How to Cut Out or Limit L1 Use in Class

By Alex Case
15 ways to encourage students to use only English in the classroom.

1. Punishments
For example, a yellow card for the first time they speak a language other than English and a red card for the second time (you might need an ultimate punishment like extra homework, standing up and giving a speech in English or even temporarily being asked to leave the classroom, or the embarrassment of getting a red card might be enough), a “swear box” where money is put every time they use L1 until enough money is collected to buy everyone a cake, or being asked to stand up and say whatever they just said in L1 in English.

2. Rewards
A more positive approach (and one that can be combined with Punishments above in a stick and carrot approach) is giving praise and other rewards for students, groups and classes who stick to English or at least make progress with avoiding L1. You can make sure more people get recognition and get students disciplining themselves more by handing a certificate out for best attempt to avoid L1 at the end of the lesson, and then ask the person who received it to choose who to pass it onto at the end of the next lesson.

3. L1-free periods
If a completely English only classroom is unattainable or undesirable (despite the topic of this article, I think the latter is fairly often true- especially in classes with small children), you can at least get students used to being told “… and for the next five minutes this activity must be done entirely in English”. This can be reinforced by having a part of the classroom they all move to during English-only periods, an arrangement of chairs such as turning them round to make pairs that always or usually accompanies no-L1 activities, or a sign that is put up on the whiteboard saying “No Italian!” at specific stages of the lesson.

4. Language prompts/ controlled speaking practice
I have heard many teachers say that a debate starting in English and moving into L1 is a good sign because it shows how engaged they are by the topic, but surely the point of engaging them in the topic is to get them using English! As freewheeling activities like debates, asking questions about vocabulary in a text, philosophical discussion questions, and being asked to explain your own culture to foreigners etc tend to result in lots of L1, in a class where a main focus is reducing this you might want to spend more time on activities where English seems to come out naturally such as storytelling with cards with English words written on them.

5. Give them they language they need
If you want to do freer speaking activities but they often result in too much L1, make sure you give them all the language they need to do it entirely in English and then take away that support slowly. Examples include giving them the language needed to play board games (“Pass the dice please” etc), language needed to debate (“I’m not sure I agree” etc), or even whole dialogues they can read out before they substitute their own ideas and then do something similar as a roleplay. This language can be put somewhere they can refer to it as they need it, and then taken away for the next activity or next attempt at the same activity.

6. Take into account their culture when planning social English to cover
L1 in the classroom can start from the very first moment, where politeness means they have to give a polite, respectful, religious or seasonal greeting that doesn’t exist or is obscure in English. The two approaches to this are to give them the closest equivalent in English or to give them so many other English phrases to use at the start of the class (“Nice to see you again”, “Long time no see”, “How was your long weekend?”) that they forget about the L1 ones.

7. Quickly get them up to a minimal communicative level
It might be that the need to use L1 in class is a sign that the syllabus of the textbook is not giving them the language they need to be able to express themselves in typical classroom situations without needing L1. One way of refocusing the lessons to get them to that point is to spend more time on vocab rather than grammar, e.g. presenting “yesterday” and “the day before yesterday” long before or even instead of the Simple Past tense, or teaching the vocabulary of the things around them in the classroom. Another is to focus on functional language they often need such as asking people to clarify and other requests.

8. Classroom language lessons
Another common lack of language and understanding that leads to L1 by the students and even by the teacher is not understanding what they are being asked to do in class. There are specific articles on classroom language available on, so suffice to say here that it is something you should spend specific classroom and planning time on rather than expecting them to pick it up as they go along.

9. Ways of explaining grammar
Another time they are likely to get stuck is when explanations of grammar come up, either when the teacher is explaining or when they are trying to respond to the teacher eliciting something and they know the answer but don’t know how to explain it in English. The two most obvious ways of dealing with grammar without anyone resorting to L1 are expecting students to pick it up through exposure and practice without explanation, and planning to teach grammar terminology and other language the students will need to understand and take part in grammar explanations. Apart from classes with under 12s, I tend to prefer the latter.

10. The definitions game
However well you teach them the language they need, sooner or later they will need to explain things in English that they don’t yet know how to say. You can practice this by getting them to explain a word that they are thinking of until their partner guesses what it is, and by teaching them language for talking round a word you don’t know in English like things such as “It looks like…”, “It’s a kind of…”, “It’s similar to…”, passives, relative clauses and infinitives of purpose.

11. Teach them miming and drawing
However well you teach them to explain things, sooner or later words in English will completely fail them. Teaching them to use gestures and sketches to express themselves will at least put off the time when L1 is the only last resort. These can be combined with actually teaching them new language in many fun ways.

12. Clearly label acceptable L1
If you tell them “You can also say ‘tofu’ in English, although older people might not know it and you can use ‘bean curd’ instead” or “Most English speakers know to call Germans ‘Herr’ instead of ‘Mr’, so it’s okay to say that”, then the fact that other things they say in L1 are totally unsuitable for an international English-speaking situation and so are unwelcome in the classroom should be made clearer.

13. An International English lesson
You can combine the ideas of giving them a minimal level of vocabulary for communication without L1 and showing what words from L1 they can use by doing a lesson on words that are used in English and other languages, such as pizza, paella, carafe and kiosk.

14. Reference materials
This mainly means getting them used to using English-only books both in class and at home, e.g. monolingual dictionaries and grammar reference books without translation. There is also a role for bilingual dictionaries in avoiding the need for teachers to use L1 and so they can say what they want to say in English with the help of their dictionaries if it is something that is impossible to explain another way such as a type of tree.

15. L1 communication outside the classroom or outside class time
Another good way of setting limits to the use of L1 is to do things which demand L1 (such as student counselling with low level students) physically outside the classroom or at least outside class time when the lesson bell has rung. In a similar way, you can use other members of staff in the school or letters to students to explain things that can’t be explained in English in order to keep the student/ teacher relationship as English-speaking as possible (in a similar way to a bilingual child learning the distinction between their two languages if each parent only speaks one).

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet December 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Teflnet


  • Rozhgar says:

    Learnt a lot from this, gonna use some in my class! thanks.

  • Molinta says:

    Woooow…. Have learnt a lot from the article…. We’ll put them into practice

  • Dilbar says:

    Iam so grateful for thiscorse that helped my how to teach and learn in the 21st century.

  • lisbeth says:

    Thanks for your article. I learnt too much. I will practice all of them.

  • julie says:

    As I have multilingual leaners my class HAS to be in the target language. It really isn’t all that difficult to do! lots of mime and gesture involved

  • Rohana Andaraweera says:

    Good article. I would try these valuable ideas in my classroom. Giving rewards to those who speak only in English in the classroom really encourages the others to limit L1 use in the classroom.

  • Enita Barrett says:

    Personally, I do not subscribe to the idea of placing restrictions on students’ use of L1 countless research has shown that adopting a respectful and tolerant attitude towards L1 goes further in promoting student confidence to adventure into L2. Teachers I believe have to be the ones to find the balance between effective and engaging ways of getting students to the point where they are willing to take the chance to use L2. In terms of the punishment ideas stated above, for example, I believe that this can be used but within a very friendly and playful environment when trust has been built between the teacher and students.

    Overall, these are very good suggestions and I will definitely modify and incorporate most of them in my teaching.

  • Rukiye says:

    Thanks this article. I ll try some of them in My classroom. Especially some students use persistly L1 in the lesson. I can use these tips for students.

  • Marcio Henrique Fernandes Santos says:

    I would like to thanks and now I have good ideas for my class!!!

  • Mariia Borovska says:

    Thank you for very useful information for me. I know something but something is new for me. It’s great !In my shcool students use English outside the classroom.e.g. They greet me in English or say ” How are you today?”I think it’s cool!

  • Atege Linggi says:

    Thank you for the article.I have learned a lot from this article. I am sure my students will benefit a lot when I introduce this methods in the class.

  • thandiwe Zitha says:

    I have learnt a lot. This is a huge challenge in my school and implementation of some these strategies will encourage others to do the same with their classes. Thank you

  • thandiwe Zitha says:

    I have learnt a lot. This is a huge challenge in my school and implementation of some these challenges will encourage others to do the same with their classes. Thank you

  • Violetta says:

    Thanks for the article. I was just thinking starting using storytelling, debates language and I liked the idea of International language lesson very much. Nice ideas.

  • Dave says:

    Good article.

    I would add:

    Never listening to a student speaking the L1. A simple, “I don’t understand you” often works. This is the first step, to set the example.

    Again, a nice article

Leave a comment