The ESL maxim has always been English only in the classroom, but our practice is rarely so pure or so indiscriminate.  Over my years of teaching and reading research, I’ve come to understand why being an English-only purist in the classroom is not always the most effective approach.

The Research

Let’s begin with the research.  Studies have found that:

“In mixed-level classes, less advanced students might fall behind if only the second language is used (Schmidt, 1995).

When possible, teachers may use learners’ native language to clarify instructions so that all students remain engaged. Additionally, teachers may ask one student to help another student who speaks the same language so that students can negotiate meaning together (Condelli, Wrigley, Yoon, Cronen, & Seburn, 2003; Wrigley, 2003).”

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In an interview with NCSALL Basics, Heide Spruck Wrigley elaborated on this second point.

“The classes where the teacher used the native language here and there had higher gains. This makes sense, particularly for literacy students who had little English, because their brains are busy trying to speak, to figure out print, to understand what the teacher wants, all while dealing with a new language and a new culture. Many of the students had not been in a classroom since they were small children, so school tasks were new to them as well. In these cases, where you are cognitively taxed to your fullest extent, if someone comes in and explains it to you, it really frees up mental space to focus on the task itself. In ESOL classes that are all in English, so much of students’ time and energy is spent trying to figure out what it is the teacher wants them to do. Once the instructions are clear, the task becomes manageable.”

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Over the years I have arrived at the following teaching principle: The native language is an asset when it is used to learn English.  For example: when a student asks his classmate in Spanish about the meaning of a word, he is still learning English, but when he with his classmate chat in Spanish about weekend plans, they spoil an opportunity to learn English. When two students converse in Chinese to clarify the teacher’s directions they enhance their performance of the task, but when they together translate the whole of a text so they may answer comprehension question more easily, they are impeding their learning.

 

Getting Students to Speak English in Class

As a teacher, you can pay attention to how students are using their native language and try to channel those activities into English by providing language support and structured learning opportunities.  The two guiding questions are: Why are the students speaking in their native language?  How can I get them to channel that communication into English?

Small Talk

It’s natural to use a native language with your compatriots; the common language is a sign of membership, but speaking the native language socially in class defeats the purpose of the English class.  So how do you get students to use English to connect socially?   Encourage and structure social interaction in class.  Here are some ideas.

Encourage Mingling

Cliques based on language background form quickly.  Make sure everyone in your class knows everyone’s name and has spoken in English with everyone. Use name cards to mix up the usual seating arrangements or just pass out the name cards willy-nilly and have students find the person to whom the name card belongs.

Conversation Cards

At the beginning of class, give students a few moments to connect with one another socially in English.  Provide small-talk questions on cards or on the board and have students in pairs take turns asking /answering the questions.  Some example questions:

  • How are you today?  How is your family?
  • How was your weekend?  Did you do anything special?
  • What are your plans for next weekend?  Are you doing anything special?

Develop an Inventory of Small-talk Gambits

Keep a running list on the wall of small-talk vocabulary, phrases, and gambits.  During class, if you hear students speaking their native language for small talk, just ask “How would you say that in English?” If the student doesn’t know, engage more speakers of the same language to get to the meaning and add that sentence to the list of small-talk gambits.  Then invite everyone to use the new phrase in conversation with a partner. This reminds everyone to try to speak English and provides a learning moment for all.

Role Plays

Have students choose 3-5 gambits or phrases from the Classroom English list and write a conversation incorporating those gambits.  Students can perform their exchange for the class or hand it in for your feedback.

Classroom English

Often students use L1 because they do not have the language they need in English to perform the learning task.  They don’t know “classroom English”.  Teach this special kind of English explicitly and encourage students to practice it every class.

Classroom English Placards

Identify common classroom questions and gambits and write them on large cards (placards).  Practice the phrases chorally with the class.  Hand out the placards and tell students they must use the language on the placard sometime during class.  Once a student has uttered the phrase on the card, she can hand the card back to you.  Big cards (placards) are more effective because their size and awkwardness force students to pay attention to the language and use it.  Students are motivated to complete the task. Classroom language:

Homework:  Did you do the homework?  What page is it?   What is your answer for number 3? I have a different answer.

Group work:  What do we need to do?  Who goes first?  It’s your turn.   See my list of language for working in teams https://teachertwoteacher.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/language-for-working-in-teams/

Develop an Inventory of Classroom English

Keep a running list on the wall of classroom English.  During class, if you hear students speaking their native language for logistics, just ask “How would you say that in English?” If the student doesn’t know, engage more speakers of the same language to get to the meaning and add that sentence to your list of Classroom English.  Then invite everyone to chorally repeat the new phrase.

Role Plays

Have students choose 3-5 gambits or phrases from the Classroom English list and write a conversation incorporating those gambits.  Students can perform their exchange for the class or hand it in for your feedback.

Dictations

Occasionally dictate your directions to the class so students come to know directional language well.

Audio Record and Take Notes

Have students record themselves briefly while they are working in groups and then listen to the recording to identify and transcribe all the “Classroom English”.  They can submit this list to you for your corrections.

 

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