have something interesting to say but lack the words to express their ideas, or don’t know how to pronounce them.

Before you set up a speaking activity, make sure students have the language they need to do it successfully and – just as importantly – feel confident with the pronunciation of that language. You could start by building up a list of relevant language on the board, for example, and practicing the pronunciation. (The Vocabulary Bank in American English File Second Edition is also a great reference for students to have nearby as they speak).

Also, it’s important to pre-teach not only topic-related vocabulary but also expressions for things like deciding whose turn it is, politely disagreeing, building consensus, adding a related point, and of course, describing something when you don’t know the word for it.

“It’s embarrassing to speak English with my peers.”

All learners need to overcome their fear of mistakes in order to succeed. This fear is often greater for learners in monolingual classrooms, perhaps because their speaking partner might be their friend, neighbor, or work colleague.

It’s essential to help students get over their fears and get them talking. Remind them that the only way they will ever learn to speak with fluency is through practice. It’s like learning to drive. You need hours of practice before you can drive confidently. If students are learning English in their own country, probably the only place where they can get effective face-to-face oral practice is in the classroom.

In addition, there are things teachers can do that will lessen the fear of making mistakes in any classroom, whether it is monolingual or multicultural. Let your learners know that the main goal of speaking activities is to build fluency and confidence rather than develop accuracy. Avoid correcting mistakes during speaking exercises unless communication completely breaks down and students need help getting the conversation started again. If a number of students are making the same sort of error, you might want to address that later, after the activity is over, without saying which people made the error.

To hear more from Mike on how to get students talking in the monolingual classroom, sign up for one of the following webinars:

  • 26 September 2013: 12:00 BST (07:00 New York / 08:00 Brazil / 20:00 Japan)
  • 27 September 2013: 16:00 BST (11:00 New York / 12:00 Brazil / 00:00 Japan)

Register for the webinar now!