English Only Classroom

English Only Classroom

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At the end of the article are guiding questions for the educator. 

English only classrooms are a popular thought amongst many educators in English language classrooms. Here we will make a distinction between English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL). ESL would be a Chinese student living in America while learning English; whereas, EFL would be a Chinese student living in China while learning English. This article will come from the perspective of an EFL context where the only real natural exposure to language comes from the classroom.

English only classrooms are considered great in theory, but at times are not beneficial for the students. Creating an English only classroom should depend on several factors and a pro/con assessment should be carried out before implementing such a policy. Before advancing, here are some terms that will be used.

Input– what students are exposed to in regards to language or environment

Intake– this is input that the student notices (comes from information processing (IP) which makes a distinction between what students are exposed to and what they notice)

Critical Period Hypothesis– language learners have a predetermined amount of time to learn a language naturally and be fluent before the brain plasticizes and natural language development is not possible (the age commonly accepted is around puberty)

Output– what the student produces

Foreigner Talk– a decrease in rate and structure to accommodate second language learners in understanding spoken language


Student Age: Young language learners really benefit from natural input as they are more adapt to learning language naturally before the critical period. Infants and kindergarten students naturally soak up information, but as students become older they rely more on cognitive reasoning strategies to acquire language.

Student Level: For young learners, this is not a major concern, but for older language learners this needs to be considered as they will develop cognitive strategies for language production.

Context: Do students have an environment where they can interact with the language, or are they isolated to their native language when leaving the classroom?

Rate of Exposure: How often are the students exposed to the language? Is it a class that meets twice a week for fifty minutes, or every weekday for three hours?

Types of Exposure: How have students been exposed to language in the past? Some countries have recently created policies where speaking has become a focus in English curriculum.

Culture: The culture of the students may have a big impact on whether they speak in the classroom or not. Some students come from cultural environments where the students listen to the educator and do not talk in class. Therefore, student conversations in English probably consisted of repeating and memorizing phrases with little opportunity to talk freely.

Why English Only Classroom Can Be Good

  • Student Thinking: Students gain more opportunity to think in English to analyze the language and how to express themselves. Some students, especially lower levels, tend to think in the native language and translate. English only class forces them to speak in English and over time builds experience and the ability to automatize commonly used language structures.
  • Native Language Domination: Students most often will take the easy route and speak in their native language because it is easier. English only classrooms keep the native language from dominating and puts more emphasis on the language being learned.
  • Maximizes Exposure: Students are not only exposed to more English, but they are able to gather feedback from errors they commit as well as errors others commit. By receiving corrective input, they can hypothesize about how the language works and test these hypotheses.
  • Confidence Factor: An English only classroom can provide the students with a safe structured place to explore the language before using it in a natural setting. The confidence the student acquires in the classroom can carry over to the outside world.
  • Skill Workout: The four skills all work together in some shape or form. However, some educational systems emphasis certain skills while neglecting others. More times than not, the educational system does not emphasis speaking skills, so students are not as proficient as they are in reading, writing, and listening. English only classrooms allow the students to exercise this neglected area.
  • High Level: High level students who have the ability have no excuses as it will only increase their proficiency in the language.
  • Young Learners: They posses the ability to acquire language from natural input. Actual teaching strategies that require cognitive reasoning have little to no affect as the students do not have full access to cognitive reasoning abilities.

Why English Only Classrooms Can Be Bad

  • Blood From a Rock: How does the educator get something from students that they do not possess? If the students are new to the language, expectations have to be tempered. If the students are lower level, how can they be expected to produce in only English?
  • Crushed By the Weight: Some students, especially lower level students, will feel burdened by their inability to speak in the language. This can lead to a decline in confidence and demotivate the student from participating.
  • Student Personalities: There are many different personalities in the classroom; therefore care must be taken not to alienate certain personalities. Some personalities will actually shut off and not participate when they cannot understand or participate.
  • Train Crash: Some educators try to speak at normal rates like they do with native speakers, as they believe students need to become accustomed to native speech rate. Great in theory, horrible in reality. Think of the language being spoken as a train. The first few cars may pass by quickly and the students understand, but soon the cars are passing by so quickly they stop being seen and start piling up into one huge mass. The student becomes lost and no longer can find the focus and becomes frustrated. This is why foreigner talk is beneficial for students. It provides intake which creates more awareness about what is being learned. As the student increases in language, speech rate should increase at the same time.
  • Foe to Complexity: For simple structures, students may not require using native language. However, with complex ideas students may need to consult with each other on how to properly say or present certain ideas. In this way, the native language is facilitating the use of the target language on a deeper level.
  • Education System: In the previous section it was mentioned that students may not have the opportunity to utilize a certain skill in the target language, and by emphasizing this it can increase their ability in that area. An opposing view, if students are not used to this style, then implementing an English only system will decrease the results as the students lack the resources, nor do they have a basis for understanding how to operate within this system.
  • Decrease Participation: If students are restrained by language, then those who do not possess the language will remain quiet. If the students are able to speak the native language and receive feedback from other students or the educator, then they have more opportunity to use the target language.
  • Efficiency and Learning: Sometimes use of the students’ L1 by the educator can help the students understand and learn. Sometimes using the keywords in the target language and the native language will create understanding amongst the students. Also, providing directions with certain keywords in the native language help the students understand what to do. This is not to promote speaking or fully giving directions in the students’ native language for prolonged periods of time, but occasional use will not hurt the students’ use of the L2.

Final Thoughts

The educator is responsible for building the classroom to increase opportunities for the students to learn and reach higher levels. In some instances, English only classrooms are perfect for the students to achieve the next level; however, English only classrooms can deter advancement and have adverse effects on learning.

Most times it is probably in the educator’s best interest to have a balanced approach to native language in a foreign language classroom. This will be a decision based off many variables and left to the educator’s discretion as it is not an exact science. A word of warning, if students start relying too much on their native language and it is not corrected by the educator, then it will be very difficult to eliminate this dependency, so it is important to have strategies in place to curb overuse of native language.

Questions to Think About to Help Teaching

  1. What level are the students? Do they have the ability to speak only English?
  2. How often are your students exposed to English a week? Is this sufficient for an English only classroom?
  3. Think about the students’ culture and educational system and does it match with an English only classroom? If not, how can you progress the students to only using English?
  4. Imagine you are learner who struggles with learning languages, what would you need to succeed?