Were given significant input before speaking

“I give the students instructions for the activity, they know what to do, but they end up using L1 or not speaking at all”. “I can’t get my students to speak, unless it’s a very controlled activity”. “I have already ‘taught the language’ and they don’t use it!”

These are all problems we have faced as EFL or ESL teachers, struggling to get students to use L2. As we go through the syllabus we need to cover, students seem to forget all about the language seen in the previous units. When we assign the tasks, even to say something as simple as “I like it” or “I think it’s…”, they resort to L1.

I believe the problem is that we assume students will use the language we want them to use in that speaking activity. We end up forgetting that learning is not a linear process, but instead, it has its ups and downs, and students need to be constantly reminded of the language they have studied in order to use it in the appropriate situations. It is a lot of work for the teacher, though, but it is extremely necessary, especially for lower levels.

Here are two practical examples of how I have been trying to approach this issue with my students:

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In the example above, as I have posted here before, my students have been studying there + be to talk about cities. They have created a “perfect city” and made their drawings. Then, I got each student individually to describe their drawing to me. That was when I had the opportunity to scaffold language and have them go deeper in the description. I made it clear that they we going to talk like this again to their friends. After that, I elicited the language that I wrote on the board above. Students “had” the language, but they needed to be reminded that they could use it in the activity. Finally, in a traditional revolving circles activity, the students could repeat the speaking activity many times and I could – for the last time – remind the ones that insisted on using “have” instead of “there is” or using L2. In the final rounds, they were all using L2 and did a very good job!

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In this quite untidy board, we had a Cambridge Flyers prep class and the focus was on Speaking, part 1, where students need to find the differences between their picture and the examiner’s picture. I used a barrier game where each student would place their own small pictures on the big picture and find the differences between their own pictures A x B. The language I needed to elicit from them: “In my picture, there is…” and prepositions of place. As I had many different sets of pictures, they repeated the activity many times. Again, students used the language well and had fun with the game.

Classroom Language Flashcards

Since the beginning of the semester, it has been one of my main teaching goals to get my students to speak only L2 in class. I have already shared some strategies I have tested, and today I brought something different.

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A very valuable thing I have learned from other teachers was to teach students Classroom Language in the very first day of class, especially for beginner students. There is a lot of material available online, but I have never found something that was truly useful for my context. I needed just a few phrases students can use for asking for the page, going to the restroom, etc. Having a little drawing ability – just enough to doodle things students can understand what they are – I have come up with eight drawings to represent:

  • Ms Duda (teacher, whatever you’re called), come here, please?
  • I’m sorry, I’m late! May I come in?
  • What’s the page, please?
  • May I have a pencil, please?
  • May I go to the restroom?
  • I don’t understand. Can you repeat, please?
  • How do you say ‘casa’ in English?
  • May I say something? / May I go next?

You can download the flashcards by clicking here 🙂

Of course, the language can vary, depending on how formal your school is, or what you want to teach them. The drawings are in black and white so that young learners can colour them. Here’s an example of how I use them in my classroom:

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Tried to use more L2 in class

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Excellent English strategy

In a monolingual context, it is often a challenge to get students to use L2 in class, especially if they are beginners. After almost eight years of teaching, I have tried many techniques with different groups in order to get them to speak English. Some of them worked for some groups, some didn’t work at all, but I can say that it is the students who will inform your decision of choosing a certain strategy. Here are a few:

  • L1 Pass – a friend’s idea that consists of giving students one or two “passes” (cards, coins…) every class so that they can use their first language when they need to. The teacher may take a pass from them if they use L1 inappropriately. This works well in quieter groups and with students that will follow rules.
  • Points on the board – write all students names on the board when the class begins and whenever one uses L1, draw a line next  to his name. The teacher can choose whatever punishment according to the groups and the school’s policy (removing points from the final grade is particularly threatening for teenagers). This strategy goes in the opposite direction of Behaviorist’s positive reinforcement concept.
  • L2 “thermometer” – during the lesson, students move up and down an L2 thermometer. If they are using L2, they go on to the positive end, if they are using L1, they go down. This requires a lot of work on the teacher’s part, and may cause stress between the students if they thing your judgement is unfair. However, it works well with a highly motivated group.
  • Excellent English – the one I am currently using with my students. By the end of the lesson, students line up and evaluate their L2 use during the activities, they move their tag up or down accordingly. During the class, my job is to call their attention and remind them of the routine whenever they start overusing L1. It works well with small groups and with highly motivated students. It helps create a sense of responsibility, because they will be responsible for their own growth in the usage of the new language. I would not use it with teenagers, though.

What do you do with your students to get them to speak English in class? 🙂

The poster image and balloons are from Twinkl.

Were able to choose the activities

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It was revision day for the test my students are going to take this Tuesday (Listening and Use of English) and Friday (Speaking) and I decided to do something I have always done whenever my students were taking tests.

The procedures were very simple: let them choose the activities they were going to do according to their needs. They included general vocabulary and grammar activities in the activity book (I wrote the pages they could do on the board) and extra worksheets that I spread on my desk so they could come and pick them up.

I believe that by the age of 9 or 10, students know what they can or cannot do very well, that’s why I chose this way of revising content. It is not like discovering the wheel or anything, but, to my surprise, apparently none of these students had ever been introduced to this concept before. While they knew their strengths and weaknesses, they found it so cool that they could choose the activities, get in groups and help each other, they made a lot of comments while doing the activities to point this out (“this is the best revision because we can choose what we want to do”). I was very happy to hear that! 🙂

Even though I am not a big fan of course books, as I have mentioned before, when they bring extra materials and worksheets, they can be very valuable if used right. I don’t like giving worksheets for the students to do out of context, just for “extra practice”. I would rather use them in a revision section the way I did today or to save them for fast finishers.

Of course some students did more activities than others, but they all seemed to agree that it was an useful kind of revision. There was even time to do a “learning to learn” activity that the course book suggests doing after each unit.

Nothing is perfect, though. Looking back, I think students would have also benefited from a fast chat before they could choose activities to talk about what we have learned and to test each other in pairs. I would do that with can do statements, for example, “I can name school subjects” or “I can tell the time using half past, quarter to, quarter past”, where they would tick or cross. This way, I believe students would be better able to define what they needed to do.

Finally, I really enjoyed doing this today because it is one of my goals this semester to promote autonomous learning in class and students showed they are ready. I have noticed that students nowadays rely so much on the teacher and parents to do things for them, even to plan their study schedule, while they could be doing it themselves. I plan to write more on autonomous learning soon.