English only in English class by Leon Butchers

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.

Note: This article by Leon Butchers originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.


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10 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks, Leon! I agree that an English-only class is our goal, and that there are many different ways to achieve that. I always remind myself that parents aren’t paying me to practice my Japanese 🙂

    My students like to play card games. In order for me to “let” them play a game, I tell them that it needs to be good English practice, too. Otherwise they should probably play the game with friends at home. They came up with the English-only rule for the chatter that goes along with the game (Oh, no! Here you are. Thank you. Sorry! etc.) and that rule breakers had to take another card. Yesterday I left them to play while I set up for our next activity and heard them policing each other (No Japanese!) — and no one was upset or angry about being caught or having to take a card. It was lovely to see, and to hear all the extra English that they’d managed to include in a game.

  2. Eric Kane says:

    Really solid advice here. I think Lean hits the nail on the head when he stresses that it takes time to establish routines and expectations. It’s not magic, right? 🙂

    I use self-awareness questions in class a lot with kids. If a child says something in Japanese, I ask the class or that student, “Was that English?” When I get a, “no” I ask how we could say it in English. It takes a bad behavior and turns it into a group teaching moment. I’ve also found that allowing students to ask, “How do you say ~?” can be helpful, but you do have to be careful about it becoming overwhelming.

    Thanks for the thoughts, Leon!

  3. Rose Bard says:

    It’s always good to read/learn what others do. Thanks Leo. This really reminds us that there are other ways of achieving a goal.
    When we play games especially I use the lose point approach. They have to use English only and whoever uses L1, loses a point. I’ve had classes that were totally Portuguese free because of lose point approach. Your post Leo reminded me that right now it is something I might be neglecting in my own classes with beginners and mixed-levels.

    I like the idea of taking one more card Barbara. I should try this with my own students too.

    Eric, I totally agree that this can become a good moment in itself. After a reflection with a colleague few weeks ago, I started doing just that. And I noticed that some of them ask even further questions about what was just said and everyone learners.

    Thanks for the reminders and ideas everyone.

    🙂 Rose

  4. Hi, Great read bro thanks for share. Now english is the national language in many country and around all country have there official language.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    One thing I wanted to say in the post, but left out, cos it seemed to contradict my point (so I will contradict myself now, instead!)…

    I think that there are times when allowing a little L1 can improve a lesson. I guess that the distinction for me is that it should be done consciously as opposed to a reflex action (I.e. with students that are already under control in this regard) , done sparingly as a last resort, and it should be justifiable in terms of that interaction improves the lesson somehow.

    I.e. a student should ask permission beforehand, and a good reason might be to check a word’s meaning, or perhaps a situation where a quick explanation in the native language can avoid a drawn out and confusing explanation in English.

    Anyone agree with me here, or have any thoughts on when it is justifiable to address students in their L1 and vice versa, if ever?


  6. Well, while it is true that it can be a little difficult in the beginning to switch from one’s native language to English all of a sudden, it becomes more a reflexive than an awkward feeling once you are habitual. That means when you are doing it on a daily basis, you need not put too much effort while trying to express your views in English. It’s like you have simply changed your mode of communication from one language to another.
    A great read!

  7. SmileTutor says:

    Absolutely loved this article and your story about the hardcore chatterer boy! Indeed, using rewards and punishment is a very effective approach in dealing with kids. I will take to heart to teach my home tutors to implement this strategy more often from now on. Once again, thanks for the great read!

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