Benefits of using L1 in class: Part Two – The Spanish Spy

Following on from last month’s blog Benefits of using L1 in classroom, I thought I’d share a new technique that has been working in my classes to increase spoken English.

In my last blog I said how I was using L1 to benefit my students. In one part of the blog I mentioned how I began to write down the Spanish expressions that my students used in class. Now all of my classes have a ‘Good Expressions’ page in their notebooks which they use regularly. Anyway, a new idea occurred.

The Spanish Spy
I walked into a class of 12 teenagers, intermediate level, and asked for a volunteer.

Para que? – For what?” asked most.

“You’ll see,” I said, grinning. A few put up their hands but I chose the student who normally speaks a lot of Spanish.

“Right,” I said to the student as we stood outside the class. “You are going to be my Spanish spy.”

“What is spy?”

“You know, like an investigator who watches and listens to other people.”

Ah vale, una espia?

“A spy, yes. Now I’m going to go back in and tell a story to the class. I want you to listen to me but also write down any Spanish that anyone says.”


“You’ll see,” I said, winking. “Just keep it a secret.” She smiled. Photo by notionscapital

When we walked back in the rest of class were eager to know what we´d been talking about, but I just got with telling my story. During the lesson a few caught on to the fact that the volunteer was writing down Spanish. At first they spoke more Spanish, until I gave the homework.

At the end of the class I took the list of expressions and showed the class. Most laughed, as did I, especially as I started to dictate the expressions.

Pero, que vamos a hacer con esto? – But what are we going to with this?” asked one student.

“That’s your homework,” I said, smiling. “I want you to translate them for the next lesson.”

There were a few moans, but because the expressions were what they had said the majority seemed quite interested in knowing the English equivalent. Oh, and the volunteer didn’t have to translate the words, at least not until the next class when we did the feedback.

Does the Spanish Spy system work?
I’ve tried this with all of my classes, even a group of 8 year olds, and believe me it does. Each class the Spanish Spy changes and we end up with a few more expressions to add to their notebooks. The benefits of this activity are the following.

·       Students get lots more useful classroom expressions
·      The students rabbiting on in Spanish become aware of just how much they are speaking
·       The Spanish Spy speaks more English 
·       Students in general try to speak more English
·   Whenever you do a speaking activity you just ask the students to refer to their expressions to communicate to each other
·        You get real English in the class

You can get your students to translate the expressions for homework, or dictate the expressions at the start of the next lesson as a warmer or to help review the previous class because the vocabulary is normally related. 

You can use this technique for any language. The only problem is you have to know the language to be able to check the translations and also dictate, or you could get the Spy to dictate to the class.

Be careful
One drawback of this activity is that sometimes the Spanish Spy gets so carried away that they forget they’re supposed to be paying attention to the lesson. This happened with a couple of students so I had to involve them more in the class by asking extra concept checking questions. If I was explaining something vital I’d ask them to stop listening for Spanish for a while.

Be firm
For this to work effectively you have to do it every lesson. The students will soon go back to chatting in Spanish if they know the Spanish Spy is not listening. At the start it might take a lot of time to write up the expressions. Often I get a list of about twenty and only use five or six each class otherwise I get distracted from my lesson plan.  

I’d be interested to know if anyone else uses this technique. At the end of the day any activity that brings more English into the class is worth a crack. Good luck.

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