Benefits of using L1 in the classroom

I went to an excellent training session last Friday which revolutionized the way I use L1 in class. I found that actually using L1 can benefit students and increase the percentage of spoken English. 

Do you use L1 (mother tongue) while teaching English? Is it right to communicate with your students in their language? After all, they are supposed to be maximizing their use of English. Some teachers forbid the use of L1 in the classroom, others are more lenient, and some use it to learn the L1 language (guilty in my early years). How much do you use?
When do I use L1?
At times I find it a chore to be constantly banging on at my students about using Spanish, or Spanglish, in class. Sometimes I let it slip or use it myself, whereas on other occasions I send the whole class out to make them realize that they should be speaking in English. (Photo by Dan Zen)
During the session we had a decent discussion about when we thought it was acceptable to use, or allow, L1 in the class. Personally, I normally use L1 with the lower level classes, or kids and teenagers, for the following reasons:
·         If I need to have a go at a naughty student, or class.
·         To build rapport with beginners and low level students at the start of term.
·         To show the class that I know what they are saying, mainly for the swear words.
·         If I feel the class would move quicker when explaining complex grammar and vocabulary.
How can using L1 benefit your students?
What came out of the session was that you can use L1 to benefit your student’s ability to learn English and also to control your students. Here’s a list of ways I used L1 in my classes last week.
Photo by mdid
With an intermediate teenage class we were talking about talent. In pairs one student faced the board and the other had their back to it.
“Now I want you to translate these questions in Spanish,” I said.
“En Español?” they asked.
“Yes, just for now, in Spanish.” Their eyes lit up.
Student A had to translate these questions into Spanish.
What can people be talented at?
Do you have a special talent? What is it?
Is everyone talented?
And student B the
se questions:
Who in your family has a special talent?
What talent competition did Barry win when he was 7?
If you could have any talent, what would it be?
After checking the translations I let the students chat, in Spanish, (What really? Yes, really) and made notes of any useful expressions, which included: Let me see, no way, I don’t believe you, yeah right, of course, that’s rubbish, and Barry can I go to the toilet please?
They translated each other’s questions into English and compared to the real questions on the board. I explained that I’d been listening for expressions. I wrote the expressions in Spanish and we translated them into English, which they copied into their notebooks in a new page called ‘Useful Expressions.’
With a different pair they asked and answered the questions in English while using the expressions. The use of English went up by about 20% from normal, plus the students sounded more natural. The next class we used the expressions again, and added more.
The Mayor of Seville
With another class we were using ‘be going to’ to explain what students would do to change the city if they were mayor. In pairs, students wrote down five things they would change, but in Spanish. I separated the pairs and explained that, in Spanish, they had to tell each other what they are going to change in Seville, but they had to remember because after they were going to write down the changes in English.
Again I wrote down the following expressions: That’s a good idea, I wish, of course, that’s silly, you’re silly, that’s impossible, that will never happen, and Barry what time is it?  
The students wrote what they could remember using ‘They are going to…’ After translating the expressions, and copying them into their notebooks, the students discussed what the other pairs had said. Yet again the level of English went up. (Photo by tamworthboroughcouncil)
This was when I had the revolution.
I wrote down extra expressions that they’d said in Spanish on the board.
Que, tenemos que copiar todo esto tambien? – What, we need to copy all that as well?” asked one student.
When I wrote that question on the board as well everyone went quiet.
Shh, no digas nada – Shh, don’t say anything,” said another student.
They stopped speaking Spanish because they knew they had to write down everything they said.
I’m not sure how long this is going to last. I tried it with every class last week and it worked. By the end of term at least they’ll have a massive list of expressions they can use in class to increase the percentage of English.
I even did this with an adult class and PRE First Certificate class to practice discussions. The conclusion was that they sounded much more natural in Spanish because they were actually listening to each other rather than worrying about what they were going to say next; something to work on.
It only took about ten minutes of L1 in class to do these activities and you can do it with any level. I even did it with a class of eight year olds. I’ll only do it every now and then, but it goes to show how using L1 in the class can sometimes be beneficial. The main problem is that you actually have to know the L1 language to do this.
What do you think? Are you totally against L1 or do you have any other ideas of using L1 in the class? Leave a comment and let us know.

2 thoughts on “Benefits of using L1 in the classroom

  1. Controversial! I'm in two minds about it, using L1 can be a slippery slope to dependency and laziness, and I'm totally guilty of it myself. I do think however that as a teacher, knowing L1 is really useful to help with misunderstandings.

    My only apprehension is that it can send the message to the students that English is only a language for learning and not for real communication. I try not to do it but maybe I'll try your trick too.

  2. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for your comment. Yeah it is a bit controversial, but I think in the last two weeks the level of English has gone up. Saying that, I tried a new thing yesterday. When I walked in the class I asked for a volunteer. While outside the class with the student I asked her to make a note of all the Spanish spoken, but to keep listening to me. I went back in and told a story to the class about when I was 13, we were doing used to. Anyway, she wrote a long list of Spanish. When I read out the sentences to the class they were shocked, as too was the girl writing (who normally speak a lot of Spanish). Next class I'm going to try it again with a different student and see if it works. The only thing I worry about is that the person writing is not as attentive in the lesson, but I'll play that by ear.

    Did you try my trick?


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