Most teachers would agree that ideally only English should be spoken in English class. However, in practice this is often more easily said than done. It’s easy to see why students struggle – young minds whir away 24/7 in their native language, so suddenly changing into English mode is somewhat akin to a right hander being told to only use their left hand for an hour a week! For me, mastering this aspect of classroom management is still a work in progress, and one that I have to re-deal with periodically. First year students are the most challenging, but there are plenty of “hard nuts” with ingrained bad habits that will unconsciously chatter away in their native tongue seemingly no matter what you try! Looking back, I became much more effective at managing classroom chatter over the years and these days it is rarely a problem. I would like to share a few insights gleaned through my own experiences, trial and error, study and conversations with other teachers.
Be consistent, realistic and patient:
Make your expectations clear from the start, but be patient – it can take several months of consistent effort before students really get it. I prefer to gently lead students in this direction by making them feel good about the challenge . i.e. I’m always sure to praise students in front of others when they make a good effort to use English. I point out (non English) chatter, without going overboard to the point where it affects flow. In other words – don’t spend a whole lot of time and energy trying to achieve this goal overnight, but gently push kids in the right direction.
Students can also be trained to catch each other out. If you use the phrases “English only please!”, or “Don’t speak Japanese, please!”, your students will start using them too with a little encouragement. It can also help to periodically get an assistant to address your students and their parents in their native language about what you are doing and why it is important.
How to break a hard-core chatterer:
A while back, I had a ten year old student that was a hard core chatterer. Seemingly no matter what I tried he would freely babble away in Japanese moments later. He had been studying for a few years, and was doing okay overall. The problem was, all the other kids in the class were trained to only speak English in class, yet this one boy just didn’t get it! One day I had a flash of inspiration that fixed the problem within a fortnight: I walked into class and placed fifteen points on his desk (in my lessons with younger kids, I often reward kids with points that can be exchanged for goodies at the school shop. Sure, there are some pros and cons to this approach, but I’ll leave that for another article…) Anyway, fifteen points was more than a lesson’s worth of reward. The boy was delighted and confused. His peers were jealous. That lesson, every time the boy spoke Japanese, much to his horror I took away a point. By lesson’s end, he’d lost all his bonus points and was a little upset. The next lesson however, when I put ten points on his desk, I was only able to catch him out a couple of times all lesson, and he couldn’t wipe the smile off his face! The following week, I only gave him five bonus points, and he kept them all! He got it, and never looked back!
An English lesson in English!
It’s really satisfying as a teacher to have your class free from foreign chatter. Students will learn faster and importantly practice engaging their brain in English, too. Parents are impressed, too! I strongly recommend making the process fun – appeal to students’ love of praise, and their competitive and fun-loving natures. This gets much better results than entering into a battle of wills. If you go about things the right way, you will reach your goal smoothly and naturally. If you feel like you are continually battling students over this issue or this aspect of classroom management is eating into too much class time, chances are you need to try a different tack. Best of luck! I’m interested to hear of other teacher’s experiences and thoughts.
Leon Butchers is the creator of the best selling AGO card game series. Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand he has taught English in Japan for over ten years.