Keeping Students in the Target Language [Three Classroom Activities]

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Three Activities and Strategies to keep language students in the target language

In this blog post I am going to share with you a couple of strategies and highly engaging activities that I use regularly in the classroom. 

The Can of Blah Blah Blah  (La Lata de bla bla bla)

This activity encourages students to stay in the target language throughout the entire class. It also keeps students focused as they listen and keep each other in check. This is actually an activity I do every class.    

Here are the steps:

Find a can or a box to hold questions on slips of paper.

  1. Write 10-15 questions which cover the current unit of study or older topics.  I use a combination of interpersonal and intrapersonal questions.  
  2. Find a stuffed animal.  I prefer a smaller one that can be held in one hand.  Explain to students (I do so in the target language) that the goal is not to be in possession of the stuffed animal.  If you teach older students, you can use something like a stress ball. 
  3. I start the class.  As we move through the various activities, students are required to ask, answer, and interject in Spanish when appropriate.  If a student speaks English, s/he receives the stuffed animal and it remains with him/her until the next “victim” speaks English.  The stuffed animal is then passed on to the next student…and so on and so on.  
  4. At the conclusion of class, the “victim” who is in possession of the stuffed animal last must stay after for a minute and pull a question from the Can of Blah Blah Blah.  The student needs to answer the question and then s/he can proceed to the next hour. I always give a pass, just in case. 

Things I have learned using this activity

  • For younger students, hold a contest to name the stuffed animal.  Each class votes for a name. I find that sometimes older students enjoy this as well.  If not, an option would be to name it the Blah Blah Ball or something catchy!
  • Students are quick to find fault with each other.  When and if it gets out of hand, the rule is that I need to hear the English in order for the student to receive the stuffed animal.
  • Preface the activity positively and set the tone that answering a question at the end of class is not punitive; but rather a reminder to speak in the target language during structured and unstructured activities.
  • I usually keep track of students and the number of times they have to stay after class.  At the end of each month and/or unit, I recognize the student who had to stay after class the fewest number of times.  That student gets to wear a Burger King paper crown (aka la corona de bla bla bla) for the duration of class if s/he chooses to do so.  I find most middle school students enjoy this honor and have asked to wear it for the day!

The Box of Truth  (La Caja de Verdad)

For this activity, students form teams of three.  You can have smaller or bigger teams if necessary.  The goal is for one team to describe what is in the box to the opposing  team members. The other team has to decide if the team is telling the truth or lying.  I find that this activity works for upper level classes as students have more vocabulary and tenses to work with, including impersonal expressions such as: One must _________… You use this to __________.

What you will need:

  • 2 shoe boxes (or a similar size)
  • A test divider (or put teams back to back)
  • Items/drawings/pictures/flashcards of current unit of study. These can be generated by you or you can have students draw/find clipart/write down vocabulary)

The steps:

  1. Students form teams of 3.  I find that doing it one team facing another in front of the class is most effective.  However, if students can self-monitor and stay in the target language, they can compete simultaneously. If you have more than one group going at a time, you will need more boxes and dividers.  
  2. One student from a team pulls an object or piece of paper and describes the item to the other team. The other 2 students can add and build on the clue.  
  3. The opposing team can take note of hesitancy, body language, facial expressions… etc. and determine as to whether the other team is telling the truth or not. Then they share their guess.
  4. If the guessing team is correct, they earn a point. If they guess incorrectly, the team giving the clue gets a point.  I usually do the best of 3. Teams switch giving and guessing.
  5.   Then the next two teams come up and start the game again. I have each team at least go once.  This can last 10 minutes or go for a whole class period!  Just make sure to have enough items in the boxes.

What I have learned along the way

  • Having a test divider works better than back-to-back.  This way, students can also look at facial expressions and body language of the team giving clues.  
  • Vary what goes in the box, and don’t necessarily stick to the current theme or topic.  Sometimes I just want kids to practice speaking in general. I put a random toy (like a car) in the box.  The students can say the color, it has a motor, it goes on the street…)
  • For higher levels such as AP, write down more complex topics such as “global warming” “healthcare”  etc. so students can even articulate their opinion, advantages, disadvantages…etc.
  • Kids love acting.  It is sometimes difficult to determine if students are hesitant because they are experiencing difficulty in articulating a clue or whether they are acting to confuse the guessing team!

Clothespins (Pinzas de Ropa)

Have you ever played the game at a baby shower when you are handed clothespins and if you say the word “baby”, someone can take it from you?  Then, the person with the most pins at the end wins a prize.  

Give each of your students 3-5 clothespins, and explain the rules.  This activity really stretches them and helps them stay in the target language.  Sometimes students struggle, and that’s ok! It’s part of language acquisition. I am not big into prizes, but you could definitely offer that as an incentive for some age groups.  Sometimes I give an extra point or 2 on the next assessment.  

My insights on this activity

  • Remind first year students of the novice proficiency levels.  Words, phrases and one- sentence responses are not only acceptable but expected.
  • The length of this activity depends on the age of your students and what they can sustain.  
  • Clothespins are not the end-all.  Paperclips, stickers, popsicle sticks… whatever you have laying around would work, especially for an older crowd!
  • Encourage students to use other attention-seeking devices like gestures and facial expressions to convey meaning.

Wrap it up on EXTEMPORE!

After all of these activities, students are now primed for an activity on Extempore.  The activity you design can be a summative or formative assessment. I often include topics that were mentioned and revisited numerous times throughout the class period.  This way, students are comfortable and feel successful, as they have already had some practice. Have fun! 

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This post is courtesy of Andrea Nazelli who is the Spanish department chair and teacher at Detroit Country Day School.

Want to read more great content by Andrea? Take a look at her previous blog post: ALL-IN-ONE ACTIVITY FOR THE WORLD LANGUAGE CLASSROOM: YES.  NO. MAYBE?