I woke up this morning thinking about using L1 (one’s first language, which is English in my case) in an L2 (second language) classroom. The American Council on the Teachng of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has guidelines stating that L2 teachers should spend 90% of their classroom time in the target language (TL, or L2).
Back when I was a traditional teacher, I absolutely did not even come close to reaching this goal. First of all, I taught a lot of grammar, and only in my very advanced classes was I able to teach grammar in the L2. Even then, however, its use was limited to concrete concepts such as a new verb conjugation. I absolutely could not have explained more complex topics like when to use subjunctive or the difference between the preterit and imperfect in the L2. During this time I also did a good number of exercises from the textbook, which usually needed at least some explanation in English so my students would know how to do them.
Another reason why I used to use English in my L2 classroom is because of another ACTFL guideline, which states that students in the L2 classroom needed to work with authentic materials. The message I received as a result of this guideline was that, as a non-native speaker, my language and any materials I created with my language was inferior and possibly detrimental (I don’t think this was ACTFL’s intention but my interpretation). As a result I found myself speaking very little in the L2 and exposed my students to it using the audio and video activities that went along with the textbook and things that I found online produced by native speakers (I am very thankful to Señor Wooly, who gave a presentation in Denver at the IFLT conference this summer that helped make me feel much better about whether or not my language could be authentic. You can read more about that here.)
One of the benefits of teaching with comprehensible input is that I spend much less time speaking in the L1 in my classroom. I am aiming for that 90% and have taught classes where I have reached that but I haven’t been able to do it consistently. And I have given myself permission to speak English in my classroom in a some situations, which I have listed below.
1. To discipline.
The fabulous presenter Jason Fritze said in a workshop this summer that one of the first words he teaches his elementary students in the L2 is “stop,” which allows him to discipline in the TL. I teach my students some similar expressions in order to handle small discipline issues in the TL, such as asking students to stop talking or to put away their cell phones, but when big issues arise (which are rare, thankfully) I use English. In some cases it is an matter of student safety, and I do not want a student to get hurt because s/he doesn’t understand what I am saying (Like the day I had a student hang out a window from my second floor classroom. What was he thinking?). In other cases, hearing me discipline in English has awesome shock value. I have created an environment in my classroom where students know that when I discipline in English, I mean business and/or am really angry. I do this when I hear students use derogatory or inappropriate language, suspect that a student is getting harassed by a classmate, or see disrespectful behavior. It’s similar to those situations where a parent uses a child’s whole name when said child has done something very wrong.
2. To explain procedure.
This year I used a lot of comprehensible input (CI) games in class (You can read more about some of those games here). We played each game multiple times, but the first time we played I always explained the rules in English, simply because I didn’t want to waste time explaining in the TL, which would take at least twice as much time. Any other procedural issues (such as what to do during an evacuation drill, how to make up work after an absence, or where to put a completed quiz or test) I also did in English the first few times until students got comfortable with the language. Nevertheless, in all classes, I was talking about procedure in the TL by the end of the first quarter of the school year.
3. To explain grammar.
Yup, I still teach grammar, even though I don’t do it in a traditional way. I don’t do comprehensive grammar lessons anymore. Instead, I point out grammatical structures as needed. For example, I may say, “Look class, this French verb ends in -ons. That means “we” are the people doing this action.” That would be the extent of my grammar “lesson” about this topic, but it would be something I would point out multiple times to make sure students remembered it. Similarly, if a grammar question comes up in class (because some students just feel that they need to know why certain things are the way they are), I explain as quickly and as concisely as possible in English and move on.
4. To introduce vocabulary.
Some concrete words and expressions can be taught quickly using visuals or gestures, but the easiest and quickest way to teach more abstract vocabulary is to translate it from the L2 to the L1. I usually just translate these on the board and leave them up during class (Jason Fritze writes the L1 and L2 in different colors and underlines the L2. I will start doing that this year.).
5. To check comprehension.
This year I started using videos I found on YouTube to provide comprehensible, authentic input in class (French teachers, check out Alice Ayel’s YouTube channel, where you will find videos like this one. Spanish teachers, check out Pablo Pankun Roman’s YouTube channel, where you can find videos like this one.). Then to check comprehension I ask students to write a summary in English (I suppose if I really wanted to I could have students answer a prepared quiz in the TL about the video they see, but that tends to be stressful for my students and raises their Affectve Filter, thus limiting their intake. Moreover, I don’t use these videos as summative assessments. And finally, making up quizzes can be time consuming, and with four preparations, I just don’t always have the time).
To check comprehension of abstract vocabulary, I may ask a student to translate a word into English. When we are going over a reading, I may ask students to translate as a group, which is called choral translation.
I may also ask students to summarize a reading in English. Traditional textbooks usually check for comprehension of reading passages by asking questions in the T2 for students to answer in the T2. But in my experience, students usually don’t read a passage when asked to answer questions about it. They look for words from the question in the text and either read that small section to find the answer or, even worse, copy the sentence from the text containing those words from the question without even reading the sentence at all. Having students summarize in English requires them to read the whole passage (BTW, I don’t advise asking them to summarize in the TL, because that may lead to direct copying as well).
I think many second language teachers go through their teacher training being told that they should try to make students use the TL as much as possible. According to the Dr. Krashen’s theories of Language Acquisition, however, it is input and not output that leads to language acquisition. That means we should not feel guilty when we check our students’ comprehension through use of the L1.
Yes, my main job is to teach French and Spanish, but my secondary job is to form connections with my students. Grant Boulanger, a 2016 ACTFL Teacher of the Year finalist, said in a presentation at the 2016 ACTFL annual convention that he tends to only use the L2 around 70% of the time at first and tries to establish connections and create a classroom community, which requires use of the L1, especially in elementary levels. Sometimes I feel that, by using the L2 and insisting that our students use it, we teachers create a wall between us and our students and prevents our students from getting to know us and feel comfortable in our classroom. This is not the kind of relationship I want with my students, because besides helping them acquire language, I also want them to feel comfortable coming to me if they are having issues and need someone to talk to.
Friends, I don’t want all of you to read this and think that I talk in English all the time in my class. As I stated at the beginning of this post, my goal is to use the TL in my classroom at least 90% of the time. But what I am saying is that sometimes the use of the L1 is quicker, clearer, more efficient, and necessary to create a safe, supportive, and productive classroom community. We do not need to feel guilty for using English in our class appropriately!
Nevertheless, I still want to create an environment where use of the L1 is not encouraged, so I plan to borrow two more tricks from that Jason Fritze presentation (I really can’t stress enough how fabulously practical and informative his presentations are! If he is at a conference in your area you should totally go!). Trick #1 is establishing a procedure where students must ask permission before using English (except for comprehension checks) and SO DOES THE TEACHER! I envision that students will take this rule much more seriously if even the teacher has to ask permission to speak English. I also envision me asking the class for permission to speak English but being told no. Trick #2 is called “The Toad of Shame.” Jason has a plastic toad that he bought at a pet store. When a student speaks English without permission, he gives the toad to him/her. The student with the toad must then try to get rid of it by during giving it to another student who speaks in the L1 without permission because, at the end of class, the student with the toad must stay after for a few minutes with the teacher. The consequence in this case is not punitive. I will probably have the student erase my board and have a small conversation with me in the L2.
I am very much looking forward to trying these two tricks in clas this year! But in the meantime I will be enjoying my last few weeks of vacation. Off to the beach!