Speaking English in class

Speaking English in class
Doctor, help... My students won't speak English in class, no matter what...

Having the feeling that your learners use excessively L1 in class and they will not produce the desired L2 output? Don't worry - it can happen to every teacher- but you need to act a.s.a.p.

Here are some practical tips:

Would you rather talk about English or speak English?
This discussion, especially with beginner  and pre-intermediate classes, is usually done in L1 but helps them realize the reason they attend this class. The dilemma  is action ( speaking the language) or theory ( talking about the language). The vast majority will go for the first option.

2. "Is this an English class?"
Raise students' awareness by asking "Is this an English or a Greek/French/Chinese class?"  " What language do we speak in an English class?" even if the answer is "Chinese" - obviously in a humorous mood- they know the answer and they respond in L2 quite soon.

“Excuse me? I prefer coffee to tea...”
Reply in English to your students and pretend you don't understand them when they use L1. Especially when it comes to simple words and phrases. Humour can help whenever possible. My favourite responses are "No, thank you! I prefer coffee" when they ask me "
τι" ( "what" in Greek sounds like "tea") and  "I go by bus"  when they say "εντάξει" (“alright” in Greek sounds like "an taxi"). At first, they are startled, then they laugh and finally, they reply in English.

Set phrases to deal with everyday class reality.
"Equip" them with a set of phrases to deal with simple things they need in class e.g. "Excuse me! Can I go out, please?"

Explain when and why you use L1
Once you establish that L2 is the language used in class, students will reprimand you if you use L1. Explain before speaking in L1 that you are going to use it to save time explaining a grammar structure or any other reason you think is necessary.

Class rules  
A golden opportunity to set the rules is at the beginning of the academic year. Discuss in class and write the rules on a poster that everybody can see. "I speak English in class" is a sine qua non!!!

Take pride in speaking L2
Praise the class for speaking English. It builds their confidence and motivates them to keep up the effort.

A true story
Ages ago, as a new teacher, I was given an extremely weak intermediate class that the language school owner described as "hopeless". Their level was very low and they would not speak English at all. Even though my appearance is typically Greek, I somehow managed to persuade them that I am a native speaker and do not speak a word of Greek. For more than 5 months, it worked well and even the ones who would not speak English at all in September, they gradually managed to convey their intended message in L2 despite accuracy problems. Then, a couple of students heard me speak Greek on a public phone … Surprisingly - perhaps because it was part of the class ritual- they kept using English when they addressed me.

Speaking is, by nature, a skill that cannot be developed overnight. It takes consistent work and lots of humour to divert the tendency to use L1 in class but it is worth every bit of the energy spent.

Good luck with your plans to help your learners speak English!
Dimitris Primalis


  1. I love tip #3. You're absolutely right. If you respond when a student talks with you in L1, they will stay in their comfort zone and won't try to use L2. Once you demand that they say it again in English or if you give them an awkward response (as you suggest), the student will eventually give in and start using English. I totally ignore students who say something in Portuguese that they know how to say in English. They usually give up after their third attempt and switch to English. In monolingual classes this is a key issue teachers need to tackle.

    1. In Greece, speaking English is an important criterion for parents when they assess informally their children's progress at home or when travelling .

  2. Using humour and setting class rules plus a classroom language kit have proved to be very useful in my classes..

  3. Using humour and setting class rules plus a classroom language kit have proved to be very useful in my classes..

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Great post, Dimitris! It is directly related to all teachers' everyday reality and practices, which will ultimately make the difference. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Great post, indeed!!! Thank you!

  7. Thank you for the post Dimitris! I tried something similar to your true story. I told them that I can speak only one language and that is English( this was a white lie) but I would love to listen to their stories. I created opportunities for small talk once in a while, I talk to them about some anecdotes from my life, then I would ask them," Do you have any such incidents to share with the class?". Invariably, some one will start narrating their story ( in English!!!) and in a while there will be a lot of people wanting to share theirs. This really works provided the topics are interesting to them.

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