The English-only policy has become somewhat of a controversial issue. As the teaching of English to non-native speakers has evolved in the last decades, there have been clear trends that marked the usual practice for teachers.
Many years ago the Grammar Translation Method fully supported the use of the students’ native language for instruction as well as for their participation.
This then changed gradually until the Communicative Approach came along and suggested the benefits of the English-only policy. This trend seemed to stay consistent for several years, but as of late there seems to be a reconsideration of bringing back L1 into the classroom.
This article will explore some of the advantages of using L1 in the ESL classroom and provide tips for effective implementation.
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Disadvantages of L1 – English Only Policy
In the past, the disadvantages of allowing L1 in the class were presented as so detrimental to new language acquisition that the ‘English-only’ policy seemed to be the only possible solution.
The general belief was that students who were allowed to use their native language would never feel the need to use the language they were learning.
It is true that when students find themselves in a situation in which they need to use English, their abilities improve.
However, it is important not to overlook the fact that this ‘need’ for communication in English can still be created and presented to the students without the need to enforce an ‘English-only’ policy one hundred percent of the time.
Oftentimes, teachers have found themselves acting more as policy enforcers, rather than as teachers who inspire and motivate their students to use the language they are learning.
When teachers and students were interviewed at a large Toronto high school where the ESL population represents approximately 40% of the student body, they agreed that the use of L1 in the class had marked benefits.
Advantages of Using L1 – English Only Policy
Most of the advantages connected to the use of L1 in ESL classes are related to the learning and comprehension of structures, expressions and vocabulary.
The main advantage of allowing students to communicate in their native language is the improvement in the students’ comfort level and the decrease of frustration, especially for lower-level students.
When students can express themselves to both show their level of comprehension as well as their lack of comprehension, it assures them that they will not ‘miss’ anything in the lesson, and their level of stress decreases.
Students have also expressed that double-checking with a classmate, who shares their same native language, during a teacher’s explanation helps them understand the lesson and the concepts more accurately.
Whenever a person is learning something new, the need for reassurance and clarity when trying to understand important concepts is extremely important. Allowing students to use their native language – when necessary – to serve this purpose makes them responsible for their learning and, at the same time, capable of handling this responsibility without frustration.
These uses of L1 are quite different from what they were in the past, and they are also something that strict ‘English-only’ policy supporters have sometimes overlooked.
Finally, it is also important to consider that as the level of English increases, the need for L1 interventions often decreases and the main use is that of checking the accuracy of the meaning of certain vocabulary words or expressions.
So the next time you have a new group of students in front of you, what will your policy be regarding the use of English and the use of the students’ L1?