Issues and ideas for a monolingual context

By Thomas Entwistle

When learners are in a group where all their classmates are proficient in the same L1, this is referred to as a monolingual class or context. This is very common when students are studying in their own country in a non-English speaking environment (NESE), like in East Asian countries. As students usually share very similar cultural identities, similar backgrounds in education, similar learning preferences and live in the same NESE, some common issues can arise in monolingual contexts.

This article provides some background and an introduction to three key issues associated with teaching English in a monolingual context. These are:

  1. Poor environment for language acquisition
  2. L1 in the classroom
  3. Student engagement with material

With each of the above issues, this article also provides some simple and effective ideas to use in and out of class to the benefit of our learners.

Key issues and ideas

1. Poor environment for language acquisition

In monolingual classes, learners obviously have much less chance for English interaction outside the class than students in English-speaking environments (ESEs) i.e. in native English-speaking countries like the UK or Australia. This means our learners don’t get the benefit of an English-rich environment outside of the class.

Turning a poor language environment into chances for acquisition
Setting monolingual learners out-of-class English activities can train them to engage with English outside the classroom. This also promotes future learner autonomy and encourages lifelong language learning among the students (Brown, 2001); not to mention, help with motivation as they begin to improve. It is thus beneficial to make our students aware that, even though they are in a NESE, there are still English opportunities outside the class that they can take advantage of.

Record keeping, logs, and diaries are simple ways to develop learners’ English language abilities and develop language learning skills. Here are some ideas to help our learners exploit their surroundings and turn their day-to-day lives into moments where learning can take place.


  • Listening logs: students can keep a log of any English they hear outside the class, e.g. an overheard conversation, TV shows or films, adverts, announcements, etc. Students can reflect on their logs by considering the situation in which the listening took place and keep a record of anything they learned.
  • Signs and posters: students can take pictures of English signs they see and then analyse them. Are the signs instructional, informative, or descriptive? Are there any mistakes? This can promote noticing and students’ understanding of different genres.
  • Scrapbooks and diaries: students keep a scrapbook of their daily life. For example, they can stick a cinema ticket stub in the scrapbook and write a brief summary of the film, or, draw a picture of a meal and label what they ate and if they liked it or not and why.

These exercises can be introduced and encouraged and then the students can manage the projects themselves. Alternatively, they can be set up and then periodically returned to and discussed in class. These types of activities also show students in monolingual contexts that there is a lot more English outside of class than they may realize and there are learning opportunities all around them.

2. L1 in the classroom

The most obvious difference between monolingual and multilingual classes is the varying amount of L1s, i.e. in monolingual classes, there is only one native language whereas in multilingual classes there are multiple native languages. This can lead to students in monolingual classes often lapsing into their L1, which can negatively impact on the lesson. However, there can be negative effects of an English only policy in monolingual classes so the judicious use of L1 in class should be considered, coupled alongside English language input to help reduce the overuse of L1.

When to allow it & how to limit overuse
I think most teachers can get frustrated when our learners lapse into L1. Of course, we want our students to be using English as much as possible but there are some compelling reasons for the judicious use of L1 (in my context, Japanese) in class.

Why L1 use applies to monolingual classes in Japan:

  • Comprehension checks: new grammar structures or words in context should be taught in English, but simple comprehension checks can be quickly done in the students’ L1 (Carson & Kashihara, 2012).
  • Learner preferences: for students in monolingual contexts, translation can often form part of their preferred learning strategy (Atkinson, 1993). This is particularly true for monolingual contexts where translation is a large part of their English education in school.
  • Cultural identity: monolingual students may resent English if they feel it’s forced upon them (Brown, 2001). I think we can all think of a time when trying to keep an all English environment felt like a losing battle.

One way to help mitigate the overuse of L1 is to introduce useful classroom interactional language to broaden students’ key conversational phrases to help them continue a conversation or exercise naturally in English.


  • Clarifying meaning: What do you mean? What does that mean?
  • Changing the topic: Anyway, by the way, so
  • Reactions: Really? That’s good! Wow! Sorry to hear that
  • Checking answers: What did you put? What’s your answer for number 1?

It’s important to teach students these phrases as, once learners have fully internalised them and can use them much more automatically, they can make a big difference to classroom interaction. This focus on teaching is particularly important as such phrases are often relegated to a small box in textbooks and so can be easily overlooked.

3. Student engagement with material

We often have little or no choice over what topics or units we must teach and are provided with coursebooks by our schools. These coursebooks are often developed for the global market and are produced for predominantly multilingual contexts. General topics such as Sports, The Weather, Business work well in multilingual contexts as learners bring their pre-existing knowledge and background to the classroom, thus negating the generality of the topic. However, learners in monolingual contexts using these global textbooks can often become less engaged with the material as they can often predict the answer their classmate will give.

From Apathy to Engagement
One way to engage learners is to bring in pop-culture into the class. Here are a few ways in which pop-culture can help with student engagement.


  • We’ve all had to teach particularly dry units on The Weather, or Energy at one time or another. One way to engage students is with movie stills. The students can identify types of weather in the images, describe the images, write about them, etc. This can be done as a warm-up to activate schemata, to practise a grammar point, or use new vocabulary in context.


  • Play a short clip from a current music video or film. Have the students write down as many examples of the target language as they can. Verbs of movement work well for action scenes, for example, or describing clothes in music videos.

Furthermore, conducting a simple needs analysis questionnaire can help us find out what the students feel they can do, what they want to learn, what they need to learn, and how they like to learn. Such analyses are not an exact science so a mixture of objective information (e.g. facts on learners’ previous English experience) and subjective information (e.g. self-assessments) is needed to ascertain learners’ wants and needs (Richards, 1990). This can help us then pick and choose which activities in our books to focus on and which to ignore.

Final thoughts

As teachers of monolingual groups, we are often faced with some, or a combination of the issues outlined above. By tackling them, we can help our students become more motivated, autonomous, and engaged and foster good lifelong English learning.


Atkinson, D. (1993). Teaching Monolingual Classes. Mass: Longman

Brown, D, H. (2001). Teaching by Principles. Mass: Longman

Carson, E. & Kashihara, H. (2012). Using the L1 in the L2 classroom: The students speak. The Language Teacher 36(4). 41-48.

Richards, J. (1990). The Language Teaching Matrix. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author's bio: Thomas Entwistle started teaching in North London in 2010 before moving to Nagoya, Japan in 2012. Thomas is Delta qualified through International House London and currently works for the British Council at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. Thomas spends his free time with his two young sons.