Use of L1 in Ceibal English Remote Teaching

One of the issues we have been discussing in the Ceibal English project is the use of L1 by the two teachers- the CT (classroom teacher) and the RT (remote teacher), and after observing a great number of classes, I can see this varies a lot.
Teachers attitudes to using L1 in the classroom varies a lot. I remember when I first started my teaching course, I was told that this was to be avoided at all cost, but when I started teaching young learners I realised that some use of L1 was necessary - mainly to save time and for classroom management reasons.

There are some very interesting posts about this. In particular, I encourage you to read what Scott Thornbury wrote on his blog about translation (and the comments!) and the response by Isabela Villa Boas.

In particular, I think the following points are most relevant to the Ceibal English situation:
  • Use of L1 interferes with the development of the L2 system
  • Dependence on L1, at the expense of the learner constructing an independent L2 system
  • Use of L1 is fine when it helps L2 acquisition, accelerates or prioritizes learning
I have heard from some of the RTs that they believe they need to use more Spanish than they would usually do in an English classroom because of the lack of English knowledge of most of the CTs. However, some of the teachers involved in the project, who are based in the Philippines, and who have limited ability to speak Spanish, are in general teaching their classes without speaking any Spanish (in most of the cases) and there have not been any complaints from CTs.

I decided to ask some RTs what they thought of this in the forum of the LMS we use to share ideas, thoughts, etc, This is what I posted:

I've now had the opportunity of observing a number of lessons, which has been fantastic. One of the things that I am interested in is how much Spanish the RT uses in lesson A and would like to ask you all your opinion about this as it varies a lot depending on the teacher.

For instance, I can see several different strategies at work when it comes to classroom instruction/classroom language:

1) RT uses English first then immediately afterwards speaks in Spanish
2) RT uses Spanish first then immediately afterwards speaks in English
3) RT only uses Spanish for classroom instruction / classroom language
4) RT only uses English (or 90% of the time)
5) RT uses English and the CT uses Spanish ("one teacher, one language")
6) RT started using mainly Spanish for the classes, but is moving towards more English as the CT and the children learn more.

Which of these do you think is best? Which do you use? Do you use different strategies depending on who you teach? Does the fact that this form of teaching is very different from normal classroom teaching affect your opinion on this?

Can't wait to hear what you have to say on the subject...

Here are a selection of the comments posted on the forum:

  • I personally have used strategy nº3 up until now, since I found it quite hard to explain activities or eliciting concepts purely in English. However, I have started using strategy nº1 with the more advanced groups, trying to gradually use more English in every class. That said, some groups -especially 4th graders- have a hard time with the contents of the class, so including too much English could be counter-productive. (Ramiro)
  • Actually, I think the use of Spanish mainly benefits the CTs. We know that children adapt very quickly and mine want to make me almost cry every week when I see how much they have advanced. I personally find it really hard to switch back and forth in the lesson so I end up using more Spanish (Spanglish?) than I ever would. (Christina)
  • I find strategy number 6 the most appropriate for me. Lately, I been trying to pay more attention to the amount of Spanish and English I use during each class and I'm doing my best to speak as much English as possible. (Viviana)
  • In order to lower affective filter, I wouldn't start using English right away, 100% in the class. You may scare them out and make students feel uneasy. I guess you'll move from Soanish to English as students feel comfortable and can follow the lessons. (Leo)
  • CTs tend to have a very low level of English, they're adult learners, and we all know adults have a harder time adapting to classes being delivered in English than children do. The way the CT feels towards the lesson greatly affects children's perception. Perhaps we could explain key concepts of second language acqusition to CTs in order to lower their affective filters as well. (Serrana)
We are now looking at producing guidelines and will be working with RTs to reduce the amount of Spanish used in class, but I'd be very interested in hearing what others think about this. 


  1. Hi Graham,
    This has been one of the 'million dollar questions' in this project, I believe :-)
    Our experience here is absolutely diverse, but I think that, in this particular project, one of the key elements that will push the RT into using more or less instances of Spanish in the lessons is the attitude of the CT. When the Classroom Teacher is willing to 'play along' and, in a way, empathises with the RT more and more English can be used. There are a few cases, though, when the CT does not react positively and/or provides translations that interfere with or distort the message. In that case, the RT will probably need to use English a lot more.
    All the same, I usually recommend starting RTs to resort, when needed, to the 'sandwich technique: a phrase in English, translation into Spanish, and then the same phrase in English again.
    Definitely an area to reflect upon!!



  2. I guess I will include your question in my end of year meeting with RTs!

  3. Graciela Iglesias8:55 pm

    The amount of L1 varies from class to class and has definitely decreased with the passing of time. As learners came to terms with the presence of RT via VC and the bond between CT and RT became more solid, students have been able to accept the use of L2 in a more natural way. I've trying to include more and more instructions and explanations in English accompanied by a lot of gestures and faces. And of course the good old sandwich technique is always useful.

    Graciela Iglesias

  4. Thanks for your comments, Gaby and Graciela - the sandwich technique is one I forgot in my list!

    What I've noticed when observing classes though is that kids that get used to receiving instructions in Spanish after the English tend not to 'hear' the English...I've seen them waiting for the Spanish and 'not hearing' the English, although I'm sure a lot depends on the actual class/students and the way the CT uses this technique (i.e. how long she waits before giving the Spanish, etc) and also whether this is systematic (i.e. always) or whether she starts using only English for some classroom language (stand up, sit down, etc) when it becomes obvious through repetition or context what it means. Either way, I think it is a fascinating area to investigate and to try to develop recommendations for RTs. It's also a topic to discuss when we have our RT training session in December

  5. Hi, Graham! I'm teaching ESL beginners. What is your opinion of students who are using Chinese-English dictionary?

  6. Hi Terry, I'm all for using dictionaries so long as the learners use them well and don't try to look up every word


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