Reducing L1

by Anthony Ash

During my CELTA, I was told I should never revert to the learners L1 nor let the learners speak it. I think my tutors said this because they viewed the English Language Classroom as a place where all opportunities of speaking English should be maximised. Of course, making the most of opportunities to practise English doesn´t mean L1 has to be completely banned from the classroom. In fact, the current trend is encouraging a move towards incorporating L1 effectively into the classroom. For example: Woolard (2013) states in his book Messages that there should be a reintroduction of “forms of translation into the ELT classroom” and the coursebook series Outcomes by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley includes several translation activities.

However, although there is a clear place for the L1 in the classroom, it is also true that many teachers, of both Young Learners and adults, struggle with their learners overusing L1. Asking for a clarification of a lexical item or trying to make sense of a grammatical structure by translating it are both examples of effective use of L1 – this sort of engagement with the language should be encouraged. However, sitting chatting in the L1, making jokes, and not trying to use English to complete exercises or games is what I call in this article unnecessary uses of L1. It is such uses which I hope the three classroom ideas below can help to tackle.

Over the years of teaching, I have come across numerous approaches to reducing L1 – some have been significantly more effective than others. However, there are three which are noteworthy, largely due to their universal application: whether you teach an adult group or a group of 8 year olds, these three should help.

(1)   The Point Slider

This could be something which you draw on the board or something physical you bring to each lesson. It is a vertical scale with 100 points starting from 0 and going up in 10s. You start each lesson at the same point every time, e.g. at 0 or at 50 or at 100. I would recommend starting at 50 as this allows for the most effective use of the slider, which is to award points for good behaviour, and most importantly for good use of functional English, and to deduct points for poor behaviour. You could also deduct points if learners use L1 unnecessarily in the classroom e.g. talking to their friends in L1 instead of working on the task.

The slider has two major advantages: it allows for other classroom rules to be applied to it, e.g. not doing your homework could result in points being deducted as well as shouting out or not putting your hand up; it also promotes a sense of team spirit on a whole class level, with learners egging each other on to do well and to use English to gain more points. This is significantly reinforced with a tangible prize at the end of a certain number of lessons, e.g. some chocolate or an extra long break if the group has reach 1000 points by the end of 15 lessons.

The major disadvantage, however, is there may be a learner who persists in using L1 as they do not see the need to conform to the group spirit and are willing to sacrifice class points for their own amusement.

2)   The P Card

The P card (so named after my learners’ mother tongue when I was teaching in Poland) is somewhat of a red-card system. A teacher has a card, often red in colour, with the letter P on it. When a learner uses L1 unnecessarily during a lesson, they are given the P card. The aim of the game is not to have the P card by the end of the lesson, as the consequence might be a shorter break, more homework or a forfeit. After a lesson the horror of this card is quite quickly established, among both adults and Young Learners, and the effect is anyone who gets the card will usually listen out carefully for someone else speaking L1 in the lesson in order to give the card to them. The big advantage of this is that instances of L1 usage which the teacher would often miss through being concentrated on the lesson are picked up by the learners themselves. This helps to place a certain level of responsibility into to the learners’ hands. The potential disadvantage is a learner viewing the P Card as a token of freedom: if I have this I can therefore use L1. To my experience, this attitude quickly disappears when they see the consequence is more homework or no break. Some professionals may view this as ‘punishment’ but it is no more a punishment than reducing points for bad behaviour, which is often well-received as a form of classroom management, especially with YLs.

(3) Team Points

In my opinion, this is the most effective system. Although it was an idea which I originally put together for use with my Young Learner classes, it works perfectly well and very effectively with teens and adults.

One of my Young Learner groups has nine students, with each learner belonging to one of three teams: The Tigers, The Pandas, and The Koalas. At the beginning of each lesson the team names are on the board with three points. If a member of a team answers questions, uses English well and participates, the whole team is awarded points; if a team member uses L1, does not have their homework or misbehaves, the whole team loses points. The team members do not have to sit together; they do not even have to work together: it is only important that they know which team they belong to and who is in their team. They always remain members of their given team.

The greatest advantage of this approach is that it builds a great sense of team spirit. The team members support each other and look to each other for good performance to gain more points. When a learner is awarded points for outstanding English, the other teams desperately want to do the same and will start to show off. Amazingly, this has exactly the same results for adults as it does for children: the rivalry among the adult team is impressive and a team member is badly scorned for using L1 out of fear of losing points. However, with the adult groups, I let them choose their own team names.

And the disadvantage? I have yet to find one.

Asking learners, be it politely or sternly, to refrain from speaking L1 will be temporarily effective at best of times. However, giving them something to play for, recognising and awarding their good use of English, will see a reduction in the unnecessary use of L1.

Author’s Bio: Anthony´s ELT career started with the CELTA at IH Wroclaw in 2011. He has since taught in the UK, Germany, Poland and Argentina. He did the Delta at IH Newcastle in 2014 and is currently the Assistant Director of Studies at IH Buenos Aires. His interests include Linguistics, Teacher Training and Professional Development, which he regularly blogs about at


H. Dellar et. A. Walkley (2014) Outcomes. New York: Cengage Learning

G. Woolard (2013) Messages. The Round.