I’ve used a number of different strategies in class in trying to encourage my pupils to communicate in English and had varied results. What worked with one group didn’t necessarily work with another. Finding something that I’m happy with and that motivates the learners is an ongoing struggle but I think I may have stumbled upon a tactic that could work, at least for the upcoming school year.
Before I go into detail about what I’ve tried in class and what I plan to use next year, let me explain that I’m referring to learners between the ages of eight and twelve. With pupils younger than eight, we discuss why they should try to use English in class and I try to design the activities so that using L2 is a natural outcome (which sometimes works but sometimes doesn’t but that’s a whole other post!); I prefer not to use anything systematic in controlling how much L1 vs L2 they are using because with very young learners it feels unnatural and forced.
For a number of years I used a system with young learners and later with tweens involving red cards to limit the use of L1 and attempt to encourage the pupils to use L2. When a learner used Spanish instead of English they were given a red card. If they accumulated three cards or more in one class their daily participation mark was slightly affected. There were some advantages to using this strategy: learners were more aware of how much L1 vs L2 they were using and L1 was effectively limited making L2 the predominant language being spoken as well as heard. The problem was that none of it felt natural. I was happy that students were using more L2 but it didn’t feel right to punish them for using their native language.
So I moved on to using flags on the board to signal when they should strive to use English (a poster with the American, Canadian and British flags) and when it was considered acceptable to ask more complicated questions in L1 (a poster with the Spanish flag). I also tried to verbally encourage learners to reformulate their questions or statement in English if possible, suggesting words or phrases that would be helpful. For the most part, this strategy worked: students continued to be aware of whether they were using L1 or L2 and they got a kick out of the flags. However, there was quite a bit more Spanish being used in class than before. The system was lacking a certain spark, a certain motivational push that would get them trying to communicate more frequently in English.
During the last trimester of this school year I suddenly had an idea. I’m not sure when this Eureka moment actually happened or where it came from but I decided to implement it immediately and test out the waters for next year. I was very pleased with the results.
My newest strategy in motivating learners to use L2 involves using those same red cards but turning the system on its head. Instead of giving them cards when they speak in Spanish, I take their card away. At the beginning of class I give each one a card. In order to keep that card they need to use English to communicate in class. If they revert to Spanish, I take the card back. I’m also considering allowing learners to keep their card if they can rectify and try to reformulate in English. At the end of class I ask for a show of hands from those who have managed to keep their cards and give them lots of praise for doing so. I also make sure I give the pupils who lost their cards a firm ‘you’ll-get-‘em-next-time’ comment and smile. I wasn’t really sure what to expect but so far this new system has worked like a charm! More than ever pupils were trying to communicate in English. They were asking me questions, telling me about things unrelated to class (what they did at the weekend, etc) and even talking more to each other in English. The best part is that I didn’t have to remind them or encourage them to do so. They were doing it because they wanted to. It felt natural and good.
So why does this strategy work better than the others I’ve used before? It’s hard to pin that down to one specific explanation but in general I think it’s a matter of pride. Students want to keep their card until the end of class so they can lift it up and show everyone what they have accomplished. In terms of classroom management it’s about using positive reinforcement instead of punishment to encourage certain behavior.
Although this new system seemed to be working well, there are some points I need to reflect on before the next school year begins. First, I need to figure out to what degree I take into consideration peer input. During the short time that we used this tactic this past year it wasn’t clearly defined whether students could rat out other students. When one of them told me that so-and-so had used Spanish, I simply asked the student in question and expected an honest answer. I’m pretty sure that they were mostly sincere and quite a few willingly gave up their cards. I haven’t decided whether I want learners to police each other or not. This will be more food for thought during the summer months.
I’m also a bit concerned about shy students limiting what they contribute to class in order to avoid having to give up their cards. Most of the learners participated very well and some even seemed more motivated to join in, but there were some that were as quiet as before or even more so. I need to consider ways to get these shy learners communicating and sharing more in class.
And one last thing I’d like to mention is that I recycled my old and tattered red cards in testing this new way of doing things but for next year I’ll have brand new laminated orange cards with stars on them. I think the change will get them even more excited about trying to hold on to their precious cards. In doing so, they’ll be practicing more English in the classroom, which is the whole point of this little experiment!