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5 Ways To Help ESL Learners To Think In English

Learning to think in English develops increased fluency for language learners.

However, we might want to keep in mind that using the L1 (the learner’s first language) to interpret the L2 (the second or other languages) is a normal part of second language acquisition.

In fact, this is one method for interpreting the level of English language learners.

But, as teachers, we can help students transition from thinking in L1 to thinking in the L2.  

Ideally, learners eventually become language users without this need to translate in their minds.

However, we must remember that we cannot force this and expect learners to appreciate it (much less retain it).

This is not the forum to discuss the merits or demerits of requiring a class to speak English only, especially at lower levels.

But it is safe to say that we can’t turn on a switch to make learners cease from thinking in L1 to think in the L2.   What we can do is provide opportunities to develop their English skills. We can help them reduce their reliance upon the L1.

With enough repetition and reinforcement, in time, they’ll begin to think more in English. The following suggestions will provide you with options for facilitating this transition to thinking in English.  

Activating schema in the ESL classroom

1. Activate Schema

Schema is the learner’s prior knowledge about a topic. It can be referred to as the background knowledge that aids a person in understanding what they see, hear, or read in class.

Activating schema is a practical way to get learners focused on a particular train of thought. But how does it facilitate thinking in English?  

An example of activating schema might be when, on Monday mornings, you ask learners about their weekends. From that point forward, class members will be thinking about the particular activities they did on Saturday and Sunday.

They will now begin to put together words, phrases, and statements to use to express themselves for this point because they know they might have the opportunity to respond.

You’ve now prepared them to use a specific English language for a specific setting.  

By activating schema about weekend activities, you’re training them to think in English. True, they may be translating L1 to L2 in their minds, but they’re preparing to use English to refer to their weekends.

With time and repetition, they may not need to jump between L1 and L2.  

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Brainstorming Vocabulary in the TESOL classroom

2. Preview Vocabulary

Activating schema in your learners and previewing useful vocabulary related to the scene can go a long way in developing English thinking.

There are a couple of ways to preview vocabulary. One is to brainstorm together with the class. A second option is to supply them with the vocabulary you think might help them best.


Brainstorming is one of the best ways I’m aware of to get minds focused on a point and stimulate vocabulary exchange in the classroom.

Going back to the previous example of weekend activities, you can get learners thinking in English.  

Of course, if they use their L1, it won’t be a valid response to an L2 brainstorming activity. That’s why it must be made clear that English is used.

As a result, your learners are challenged (in a nice way) to think of expressions in English.

If they’re translating, in time, it will eventually take a back seat after repetition of similar and interrelated activities.  

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Supply Vocabulary

Another way to get class members thinking in English is to provide them with target language vocabulary.

You can use images of activities and match them with the language. After some drills and matching activities, their minds will be thinking in English in no time.   They will no longer need to rely on their first language because they’ve learned how to express these activities.

If this is repeated in various contexts, eventually, learners will be able to match similar language between contexts. They’ll begin to realize that recurring terms can be used in a variety of contexts.  

For example, weekend activities (e.g., got up, had breakfast, got dressed, went to the park) can be accomplished Monday through Friday (e.g., got up, had breakfast, got dressed, went to the gym); or some can be done at work (e.g., got up, had breakfast, got dressed, went to work), at school, with family members, and in other contexts.  

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3. Describing a Scene

One simple example might be to start small and ask students to describe a scene or a situation.

They can be challenged to do this without hesitation while using the vocabulary and structure they know at the moment.  

As they do this, either orally or in writing, you can help fill in the blanks.

Variations might be (authentic) contextual activities such as buying shoes at the mall, purchasing concert tickets at a booth, ordering food at a restaurant, enrolling in a university course on campus, etc.

In other words, keep it real for them. You can also engage them in predictive activities. Both are explained here.  

4. Authentic Activities

Work with students to put together a timeline of authentic activities they do on the weekend. Interestingly, many of your class members will likely be doing similar activities.

So, they’ll not only have the ideas reinforced, but will also learn to think in those terms without translating from L1 to L2.  

5. Predictive Activities

You can utilize predictive activities where you show them a scene and ask them what the language might be in the situation.

Regarding weekends, you can show class members someone sleeping, then ask them what will happen next (i.e., she will get up).

Then after that, what happens (e.g., she will take a shower, get ready, get dressed, have breakfast, etc.).

There are literally dozens, if not hundreds of possibilities, but you get the idea.   OnTESOL’s courses are accredited by the leading accreditation body in Canada, TESL Canada!

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that as learner acquisition grows, so too will their ability to think and produce in English—in their own time (remember individual differences).

Therefore, we shouldn’t force it, but encourage it through these activities.   Give these suggestions a try and let us know how it went.

Or, share with us your ideas in the comments. And, feel free to tell us what you’d like us to cover in future blogs.  

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