- On 10 December 2021
- Tags TEFL Florence
Teach without using (or by minimizing) use of L1
Sometimes I think back to when I was in high school and taking the mandatory two years of foreign language that my school required. I enrolled in a Spanish class, and after taking two whole years of daily classes, I now remember very little of what I learned. I also remember how infrequently my teacher spoke Spanish. I think she spoke English with us at least 75% of the time!
At Via Lingua, our trainees learn the communicative instructional method. One of the characteristics of this method is the fact that we use English 100% of the time in our lessons. Although knowing a foreign language is very helpful for adapting to and integrating in a new country, it is completely feasible to teach English as a Foreign Language without knowing the L1 of your students and by using just English.
First of all, what is an L1? L1 is your first language. Whatever your native language is, the language you grew up learning and speaking, your mother tongue: this is your L1. You are a native speaker of that language. Language learners can also have an L2, or even an L3, and so on. These are languages that they have learned after their native language, a language that would be considered a “foreign language” to them.
Why is it important to teach in the language that your student is learning? Well, remember my Spanish learning experience? After two years of study, even back then I hardly considered Spanish my L2, or even a language that I comprehended well. At Via Lingua, we believe that you can provide more than that for your students! As English teachers, we want our students to be functional and confident users of the English language. The more that you use, or make space for your students to use, their L1, the fewer opportunities you have to use and practice the language that they are here to learn. We want students to grow in their new language, and the experience is a bit like muscle training for the brain: the more students practice with it, use it, and think in it, the more natural it will be for them. So how can it be done?
First, clarify that this space is for “English Only.” Encourage students to restate their ideas in English if they are using another language. Respond to students in English as well; create the habit that you only speak English. Even if you do know their native language, don’t engage with that language in the classroom. Once students get used to the idea that they can speak to you in their L1, they will become less motivated to try it in English. However, it’s not a bad idea to be equipped with at least a few words or phrases in their native language in case they need something important or there is an urgency.
Maybe this sounds challenging, but it will go a lot smoother if you get your students to a minimal communicative level. Imagine the conversation or lesson you want to have, and then think backwards to what you need to provide them with to get there. Start by focusing more on vocabulary than grammar. For example, you may need to teach words like “yesterday” or “the day before yesterday” before teaching the past simple if you want to ask students about their weekend. Fluency and accuracy are important, but if you want students to feel comfortable enough to express themselves so you can correct their accuracy, you need to give them the words to do so.
This minimal communicative level covers a lot of areas. Make sure that students have the language they need for “Classroom English” (names of supplies, directions like “turn to page 20,” or questions like “Can I use the restroom?) Be sure to give students functional language before a task. Playing a board game? Make sure they know how to say “pass the dice” or “your turn.” Doing a debate? Polite phrases like “I’m not sure I agree” will be crucial. You can teach these phrases explicitly, or read a dialogue/role play before students try to exchange the information for their own.
In addition to what language you teach, the way you teach is also essential. Control the speed of your speech, and write what you’re saying to help students remember it. Use pictures to support a topic or to set up a scenario, and bring in realia when possible. Then, repeat and review often!
Even if your focus is to help students improve their spoken skills, we can’t just jump to natural speaking right away. Oftentimes “free talk” opportunities fall back into usage of L1 too easily. Start with controlled speaking practice, like storytelling with images or dice, describing pictures, etc.
To teach speaking skills, it’s not enough to just talk, either. Incorporate a variety of skills in your lessons. Listening and reading also boost confidence with the language and build a student’s repertoire of words to use when speaking and give them an idea of how it should sound before trying it themselves.
Finally, remember that you bring the energy! Smile and be calm with your students. Many students resort to using the L1 because they are nervous to use English. Confidence is as important as their concrete language knowledge. If students feel safe and comfortable to try, and even make mistakes, that’s a critical foundation to creating a functional, English friendly environment.