"I teach English to absolute beginners (4th to 6th graders) who live in a society in which English is rarely used, which means they only encounter the language in their English classes. I’m having a very hard time minimizing the use of Arabic when giving the simplest instructions. I think the best way for them to learn English is by expanding their exposure to it despite their busy schedule during the school day. I could use some suggestions!"
If you teach English in a country that is not English-speaking, you have your work cut out for you.
Why am I saying this? When ESL students learn English in an English-speaking country, the environment conspires to help them learn and think in English. They’re immersed in the language. But for those of us who teach students who hear and speak their native language all day, it’s a challenge. Challenge accepted!
Here’s how you can minimize the use of L1 and make sure they’re practicing the use of L2 as much as they can.
4 Ways to Get ESL Students to Speak Less of Their Native Language
Lead by Example
The first step towards getting your ESL students to speak less of their native language is for you to speak it less. I know. It’s easier said than done, particularly when you have absolute beginners, but consider this: if some ESL teachers teach students, whose native language they don’t speak at all, then it stands to reason you can avoid speaking it, too.
For years, I have taught Japanese beginners, and I don’t speak a word of Japanese. How do we manage? I won’t lie to you. It’s very hard at times, but we always manage to sort out the instructions and the misunderstandings. It’s also a lot more fun than you think!
What happens if you do speak your students’ native language – fluently? I act like I don’t. I don’t lie to them, of course. But I speak English all the time, from the start, and by the time they find out I do speak their language, they are very surprised! The second you give in and give instructions or translate something in their language, you leave the door wide open for them to speak more of it and less English.
Incentives are great ways to keep students in line and focused on using only English. Now the type of incentive you use depends on the type of students you have. Stickers and stamps work great with young learners. You can use Happy Dollars they can trade for things like extra games, a movie, a special holiday party, etc…
Make it a Rule – Tell Them They Can’t
This may sound a little too harsh, but for older students, you can simply make it a classroom rule. Which means that if they speak L1, they are breaking a rule. I used to have a chart where I recorded the number of times each student spoke L1 as “strikes”. Three strikes, and you’re out! The students may lose a privilege, like the ability to pick a game, suggest an activity or choose a movie to watch. Naturally, there will be times when they will desperately need to use L1 to communicate, especially if they’re absolute beginners. Hand out L1 coupons. Each student is given three coupons per day (or per week, if they’re not beginners). If a student wants to say/ask something in L1, they wave their coupon indicating they’d like to use it. This way, you’re allowing them to speak L1, but you’re also minimizing its use in the classroom. As they have a limited number of coupons, when they decide to use L1, they will make it count.
There is a special key word in the above paragraph and that word is minimize. Of course, there are times when it will be impossible for you to eliminate L1 completely. But there’s nothing to stop you from minimizing its use. Your students may not get many chances to practice their English outside the classroom, but you can control the amount of practice they get in your class. If they manage to speak English for the duration of your class, you can be confident it will help them improve their fluency.
If you have any other tips for minimizing L1 in the ESL classroom, by all means, share them below!