How Much Is Too Much (or Not Enough): How to Balance the Use of English and L1 in the Classroom

How Much Is Too Much (or Not Enough)
How to Balance the Use of English and L1 in the Classroom

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 7,570 views |

Teaching English as a second language creates a bit of a paradox.

Your target is for students to understand and use the English language. However, the biggest tool in your bag to teach them is also the English language. This can put English teachers and students between a rock and a hard place. How can students learn English if you must use English to teach them?

Let me tell you from experience. It’s not impossible to learn a foreign language in an immersion classroom. It happens all the time when babies learn to speak their first languages and students travel overseas or enter English speaking schools. But that doesn’t mean you have to force immersion in your classroom. In fact, sometimes using students’ native languages in class to teach English can be a good thing. The real challenge, however, if finding the right balance between using English and using students’ L1 or first language. If you can find the line and then walk it, your students can learn English even more effectively than they can without their first language.

If you can find the line and then walk it, your students can learn English even more effectively than they can without their first language.

3 Ideas to Balance the Use of English and L1 in the Classroom

  1. 1

    Advantages to Using L1 in the Classroom

    It’s tempting for many ESL teachers to declare their classroom an English only zone – no ifs ands or buts. But there are advantages to using your students’ L1 in the classroom.

    • You may be able to explain concepts better and your students may be able to understand them better when you give the explanations in their first language. When you teach in L1, the language used in the lesson is not a barrier to understanding the rule or theory behind the English language pattern.
    • Even if you don’t speak your students’ first language, you can still use their L1 to help them understand what you are teaching. By letting students explain confusing points to each other in their first language, they may be able to clear up confusion that you cannot.
    • If you speak your students’ first language, you can use examples from that language to illustrate your explanations in English. Sometimes students will understand English grammar better when they can see its equivalent in their first language.
    • Sometimes just a little use of your students’ first language will go a long way to alleviating stress and anxiety among your students. When used in the right measure, their L1 can actually free them to speak in English more.
  2. 2

    Disadvantages to Using L1 in the Classroom

    Using L1 in the classroom can be a slippery slope, however. Here are some of the disadvantages to allowing students’ first language in class.

    • Students may unintentionally use their first language to communicate when they could easily use English.
    • Students may revert to speaking their first language even though they are capable of expressing their ideas in English.
    • While students may be able to give the correct answers on tests, they may not develop the right pathways in the brain connecting language and ideas. If students link their ideas to their first language and then to English, they will not have the fluency and acquisition they would have if they link their ideas directly to English words.
  3. 3

    Tips for Balancing L1 in the Classroom

    Like anything, the best option is to find a balance between two good options, in this case using L1 and having an English only classroom. Here are some tips you can use to find that fine line and walk it.

    1. When you teach, give your lesson in English. You may be surprised at how much your students are able to understand. Only explain things in their first language if they cannot understand what you are explaining in English after multiple attempts.
    2. Require students to use English for anything you have taught in class. That means if you have already taught them the past tense, you should require students to speak in English when they talk about what they did over the weekend. This includes their interactions with each other, though it will take some policing on your part.
    3. Be consistent in your expectations. If you have said students must use English is a particular situation, for example asking to use the bathroom, then require it every time. Don’t let students by with using their first language in those situations. Consistency is key in keeping your students speaking English.
    4. To decrease the amount of L1 your students use, designate specific times in your classroom that are English only. You might do this for the first ten minutes of class or the final ten minutes. Whenever these times are, make sure your students are only speaking English and then take a few minutes to debrief in their first language afterwards if necessary.
    5. Students who lack confidence in their abilities to speak English may be using their L1 out of fear. If you have students who might fit this pattern, be sure to give them English only tasks that they can be successful with and that will build their confidence before moving on to more difficult English only activities.
    6. If you find your students are using their first language to ask or say things that come up often in the classroom, take time out of your curriculum to address these areas. If necessary, take an entire class period to teach common phrases in English like how to ask to use the bathroom or water fountain and other phrases they need to go about normal classroom business.
    7. No matter how much L1 you allow in the classroom at the beginning of the school year, your students should be using less by the end of yearly classes. In fact, you should expect the amount of L1 use to go consistently down throughout the year. It’s also true that advanced students should use less L1 than beginning students. Make sure the amount of L1 used in your classroom follows these patterns. If it doesn’t, you may need to reassess your classroom rules about the use of first languages.

Every class and every teacher will have a different perfect balance between using L1 in the classroom and requiring English only.

If you are diligent about looking for that perfect balance and you keep these tips in mind, you are sure to find it. Then your only challenge is to walk that thin line.

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