Reducing L1 in the English classroom
L1 vs. L2 in the classroom
Should there be L1 in the English classroom? It’s an age-old debate. Deller (2003) believes that it is useful for students to use L1 in the classroom in order to notice differences between English and their mother tongue. Of course, there are still the fans of grammar translation out there who believe that there is definitely a place for L1 in the classroom. Harmer (2007) states that translation activities help by ‘making a virtue out of the students’ natural language-processing behaviour’. Harmer (2007) also implies that teachers can use it to explain the language, conduct a needs’ analysis or even help to build the rapport with the students.
The benefits of using L2
Yes, L1 may appear to have some benefits. However, surely it is counter-productive to use L1 in the classroom when the number one goal is to encourage our students to talk in English? Students should be exposed to English at every given opportunity. At International House Toruń, we literally immerse our students in English. At every level we discourage the use of L1 and fully promote English. From the moment they enter the classroom, they know it is an Englishonly speaking area. Of course, we are not banning L1 completely, as sometimes it may be necessary for the students to resort occasionally to the target language in Polish for reassurance. However, it is essential that at least 97% of the lesson is conducted only in English. After all, a communicative activity is rendered completely void if the students are chatting in L1 as opposed to L2, whilst for the most part, it is far more beneficial for the students to work out the meaning of the language from context as opposed to relying on translation.
It’s all the teacher’s fault!
If there is too much L1 in the classroom, the majority of times it’s actually the teacher’s fault. If there are poor instructions or an activity was poorly set up, students may be unsure what to do and, therefore, resort to L1 for clarification. If an activity drags for too long, early finishers will often resort to L1 as they have nothing else to do. It is the latter form of L1; the chit-chat about the latest football results or gossip about their private life that we want to try and banish from the English classroom. So how do we go about getting a room full of Polish students to use L2 constantly for over an hour and a half? It’s not an easy task, considering that it is so unnatural for the students. It’s also far more challenging for them. However, it is this latter aspect that the teacher should focus on. If a student spends a considerable amount of time speaking in English, they will feel like they have overcome a huge challenge and the sense of achievement will be commendable. Obeso (2014) states that ‘a class given in the mother tongue is an utter waste of energy and time’. She goes on further to say that teachers should literally ‘raise the bar and offer them challenges’. However, no matter how stimulating, the challenge is not enough on its own. There need to be more strategies as well to really help motivate the students. A simple case of the teacher constantly stating not to speak in Polish and speak English is insufficient. In fact, the more the teacher repeats this, the more the students will counter-attack it and speak more L1. Thus, it becomes a vicious circle.
Measures to reduce L1
Countless measures have been employed to try and reduce L1 usage. One strategy that a teacher recommended to me years ago was that for every word the student utters in Polish, the teacher
draws a strike on the board. Each strike represents a certain number of words (e.g., 1 strike = 20 words). At the end of the lesson, the whole class is punished by doing an extra writing task with the given word limit (in correlation to the number of strikes) about a random topic. Whilst effective in the short term, this technique is misguided as it promotes writing in a negative way. In fact the very term ‘punishment’ should never be allowed.
The Point Slider
In order to reduce L1 in the classroom, we need to literally dangle a carrot in front of the students; or in this case dangle some pizza! At International House Toruń we have successfully adopted the Point Slider method with all our teen classes as well as exam and some adult groups. The idea is simple. At the start of each lesson the point slider (a scale from 100 down to zero) is displayed on the board starting at 50. For good use of English and outstanding work the point slider goes up by 5 points. Similarly for use of L1, bad behaviour (in YL classrooms), lack of homework, etc., the point slider is lowered by 5 points. The classes compete against each other (depending on levels) and after every 20 lessons, the class with the most points wins some pizza!
The P Card
Another strategy is the simple yet effective ‘P Card’. If the teacher hears a student speak in L1 they are given the ‘P Card’. This student then passively listens for other students speaking in L1. If they do hear someone, they pass the card over to that student. The student with the card at the end of the lesson has to do a forfeit, pre-written by the class at the beginning of the year. Examples of past forfeits have been to sing like Justin Bieber or touch the ceiling. As each forfeit was generated by the students, it is a more personalized and fun approach to helping reduce L1 in the classroom.
These two methods do work significantly. Students certainly feel like they have achieved something by constantly speaking and being immersed in English. In fact, last week one of my students (a 12 year old girl) exclaimed that whenever she returns home after a lesson, she is still thinking and speaking in English and her parents are really proud of her. That surely says it all!
Deller, S. 2003, The Language of the Learner,English Teaching Professional 26.
Harmer, J. 2007, The Practice of English Language Teaching, Pearson Longman.
Obeso, A. 2014, The use of L1 in the L2 class, The Teacher’s Magazine 58.