How Much English?

The obvious answer to this question, for foreign language teachers, is “Less than 10%!” That’s what all the experts say, right? And, of course, let’s not forget the caveat that it has to be less than 10% for the teacher and the students.

That means that, somehow, I need to get my students to speak Spanish 90% of the time that we’re in class.

For some teachers, English is prohibited in their room. Some teachers have a sign that they turn around that means English is prohibited until the sign is turned back around. Some teachers take participation grades. Some teacher offer students play money to use as participation points or buy classroom perks. Some teachers dangle the carrot of a party in front of their students’ noses. Some teachers explain why we need to speak more and more Spanish (or whatever language) and the students buy in and do it. Some teachers assign “English police” whose job it is to listen for English and call out the offenders in some way.

Over the last three and a half years, I’ve done almost all of those things. You know what I’ve found? None of them are very effective if I don’t commit and stick with it. Some classes are more willing to stay in the TL than others. Some kids refuse to speak Spanish if they have any doubt about how to say something. Some kids refuse to figure out how to say something even if they should know how to do it. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It can be discouraging. It can also be highly satisfying, encouraging, and a great reminder of why you’re doing what you’re doing, when it works.

So here’s a run down of my attempts at speaking more and more Spanish:

Year 1: I taught the way I learned. We discussed grammar in English. I gave (most) directions in English. Spanish was basically only used when we were directly practicing some piece of grammar, or when we were doing a speaking activity. Even then, English was common. I was nowhere near the 90% goal, and I knew that it was something that had to change. I had a sign that I turned around during No-English time, which was viewed mostly as a terrible thing by my students, and which I didn’t use often enough. I didn’t realize it at the time, but by using this sign, I think I was turning the thing I wanted to encourage into a punishment for students.

Year 2: I knew I wanted to speak more Spanish. I made an effort to give instructions in Spanish, but we still did a lot in English. In Spanish 3 I implemented a new system: During the first quarter, we spoke only Spanish 1 day a week. Students lost participation points if I heard them speaking in English. 2nd quarter we added another day, and so on, so that by the end of the year we were speaking only Spanish from bell to bell 4 days a week. I saw my Spanish 3 students’ confidence spike. They went from dreading sitting silently on Spanish days to looking forward to them. Partly, this was because we rarely reviewed new grammar (yes, I still taught from the textbook) on Spanish days, and I usually tried to come up with a fun activity for those days. But what’s the problem with them looking forward to Spanish-only days? I didn’t see any. And by the end of the year, if there was downtime, several of them were starting to chat with each other in Spanish. I was pleased.

In Spanish 1 and 2 I tried to speak more Spanish, but truly, not much changed from year 1. This was also my first year with Spanish 4. My original idea was to speak only Spanish all the time just like we did when I was in Spanish 4. But my Spanish 4 students had had 3 teachers in 4 years and 1 of them was almost a total loss. They were not ready for what I was asking them to do. I got discouraged, and we actually spoke a lot more English in Spanish 4 than we did in Spanish 3. Don’t ask me how that makes sense.

The no-English sign was still with me this year. Used mostly to indicate to my 3s which days were Spanish-only days.

Year 3: This was the year I really got going. Spanish 1 and 2 were still mostly in English, but I did use my sign a little more with these groups. In Spanish 3, I started the year with the one-day-a-week system just like the year before. I didn’t have a Spanish 4 class this year.

Halfway through the year, I started reading about play money! And I jumped in! For several weeks before Christmas, I copied and laminated and cut so much colored paper in different denominations. I had a plan. They would pay me a minimum amount per week (I originally thought 100, but we ended up settling on 50), and the rest they could use to buy various classroom perks, trips to the bathroom, etc. They would also have to pay me if they spoke English.

I knew I couldn’t do this in all my classes all at once, so I decided to use Spanish 3 as a guinea pig class. The first day after Christmas break, I explained the system and reminded them that they were really only losing a few days of English a week compared to the old way, and we got started on day 2.

I still taught grammar from the book and gave vocab quizzes and all the things I had been doing before. But now we did it all in Spanish. Now, this was a particularly excellent group of students, but I have to say, it went really, really well. I started telling my 1s and 2s that this would be the system I was going to implement across the board next year.

At the end of the year, I surveyed my Spanish 3 students. I noticed two trends: A lot of them really missed speaking English. And (the very same students) said that they felt much more confident in their Speaking and that they learned a lot.

So, at the end of year 3, my plan was to speak only Spanish all the time in all the classes. I figured I’d let Spanish 1 students speak English to me for the first semester, and after that everyone would speak only Spanish all the time, with the aid of my play money system.

Year 4: I spent the summer between years 3 and 4 reading a lot about comprehensible input, proficiency levels, and throwing away the textbook. I was convinced. So for the first time on day 1, I didn’t pass out textbooks. I didn’t warn my Spanish 1 students that if they didn’t know the difference between the subject of a sentence and a noun (seriously, they really don’t know. Ask them.), they’d be in trouble.

did overload them with unusable information about proficiency levels. I did motivate way too many of my Spanish 2 students to drop my class in fear. I did set unrealistic expectations for review week because, of course, if we were only speaking Spanish and not talking about grammar, everything would be awesome, which further motivated more Spanish 2 students to drop. I did get really overwhelmed and discouraged the first week.

I also used the play money. For about a day in Spanish 3 and 4, about 3 weeks in Spanish 2 and maybe 6 weeks in Spanish 1. But I realized that, last year, most of the money I gave out happened when we were doing those textbook practice activities. Now, without a generic Q&A formula, I didn’t find as many opportunities to give out money. It slowly fell out of use. Students still carry some of it around with them and every once in a while they ask about it. It didn’t work out as well without the textbook as I thought it would.

But that’s ok, sometimes you just have to forget a failed idea. However, once my 2s and 3s realized they didn’t have to pay the fine for speaking English, they started getting lazy. And, especially with my 2s, I did too. Not having a textbook to guide my instruction has been more difficult than I anticipated. Even though I planned units for this year, I feel like I’ve lost some direction in my 2-4 classes. Not having great plans and then trying to implement them without speaking English is both exhausting and discouraging. My 4s still speak Spanish all the time because they were well trained last year, and they’re awesome. 🙂 In Spanish 1, I was still speaking in Spanish almost all the time, but I wanted to encourage them to speak more Spanish as well.

So here’s where we are now:

In Spanish 1 I made a deal with the kids: When the bell rings, I start the stopwatch on my phone. When I hear English, I stop it. The number of minutes they go without English each day add up and, when they get to 200, they get a party. This was terribly exciting for them, and it encourages them to speak Spanish without making it a punishment. They are serious about earning that party. However, after a few weeks, I noticed that, after the first English was spoken, we were all speaking too much English, myself included. So I made a new deal: after the first English, I restart the clock and give them 1 point for every 2 minutes of no English. If they speak English again, I start over and give them 1 point for every 3 minutes. So there’s always motivation to stay in Spanish. Both of my 1s have now earned a party, and I’ve bumped it up to 400 for the next party.

Additionally with my 1s, many days I cut the timer off 2 or 3 minutes before the end of the period in order to do a quick review in English for the kids who just don’t get it. (Seriously, I had a picture of a baby tiger on its mother’s back, and motioned on top of, and the kid thought the word “encima” meant baby…this is not an isolated incident for this kid). I don’t want to rely on translation, but it’s also important to me that my students understand what’s going on. So I rely on CI most of the time, and most of them get it. I know I need to find better ways to check for understanding in Spanish (drawing pictures on white boards is getting old for everyone), but for now, this clarification time is valuable to some of my students and to me.

Since we started, I’ve been keeping track of class points on the corner of my white board. Most of my other classes have simply ignored it. However, when they heard about the party last week, they were interested. So I’m going to offer them the same deal starting after Thanksgiving. Of course, higher levels will have to get to higher numbers (I’m thinking of starting 2s off at 400 and 3s at 600) in order to earn the party. I’m hoping this will motivate them to try to speak Spanish, but avoid the frustration that some of my students experience when they get punished for speaking English, and therefore have to live in a world of confusion for 50 minutes multiple times a week. I’ll let you know how it goes.


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