When students won’t speak in Spanish

One of my biggest struggles with my Spanish Language Arts classes is getting students to speak in Spanish during class.  What do you do when students won’t speak in Spanish? With younger students the idea of switching languages when switching teachers or periods and having key transition times like “1, 2, 3 no más inglés” works well.  Even with my Spanish 2 and 3 classes, having certain Spanish only periods seems like a fun game to them, and they’ll remind each other “sólo español”.  For secondary DLI students who have grown up speaking both languages with each other, speaking Spanish is no longer a fun game.

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I’ve found I tend to see four types of students:

-Native speakers who have recently arrived and are more comfortable in Spanish (they’ll usually speak only Spanish)

-Heritage speakers who are near balanced bilinguals who speak both English and Spanish in class, often code switching


-High achieving non-Latino students who force themselves to speak Spanish all the time and generally don’t code switch


-Heavily English-dominate students who make little effort to speak Spanish

You might ask “This is a class of mostly heritage speakers.  Why do they not speak Spanish?”  Despite most speaking Spanish at home, attending an elementary school that had more instruction in Spanish than English, and having what was supposed to be a 50-50 program in Middle School, by high school the vast majority of the students are English dominant.  Last week I asked them what language they felt stronger in.  About 85% said English, 5% said Spanish and 10% said they felt both were equal.  I’d love to use this to counter English-only proponents who say that students shouldn’t be in bilingual programs because they won’t learn English.  The truth is, as a teacher I’m fighting every day to put Spanish on the same level as English and to have my students use Spanish in class.  It’s a constant struggle, but here are some things that have been successful.

1. I ONLY speak in Spanish during class.  No matter what we are doing I speak in Spanish unless I specifically want students to make a linguistic connection or bridge to English.  I know that it’s tempting to speak in English, especially with mundane things like school announcements or serious things like behavior or rules.  But once I use English for those things I’m also giving the message that English is for serious things or whole-school things and Spanish loses its power.

2. I get student buy-in.  We talk about the fact that it’s easier for most of them to speak in English, that they are amazingly bilingual and used to using both languages and have relationships with classmates in English outside of school.  Nevertheless, they don’t have half of their classes in Spanish, just one or two and we aren’t going to improve if we don’t speak in Spanish.

3. I won’t respond to students who speak to me in English.  I’ll say “dime en español” or “no respondo al inglés”.  Students get the message quickly.  I’ll admit that I’m not 100% consistent on this, because sometimes I don’t even realize that a student has said something in English, but I certainly try.

4. Students complete weekly self-evaluations about how much Spanish they speak on a scale of 1-5, 5 being 99+% of the time and 1 being less than 70%.  This is part of their grade.  I’ve found that students generally do a good job of honestly evaluating their participation and having this every week is a good time to reflect on how we’re doing.

5. When students are speaking English I remind them to speak Spanish.  Most of the time these are conversations not related to content, just chit-chat and gossip, but it’s important for them to practice speaking both in informal settings and using academic language.  I try hard to keep this light and positive by repeating in Spanish what they were saying.  I don’t want to be negatively reprimanding students for not using Spanish but without trying to hold high expectations the vast majority of student talk would end up being in English.

6. I try to create a relationship with the student in Spanish (or at least bilingually) outside of class.  When I see them in the halls outside of class I greet them in Spanish.  When I chat with them at lunch it’s in Spanish.  If I need to post reminders to Google Classroom or respond to student emails I do so in Spanish.  This not only solidifies me as someone that they are used to speaking Spanish with, it serves to elevate the status of Spanish in our school and promote its use.

​Is students not speaking in Spanish a common problem for you?  What things have worked in your classroom?

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