Scaffolding: help them out a bit

This weekend a teacher posed what is perhaps the most asked question in ELT: how do you stop them speaking in their L1?


Undoubtedly, the teachers out there reading this blog will probably immediately react by saying either “yip, I know that situation” or “there’s loads of ways to stop it!” And I’d agree, there are lots of techniques to discourage the use of L1 in the classroom.

However, why throw a multitude of quick-fixes at the problem when we could, somewhat more wisely, ask ourselves what causes the problem: why do Young Learners use L1 in the classroom?

Some of the root causes are quite obvious. For example, it’s natural for anyone to communicate in their L1; it’s even more natural for Young Leaners. Unlike adults, who can quite consciously choose to communicate in different ways, children haven’t developed the ability to control their emotions and actions 100% yet. They will develop this as they mature and become adults. So, it shouldn’t really surprise a teacher when a child gets excited because their team is winning in a game and they shout out “we’re winning” in their L1.

However, a particular aspect of this cause is often overlooked by many ELT professionals. We teachers take it for granted that our learners can produced all the necessary phrases for communication which concern classroom management, such as “can I have pen”, “I’ve finished” and “can I go to the toilet, please?” We assume our learners know these because they’re quite simplistic and ‘easy’ to string together.

However, I do wonder how ‘easy’ such phrases really are for our learners, especially the younger ones. At the moment I’m teaching in Poland. The Polish equivalent for “can I have a pen”, when translated literally, is ‘could Mr borrow to me a pen?’ Pretty different from English.

In fact, I reckon the vast majority of phrases and expressions which learners should be using every lesson, from those for use when communicating with the teacher to those for when comparing work with partners, are probably very specific, idiomatic and very often said in L1.

Teaching Young Learners is all about classroom management and getting them into good habits. So how do we remove L1 from the classroom?

Now that we know one cause of the problem, the solution is very simple: give your learners the words and phrases they need to communicate at all stages of the lesson.

I feel that lexicon is better retained when it is given to learners in the moment when they really need it. If little Max comes to you and says “can I…” and points to your pen, he’ll probably remember the word ‘pen’ better because you’re giving it to him at a moment of real communication.

During lessons as and when real gaps in their communicative knowledge become apparent, I fill them by drilling the phrase they need and writing it on the W/B in a separate column. During the lesson we add to that column.

At the beginning and end of every lesson I quiz them on these lexical items, often through charades, and the team to say it first gets points. I also recycle vocabulary from previous lessons. When I feel they know it and I hear them speaking in Polish at a time when they could have used one of our learnt expressions, then I take points from their team.

So, to sum up, very much like how we scaffold other parts of lesson (e.g. pre-teaching vocabulary before listening) we also have to think about what words our learners need to communicate in class, provide them with those words and phrases, and slowly but surely remove L1 from the classroom.

*Image courtesy of Tom Walton at IH Barcelona

6 thoughts on “Scaffolding: help them out a bit

  1. Better than ridding the classroom of young learners’ L1, consider it as a resource to promote understanding of content and as a bridge to L2. Don’t discourage any tool that promotes learning. Create lessons that make L2 exciting, engaging and attractive, and allow the use of L1 as a scaffold.


    1. I did that for a while, letting them use L1 in the classroom as a way of explaining and understanding. For example, I’d give instructions and for those who didn’t understand, the other learners would explain in L1. What I found however after a while was that it didn’t stimulate any learning and some became dependent on getting a translation every time and they didn’t develop the listening skills to pick out isolated words in natural native speech.


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