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TEFL Masterclass – L1 in ELT: Friend or foe?

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Neil Harris – Teacher Trainer & Director of Marketing at CELT Language School

Neil Harris started his career in ELT in 1993 after completing a CTEFLA with IH London. He quickly realized that language learning and teaching was his true passion. Neil has worked in a variety of roles in the UK and Italy, including as a teacher, Senior Teacher, EAP Lecturer, DoS, Teacher Trainer, Business Development Manager, and Director of Marketing. Currently, Neil focuses on developing online ESP medical English and teacher development programmes in his role in agent-based marketing and course development.

What you will learn

The use of L1, also known as the learner’s own language, has long been a topic of debate in ELT. At times it was central to the process of teaching and learning English (grammar-translation) and at others reviled with  English-only policies becoming central to language teaching practices (the Direct Method).

We are now at the point where principled L1 use has become more mainstream, in part reflecting changes in language policy but also in response to greater methodological freedom (for some) as principled eclecticism becomes an accepted position for classroom practitioners.

However, many teachers remain uncertain about L1 use and in some cases are constrained by academic managers or national language teaching policies.

This masterclass briefly overviews some of the key moments in the use of L1 in EFL before presenting a rationale, supported by examples of practical classroom activities, for the judicious use of L1 in our ELT classrooms for the benefit of our learners and language learning generally. 

Workshop Summary

Introduction:

In this English Language Teaching (ELT) masterclass, we explore the role of students’ first language (L1) in English language teaching. We will discuss different approaches and activities that integrate L1 use in the classroom, focusing on cognitively challenging tasks, awareness-raising, and reflective journals.

Cognitively Challenging Tasks:

Incorporating sustainable development goals (SDGs) into ELT is a valuable approach that presents students with cognitively demanding tasks. These tasks may become more accessible by using students’ L1 for scaffolding. For example, when working with primary-level learners, teachers can allow students to discuss complex topics in their L1 before translating and recasting their ideas into English. This approach enables students to create neural pathways between their L1 and English.

Awareness-raising:

Incorporating L1 use can help raise students’ awareness of linguistic diversity and inclusivity. By comparing the differences between students’ L1 and English, teachers can facilitate learning and understanding. This can be done through contrastive analysis, where students examine the similarities and differences between their L1 and English, and mediation, which involves translating between languages.

Reflective Journals:

Reflective journals can be an effective tool for teachers and students to document their language learning experiences. At lower English proficiency levels, students may need to complete these journals in their L1. However, as their proficiency increases, they can transition to writing in English. Reflective journals can help students identify their learning challenges, successes, and goals.

Types of English Language Teachers:

There are three types of English language teachers:

  1. Monolingual teachers who teach students from different language backgrounds without sharing a common language.
  2. Teachers who share a community language with their students.
  3. Teachers who know the same language as their students.

Five Activities Incorporating L1 Use:

  1. Contrastive Analysis: Enables students to identify similarities and differences between their L1 and English.
  2. Mediation: Involves translating between languages and can be applied to various classroom activities.
  3. Bilingual Substitution Drills: Students practice translating and repeating phrases in both L1 and English to improve pronunciation and intonation.
  4. Videos with Language Subtitles: Students watch videos with subtitles in their L1 and English to improve listening comprehension.
  5. Recasting: Teachers repeat students’ incorrect English phrases with the correct form to maintain the flow of communication.

Conclusion:

L1 use in ELT has become increasingly recognized as a valuable teaching tool. It can support cognitively challenging tasks, raise awareness of linguistic diversity, and aid in reflective journaling. By considering their teaching context and students’ language backgrounds, teachers can effectively incorporate L1 use in their classrooms. To learn more, explore the Gallery Teachers Workshop Library, which offers recordings on various ELT topics, including mediation and emergent language.

Reflective Questions

Have a quick think about the reflective questions below in order to get the most out of the workshop:

  1. When you were first trained as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, what was said about the use of L1 (your students’ first language) in the English language classroom? How did you feel about this?
  2. (How) has your attitude to the use of L1 in the English language classroom changed during your time as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language. Why/why not?
  3. What examples of principled use of L1 in the EFL classroom are you familiar with? Would they work with your students? Why/Why not?
  • Chiappini, R. & Mansur, E. (2021). Activities for mediation: Building bridges in the ELT classroom. Delta Publishing.
  • Kerr, P. (2014). Translation and own-language activities. Cambridge handbooks for language teachers. Cambridge University Press.
  • Kerr, P. (2022). 30 trends in ELT. Cambridge handbooks for language teachers. Pocket editions. Cambridge University Press.

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