In his article, Harbord (1992) recommends that an English-language strategy should replace L1 strategies whenever possible.

Using the L1 to save time. Such as giving instructions for an activity, classroom administration, or chatting with students, is never a good reason.

As mentioned in Part I. This is because using the L1 during these situations actually results in the loss of valuable opportunities for using English.

It also sends a message to students that English is only a subject for learning, and they are not proficient enough to use it as a means of communication.

So how can teachers demonstrate to students that they are capable of using English to communicate when it would be much easier and faster to use the mother tongue? Here are some suggestions for L1 usage in TESOL:

Download TESOL 101! Free TESOL Course by OnTESOL!-

Giving Instructions vs Teaching English with L1

In a situation in which the instructions to an activity are very complicated, the teacher can turn the comprehension of the instructions into an English-language activity.  For example, if the activity involves a complex sequence of steps, the teacher could first pre-teach some of the vocabulary and then ask students to work in pairs or groups to put the jumbled instructions into the correct order.

Read: Teaching Abroad Guide

Comprehension Check – Teaching English with L1

One of the best suggestions for L1 usage in TESOL is in the instance of translation. Students are allowed to use their mother tongue as a comprehension check with the teacher or other students, but only after the teacher has exhausted all other strategies, such as visual prompts, miming, eliciting, paraphrasing, defining, and providing multiple examples.

While this does take more time than a straight translation, the teacher is also equipping students with a wide variety of tools to make themselves understood in English in real-life communication with English-speakers.

Fully Accredited TESL Courses!

Build Rapport – Teaching English with L1

Teachers can enhance their rapport with students using the English language by telling simple jokes, chatting, and revealing personal information about themselves.

Students, young or old, always want to know more about their teachers’ personal lives – it makes them seem more human and approachable.  Divulging appropriate pieces of information is an excellent motivation for students to practice communicating in English.

Context vs Teaching English with L1

When students do translate words or phrases that are in a specific context, point out that there are often problems with single-word translations.  For example, the phrasal verb “to make out” could have a variety of meanings depending on the context.

Compare, “He can make out an island in the distance,” (which means “to see”) and “He likes to make out with her,” (which means “to kiss”).  Just translating “to make out” by itself would not necessarily result in either definition.

Therefore, the phrasal verb can be more easily understood and would make more sense, if the student tries to figure it out using the context and their comprehension of the words around the unfamiliar vocabulary.

Related reading:

Teaching English in the UAE – Learn Arabic to Build Rapport with Your Students

OnTESOL- Take an accredited TESOL course. 250-hour TESOL Diploma, recognized by TESL Canada


Cook, V.  (2001).  Using the First Language in the Classroom.  Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(3), 404-423.

Goldstein, T.  (2003).  Teaching and Learning in a Multilingual School.  New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Harbord, J.  (1992).  The Use of the Mother Tongue in the Classroom.  ELT Journal, 46, 350-55.

Woodall, B. R.  (2002).  Language-Switching: Using the First Language While Writing in a Second Language.  Journal of Second Language Writing, 11, 7-28.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *