The Benefits of L1 In the ESL/EFL Classroom

     There are many benefits of incorporating the students' own language in adult ESL/EFL classes, especially those for beginning students, who know little or no English.

     In doing some research on the issue I came across a few articles that focus on what we commonly called the Bilingual Approach.

     Below is the reference and excerpts from one article by Philip Kerr:

     “The learner’s own language,” by Philip Kerr, Freelance, Austria Abstract

     From: ExELL (Explorations in English Language and Linguistics) 3.1 (2015): 1-7 DOI: 10.1515/exell-2016-0007 Original scientific article

     The learner’s own language (commonly referred to as ‘L1’ or ‘first language’) has been neglected as a resource in the learning of another language and, in some  contexts, it has been banned altogether. The arguments in favour of own-language exclusion are not supported by research and the policy is not followed by a              majority of teachers.

     A reconsideration of these arguments and an awareness of practical suggestions for drawing on the learners’ own language as a resource for learning may help language teachers to enrich their repertoire of teaching techniques and activities.

     Despite its centrality to the processes of learning and teaching another language, own-language use has, until quite recently, been largely absent from discussions of English language teaching methodology.

     Early editions of the most widely used teacher training manuals (e.g. Harmer, 1983; Scrivener, 1994) paid scant attention to the topic. It is absent from the syllabus of pre-service training courses such as CELTA (the Cambridge Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and is very rarely the subject of ELT conference presentations.

     It has been ‘treated as a pariah in almost all the fashionable high-profile language teaching theories of the 20th century – so much so that towards the end of that century, other than at university level, it was no longer discussed in the acaUnauthenticated Download Date | 10/14/16 5:02 PM ISSN 2303-4858       2 3.1 (2015): 1-7 Philip Kerr:

     The learner’s own language is (basicaly absent) from literature as a serious candidate for aiding the learning of a new language’ (Cook, 2010: xv).

     Instead, there has been a mostly unquestioned assumption that the best way to learn and teach English is through English, and English alone. This assumption finds concrete expression in the complete banning of the learners’ own language in some institutions around the world (see, for example, Mouhanna, 2009; Littlewood & Yu, 2011).

For the entire article go to:

Paul Rogers


(Just added the link to the OCTAE webinar with Susan Pimentel focused on standards and ELL to this message. See below.)

Hello Paul and all, Thank you, Paul, for sharing these thoughts and the link to the article about the value of a bilingual approach. We have known for some time that drawing upon the primary language in strategic ways is important. The "What Works in Adult ESOL Literacy Students" study conducted by  and Larry Condelli, Heide Spruck Wrigley, and Kwang Yoon (2002)  and summarized in an interview with Heide Wrigley in Focus on Basics  in 2003 showed:

"Judicious use of the native language made a difference in both reading and oral language skill acquisition as shown by results on standardized tests. We didn't have any native language literacy classes, and we didn't have any classes in which teachers did a great deal of translating for the students. But students had higher gains when the students in the class shared a language - (in our case, Spanish) - and the teacher was bilingual and used Spanish here and there, to give instructions, or to clarify, or to offer a quick translation of a difficult term. In classes with other language groups, the group either spoke multiple languages, as was the case in Seattle and New York, or the teacher was not bilingual, as was the case with Somali and Hmong classes. 

The classes where the teacher used the native language here and there had higher gains. This makes sense, particularly for literacy students who had little English, because their brains are busy trying to speak, to figure out print, to understand what the teacher wants, all while dealing with a new language and a new culture."

Moreover, there is a growing consensus among experts who focus on K12 that supporting students by drawing upon the primary language is critical. In a recent webinar sponsored by OCTAE and presented by Susan Pimentel, this very point was emphasized.

I would like to add some more evidence to this discussion.  An action research study conducted by one of my graduate students a couple of years ago also showed positive results for bilingual support. In this case, the high school ESL teacher, who was my grad student, collaborated with a nurse educator to plan instruction for a medical terminology class. The class was diverse and included students from several language backgrounds. The students  worked in heterogeneous groups of four to study the medical terminology. The groups were formed strategically so that there were two fluent English speakers and two English learners who spoke the same language -- one low level and one high level. The students studied the medical terminology together as a group. The high level language learner supported his or her classmate by explaining in the home language. The results on vocabulary tests over the semester showed that all the students improved, and the lower level English learners improved the most-- compared to what the beginning language learners had been doing previously, which was basically just studying on their own.

Teaching bilingually in a diverse class with multiple languages is not feasible; however, as shown in my grad student's action research, finding ways to strategically draw upon the home language is both possible and important.

Further comments --as well as questions-- on this critically important issue are welcome!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Susan, thanks for your report and research on the bilingual approach.  There is just one point I  would like to make concerning the feasibility of using L1 when there are students from different linguistic backgrounds. First, I assume that for at least two months beginning students all study and learn a Basic Vocabulary (the alphabet, numbers, greetings, food, the house, etc.). All that is necessary is for the students to use their own dictionaries to translate the vocabulary in a separate notebook. Perhaps a picture dictionary could be shared. Google Translate also works well. It would be helpful if the students compared their languages in class. I had a class years ago with 20 Spanish speakers and 5 Hindi speakers, and the class worked well in this manner. Now with so much online, it should be a lot easier, especially if there are computers in the class. If there are no computers, Smart Phones can be used. This approach may appear to be too time consuming, but the benefits would offset this disadvantage. The issue to me is that learning a foreign language bilingually is simply better and makes it easier for the students. Beginning students in particular need support, and enjoy the class more,  reducing the “dropout” rate and attracting new students to the program. I also hope that this topic generates some good discussion. Paul

Teaching English using a bilingual approach can be beneficial for those that have limited native language literacy and language experience. It is harder for adults to learn and progress if they do not know the word/ concept or term to relate to in their own language. With that said, it is also not easy to follow  this approach if a given class is multilevel and multilingual. Teachers will have to decide how they use this method based on the students they are teaching. It is also not easy, if the student body is from an oral culture background. In my experience, it has worked well with  limited literate Spanish speakers, but not with Chinese or Japanese.

Teaching pronunciation from day one using phonetic method helps students to not only pronounce words but also to listen and identify the beginning, middle and ending sounds. This is necessary to understand everyday conversation outside of class where people are not intonating words to accommodate non native speakers.

I would rather haves students with no English speaking back ground than students with wrong pronunciation  and speaking skills. Then the  first task of the teacher is to help students to unlearn the fossilized speaking and pronunciation and relearn the correct pronunciation. I am dealing with several students now. It is frustrating and embarrassing

 for the students to realize that they have been speaking wrong all along. It is very easy to for us to see that these students pronounce the words as they heard not necessarily how it was pronounced. We have transcribing vocabulary as warm up activity, and use that as a guide to emphasize and point out the missed sounds and syllables. This has also helped us to figure out if students actually have a hearing problem. Weak hearing especially in older students, turned out to be one of the most common problem with pronunciation. Bilingual dictionaries and electronic devices are great tools for students. We allow students to use what they are comfortable with.

Hi Anitha, I appreciate your weighing in on this discussion. Pronunciation is, no doubt, one of the biggest challenges for many learners of English. Could you say more about the phonetic method you use?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Hi Paul, I think having students compare their language to English can be very helpful. This can be done on the spot such as by asking students how they say certain vocabulary words in their language or asking how a sentence would be constructed in their language.Comparing the sound systems of the two languages is also interesting. I'm sure you do this routinely with the Spanish speakers you work with.

It could also be much more involved. For example, while I typically teach in a regular, federally funded adult education program, a few years ago, I taught a class at a company (funded by the company) for scientists and engineers who were working to improve their English communication skills. The employees in this class did a short research project comparing various aspects of English to their own language and then presented their findings to their colleagues. In this case, participants represented a range of language backgrounds. This assignment was a useful exercise since it gave the participants and me valuable insights into how the languages differed, thereby helping us to prioritize specific goals for individuals.

Would love to hear how others draw upon the primary language as a resource in class!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP