Encouraging teenagers to use English in the classroom

Encouraging teenagers to use English in the classroom

“Can you say that in English?”
“Ana and Pedro try to complete the activity in English.”
“Remember to keep talking in English!”
There are many challenges when it comes to teaching and getting a monolingual class to use English is certainly one of them. With teenagers this can be particularly tough. Many of my students already know each other outside of class, they probably go to school together or play on the same football or volleyball team. Speaking together in their L1 is so normal that switching to English seems unnatural. What is more they may feel self-conscious about speaking another language and worry about the mistakes they may or may not make in front of their peers.
I have a number of strategies that I use throughout the year to gently encourage my students to use English. Having a selection of ideas to try adds variety and an element of fun to classes.

Talk to your learners

This might sound simple but take time at the start of the course to talk with your learners.
“If we want our students to give their best when attending to a task, they need to see the point in what they do.”
Discuss why using English in the classroom might be important
Ask them to share their thoughts on why this might be difficult
Acknowledge how they feel about using English in the class
Discuss how they might overcome any challenges that they mention
I always share with them some of my own language learning experiences. I often feel self-conscious and even nervous when I have to speak Portuguese and my learners are often surprised to find out that they are not alone in feeling anxious when it comes to using a second language.
Ask your students how you can help them to use more English in class and encourage them to share their own ideas so as they can help each other. The more open and welcoming you are to their suggestions the more success you will have.
Take note of what they say so you can use their ideas in the classes to come.
‘Alice, I remember you said it is easier to speak English if you don’t work with your school friends. Would you like to come and do this activity with Paula?’

Set Challenges

So you have spoken with your learners about how important it is to make an effort to use English in the classroom. They have probably agreed with you and promised that they will try to do so, but don’t just leave it at that!
In the next class start by setting a class goal. Ask students how much English they think they can realistically use that day and set a class target, ‘Today we will try spend 60% of the class speaking in English’. Make sure to put the class goal on the board and remind students of it during the class.
“Student motivation tends to increase in cohesive class groups. This is due to the fact that in such groups, students share an increased responsibility for achieving the group goals, they ‘pull each other along’ and the positive relations among them make the learning process more enjoyable in general”.
Give support to students during the class, reminding them if necessary to speak in English and at the end of the class make sure to allocate some time for feedback. Did they reach their target? What made it easy or difficult?
Once you have done a couple of class challenges you can try doing smaller group challenges. Again, ask each group to tell you how much English they plan to use, monitor as they are doing the task and be sure to leave some time at the end of the session for some feedback. Find out what they found easy, and if there were any problems. If there were, think of how they can be avoided in the future.
Once your students have got the hang of these challenges move onto individual challenges. Allocate 2/3 minutes at the start of the class where your learners should think about their language speaking goals for the lesson, they can share these or simply write them in their notebook. Move around the class, giving support as necessary to your students. Some will do this quite quickly but others may need more time to think about the goal they want to set. Allow time at the end of the lesson to get some feedback as to how successful this was – this can be orally or written.
This activity works very well as a stepping stone to using goal-setting in the language classroom and teenagers would enjoy doing this as a type of English diary.

Passing through the English Portal

Creating the idea that your classroom is an English only zone is a fun way to get students to use the language. With younger teens I meet them outside the door, even getting them to line up as we wait for the class bell to ring. As we wait we have a chat and this gets everyone in the English speaking mood. This also has the added bonus of ensuring better classroom behaviour as the students enter the class in a calmly. You can find more about dealing with discipline issues here: http://eflmagazine.com/dealing-indiscipline-classroom/
With older teenagers anyone who comes in speaking in their L1 is sent back to the door and asked to come back in, reminding them that they are now entering an English only area. I find they then really make an effort to switch languages as they come in. Of course, everyone gets involved, the students themselves will start sending their classmates back to the door. Remember to be consistent and you will soon notice a big difference in the language being used as your students come in to class.


This is a fun activity, I don’t remember where exactly I got the original idea from but it really works and I have had a lot of fun with it, in particular with teenagers from B1 level upwards.
So, how does it work? Well, as soon as you hear a student speak their L1 you say ‘dot’ and put a small dot next to their name on the class register. The student with the most dots at the end of the class has to do something like sing a song in English, or talk for two minutes on a certain topic, and no one can leave the class until he or she has completed the task. We always have a lot of fun with this and students really start paying attention to what they are saying and to each other. Believe it or not we have also had some great singing from students who have got the most dots!
My rule is I have to hear the student using the L1 so if someone shouts ‘Ana just spoke in Portuguese’ and I didn’t hear her, then she doesn’t get a dot. You can vary it quite a bit, for example the person with the least number of dots at the end of the week gets a prize, or the person who makes the most effort to use English does not have to do any homework. Making an effort to use English and get involved in class activities can also cancel out any previous dots. Be creative and have fun with this one!

Gently but firmly remind them to use English

It is up to us as teachers to ensure that our classroom becomes an English speaking environment. This does not just happen overnight, but requires consistent effort, as we encourage, inspire and push our students to go beyond their boundaries and use as much of this foreign language that they are learning as possible. Yes, it can become tiring, constantly reminding our students to use English, you may even begin to feel like a broken record, but it is worth it. It is so rewarding to watch as it becomes second nature for your learners to slip into English, gently reminding their classmates what language to speak if they hear L1, reflecting your own behaviour. I am not saying there is no place at all for L1 in the classroom, it does have its uses, but if we want our students to really communicate in the classroom in English our approach is key and knowing how to deal successfully with this topic will mean one less thing to worry about when teaching.
So have you had to deal with monolingual classes? How have you encouraged them to use English in the classroom? Please share your ideas!

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  • Lisa Wood says:

    Love the dots idea!

  • Karl Millsom Karl Millsom says:

    Hi, Michelle. “How can I get my students to speak English”, is one of the questions I get asked most often by teachers (though they usually use the verb “make”!) so it’s great to see some extra suggestions here that I can point them to.

    Your game “dots” has me conflicted, though. When I first started teaching, I found a lot of teachers using forfeits for L1 use—including things like singing, dancing, jogging on the spot—and I immediately felt bad about it. It seems to be scarce short of shaming.. I will admit that your particular forfeits do at least seem to focus on use of the L2, and you certainly write in very positive terms.

    Still, I wonder what you think about this reaction? Do you think there’s anything in it; or do you think I’m being too soft?

  • julio says:

    Dot’s a very interesting activity to in the classroom because students will keep in mind that changing to L1 leads them to a fun activity in the target language.

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