The iELT Blog

News and views from iELT and friends

Embracing the L1: Getting your teens to speak more English in class – Part 1

We are often told during our initial teacher training courses that students are in class to learn English, therefore only English should be used in the class. In theory, this makes sense. The more exposure they have to the L2, the more likely they are to learn something, right? Many trainees arrive in a new country and don’t speak the local language so they are more than happy to go along with this, but in reality it’s not that simple.

I remember my first year teaching teens – it nearly put me off for life. Motivating my students was one of the biggest difficulties I faced as a new teacher. I would speak to them in English and they would reply in Spanish (or more likely Catalan, but at the time I couldn’t even tell the difference between the two). The more I tried to punish them for speaking their own language in class, the more I struggled to get them to speak English. It was all well and good being told to only use/allow the L2 in class, but without any training or experience, it’s extremely difficult to implement.

The first thing you need to consider is why your students are speaking their first language, or maybe more importantly, why they aren’t speaking English. The list is potentially endless, but after speaking to the teens at my school I came up with the following Thirteen Reasons Why:

  1. They don’t understand why they are doing the activity
  2. The activities are too easy or too hard
  3. The instructions are not clear
  4. They don’t understand a particular word or sentence
  5. The class is boring and not relevant to their lives
  6. They are excited
  7. They are tired
  8. The teacher doesn’t understand the L1
  9. The teacher speaks to them in the L1
  10. They have lots of other stuff on their minds
  11. It’s easier to speak in L1, especially when they are used to speaking to each other in this language
  12. They are lazy (let’s face it, we were all teens once!)
  13. They don’t like being told not to do something

Basically, there are loads of reasons why your teens aren’t using English, so don’t take it personally. Here are some things you can do to increase L2 production in your classroom.

Make sure they know when they can or can’t use L1, BUT DON’T BAN IT! 

I came across the following quote from Nayr Ibrahim’s talk at the IH conference in Barcelona in 2017:

To reject a child’s language in the school is to reject the child. When the message, implicit or explicit, communicated to children in the school is Leave your language and culture at the schoolhouse door, children also leave a central part of who they are – their identities – at the schoolhouse door. When they feel this rejection, they are much less likely to participate actively and confidently in classroom instruction. (Cummins, 2001, p. 19).

When it comes down to it, certain activities require the L2 (speaking, listening, fluency activities), but in other cases, like writing activities, occasional speaking in the L1 is unlikely to do any harm. Make sure they know when should be speaking English. Try drawing up a class contract at the beginning of term or having a flag system (thanks for this Sinead) where your local flag (or one from any English speaking country) means they should try to speak English and their local flag (or one designed by the class if there are potential political conflicts) means they can use their L1. This is much more effective than simply banning it.

Support them – use scaffolding, examples, models etc.

 It’s all very well telling someone to “speak English” but if you haven’t given them the tools to do so, they are going to struggle and resort to their L1. Always give lots of relevant examples, explore the relevant vocabulary before you start, choose stronger students to model the answer for you or even record yourself doing the activity so they have something to aim for. Think about the instructions and how you’ve scaffolded the task in order to make it more achievable.

Give them a reason to use L2 by making English relevant to their lives

 Course books are notoriously dry, so it’s up to you to make sure what you are doing in class is as relevant and interesting as possible. The more interested they are in what they are doing the more likely they are to make an effort to do it well. Instead of using pictures from the books for the speaking part of the Cambridge First exam, get them to find pictures on their mobiles you can use. Also, if they don’t think there is any point to the activity they won’t try their best, so always explain the reason behind why you are doing it and how it will benefit them directly.

Build rapport by showing interest in their language and culture

 Sometimes simply showing an interest in a student’s own language or culture can really help build a positive atmosphere in the class. Having recently learnt Catalan, my students absolutely love it when I drop in the occasionally badly pronounced word. It helps them see you as a human being and not just a teacher. Remind them how much better they are at English than you are at their L1. This can do wonders for their confidence and help you win them over.

Reward them (instead of punishing them)

 After years of empty threats about calling parents and giving them boring work to do, I realised I was approaching L1 use the wrong way. By focusing on the positives and giving students incentives to speak English, I found my activities to be much more effective. Spend time drawing attention to good examples of English being used in class. Give out homework passes to anyone who only speaks English when they are expected to. Reward them with fun activities like Kahoot or Lyrics Training.

Give them a break

It’s exhausting speaking a second language for an hour and a half. Reflecting on my experience learning Spanish and the amount of time I’d resort to English has made me realise that students simply need a break. Try giving them a set amount of time in the middle of the class (this works best if you get the students to time themselves) where they can chat about whatever they want in whatever language they choose.

 Incorporate translation activities

 Although translation in the classroom is often frowned upon and can actually be detrimental for the students if overused, the odd translation activity can be really fun and motivating for your students. Not only does it allow you to explore typical errors such as false friends, it can help students learn to say the same thing in a different way, which is something really useful in a writing exam. What’s more, translation is something which students will naturally do all the time, and by training them to translate the meaning of a sentence or paragraph instead of word for word, they are going to be better equipped to survive in a world where English is, for now, still king.

 So, don’t wait any longer, give some of these things a try and let me know how it goes. And remember, as a wise English teacher once told me:

 “Our job is not to stop them speaking the L1. Our job is to help them to speak English.” – Ross Thorburn.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article where I’ll be sharing some fun translation activities which you can use in your classes.

Further reading

Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education? – Jim


 English Next – David Graddol, British Council

 S is for Scaffolding – Scott Thornbury

Thirteen Reasons Why: a vocabulary lesson – Beatriz Solino

Top Tips for motivating Teens – Dan Shepherd

Translation activities in the language classroom – Paul Kaye

This post was originally published on 25th May by Dan Shepherd here.

Leave a Reply