L1 use in the young learner classroom - attitudes, reflections, resolutions

Do you use L1 in the classroom? Do your students? How do you feel about it? How do your students feel about it? These are questions that have been asked time and again throughout my teaching career. In fact, at the beginning of my career the most frequently asked question was probably, “How do you stop your students from speaking in L1?!” I have become increasing interested in these questions and recently I decided to delve a little deeper. Firstly, by reflecting on my own teaching practice and the children I have worked with, secondly by asking my teaching community about their experiences, and lastly by investigating current research into the topic.

In this article, I will share with you my reflections, and I hope (like me), you’ll feel more confident and secure in your own approach to L1 use in your EFL/ESL young learner context. I’ll briefly go into attitudes around the topic, summarise current trends, describe some of the techniques and activities I’ve tried, and share with you my planned experiments for the future. Maybe you’d like to try them too?!

Attitudes towards teacher L1 use in the EFL young learner classroom

In my conversations with colleagues and in my reading around the topic, there seems to be a certain ambivalence towards the teacher using L1. While a lot of teachers are now positive about using L1 in certain circumstances, there still seems to be a hangover from the “English only” ideology that most of us received on our teacher training courses. This is something which was also clear from Fallas-Escobar’s study into attitudes around translanguaging (2020).

Situations where teacher L1 use was sometimes seen as useful

  • Giving instructions – Saves time setting up activities to give more time to language practice stages.
  • Exploiting cognates – Helps learners see the relationship between same and similar words in their L1 and English.
  • Building rapport – Helps develop relationships and to give comfort where needed.
  • Grammar / vocabulary explanations – Helps learners understand meaning efficiently.
  • Classroom management – Troubleshooting problematic behaviour situations and/or organising students quickly.
  • Sharing objectives and reasons – Having conversations with students about the what and the why of what they’re doing. A mini-focus on macro skills.

Reasons given for why teacher L1 use should be avoided

  • Exposure to English – Students have a limited amount of dedicated English class time and they need to hear as much English as possible.
  • Building confidence with not understanding everything – Children are more tolerant of ambiguity and don’t need to understand everything. They will be more confident English speakers in the future.
  • School policies – Some schools have an ‘English only’ policy and the teacher would be criticised.
  • Parent expectations – The families of the students have been sold on the idea that their teacher will only use English and that this is the best way for them to learn.
  • Negative impact on learning – It could lead to over-reliance on L1 and mean that progress is slower.

It seems to me that a lot of the situations where L1 is considered potentially useful are still entrenched in the notion that L1 doesn’t truly belong in the English classroom. The reasons for L1 use for instructions, explanations and management, are efficiency. It is useful, but only so as to quickly get on with the task in hand. In this way, L1 use isn’t really being valued as a tool to enhance language learning, only to make more room for it.

Having said that, I think these attitudes are in a period of transition. My colleagues over in the TEFL Development Hub have been engaging in important discussions around this topic. This type of critical stance towards the premises on which our teaching practice is based has been very useful.

Further reading from experienced teachers on their attitudes to L1 use: Michaela Carey has an interesting article on her principaled use of L1. Annie Altamarino also has an excellent post exploring the advantages and disadvantages.

Attitudes towards student L1 use in the EFL young learner classroom

text in speech bubbles: only english, using L1 is natural, It's ok, but only a little

Attitudes and beliefs around students using L1 vary considerably. Over my years of teaching in Spain, Argentina, South Korea and the UK, I’ve had several conversations with teachers on this topic. More recently, I’ve asked a wider variety of teachers outwith my immediate contexts about their attitudes. There seem to be different opinions depending on the age and level of the learners. In general, most teachers accept that the younger the student and the lower the level, the more L1 is tolerated. ‘Tolerated’ seems to be the key word. The other main thread that came through was that we need to encourage use of English as much as possible, and try to keep students away from relying on L1. Like me, a lot of teachers admit to trying to insist on ‘English only’ policies in the early days, but now think that was not always the right approach with kids.

Many teachers recognised that finding translations or connections with L1 in our heads is a natural process and it happens whether we voice it or not. However, the general consensus seems to be that we need to encourage maximum English use and L1 should be avoided as much as possible. Again, apart from some comparative analysis and translation activities with teens and adults, student L1 use is not usually valued as a tool to learn English for young learners. The two (or more) languages are still thought of as being assigned to two separate compartments in the brain, and only one of them should be out of the box at a time.

So, where does that leave very young learners and lower primary students? What shape and form does encouraging English use mean? Can L1 be used effectively to help kids learn English more successfully? Thanks to some helpful colleagues, I started investigating a bit more about translanguaging…

What is translanguaging and how could it change my teaching practice?

Image of lots of electrical pulses feeding a central source
Image from halgatewood.com

Definitions and conceptions of translanguaging can be confusing. However, I think the most useful and helpful for us English teachers is this: the use of all language resources in order to achieve the objective of learning a new language (Hall, 2020). This reflects a more holistic view of how we learn and process languages to create meaning. Rather than putting languages in their separate compartments, where they don’t (and shouldn’t) interact, there is growing evidence to support the idea that we actually learn better when we can draw on our full repertoire and knowledge of the world (Goodman & Tastanbek, 2021). So instead of seeing other languages as a hindrance in the classroom, we are beginning to see them as genuinely helpful. According to Hall (2020), the inclusion of translanguaging approaches can help students make more meaningful connections between the English they are working on in the classroom, and their experience of the world outside it. This seems to make sense to me.

I believe that this is something which might happen naturally in a CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) or STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Maths) setting, but is something that is still developing within mainstream EFL. In Cook and Hall’s research (Cook & Hall, as cited in Hall, 2020), they found that the trend is moving towards a greater acceptance of other languages in the English classroom, but this is more marked in state schools, compared with private language schools. Given the push towards bilingual education in many parts of the world, this seems to make sense.

For more information about what translanguaging is and some ideas for different ways it can be implemented, have a look at these very helpful posts:

How have I approached L1 use in my classes in the past?

Well, I have to admit that I am only now starting to consider how I can use it as a valuable learning tool. In my preschool classes, I haven’t insisted on ‘English only’ from them, but I have mostly avoided using their L1 in my teacher talk. In my primary classes, like many teachers, I have used a plethora of techniques to try to keep my classes in English as much as possible. In my attempts to encourage English use, I have sometimes inadvertently demonized L1. These are some of the techniques I’ve used in the past, and my reflections on their usefulness:

A list of all the techniques described in this section

Points systems / Monster sticker charts

In terms of keeping the level of Spanish used low, they worked and made classroom management easier in a way, but only in the beginning. After a while, the kids either stopped caring, or complained. Another thing was that I found I had created a bunch of ‘tell-tales’ who would constantly report the Spanish use of their classmates! More than anything though, I found I was shutting down potentially interesting conversations too often.

The English box

This was a box that could either be ticked ‘on’ or ‘off’, so I wasn’t insisting on English at all times from the students. I found that it was left ‘on’ most of the time, and I was still using it in conjunction with a points system, so the same issues remained. It was also in my, rather than the students’, control.

The English challenge

This was more successful in encouraging English use, because it was in the hands of the students. We would negotiate a time limit for how long we would try to keep in English (usually 5 minutes at a time). One student would have a timer and they would be the designated ‘English monitor’. After the time limit was up, the monitor would say whether we had succeeded or not. If we had kept in English, they could draw a smiley face on the board. 3 faces by the end of the class, meant we won a sticker on our English chart for that day. It worked in terms of getting students to reflect a little more consciously on their language use, and it was a celebration when they realised that they could communicate with limited English and other gestures and paralinguistic tools. With lower primary students though, it sometimes felt a bit cruel when they didn’t succeed. They simply got excited and wanted to express themselves, so they were still being ‘punished’ in a way!

“Can I speak Spanish?”

Students ask permission when they want to use their L1 to communicate something. I would ask them to try in English first, but then usually let them speak in Spanish if I felt they couldn’t relay what they needed to say. I would then try to give them some of the English they needed, trying to show them that they can use the English they knew. Of course, after the communication has happened in L1, the English part afterwards felt a bit unnecessary. However, It did mean that I wasn’t shutting down communication and they might have picked up some new English vocabulary. Did they retain it though?

“How do you say?”

I limited this to asking for up to 3 words. Before that, they would say everything they wanted to say and then wouldn’t be interested in the English they had technically asked for!

What are some of the things I’m trying now?

Conversations with primary learners in L1

Occasionally, I’ll use L1 myself in order to engage with my students for some of the reasons mentioned in the attitudes section above: To discuss behaviour and talk about objectives and reasons for doing things. I’ve had some really fruitful conversations with primary students about how much they can communicate using the English vocabulary they know accompanied with gestures. Sometimes they tell me that they feel they don’t know how to express something specific in English because they don’t know the exact words. We’ve talked about experiences they and family members have had in foreign countries where Spanish was not an option and the ways of getting around this obstacle. I felt that having this conversation helped them gain confidence in their abilities to communicate, and they were more enthusiastic about giving it a go.

The English sandwich

Picture of a sandwich. English on top slice, L1 in the middle, English on the bottom slice
Photo of sandwich by ALejandro Guzman on Pixabay

With very young learners, they will often tell me their stories and feelings in Spanish. I’ve started using a sandwiching technique where I’ll say the English word or phrase, then the Spanish they used and repeat the English again. All of this is couched in the conversation so that I am responding to what they are saying, showing interest. I have noticed that the students would naturally take on board some of the ‘sandwiched’ language quite naturally and often confirm my ‘echo-ing’ with the English phrases. This has also happened where a 3rd student would relate a similar story, but use the English word mixed in with their Spanish.

What am I planning to try in future classes?

Planned use of L1 discussion moments

I’d like to take a more principled approach to my L1 use, so that I plan sections of my classes to deliberately include discussions in L1. This could involve asking critical thinking type questions after a storytelling session, or ‘show and tell’ stages, where learners could talk about something important to them in their L1. It would be my role to notice possible language that could be ‘fed in’ in English and making a note of it to incorporate in future lessons

Taking notes on emergent language -image of notebook, pen and glasses
Image by David Travis on Unsplash

Incorporation of learning stations

After teacher-led games and activities, I’d like to try letting go of the reins and letting my VYLs engage in free play. I generally include games, stories, puppets, flashcards and crafts in my classes. It would be interesting to see what language they used, if I made these resources freely available to them.

Becoming a better ‘archivist’ of emergent language

This was something that came up in a meeting with colleagues in the TEFL Development Hub. I would like to incorporate more space in my classes for being able to notice (and take a note of) language that comes up in my very young learner classes. This could be language from my ‘English sandwiches’ or things that I notice they need the English for. A planned way of how to record this language would help me recycle it in other activities.

You can find more practical ideas on how L1 could be used in the English classroom, as well as a thorough background into the topic in The use of L1 in English Language Teaching (Kerr, 2019)

Current thoughts, doubts and food for thought

One of my remaining concerns is that my preschool and primary students have very little time to hear and use English each week. I still feel that I need to promote as much English in the class as possible, but I am starting to think about how incorporating L1 could help my students learn better. It might help them make more meaningful connections with the English they hear/use in class.

The idea that languages aren’t compartmentalised so cleanly in our minds has big implications. In ELT there are growing conversations about teaching in a more holistic manner, preparing students with 21st century skills and being more inclusive of different identities. I feel that L1 and the attitudes we hold and project towards our students must be a big part of that conversation. It’s not something I’m an expert on, but it’s something I feel is worth questioning and experimenting with. So, that’s what I plan to do. I’ll keep you updated!

I’d love to know your thoughts on the subject too. Any links to research on translanguaging with very young learners or primary students in an EFL context would really be appreciated as well.

References

Crisfield, Eowyn (2020, May 28) Translanguaging – what is it and how do you plan for it? Pearson International Schools Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.pearsoninternationalschools.com/translanguaging-what-is-it-and-how-do-you-plan-for-it/

EAL Journal (2016, July 26) What is translanguaging? EAL Journal. Retrieved from https://ealjournal.org/2016/07/26/what-is-translanguaging/

Fallas-Escobar, C. EFL instructors’ ambivalent ideological stances toward translanguaging: collaborative reflection on language ideologies in Z. Tian et al. (eds.), Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens (pp.329-344) Educational Linguistics 45, Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Goodman, B. & Tastanbek, S. Making the shift from a codeswitching to a translanguaging lens in English language teacher education, TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2021

Hall, G. (2020) Framing the realities of TESOL practice through a translanguaging lens in Z. Tian et al. (eds.), Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens (pp.69-90) Educational Linguistics 45, Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Hall, G., & Cook, G. (2013). Own-language use in ELT: Exploring global practices and attitudes.
In ELT Research Paper 13/01. London, UK: British Council.

Kerr, P. (2019) The use of L1 in English language teaching. Part of the Cambridge Papers in ELT series.
[pdf] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

2 Responses

  1. This is super interesting thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    I work in an academy in the South of Spain, where there’s an English only rule. But I feel like we’re fighting the education system where English is taught almost entirely in Spanish. Commonly students are asked to translate EVERYTHING. From instructions to verbs to vocabulary to whole articles. In my opinion completely ridiculous, translation is a whole degree or masters level qualification!

    The older students demand translation constantly and the younger ones translate for the rest of the class. I’m happy for students to translate to me for clarification, I think it helps me see if they’ve understood and helps them feel more confident. But translating for others means they don’t get the opportunity to find their own connections, understand the word in context or make the link between the word and image/action.

    I don’t think translation works, it causes rigid ideas about language and can prevent understand the meaning of the word in the other lanuage. Later I think it hugely hinders fluency because the brain is translating constantly. It is building an entirely different muscle, and no one I feel is conducive to using a second language. Not everyone can provide a translation and the students don’t have the skills to find ways around this issue if taught solely in L1.

    As such, the use of L1 and L2 in the classroom is a hard balance to find at times. Trying to teach other methods which take longer than translation is both important but difficult and met with resistance (with the older ones, younh ones seem to take it in their stride). In order to prevent this translation for others I have to put rules in place to limit Spanish in the classroom (for mid to late primary, little ones is a different story haha).

    In Spain I feel there is a belief that even younger children couldn’t possibly learn English without L1 support. I couldn’t disagree more, I don’t expect much in regards to L2 reproduction, but I can speak almost entirely in ungraded English within the first terms and they will have understood it. I have had 3 year olds translating what I have said to talk about it with their friends.

    Of course not everyone gets it, and one argument I saw lately was accessibility. But I don’t believe that the teacher using L1 should be the way in which students access L2, in some ways I feel like it shows a lack of teaching skill and patience. Thought equally I understand teachers have deadlines, a syllabus and exams to prepare for. But that is not reflective of the students ability to learn, that’s teacher pressures.

    I really enjoyed your breakdown of L1 for teacher vs student, a fresh perspective and got me thinking. Thanks again!

    1. First of all, I’m so sorry for taking so long to respond to your well considered comments Julia! Please accept my apologies. I share a number of your concerns too, but I wonder if it’s more about changing perceptions of how we use both (or more languages) on both the students’ and the teacher’s parts. I’m looking forward to experimenting more in this area during the next school year. Perhaps the first thing will be to have a conversation with my groups about it. I’ll keep a note of my observations and share them here too. Please keep in touch and let me know how things go with your students too. Thank you again for taking the time to write this reply. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts – gets me thinking too!

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