A quiet classroom is my worst nightmare. During my first few years teaching, I was always struggling to motivate my students to speak in the target language. I wanted my students to feel supported enough to participate, yet also motivated and challenged enough to push themselves outside of their comfort zones. I also struggled to effectively track and objectively grade participation. Keep reading to see the strategies and resources that have helped me gain more confidence in these areas.
1. Motivate them from the very first minute
My students know that our daily routine starts with a warm-up. It doesn’t matter if it’s a quiz day, writing prompt day, project day…. etc. They know that when they come into class, they will have an opportunity within the first 5 minutes to participate in two ways. They will have the chance to volunteer to write their answers on the board, or they can share out aloud.
These warm-up activities take 5 minutes max and come in many different styles, but they always provide an opportunity for participation from the very start! Sometimes they are written, and sometimes they are spoken aloud within small groups. But regardless of the style of the warm-up, my students know that there will always be an opportunity to share out their answers/ideas. We always share a few examples on the board, and before moving onto the next activity I always ask for additional responses aloud.
I remind my students frequently, this is your first chance to participate for the day! If you’re ever feeling off, or shy, or timid during a certain unit… participate (and find a way to contribute aloud) during the warm-up! You KNOW it’s going to be an activity you can handle, and you KNOW that you have the support of your group and myself if you need it. Get that participation out of the way, and then you can relax all class knowing that you have contributed! 😉
Of course I never let them sit back for the rest of class… but you know what I mean! This is a great way to help your students feel accomplished right from the start of class. I’ve already participated! Sweet!
2. Provide visual cues
I know that decorating classrooms isn’t for everyone, but I love to have helpful decorations around my room. They may look pretty, but they’re up to serve a purpose.
My students change our day and weather board daily, so I can always ask “¿Qué tiempo hace?” at the start of class. I also have a high frequency verb word wall, colors, numbers, seasons, and rejoinders all around the room. My students love to shout random rejoinders at me to be silly. If I am announcing an upcoming quiz, I’ll often hear “¿En serio?” or “¡No me digas!” and it makes us all giggle.
You can see all of my favorite classroom decor here. I have tried to create a variety of decor that is both useful and motivational.
3. Avoid over-correcting
I used to think I needed to correct every small mistake my students made. I thought it was my job to make them perfect Spanish speakers. Now, I know it is my goal to help them communicate, and that it’s ok if they aren’t absolutely perfect. What matters most is that they are willing to try, and eager to learn.
When my students are reading aloud or offering answers, I try to avoid correcting them right away. I will wait until they are finished, and then I will model a correction by using the correct phrase/wording when I am retelling their answer, OR by using it within a minute or two of their example. If they made multiple errors, I will probably choose to model just for one of them. There is no need to correct every single mistake if our goal is communication. If I interrupted a student to correct him in the middle of an answer, I can almost guarantee it would be a few days before he would even raise his hand to volunteer again. I don’t want my students to feel too scared to participate. I want them to feel supported and confident that they are not being judged by me, or by others.
This is also why laughing at or teasing another student in class is absolutely not allowed. If someone mispronounces a word, and there are giggles, I address that immediately. “We don’t laugh at someone who was brave enough to raise their hand and answer, thank you very much.”
I might be known as a “nice teacher,” but I also know when to put my foot down with my students.
4. Offer lots of opportunities
My students know that their first opportunity to participate each day is during the warm-up. They also know, however, that there will be many many more chances during each class block. If we want students to speak in the target language, we have to provide ample opportunities for them to do so. If you want to hear from each student at least once per day (and ideally more than that), think of how many opportunities you need to provide!
These are the strategies that have helped me to increase the opportunities my students have to participate each day:
- Include speaking activities every day to increase comfort/confidence in general
- Prompt students to discuss with their groups before you ask for volunteers to answer
- Provide ample wait time before calling on students to respond (this allows the less confident students an extra few seconds to build the courage to get their hands in the air)
- Ask questions that have more than one possible answer, so that you can call on more than one student!
- Ask follow-up questions — “¿Hay otra opción?” “¿Hay otras respuestas posibles?”
- Examine answers — “¿Por qué es correcto? ¿Cómo sabemos? ¿Puede darme otro ejemplo?”
- Be aware of who you call on. Is it always the same handful of students? Why do you think that is? What changes can you make to get a wider variety of volunteers? In addition to providing extra wait time, I often find myself saying “Una persona nueva, por favor.” If I have 5 hands in the air but they have already answered today, I want my other students to know I will wait for them. It is OK if they need an extra few seconds to build confidence. And my reminder that I will wait for them… maybe that’s all they need to get that hand in the air.
If you are serious about improving your student participation, it is OK to ask for help! You could ask a colleague to observe you one day, with the sole purpose of keeping a tally of how many different students you called on! Maybe bring them a coffee to thank them 😉
Provide your colleague with a seating chart and a pen, and ask them to do nothing other than track the frequency and location of student participation. You might be surprised at who is answering 4 times and who was given 0 opportunities. You may also be surprised to find that you’re inadvertently calling on more girls vs. boys, or more the front of the room vs. the back etc.
These are all things that we should reflect on, when we feel we are ready to do so. Please don’t feel like you have to be perfect at everything at the same time. I know I’m most certainly not.
When it comes to asking a coworker to observe your teacher behaviors, I don’t want you to feel self-conscious. You want to act natural during that class, so that the data your coworker notices is accurate. I think asking to be observed for something like this shows bravery, and shows that you want to be reflective in your practice. I have done this more than once, and it has helped me reflect on my skills and habits.
In addition to helping me realize who is participating and how often in each class, an observation like this has also helped me compare participation // variety in participation between my honors and CP level classes. The second time I asked to be observed, I also asked my colleague to track my movements around the room. I wanted to know which areas I was avoiding and where I was hovering. I was surprised that there was one corner of the room that I almost never visited. What!? I hadn’t even noticed. For the next week, I made it a habit to stand there during the entire warm-up and warm-up review so that those students knew I was there and present if they needed me. That helped that part of the room become part of my movement routine, until I didn’t need to think about it anymore and it became more natural to move there.
It is important for us to reflect! And it is OK to recognize that we need to make small changes! We are not perfect, and we cannot do this all on our own.
5. Provide positive affirmation
Whenever a student offers a response, I find a way to quickly thank them before moving on. I try to mix it up so that I don’t sound like a broken record, and I always try to make eye contact with them when giving them this quick praise.
- Excelente. Mil gracias. Fantástico. Muy bien. Gracias por compartir. Gracias por explicar. Gracias por tu ejemplo. ¡Qué creativo! ¡Qué interesante!
… anything works! It can be quick, and sometimes more specific praise is appropriate. It is sometimes appropriate to say it directly to the student, quietly as you pass by their desk, rather than out loud in front of the whole class. I’ll often walk by a student a minute or two after they gave an answer. I’ll tap their desk and quickly check in with them as I pass by:
- I love how you have been practicing your pronunciation!
- I am so impressed that you gave an explanation with your answer.
- I love how you connected that to the real world.
- Awesome job of making cultural connections!
- Thank you so much for helping us back there, that was a tough question and you nailed it!
I want my students to know that I appreciate their participation. Because if you ask me, there is nothing, nothing worse than a silent classroom. And a student who feels valued? Their hand just might be in the air again before class is over.
I also have plain open-ended notes ready to go. You can click either image here to take a closer look!
If you’re working digitally, digital stickers are a fast and easy way to provide positive feedback. I have had so much fun designing stickers that make my students smile!
Interested in a free set?
6. Provide opportunity for self-reflection
In my fifth year teaching, I decided to try something new when it came to grading participation. I had always felt like a little bit of a *fraud* when I was giving participation grades. Was I grading students fairly? Objectively? Or was I grading them based on their attitude? Based on my opinion of them? I am human.
How could I be sure I was grading them solely on their actual participation? I tried tracking participation daily to make sure I was giving exact and fair grades, but I could never keep up. I would get behind in tracking participation for any given day, and then I would stress out and try to catch up. I know some teachers have systems for this, and I bow down to them. It is not something that I could make work for my teaching style. I felt tied to my plan book, my checklist, my clipboard.
I worried that without a firm system I was biased, and that the “good kids” were getting higher participation grades because I could never really settle on an objective grading scale. Maybe it’s terrible to admit that, but there it is. I could never convince myself that I was doing it the right way.
To solve this, I developed a participation rubric based on what I look for. I built it to match our proficiency rubric, as if there were different levels of proficiency in my expectations for participation. You can find my rubric (which is completely editable) right here.
Over the past few years, this reflection has evolved to cover more than just participation. I now provide areas for students to consider their strengths in different areas of the language as well as their overall proficiency.
Students fill out this rubric EIGHT times per year for me. That may seem like a lot, but participation is something that matters every day of the year. So we take time to reflect on it at each midterm and report card.
Students read the 5 categories of the rubric, and decide which category fits them best. Not perfectly, but best. At the top of each category, there is a grade range. Students must choose an exact number from within the category where they have placed themselves.
By putting this emphasis on self-reflection, students see how important their participation is to our class success. By making space to reflect, discuss, and examine, we set the tone that participation is an integral part of our class.
7. Put the control in their hands
Believe it or not… with this reflection, my students are also given the responsibility of grading themselves.
For reference, in my class, participation is worth 10% of the grade. My class grade breakdown is 30% interpretive, 30% interpersonal, 30% presentational, and 10% work habits (which for me personally is solely based on this class participation system.)
Before I assign the rubric, I remind my students that I will only accept the grade they give themselves IF:
- I agree with their grade within 5 points
- They respond honestly
- They put true effort into answering the reflection questions under the rubric
- What is something you did this quarter to challenge yourself?
- What can I do to support your participation?
- What can YOU do to increase your participation?
- What is something you can do inside of class to improve your speaking? And outside of class?
- On a scale of 1-5 (5 being the best), how comfortable do you feel participating aloud in class?
- What activities in class provide you with the most opportunities to practice your speaking?
- Which activities would you like to see more in class? Why?
- What has been your biggest improvement this quarter? What is your biggest area of weakness?
- How many times per day or week do you feel you make an effort to contribute to class?
- What is the biggest goal you have for next term / year?
This rubric has recently been updated, and is now completely editable! A teacher support page is now included with lots of question samples for you to rotate through during the year. Proficiency check-in and reflection pages have also been added. Students have a chance not only to reflect on their personal progress, but also to tell me what they need from me to be more successful. They have the opportunity to tell me how much Spanish they are understanding during the day, and how much they feel is being used in class. This is great for ME to reflect on the amount of comprehensible input I am offering!
Once I started using this rubric to grade participation, I have never looked back. I absolutely feel that the majority of my students are very honest. On average, in a class of 28-30, I will receive 2 or 3 rubrics from students that have given themselves a 100%. Many times, students are actually a bit harder on themselves than I would have been.
I feel the recently added proficiency check-in and reflection pages are as valuable as the original rubric, if not more! If you take a look at my rubric, remember that everything you see is editable so that you can meet the unique needs of your students.
Thank you for reading!
I hope you’re leaving with a few new strategies to motivate and support your students! I’d love to hear your favorite strategies (or tracking/grading systems) in the comments below.