Encouraging YLs and Tweens to Use L2

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.

Photo Credit: Marc Wathieu via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Marc Wathieu via Compfight cc

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!

About careymicaela

I've been teaching Young Learners and Very Young Learners for over ten years now. My degrees are in Psychology and Spanish. I also completed my TEFL certification in Madrid and the Ih Young Learners Course in Seville. I enjoy working with children and sharing those experiences with other teachers. In my free time (when that exists!) I like to read, listen to music, practice yoga and go on long cycling routes.
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3 Responses to Encouraging YLs and Tweens to Use L2

  1. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Micaela,

    This is a great post and lots of ideas came to mind when I was reading. First of all, I should say that I really like your resourcefulness. Some may argue that methods like this only boost Ss’ external motivation, but I think that young learners work best if, apart from lots of support and encouragement, they get some type of material reward.

    I have a question regarding your method: Do you only give each student one card? It crossed my mind that it may be good to give them more cards at the beginning of the lesson and take them away gradually – if necessary. Each S would then end up with a different number of cards, which would make it even more interesting. Also, you could give the ‘stolen’ cards back as a reward for using L2. However, it would probably make the method a bit more competitive, which is not always to the good. It may also be pretty confusing for you as well as the Ss and it may even be unfair.

    You post reminded me of a method I used when I wanted to encourage my Ss to use L2 during a speaking activity: I monitored the groups while they were working and with no comment and prior warning, I recorded and displayed negative points for L1 use. Once the Ss noticed and understood what I was doing, they automatically switched to L2 and gradually, they all stopped using L1 completely. In the end, I just praised the best ones and we were all happy. The kids were a bit older, though – 12-13 years.

    Anyway, thanks for a thought-provoking post and keep writing!



    • careymicaela says:

      Hi Hana!

      Thanks so much for stopping by to read and for taking the time to comment.

      I like your idea about giving them more than one card and taking them away gradually (and maybe returning them if they use L2) because it makes it less of an ‘all-or-nothing’ situation. However, as you mentioned, it may take on a competitive side and I’d rather avoid that. I’m also looking to keep it very straightforward and simple. I want something that will work every day in class and is manageable with the groups of 12 students that I have. As I mentioned in the post, I’m thinking about giving students a chance to reformulate into English in order to keep their card. That may help by giving them an opportunity to make a mistake but correct it.

      The anecdote you shared from your class brings to mind the fact that most students are capable of using English to communicate- they sometimes just need a motivational push to get them to do so. Adults have a different source of motivation because they’re usually the ones who signed themselves up for class, but young learners and teens usually need more than just ‘you’ll need English in the future’ to get and keep their interest. I think it’s up to us as teachers to figure out what gets them to want to use English and that can take many forms depending on the age as well as the dynamics in a particular group

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Questions about teaching Young Learners (aged 6-11) (useful links!)

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