Tag Archives: EFL Teaching

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

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


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.

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

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.

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!


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.)

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!


Why I Think EFL/ESL Teachers Are Special

Tonight I am angry, I mean really angry. I’m angry because something is fundamentally wrong with the many of the education systems in whicPictureh we now work or experienced when we were young. Exam time is yet again here, and again I’m seeing the effect it is having on my students. To try and give anyone who hasn’t taught in Korea some kind of idea as to the effects their workload and academic routines have on them; at least five of my students were, today, so exhausted that their eyes were swollen. Their eyes were swollen to the stage where they could barely see, beautiful young adults looked like they had been hit in the eyes by tennis balls.  If you walk around any high school in South Korea all you will see are droves of students passed out on their desks (before lessons, during lessons and after lessons) literally unable to keep themselves conscious. But, without a doubt, the most distressful result of the system in which they are a part of, is that, and this is so awful I find it difficult to type, two students from my school have had what were officially recorded as ‘accidents’ this semester, These ‘accidents’ cost them their lives, anyone who is aware of the problems Korea faces knows what ‘accident’ could really mean, I don’t know for sure one way or the other, but what is a fact is that one teenager a day loses their life due to suicide in Korea. Yes, this is the education system in which I work. It is an extreme, and as any teacher in this system will tell you, it is something that can be difficult for us to deal with, but not half as difficult as it is for our students.

But the reason I am really, really, angry is, officially, according to the world educational ranking, I work in the number 1 educational system in the world. That’s right; according to The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) South Korea is the number 1 ranked educational system in the world. According to The Guardian newspaper PISA “is highly respected across the globe, and enables politicians and policy-makers to assess how different country’s education systems compare.” If this system is the benchmark that others strive to achieve, surely we are failing the youth of the world on a global scale? Surely something is wrong? And yes, Korea is an extreme, but I don’t think it’s alone in the failing of its youth.

So what has this got to do with ESL/EFL teachers and why do I think we’re special? I think we’re special because often (but not always) we are not bound by the same rules. Often we don’t have national curriculums telling us what we have to teach and how we have to teach it, we’re not bound by cultural stigma that absolutely forces us to teach in a certain way in order to get the educational system higher up the PISA league table and the students into the universities of their choice. Our often lack of accountability in national assessments that will absolutely determine a students future allows us to give the students the chance to relax, to express themselves, to be creative, to think divergently, and, most of all, to enjoy themselves while learning. Our institutions might not always like it, but if we want to, we can do it.

In the past two weeks my students have watched a wonderful video (Caine’s Arcade, if you haven’t seen it I recommend going to you tube and watching it), they have learnt 8 key expressions and then spent over an hour making comic strips predicting Caine’s future that had to use these 8 expressions. It’s such a simple activity, but every student has been awake, actively participating, and I’ve been reliably informed, had a great time. Although I would say this as I’m their teacher and I think they are awesome, it seems to me they produced some really creative and fun work. I asked the students if they have ever made comic strips before, and every one of them answered ‘no’. Second year high school students have never made either a comic strip or poster before, as, in the view of the Korean education system. But what can I expect when education systems are and the ranking they are judged reward rote learning over critical and creative thinking? Although there were other less creative methods and less time consuming methods I could have used that would have involved the students both practicing how to use the 8 expressions and creating language, I passionately believe that sometimes, some things, are just more important. What I am trying to get at is that, as their EFL teacher, I can give them this time and opportunity that their other teachers, for one reason or another, simply can’t. This is why we are special, and this is what we need to take advantage of.

This isn’t about me or my students or Korea though; this is about the opportunities I think we have as ESL/EFL teachers throughout the world to do something different.

But, I think it is important for me to categorically say that I am not saying this to take anything away from our colleagues in the mainstream public education systems who are teaching to national curriculums, or teachers in academies who are having to force information into students to get them through their standardized robotic national examinations, they are absolutely special in their own right, one that I appreciate whole heartedly. If it wasn’t for them, and particularly one called Keith Hodgson, I wouldn’t be a teacher now. In fact, without him, I wouldn’t even have any A-Levels now as the education system and me did not get along too well, and if it wasn’t for the teachers in the school in which I work who do absolutely everything they feel possible to help the students through such a torrid system then my students’ lives could be much worse off.

I know not every ESL/EFL teacher has the freedom I have, but if you do, please, EFL/ESL teachers, use this special opportunity and freedom we have to help our students broaden and expand their minds and personalities in ways other teachers simply don’t have the opportunity to. This is what makes us so special, so let’s use it.

What do you think about the education systems around the world? What can we do to help our students through such a difficult and painful system? I welcome and appreciate any comments below.

You can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh

You can see the comics from my first class that has finished them below.

References & Sources:

These are the comics from the class that finished today.


13/06/2012 05:45

Your students are so talented, brilliant comic strips 🙂 But as to what you are saying…if 1 student a day (let alone a month, a year) is committing suicide this is horrific, and they are being let down horrendously by the whole system. I could cry at the fact that their parents allow this, enforce this, or don’t question this. I also question how PISA compares the different styles of education in different countries (rote learning vs critical thinking for eg) – and how they account for personal, social & emotional development which is also a duty of care of any educational institution dealing with children or teens. In short – you’ve depressed the hell out of me. But every person that cares matters and looks like you are shining a tiny bit of light into the rest of their over-demanding, creatively under-demanding, restrictive education-driven lives. Good luck.

13/06/2012 07:04

Hi Sophia!

Thanks, I’ll be sure to let them know you said so next class, it will make their day 🙂

I completely agree about PISA, how can such a well known ranking system possibly not take such factors into account? It’s just beyond belief that a math science and reading score is more important in the rankings than the mental well being of the students.

Thanks so much for your comment, I really hope we can use our freedom to make a difference, even if it’s a tiny one.

13/06/2012 17:50

Wow. Amazing comic strips, and an amazing post (though as Sophia says, not exactly cheering). This plays on my mind a lot too, although in Malaysia (Borneo) I don’t think the stakes are nearly as high, but having been in primary schools for the last 18 months I’ve become really depressed about the sheer volume of meaningless information seven year-olds are expected to remember in their first year of school, how often they’re tested, how futile the tests are, how grateful the kids are for any activity that allows them to think or participate instead of chant like zombies. Like I said I don’t think the pressure at secondary level is nearly comparable to South Korea but teachers have told me many stories of teenagers being ‘possessed’ around exam time – basically going a bit bonkers because of stress and having to be ‘exorcised’ (the belief in malicious spirits here is pretty widespread and workaday). But yes, as you say, we have such an opportunity as EFL/ESL teachers to at least make students aware of other ways of learning, show them that education doesn’t have to be 12-hours-a-day-competition etc. Thanks again for your brilliant and heartfelt post.

13/06/2012 18:08

HI Laura,

Thanks, my students are really going to be so happy when I tell them how impressed with their comics so many people are!

I absolutely agree regarding the sheer volume of meaningless information, I think a point I didn’t really make clear in my blog is that I feel like Korea is just the extreme, and where I work in Korea is the extreme of an extreme, but I really believe this is a global problem. The amount of tests and memorization of useless information that such young learners go through is nothing but shocking, and it seems to be getting more and for younger students all the time.

I just can’t help but worry about what the long term effects on our young learners are.

Thanks so much for reading and your insightful comment. It’s particularly interesting the way different cultures deal with the effects of such systems, although non (except Scandinavian countries) seem to be dealing with the causes.