The Middle Path: L1 as a Superb Resource by Joris Van Den Bosch

18/01/2017 - 15:41

A plethora of teacher training courses warn teachers against the use of L1 in language learning classes, whereas some encourage it. Which one is the “right” one, though? In his new post for our blog, BELTA member and last year’s BELTA Day presenter, Joris Van Den Bosch shows us what he calls the Middle Path: how to utilise it in class and what benefits it can potentially have.

The Middle Path: L1 as a Superb Resource by Joris Van Den Bosch

I have had two enlightening moments in my professional career: the first one when I did my TEFL course 10 years ago in Ban Phe, Thailand and the second one when I started working as an EAL teacher at the British School of Brussels.

A few days into my TEFL course I taught my first ever lesson in a Thai high school. I was absolutely terrified but loved every minute of it. My instructor showed me how much fun and how creative teaching could be, a huge contrast with my own schooling in Belgium. I found my calling and have now taught in Thailand, Vietnam, Spain and now in my home country, Belgium.

I was instructed to teach in “English only”, giving the learners maximum exposure, and so I did. I never used my students’ L1 and actually told students off for using it. For the five years I taught in Spain the students never knew I understood or spoke Spanish.

The use of home languages in the ESL/EAL classroom is still the subject of intense debate but for me it is not a question of only using English or of teachers using L1 as the language of instruction. There is a middle path in which the students’ L1 can be used as a superb learning tool. This became clear to me whilst working as an EAL teacher at an international secondary school. Unless I started learning Czech, Japanese, Estonian, Spanish, Russian, etc. an English-only speaking class would be my only option. However, because of all their different linguistic backgrounds, cultures, levels of English and the academic content I need to prepare them for, using L1 greatly benefits and speeds up the students’ language development.

EAL learners will comprehend the content more easily in English if they already know it in their L1. Imagine having to explain “desertification” for instance. If the students already know the concept in their L1 we just need to enable them to make that connection. Once they have the aha-moment students then need to produce (speaking or writing) these academic words correctly in context.

The most conventional way to make that connection is to use a good old-fashioned dictionary, a translating device or Google Translate. However there are many ways in which teachers can enhance the use of students’ L1 in a more fun and effective way. In my BELTA talk last year, “My classroom, a HOME for EAL learners”, I already outlined some creative activities in which home languages could be used. You can find these on the blog I wrote for Hugh Dellar’s and Andrew Walkley’s Lexicallab website:

In addition I can highly recommend Philip Kerr’s recent publication on this trending topic, “Translation and Own-language activities”. This book provides structured, practical advice and guidance for using students’ own languages within ELT classrooms and examines the relationship between translation and intercultural understanding.

This year, at IATEFL, I will present a dozen or so tested new activities that have had my students’ stamp of approval in the past years. The following two are good examples of what to expect.

Example 1: The Class’s Translator

As a lesson starter or activity consider using a video clip in one of the many home languages of your learners. That student should then come to the front of the class, play the video and ask the other students what they think was said. This is a great moment in which the teacher can assess students’ pre-existing knowledge. Then the student at the front plays the video for a second time and translates the script to the class.

Here is an example of a video I used as a warmer activity for a text on the history of the pizza. Have a go and guess what was said!

Example 2: Academic Word Count

A while ago I handed out a reading comprehension on Viruses (from Reading Explorer 3, Cengage). The students’ body language was pretty clear. Oh no, more reading! That was the moment I came up with the following activity: They were to put the reading into a drawing and were also allowed to translate a certain number of academic words. They then had to come and present/retell a summarized version of the text to me, with the help of their drawing and translated words. The one goal of the exercise was for them to identify and use correctly as many academic words as possible. I would count these words during their presentation and then give them a score for ACADEMIC WORD COUNT.

I didn’t grade the students, but set a target of how many words I would like to hear. This gave me the opportunity to differentiate according to the students’ abilities. It really motivated them again and they had to read and understand the text in-depth to be able to pull it off. It took a few 50-minute lessons, but it was well worth it and they all enjoyed the activity.

Activities using the learners’ L1 will also significantly increase learner autonomy. Students with different needs and abilities will be able to work more independently when they can make use of their pre-existing knowledge.

I believe that we are finally turning a page. More and more ESL experts are becoming advocates of the benefits of using L1 as a resource, rather than viewing it as a hindrance to learning. I do hope material writers start to include some of these activities in their teachers’ text books.

I would love for you to give me some feedback on this article and hope to see you all at IATEFL or BELTA in April.

About Joris

Joris has spent the last five years working as a secondary school EAL teacher at the British School of Brussels. He teaches English as an additional language to a wide range of international 11-to-14-year-olds and supports them in accessing the mainstream English curriculum. He started his teaching career in 2005 after completing a TEFL course in Thailand, and taught ESL in language academies in Thailand, Vietnam and Spain before returning to Belgium, his home country. He has great passion for international minded teaching and teaching methodologies for the intercultural multilingual classroom.

You can connect with Joris on Twitter: Follow @JorisEAL