At what point, if ever, is it right to implement an English only classroom?

At what point, if ever, is it right to implement an English only classroom?

Over the course of my career this is a question I’ve never been quite sure about, but luckily up until now it’s been a decision that’s been out of my hands! I’m now, however, in a position where I’m wondering whether trying to introduce an English only classroom is the right thing to do, and I need your help! I started off my career, as many in Korea did, working in an academy that brought in students by promising a completely immersed English environment for the students. The benefits and necessity for an immersive environment was something I just took for granted at the time, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

After leaving the immersive academy environment I became a high school teacher, and suddenly going from 8 very cute 7 year olds in a class to 40 mature teenagers/immature adults (depending on the day!) in a class meant I had a lot more to worry about than a completely immersive English atmosphere. Quite honestly I didn’t have the classroom management skills or subject knowledge to start trying to introduce such a scheme. I’m now three years down the line, I’ve figured out my classroom management skills, subject knowledge and range of activities that can keep students interested, and I’m blessed with, on the most part, high level students. The objective for my students first semester was to build their confidence and motivation to participate in classroom activities, I’m quite comfortable this has, on the most part, been achieved. This means that I feel I’m at a point where, at the start of next semester, I could comfortably introduce an English only classroom, but I’m not sure if I want to.

My current conflicting view on the topic is something like this, as long as the students are focused and motivated allowing the students to communicate in Korean helps them to help each other generate new language, I see this happening every day, I also believe that by having the freedom to check in Korean with their partner or group it encourages them to use vocabulary they might not be sure about, thus increasing confidence and willingness to volunteer in class during feedback. It also allows the students to explain activities to the student next to them who was too tired to pay attention. This all sounds great, until the little TEFL devil on my other shoulder starts making me consider the benefits of an English only classroom. By encouraging (in reality probably forcing) the students to constantly use English, although it might be difficult for them at first, they might do all the above in English, this would provide huge benefits. They would be creating and using massive amounts of English, suddenly activities such as making comics are about more than using the key expressions learnt in class, but the organization of roles in the group, even simply asking each other to borrow coloring pens becomes a production activity in itself. This, in turn, would help build confidence for using English outside the classroom, but then again, this could isolate the lower level students and really hinder their improvement if the other students feel uncomfortable using Korean to guide them in activities.

This feels like one of those lists you make when you’re 15 years old trying to decide whether to breakup with your girlfriend! Well here is mine:

Reasons for breaking up with Korean

–       If successful it would result in my students producing a lot more language.

–       Could increase students’ confidence outside of class.

–       It would encourage my coteachers to speak more English in class, something I’ve been wanting for a long time.

–       It encourages the students to think in English.

Reasons for staying with Korean

–       But would the language simply be language they already know and are comfortable with?

–       Some students might say nothing at all with an English only classroom.

–       If my coteachers ONLY speak English in class, it could prohibit them from picking up on misunderstandings my students have.

–       In real communication in a second language, many argue it is normal to translate from your first language to the target language in your head, so why not practice this in class?

So, I guess I’m really looking for some advice/suggestions, as I’m really struggling with this. I would absolutely love any comments, especially regarding these questions:

What do you think I should do? Why?
Do you encourage an English only classroom? Why or why not?
Have I missed a vital point that could help me make my decisions?

Don’t forget you can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh

References:
For quite a balanced and well researched overview please see :http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/files/rcd/BE019020/Reexamining_English_Only.pdf

Comments

Paula
20/06/2012 06:25

Depends on the level. I find that most of my students speak to each other in Portuguese when they’re trying to figure something out. I just pretend I can’t hear them. I Keep on encouraging them to speak in English to me at all times and during a speaking activity. This can be difficult with elementary students but there are always a few who can say “whatever” in English. This can be a problem if they’re real beginners…I hardly ever get real beginners.

Reply
21/06/2012 06:35

Hi Paula!

thanks for your comment! I completely relate with you, I also feel that my students do a fantastic job of using Korean to try and figure stuff out and to aid each other when completing tasks, this is something I really feel is important in my classroom. My students are quite advanced learners, so I wonder if they would be able to be able to figure this stuff out in English if they really tried? What a dilemma!

Thanks for your comment, it’s really appreciated

Reply
Anne
20/06/2012 07:27

I used to insist on an English only classroom. I have never worked with a co-teacher and so didn’t have that consideration. English only classrooms work with a variety of ages and levels, as long as I’m consistent in enforcing it. It forces the students to be more creative in using English to make themselves understood by me and more importantly by each other. It also seems to encourage automaticity because the students become so focused on meaning that they forget to think about how they’re creating it. In this case, the relationship the students have with the teacher is really important.
I said “used to”. I no longer enforce an English-only policy. I stopped when I realized that, if I have a good handle on classroom management, students primarily use Korean to explain to each other (which saves a lot of time) and to plan out how to do activities/ group work. It might be different if they were at a level where I can expect them to think in English, but then again it might not.
I agree that it’s a dilemma and I can’t say that I won’t change my mind about it again.

Reply
21/06/2012 06:37

Hi Anne!

Your comment is really interesting, when you did have an English only classroom how did you go about enforcing it, as this is one the things I would have to get spot on. It sounds like your students use Korean for the same reason mine do. I wonder, what level are your current students? Do you think they would be able to offer each other this support in English if they really wanted to?

Thanks for your great comment!

Alex

Reply
Anne
22/06/2012 21:01

Hi Alex,
The students I was referring to are second year university students at an intermediate level. I think they MIGHT be able to do some of it in English, but it would be confusing for them and take a lot of time that, in my teaching situation, we just didn’t have.

When I enforced English only, I started the semester by getting them to tell me what they saw as benefits of an English-only classroom and asking them all to sign an agreement. I have freedom with about 10% of their grade that I can use for participation and I explained that they’d lose points for speaking Korean in class. I also showed examples of classes that explained things to each other in English and had conversations with each other in English, to show them it is possible. Further enforcement wasn’t really necessary (but those students were a little older than yours) and it got easier as they went along. Their feedback at the end was that it’s really tiring to use only English in class. (Imagine using only Korean, even for a couple hours.)
Anne

08/10/2012 12:39

This is a really interesting post. I’ve been wrestling with the same questions myself. At the moment I’m spending half my week with English language learners in kindergarten and half of it with first-year university students. English-only isn’t practical with kindergarteners and I think you have to pick your battles. Also, they are still learning how to interact with each other and learning about the world. I can’t expect them to do all of that in English, it’s just too much. Plus, the goal is for them to be bilingual and biliterate, not for English to replace their L1, so they need to keep using their first language in order to achieve this. My university students have told me that they like English-only policies, as they get to hear and speak more English that way. However, I really think that if you ask students to ‘think’ in English before they are fluent then it restricts their thinking. My students are beginning their majors but if they only think and talk about concepts that they have the English vocabulary and grammatical structures for, then they’ll fall behind their English-speaking peers in content knowledge. So my policy in both classes is English-mostly. The kindergarten students talk to each other, help each other, and discuss the content of our English-language readalouds in their first languages. They use English when they are speaking to me, and when the activities are focussed on English-language vocabulary and grammar. My university students use English pretty much all the time, but I encourage them to explain things to each other in L1, think through difficult concepts in L1, and brainstorm their ideas and essays in L1. I find this works pretty well so I’d definitely be interested to see if other people use this approach. For high school, I really like your idea of having students organize roles in English. This is English that they are really going to need to use! However, I also think that there’s no point battling them for an English-only environment, especially if classroom control is difficult. I’d go for the carrot rather than the stick – give extra points for communicating in English, make organizational communication part of the lesson, but don’t penalize the odd whispered word in Korean. I’d also consider asking the students how they think they learn best. They’ll be much more on board if they think it was their idea. Good luck!

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