How can esl teachers teach English if they don't speak the native language?

students in a classroom with few facilities, probably a village in Africa
28 Sep Shelley Vernon 20 Comments

You might be wondering how on earth you will get on in your classroom, in the heart of a remote country, without a word of the native language to your name. Teachers regularly ask me this question:


- When is it appropriate to speak to our pupils in their common tongue?

- And what do we do if we don't speak the native language?


The short answer is:

It's better to use English all the time, or at least as much as possible.


With two possible exceptions:

- If I speak my pupils' native language, I will give the class in English, but sometimes, to save time, I will use the native language to explain the rules of a game, or a concept. This is purely to save time and for the sake of clarity.

- I will also tell a child off in the native language, 'Would you like me to call your father or do you prefer to behave nicely?'


Here's how!

Many teachers, however, are in classrooms where they have no choice, they don't speak the native language.


The good news is that it's perfectly possible to teach English when you don't speak the native language, and it's not as hard as you might think! When I was in Nepal I was forced to find a way to communicate with the kids since I spoke no Nepalese whatsoever.


- The answer is not to jabber away to a class of beginners who have no idea what you are saying. You will just alienate them. Use limited language and vocabulary and repeat yourself often.


- The secret is demonstration, not explanation. This goes for how to play a game or a rule of grammar. For a game, physically show the children what to do using simple commands and actions. This won't be enough with a complex game, but with my simple and fun language drill games you'll have no trouble explaining how to play.


It's a great help if your students know basic commands, such as, pass, take, point, look, find, stand up, sit down, come to the front, touch, go to, freeze, write, draw, spell, etc. To teach a new word, first you need to explain (or demonstrate) the meaning of that word, and then drill it, with games so pupils remember it. To teach the word 'pass', take an object, place it in a pupil's hand. Take his or her arm and move the object over to the child next door, indicate by pointing that the child is to take the object. When they do, you repeat 'pass'. Repeat this action with several pupils, saying the target word over and over. In this scenario you need pupils to understand that the word is 'pass' and not 'take'. Ask a pupil to pass a book, 'Dan, pass the book to Flores. Flores, pass the book to Javier'.

teacher miming shh to be quiet

Once pupils understand the meaning of five or six new commands, drill them with a listening game, such as Jump the Line (from 176 English Language Games for Children). Simon Says is also a perfect game to drill commands. There's a complicated variant for older pupils so they don't get bored in my teen/adult games book. Enrich the game with words students already know, mixed in with the new words to keep their attention.


Be sure to let your students and teaching assistant, if you have one, know the English only rule too.

If you have any questions, or would like to read more about teaching ESL to children, please visit my pages on teaching preschool, primary or teens and adults. There are fun, effective games for all ages, in download from this website, or in paperback. Here is my Amazon Author page: Amazon. You are welcome to contact me too, I love hearing from teachers.


I hope to hear from you soon!

Shelley Ann Vernon


Thanks Shelley. I enjoy your posts and use some of your ideas with children and adults in Cambodia. Regards. Deborah
Dear Deborah, Thanks for your kind words. All the best in Cambodia, Shelley
Loved reading this. I have 1st and 2nd years of primary school and you have helped a lot. Thanks
Dear Amelia, Great news! Keep up the good work! All the best, Shelley
Thanks so much for sharing your ideas. I'll use them in my class.
Thank you miss Shelley for you recomendation, that was great, I will apply yuor steps in my classroom I like to learn new strategies to teach. Please Could you recommend me some strategies to practice the TOELF test, becuase I want to obtain good scores to pass it. or How to study strategies for it. Thank you so much for your tips. May Gos bless you and your family. See you miss
Dear Milton, Here is a blog post I did on how to improve your English, so that might help you do well in the test. Otherwise, if it's a test of your teaching skills I recommend performing the lesson beforehand so you know what you are doing by heart. Rehearse your explanations and have everything ready. Be sure to have some short activities on hand in case you finish early, or an activity is a total flop and you quickly need to change it. All the best Shelley
Thanks Shelley, your words are very reassuring for non native English trainee teachers which are the people i teach. Kind regards, Rosalind FRAYE
Dear Rosalind, I'm glad to reassure your trainees. The prospect of teaching is daunting and nerve-wracking until you get used to it. I still remember my first teaching experiences as though they were yesterday! All the best Shelley
Lovely and pragmatic games and posts!
Very nice .thank you .
Dear Shelley. Thanks for great news. Your lessons really help me. All the best Rasmiyya.
Thank you for your ideas.
Thanks for "passing" me this idea. :)
Thank you soooo of much!it's always a pleasure to read your articles,Shelley!and it's great that all the games are really easy to remember!
Thanks for sending me your post it was very useful. I wanted to know how you could demonstrate a grammar rule>? I want to do it in a fun and interesting way for my Japanese students both kids and adults.
Hello Paul, I would use a different colour for each part of speech. Show the rule, then drill with a game like "Subject, Verb, Object" Of course you don't have to play that game with subject, verb and object - use any parts of speech. This blog post will help: If that doesn't help you, please let me know which grammar rule you want to explain next and I'll see what I can think of. Speak soon, Shelley
Hi, Shelley. Interesting ideas about the use of English in the EFL class. I have tried to use the target language as instructional language since I started teaching many years ago. At the beginning students and their parents used to complain for that but things have changed in the last decade since English has become familiar to them through the use of Internet, video games and cable TV. At the beginning of the period I tell them I will use my native language ONLY in case of an emergency (we have earthquakes now and then) or if I get angry for some misbehaviour - I do not know how to get angry in English :) . It has worked so far!!
Dear Nora, I'm glad the parents and pupils have come around. Obviously the more English is spoken in class, the faster students's a no-brainer! Keep up the good work and thanks for your comment. All the best, Shelley
Hello there, Thanks a million for the useful post. Yeah I believe in having an English class anyway, but sometimes I m forced to use sts' native lg to make them sure that they learn and understand my meaning.


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