A well balanced use of L1 in class

Summary: Using students' first languages in the classroom

Whether it is better to use the students' first language (L1) in class or have an English-only policy is something that has been much debated and that has seen many changes of fashion over the years. It seems, therefore, that the only sensible reaction an individual teacher can take to this controversial subject is to neither accept nor reject the use of L1, but simply to search for an ideal level of its use in each individual class- maybe changing its use as the class progresses in level or changes in other ways. Here are some tips to help you spot if you have found your own perfect level of L1 use in your classes and how to adjust the level if you haven't reached that point yet.


Possible signs that there is too much L1 in your classroom

  • 1. People say things in L1 that they could say in English
  • 2. The use of L1 means that students get less practice of English
  • 3. There is lots of use of L1 without any clear purpose
  • 4. Students use L1 because they are convinced they cannot communicate most of what they want to say in English
  • 5. The amount of L1 is going up as the term progresses rather than going down as students' level improves
  • 6. Students saying the same thing in L1 in class all the time does not result in them being taught to say those things in English
  • 7. Students use L1 even to say things that have been studied recently or the target language for this lesson
  • 8. You don't respond to L1 use in any way
  • 9. Most of the student talking time is in L1
  • 10. Most of the teacher talking time is in L1
  • 11. Students who leave your class and join an English-only class cannot cope in the new class
  • 12. Students in one class need to be ready to study in an English only class, e.g. to study in a university abroad, but there is the same amount of L1 as in your other classes
  • 13. The teacher uses L1 because he or she doesn't know how to say something in English or lacks confidence
  • 14. When translating, the class end up discussing the grammar etc of L1 when they could be more usefully discussing English
  • 15. Students don't listen to explanations in English because they know that it is always followed by an explanation in L1 or they can always ask for one
  • 16. Students can't cope with explanations in English because they are only used to listening to them in L1
  • 17. Students don't know common classroom language in English like "How do you spell...?" and the names of classroom objects because they always ask those things in L1
  • 18. Students find doing textbook listenings a shock because most of the class up to the point when the recording starts has been in L1
  • 19. Well over 20% of all the speaking in class is in L1
  • 20. You rarely have English-only periods in class
  • 21. Having English only periods in class doesn't work because students are too used to being able to resort to L1
  • 22. Some students complain that the other students speak too much L1
  • 23. The constant chatter of other people speaking in L1 means people can't concentrate on what they are doing in English
  • 24. More control of when they can speak L1 would make it easier to keep discipline
  • 25. Students who were trying very hard to speak English as often as they could at the beginning of the course give up and speak mainly L1 like the rest of the class
  • 26. The students think it is strange or amusing to ask the teacher a question about the language in English
  • 27. The teacher and the students never end up using the English "incidental language" (e.g. "It's your turn") described in the teacher's book, in the box by the side of a speaking task or in the instructions for a photocopiable activity
  • 28. You often have to change the lesson plans in the teacher's book etc because it is designed for an English-only class
  • 29. You or the students often break the school rule on L1 use in class
  • 30. If you don't tell students whether they can use L1 or not, they always assume they can


Possible signs that you could usefully have more L1 in your classroom

  • 1. Never being able to speak in L1 makes the students stressed and unhappy
  • 2. Not being able to speak in L1 leads to long periods of silence, and those periods do not get shorter as the term progresses, rather than use of English
  • 3. The time saved from using L1 rather than English to explain something could lead to a substantial increase in the amount of time you could spend on more useful language, e.g. in a short course with very specific needs
  • 4. The language the students would need to be able to take part in a grammar elicitation etc successfully is well above their present level
  • 5. Simplifying what you are saying to the level that students could understand in English would lead to you saying something that is not a good explanation, e.g. an oversimplified grammar explanation that does not hold true for all the situations in the book
  • 6. You never use L1 to save classroom time
  • 7. Students are still not understanding explanations of vocabulary, grammar rules, game instructions etc even after lots of explanation in English
  • 8. You never use L1 to make explanations clearer
  • 9. Students complain that they often don't understand things in class
  • 10. Using L1 to explain some language would make the explanation more memorable
  • 11. You are only avoiding using your students' language in class because you are not confident in your own mastery of it
  • 12. You could usefully compare and contrast a false friend or similar looking grammatical structure in English and L1
  • 13. You have never experimented with the use of L1
  • 14. Students often give up when trying to explain something to you or ask a question about English
  • 15. There are useful tips that you could give your students about the EFL exam they are taking etc but are prevented from giving them because they can't understand the tips in English
  • 16. You often don't try what seems like good teaching ideas because they involve translation or because you would need to explain something in L1


Other signs that you might not have the balance of L1 use in class right

  • 1. The use of L1 is the same in all your classes
  • 2. How much L1 you use in class has not changed over the years
  • 3. The amount of L1 you use in a particular class has not changed as their level has changed or due to other changes such as the students becoming more mature
  • 4. You have never experimented with changing the amount of L1
  • 5. You don't tell students when they can and can't use L1
  • 6. The amount of L1 varies randomly from class to class, not due to any decision or planning on your part


Ways of making sure you use the right amount of L1 in class

  • 1. Teach your students useful classroom language they can use in English to ask for translations etc, e.g. "How do you say... in English?" If necessary have a whole lesson or a regular class slot on that kind of language.
  • 2. Mark clearly on your lesson plan each point that only English or English and L1 can be used
  • 3. Set yourself a target for the percentage of teacher talking time and student talking time that should be in English in each class and by the end of the course
  • 4. Count what percentage of the stages in the class are English-only on your lesson plan and then at the end of the lesson see what percentage there really was, and see if that matches what you think is acceptable
  • 5. Tell students at each point whether L1 can be used or not
  • 6. Introduce a system of points, red and yellow cards etc during English-only periods to stop students using L1
  • 7. Write all instructions and explanation language down on your lesson plan in English so that you can check it is easy enough to understand and so that you can use English only when giving instructions and explanations
  • 8. Check at the end of the lesson which instructions and explanation language in English you actually used and which language needs further explanation in English or L1

Copyright © 2008

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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