How to Teach Within the Confines of the English Only Classroom

You’ve heard of it: “English Only.”

The tenet that in your ESL classroom the only acceptable language will be English.

But let’s take a moment and think about English Only.

Only is an adverb that limits. Having its origins in a combination of one and –ly, a suffix with the meaning of “like,only limits that which follows to exclusively that which follows, with no possibility of other items included.

“You can have only one cupcake.” (two cupcakes will not be allowed)

Only the President knows the answer.” (no one else will have that information)

English Only implies, then, that any language other than English will be excluded. 

On an intuitive level, that idea makes sense.

And yet, debate around the English Only concept continues among teachers, linguists and even students.

There are those who passionately defend the concept, even citing anecdotal evidence from their own experience. On the other hand, there is ample research in the contrary camp that supports the use of L1 in the ESL classroom.

Then there are those who need to run an English Only classroom, no matter whether they prefer this method or another one.

What do you do when, under a variety of possible circumstances, you find yourself in an English Only classroom situation?

Other teachers are able to call the shots in their classroom. Do you have a decision to make about this? If you’re able to make the final call then, before deciding on an English Only precept for your ESL classroom, you should be aware of some of the reasons English Only is required.

You should then become familiar with the different perspectives offered by teachers and researchers on both sides of the debate.

Finally, you will need to decide just how you are going apply English Only in your relationships with your students.

A Bit of Background on English Only

Despite early bilingual approaches to English teaching in the early 20th century, by the end of World War I, immigrants to the U.S. began looking for the most efficient and cost-effective way to learn the language of their new home.

Decades before linguistics became a science, the field was ripe for clever entrepreneurs to make money teaching English. Learned university English professors wanted to forward their own ideas. One of those ideas that surfaced was that English should be taught in English.

In his 1918 instructional book, “How to teach English to foreigners”, Henry Goldberger comments on what was then understood as the Direct Method. He notes:

The term, direct method, therefore, serves to explain only one element – an important one – in the teaching of English, i.e., the use by the teacher of the English language in teaching English.

The Uganda Conference Statement

It wasn’t until 1961 that clear tenets were set up concerning using only English when teaching English. These came out of the Commonwealth Conference on the Teaching of English as a Second Language held at Makerere College, Uganda, and rang out thus:

  • English is best taught monolingually.
  • The ideal teacher of English is a native speaker.
  • The earlier English is taught, the better the results.
  • The more English is taught, the better the results.
  • If other languages are used too much, standards of English will drop.

These tenets have since been accepted as a basic framework for English Only in ESL and EFL teaching.

Language Acquisition Theory

In the middle of the 20th century, modern-day linguists tossed about different theories on how language is learned (and thus how it should be taught). Investigative leaders, like Stephen Krashen and Noam Chomsky, broke onto the scene with the Language Acquisition Theory (LAT).

A part of LAT suggests that language learners best learn from useful and communicative input. When referring to grammar instruction, for example, Krashen comments that first the student must have an interest in the target-language grammar and secondly that the grammar instruction be given in the target language.

Despite this apparent recommendation of Target Language Only instruction, Krashen is a firm believer in bilingual education.

Language Acquisition Theory lends itself well to the assumption that using only English as the instruction language will facilitate learning. It also suggests that English Only will make learning, or at least acquiring the English language, more efficient and rapid. For this reason, many modern methods based upon LAT will emphasize that classes only be taught in English, L1 being left at the doorway when entering the classroom.

English Only in Today’s ESL Classroom

Leaving controversy and origin aside, many ESL teachers will find themselves in the situation of having to apply an English Only precept in their classroom. The most common of these situations are:

The monolingual teacher: You only speak English. Doesn’t matter where your students are from or what foreign country you’ve gone to to teach English, you’ve not learned enough of any other spoken language to be able to teach using that language. Your only option is to teach in English.

The multinational classroom: Your students come from many cultures and language backgrounds and you find yourself with two to twenty different L1s among your students. The only common denominator will be English. Even if you spoke one of the student’s languages, it would be unfair to explain in that language, leaving everyone else out. May as well use English.

The English Only sales pitch: Private English academies in many countries attract students by promising them results, based upon common assumptions. Two of those assumptions are (1) that the teacher will be a native English speaker and (2) that he or she will be giving the classes totally in English. Teachers will be required to deliver on the academy’s promises.

Pros and Cons of the English Only Tenet

Expected Benefits for the Students

Although the jury is still out, those who believe in and enforce English Only in their classroom will give a number of reasons why it’s simply the cat’s meow of ESL teaching techniques. Some common ones are:

  • It creates an environment of English immersion.
  • This immersion makes the learning of English much more rapid.
  • Translation and code-breaking are minimized, leaving more time for communication.

While this pick of many similar reasons appears logical, any of them can be challenged:

English immersion: A student who spends 10 hours a week in an English Only classroom will spend the other 158 hours outside of the classroom, often outside of any immersion. Classroom immersion is artificial, as the classroom is not the real world. In addition, opportunities to speak or interact in class will be limited by total class time divided by number of students.

Learning more rapidly: This depends on individual students. Highly-motivated students may, indeed, absorb more rapidly. Students obliged to attend class by parents or bosses may simply wonder why they’re there. Who’s timing their learning paces anyway?

Translation / code-breaking: Though once depended upon heavily in language teaching, both translation and code-breaking seem to have fallen out of favor in the modern classroom. They still exist despite this downplay, but not giving them specific time further supports their position as “non-effective teaching techniques” for those who favor other techniques.

Potential Pitfalls of English Only in the ESL Classroom

A number of valid points have been made concerning possible pitfalls for teachers and students when English Only is enforced. Knowing about them can help you avoid falling into them yourself.

Who makes the rule?

In order to have an English Only classroom, someone has to set the basic rule: Only English will be used. 

That someone is often the teacher (for any of the reasons explained above).

Unfortunately, when dealing with human beings, rules that limit (remember the meaning of “only”) might become just the rules that will be broken. When the teacher makes or enforces a rule, he or she will have to enforce that rule during class, taking on the role of keeper instead of informer.

Crime and punishment!

When newer ESL teachers drop into a teacher forum and ask “How do I get my students to use more English in class?” they’re often met with answers from English Only defenders:

Students who obey the rule get a piece of candy or a gold star.

Students who break the rule get extra homework or have to do some oral presentation before their mates.

With a system like this, the teacher becomes an enforcer as well as an instructor.

Lower-proficiency students get left behind.

While others may get a kick out of trying to figure out what the teacher is blah-blah-blahing about in that strange language, students at lower proficiency levels can feel left out, alienated, with little motivation to be enthused about learning English.

In some cases, as with adults, some resentment may arise, as their main mode of communication, their native language, has been taken away from them.

Class time will get wasted.

You might end up wasting valuable class time in order to avoid any L1 use whatsoever. A teacher who spends 20 minutes miming a vocabulary word that can easily be explained in two seconds in L1 will never recover those 20 minutes lost clowning about.

Some English Only teachers are strict about it, and will restrict dictionary use or not allow more advanced students to give a quick L1 grammar explanation to a confused student. That teacher will instead explain again and again, perhaps in different manners, in a language that the student simply doesn’t understand.

Given these potential pitfalls, how can you, as a teacher, function in the English Only classroom?

How to Create an English Only Framework for Your ESL Classroom

Be Open to Inclusion

When Elsa Roberts Auerbach penned her paper “Reexamining English Only in the ESL Classroom,” she was prepared for some type of reaction. English Only was a hotly-debated topic.

The reply came from Charlene Polio in the TESOL Quarterly. In her response to Polio, Auerbach shared a personal anecdote from a fellow teacher, formerly an English Only defender, who had begun allowing L1 to coexist in her classroom. The anecdote ends with the inspirational words:

Has my classroom changed since Auerbach’s speech to which my initial reactions were rather mixed? Definitely. It’s become a much more democratic place where power is shared and where the vibes are usually very good. Although I am not bilingual, nor do I have the same cultural background as my students, I demonstrated through my new approach that I respect their culture and language. English no longer seemed so foreign, enigmatic, and threatening to them once they realized that they too are possessors of knowledge which they can teach to the teacher.

The point being, English Only can potentially deprive us of incredible classroom dynamics that can come from the give-and-take between students willing to share and the teacher willing to listen.

Try “English Only Framework” Instead of Just English Only

Instead of establishing a rule that might invite backlash, why not instead create frameworks, directly related to specific activities, in which the logical approach is to use English rather than L1?

You won’t be restricting anything, and there won’t be a general prohibition of L1 use. English Only Framework will become one of the many rules involved in the activity itself.

There are many activities where framing in English, rather than L1, isn’t only logical, it’s useful and can be fun! Here are some of the benefits of the English Only framework approach:

  • An English Only framework can encourage English use because it’s part of a specific activity.
  • Make it clear that L1 won’t be of much use when doing those activities.
  • Students will recognize that English is a part of the activity and will make the effort to use English instead of L1.
  • No prohibition will be necessary.

Respect What Your Students Bring to the Class

Students come to your classroom already able to express themselves in their native language.

This language goes beyond simply speaking and listening, though. It often represents who they are, their culture, their heritage. When you make a rule that prohibits them from using their own language, you’re temporarily stripping them of those aspects of who they are.

While they need to become accustomed to navigating the ESL classroom in English, it’s always good to let them share their language and culture with you and fellow students from time to time.

Allow Students to Help Each Other in L1

Even if you don’t speak a student’s native language, someone else in the room might.

  • If a student asks in their L1, “What is the difference between was and have been?”, you can allow a classmate to explain in L1.
  • Have that same student explain it back to you in English. This will give the student practice explaining in English, while the questioner hears the explanation in English as well. You can also confirm that the explanation was correct.
  • Re-explain the concept in “teacher English.”
  • A doubt has been cleared up while everyone participates using English.

Facilitate Comprehension of Difficult Concepts with L1

Even if you don’t speak any language besides English, you’ll find yourself having to explain technical aspects of the language.

  • Search the internet for quick texts in your student’s L1 that explain the theme, topic or grammar rule.
  • Print these out and have them on hand to share, one for each student in their own L1.
  • Hand these out while explaining graphically, in English, the same theme.
  • Teach the students the key English words involved with the concept as vocabulary and have them try to find the equivalents in the printout in their L1.

This code-breaking exercise will help your students make connections between what you’re saying and what they can understand. Encourage them to formulate questions about the concept using known English structures and this new vocabulary about the structure.

Be a Living Dictionary

Avoid the trap! I’ve seen it and you may have even done it: five minutes spent acting out a vocabulary word or an utterance, avoiding L1 as if it would bring world destruction, only to find that half the class still doesn’t get what you’re trying to say.

As I commented above, you and your students will never get that time back. Here’s what you can do instead:

  • Use Google Translate and click on the voice button so your students can hear the word in L1.
  • Let your students use their own dictionaries or apps.

The objective is that they understand and learn the new word or expression, not that they avoid, at all costs, using L1 at the expense of valuable class time lost.

5 ESL Activities That Lend Themselves Naturally to the English Only Framework

1. Question & Answer Sessions

We all do these. Whether it be the basic question & answer session:

T: What is this?

S: It’s a box.

T: How old is Sally?

S: She’s 14.

or more complex sessions, like leading questions on reading or video material:

T: Why does John want Mary to come to his house?

S: Because he has something important to ask her.

T: What is John’s important question?

S: He wants to ask her to marry him.

Keep in mind the following to facilitate the English Only framework for the activity:

  • Review the appropriate vocabulary and structure they’ll need before starting the session.
  • Let your students know that they’ll be in “English Only Framework Mode” for the entire activity.
  • Tell them how long you expect the activity to last. Time the activity with your egg timer.
  • Use a simple bell to signal when someone has stepped outside the English Only framework. Any L1 use should be marked with the bell.
  • Despite L1 use—and the bell!—continue the activity until time is up as if no L1 has been used at all.
  • At the end of the activity, ask the student or students who used L1 why they felt they couldn’t use English. Offer them information and advice to help them do better in future question & answer sessions.
  • Follow the same structure every time you do this activity. Students will come to expect it and will be more likely to respect the rules and try to avoid the ringing bell.
  • At the end, make sure to congratulate everyone—even those who slipped!—on how well they did in keeping that troublesome L1 at bay.

2. Drill and Pronunciation

If you’re using an Audio-lingual approach at times in your class, or if you’re teaching sound and utterance pronunciation, you can again place these activities within an English Only framework.

  • Teach the basic instructions you’ll be using ahead of the session, trying to keep the imperative short and sweet (but polite!)
    • Please repeat
    • Open wider
    • Purse your lips
    • Please transform
    • Make plural / singular
  • As with the question & answer session, establish a time limit and set the egg timer.
  • Orchestrate the activity well, be quick and agile and don’t allow pauses where stray L1 use might slip in.

3. Game Time

Game time is another area where the English Only framework can work to your advantage. When playing a game with your students:

  • Teach the basic game vocabulary and utterances ahead of time, perhaps drilling.
  • Take time to establish the rules clearly before beginning the game. One of those rules will be “English Only Framework Mode”!
  • Use “time out” for everyone when L1 is accidentally used: Stop the game for one minute and time out by having everyone sing a known song in English, like “head shoulders knees and toes” or “bend and stretch.” Or make up a song like “Speaking English makes me happy, yes it does, yes it does!” then quickly return to the game play.
  • Avoid singling out the L1 user or embarrassing them with a punishment. Make the call to attention for having used L1 light—use that bell!—and fun and include everyone, as no one will be free from having used L1 at one time or another.

4. Role Play

When doing role plays, allow the actual preparation time to include some L1 use among students.

  • Monitor student preparation time. When you hear an L1 comment that could, depending on student proficiency, be said in English, write the English on the board without stopping the preparation.
  • Quietly bring the L1 user’s attention to the English on the board and encourage them to use the English utterance a couple of times instead of the same in L1.
  • After preparation time, before presentation, highlight for everyone the English replacement for the L1 that was used.
  • Teach encouraging critique language to the entire class that they can use after each presentation:
    • Well done!
    • Very funny.
    • Your pronunciation was very good.
    • I enjoyed it very much.
  • The actual role play will naturally be in English, no need to enforce a framework on that part.

5. Conversation Time!

When leading a conversation with several students, keep these ideas in mind:

  • If L1 is used, it’s probably because the student either doesn’t know or is uncomfortable using the English needed.
  • Have another student try to provide the English alternative to any L1 usage during the conversation.
  • Make sure to note for everyone any new or useful English that the conversation has produced.
  • Keep conversations and debates within a time limit with your egg timer. Knowing that “English Only Framework Mode” will last for 10 or 20 minutes makes it easier for your students to endure not using their L1.
  • Keep classroom economics in mind: That hour you spend with them may some days seem to stretch into an eternity, but it will be hardly a drop in the ocean of their language learning experience.


Keep reading up on English Only. You’ll probably experience a bit of a reality check on a concept which, despite its defenders and its general acceptance in the language teaching world, has its flaws.

It can be used effectively as a tool. It can also be a nice guiding policy for your classroom.

However, when used as a restriction, it can do more harm than good.

Be reasonable with English Only and, as Oscar Wilde once counseled us: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into teacher training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe