Using L1 with Young Learners

Should English teachers use the native language in class with young learners?

There is an ongoing debate surrounding this question.  It’s been going on for years and I’m sure the end of the discussion is nowhere in sight.  A google search on the ‘use of L1 with young learners’ will provide the reader with an ample source of arguments that go both ways.  I believe that each teacher needs to find their own answer to this question depending on their style of teaching, the needs of their young learners and the characteristics of their teaching situation.  For example, using L1 in the classroom would not be feasible if the pupils did not share the same the native language or if the teacher did not speak it.

Let me start off by saying that I do use the native language (in this case Spanish) in my classroom with my young learners, especially my very young learners (ages four and five).  I believe that there are instances when using their native language is beneficial to the pupils or their learning in some way.

Very young children are often nervous and sometimes scared the first few days of class.  They don’t know me but they’ve been left in the classroom with me and a bunch of other children that they may or may not know.  This can be overwhelming for a little one and getting them to feel comfortable requires a lot of compassionate smiles and hearty encouragement from the teacher.  This is when I believe L1 is a necessity.  These little ones need to know that the teacher understands them and can interact with them in their own language.  It makes them feel secure and helps to lower their affective filter.

I also use L1 when it comes to classroom management.  I’ve found that using just five minutes of class at the beginning of the school year to discuss why it’s better to take turns at speaking and raise your hand than having everyone talk at once works wonders throughout the rest of the course.  Young learners need to understand what the rules mean and why they should follow them.  The teacher can use L2 to demonstrate this meaning but I feel that L1 is more concise.  I would rather spend time practicing target language than trying to get them to understand the classroom rules in English.

Using the native language in the classroom can also help develop skills for independent learning.  Simple instructions such as ‘Read and match’ or ‘Listen and number’ can easily be explained and demonstrated in L2.  I sometimes use L1 to go a little deeper, asking them not only to color the number they see but also to say it in English in their heads while they’re coloring.  With pupils who are old enough to read and work with written texts, we talk about how to approach a new text, how to skim for a general understanding and then how to scan when searching for the answers to questions.  These are skills that they’ll take with them and hopefully use with even more profiency in the future.  All of this can be explained and demonstrated in L2 but, again, using L1 means that we spend less time on the instructions and more time on carrying them out.  On a side note, it’s important to remember that young learners have considerably less experience with tasks such as answering questions about a text than adults or teens do.  They’re only just beginning to understand the steps involved and the reasoning behind them.  I find that using L1 (at least during the first time we try a new type of task) is helpful because it’s one less complication they have to deal with.  Once they get the hang of how to do these types of tasks, using L2 to explain and discuss provides enrichment instead of a hindrance.

It may seem like I use quite a lot of the native language in my classroom.  I think this is true during the first couple weeks of class when we’re setting up routines and getting to know the course expectations.  As the school year goes on, however, I use progressively less L1 in the classroom.  Pupils gain a certain base of knowledge during those first couple weeks related to the meaning of instructions and rules.  Subsequently, they use my explanations in English coupled with the gestures and miming I always use in order to figure out what they should be doing.

Finding the right amount of L1 to use can be tricky.  The native language has its usefulness in the classroom but as teachers, we also need to be careful not to rely on it too heavily.  If the teacher always uses L1 to backup their explanations in English, pupils will inevitably tune out the version in L2 and wait for the translation.  The teacher needs to be aware of how much L1 is necessary and attempt to limit its use to that minimum.

Whether or not to use the native language in the classroom, when to use it and how to use it are all very personal choices that I believe each teacher needs to decide for themselves.  I use L1 at specific times during lessons and for specific reasons: to make little ones feel more secure, to save time and to delve a bit deeper into explanations of instructions and rules.  Using the right dose of the native language in the classroom can be an effective tool but it should not be used as a crutch.  It’s up to the teacher to find and implement the most favorable balance of L1 and L2 to suit their learners’ needs.

These are my views on using the native language with young learners.  Do you agree? Do you disagree?  How much or how little do you use L1 in your classroom?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section.  Thanks!

About careymicaela

I've been teaching Young Learners and Very Young Learners for over ten years now. My degrees are in Psychology and Spanish. I also completed my TEFL certification in Madrid and the Ih Young Learners Course in Seville. I enjoy working with children and sharing those experiences with other teachers. In my free time (when that exists!) I like to read, listen to music, practice yoga and go on long cycling routes.
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6 Responses to Using L1 with Young Learners

  1. ashowski says:

    Nice post! You’re right – it is a tricky topic and I agree, each teacher needs to make their own judgement about it. You’ve clearly put a lot of thought into this and you’ve developed a set of principles on how/where/why/when you use L1 in the classroom.

    I was wondering, when do your YL use L1? Are there times they are allowed/not allowed to use it?


  2. careymicaela says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I used to use a red card system with my older YLs (ages 8-10). Whenever they used L1 I would give them a red card. If they got to three red cards, their participation mark for that day was affected (slightly). It was more of a way to keep track of how much L1 they were using plus it gave them concrete and visual proof that they were putting in the right amount of effort to speak English or not.

    I stopped using this system because it began to feel stilted and unnatural. When pupils ask me questions or talk to me in L1 now, I simply ask them how they could express it in L2. If they’re stuck, I try to provide them with the word or phrase they need to communicate. It seems like a more natural and fluid system based on need. I also think that ‘punishing’ them for speaking their own language is not a good idea.

    Another tactic I’ve incorporated into my classroom management is the use of flags on the board. I always have a small poster with three flags from English-speaking places (Britian, Canada and the USA). I also have a poster of the Spanish flag that I put up or take down depending on the situation. If we’re discussing something abstract or complicated like grammar or some instructions that are particularly difficult, I put up the Spanish flag so the pupils know that using L1 is fine at that moment. I take the Spanish flag down to indicate that they should be trying to use English as much as they can.

    What do you use to encourage your young learners to communicate in English?


  3. ashowski says:


    I couldn’t agree with you more about the card system. I was originally instructed to use a yellow/red card system and then stopped using it because it often meant punishing people for the wrong reasons e.g. when they want to communicate but don’t have the means. I mean, when adults are in a foreign country and don’t know a word in the language, they just fill it in with their native word, right? It’s the most natural thing to do. I’m in Rome at the moment at a conference and it’s what I’ve been doing with my broken Italian: Mi piacerebbe un ‘beer’ 🙂

    I love the sound of this flag system! Inspirational!! Once I get back into the YL classroom I’d like to put that into practice.

    I developed a team system for combatting behavioural issues. A single YL class is divided up into 3 teams: they choose the name at the start of the year; recently we had: the Koalas, the Tigers, the Pandas. The YL’s always belong to the same team – that never changes, even if they are working in pairs with people from another team. At the beginning of the lesson each team has 4 points (4 because there’s 4 people in the team) and points are deducted/added for things like:

    – forgetting homework
    – being late
    – talking in L1 when asked not to
    – misbehaving
    – outstanding work
    – good answers
    – winning a game

    At first, they were a bit ‘tired’ of being in the same teams, but once we got over that hurdle (which took only a few lessons) what came out of it was a sense of team spirit: I found they were supporting each other as much as possible to win the points for the team.

    The school I was working in had a reward system for the team with the most point. If the school didn’t have that, then I could have easily set up a small reward system, such as every 50 points (accumulated over many lessons) equals a bag of sweets.

    What do you think about it?


  4. careymicaela says:

    First of all, I’m really jealous that you’re in Rome- it’s one of my favorite cities! And on top of that you got to attend a session with Scott Thornbury. Wow!

    The team system you use sounds really interesting. I don’t usually use many activities in the classroom that involve competition for points but I can definitely see the value in doing so. I think I avoid competition because I’m afraid the pupils will focus more attention on competing than on learning. However, I do think that some pupils enjoy competition and it could be a good way to motivate them. If your pupils are generating a sense of team spirit through this strategy I think it’s a good indicator that it’s working for them.

    Hope you’re enjoying the conference and that you’ve been able to see some sights in Rome. Piazza Popolo is one of my favorite spots. 😉


  5. Pingback: Questions about teaching Very Young Learners (aged 2-5) (useful links!)

  6. Pingback: Questions about teaching Young Learners (aged 6-11) (useful links!)

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