Being a reflective teacher is an important element of professional development because it makes you think about your teaching practice. It’s quite useful to ask yourself why you are teaching the way you are teaching. Reflecting on your work isn’t always a pleasant process because it can lead to opening a can of worms. However, I think that admitting that you got something wrong can help you improve as a teacher even if it means denting your ego.
I spent eighteen months after completing my CELTA oblivious of any real professional development. I just kept doing what I thought was correct at the time. Fortunately, I decided to study for Delta Module One, and reading ELT books made me question things for the first time in my teaching career. For example, when I was tasked with assessing students’ speaking skills, it involved asking them to draw a card with a random topic and giving them a minute to prepare a monologue. When I read Testing for Language Teachers by Arthur Hughes, I found out that this is not a recommended procedure because it makes learners unnecessarily stressed. The book helped me explore some more considerate and effective ways of assessing speaking.
All teachers makes mistakes, particularly at the beginning of their careers. My biggest one was persisting with the No Spanish! policy for quite a long time. In my defence, I taught a multilingual group of students during my CELTA course, so it was necessary to rely only on English. It took me a while to realise that penalising Colombian students for using their native language wasn’t a good strategy. Everyone else seemed to be doing that as well, so I didn’t see any problem with enforcing the rule.
Again, I needed an intervention from the outside to show me that there are other perspectives on the topic of L1 use in the classroom. When I decided to focus on teaching monolingual classes in Colombia for my Delta Module Three assignment, I needed to research the area. The role of learners’ native language is a key issue, so I started reading more about it, and Vivian Cook’s article Using the First Language in the Classroom proved to be a game changer in this regard.
There are solid arguments for using only L2 in the classroom, and I completely understand how the direct method came about. However, it doesn’t seem to be the best options for monolingual environments such as Colombia. Cook says that the interaction between L1 and L2 is a fact of life and fighting against it doesn’t make much sense. He suggests treating learners’ mother tongue as a useful resource and taking advantage of it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean promoting unrestricted use of the native language in the classroom because that would be taking things to the other extreme. If possible, L1 should be used in a more principled way. For example, there are a lot of cognates between English and Spanish, and it’s pretty useful to expose students to them. In fact, that’s what I relied on when I moved to Colombia with limited knowledge of the Spanish language. This inevitably means exploring the area of false friends to avoid misunderstanding. I don’t see any harm in looking at similarities and differences in some grammar structures either.
I also think that using L1 when it comes to lexical chunks can help you save valuable class time. Let’s use the expression it’s worth it as an example. When you encounter it in a text, you can spend a couple of minutes trying to clarify its meaning using some contrived examples, and there is still no guarantee that it will be fully understood by everyone in the classroom. Using its Spanish equivalent vale la pena will immediately resolve that issue. L1 can be very useful in terms of class management too, particularly with beginners. I see no point in torturing students who have just started learning the language with English-only instructions when you can help them out using their mother tongue in case they are struggling with a task.
In addition, I have no qualms about using translation activities in my lessons. I am not advocating for the return of the outdated grammar-translation method that doesn’t pay any attention of speaking. Asking my students to translate a hoax message I had received through WhatsApp can help kick-start a discussion about fake information on the internet, and I see no issue with including fun stuff like that in my lessons from time to time. I recommend watching Philip Kerr’s webinar The return of translation for more information on the topic.
When I look back at the beginning of my teaching career, there are a few memories that now make me say to myself That was a bit daft, wasn’t it? and banning the use of L1 in the classroom was undoubtedly one of them. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help us address various misconceptions. I think it’s really important for us teachers to be open-minded and willing to change our stance in case we encounter evidence suggesting that our students may not benefit from our actions.