“The Secret Student” – How to motivate your students to speak English

December 2, 2019


When asked what topic I needed to write an article about in the Facebook CLIL Community, the number one topic was 'secret student'.

Which is not unexpected: motivating CLIL students to produce spoken output is a challenge for many. In this post I'll share an activity you can use to do just that!

Estimated time to read this article: 5 minutes

Why motivate student output at all?

There are many things a CLIL teacher should do.

So many actually, one might get overwhelmed easily and not quite know where to start at all.

To help you out, I simplified the definition of CLIL to two elements

  1. 1
    Students have to be engaged
  2. 2
    Students have to be motivated to work with a language, preferably output.

Note I do not mention things like BICS/CALP, scaffolding, feedback etc. 

These things are certainly important, but require both more knowledge of CLIL as well as more experience.

Also, if you start out, you might want to take things one step at a time.

The number one thing every CLIL teacher should do, in my opinion, is to make sure students are engaged with language related tasks.

This is also the thing a lot of teachers struggle with.

Recognise this?

"I walk around the classroom and students are working. Whenever I ask them a questions, they respond in English. They are even talking English with each other when I stand next to them. But as soon as I walk away..."

I find this to be a challenge as well and yes, there are many ways to motivate students, but I found many of them just not working that well.

Keeping track of all students is simply not an option. Motivating with all kinds of rewards require a lot of administration and micro-managing (not a huge fan either..)

But then I learned about the 'secret student' activity....

Key Take Away

Motivating language output is a challenge for many CLIL teachers worldwide. The 'secret student' activity is an effective and easy-to-implement activity that can help with this.

The 'secret student' activity

Okay, without further ado...

How does the 'secret student' activity work?

Keep an eye on one student only

You start by mentioning to the class you will select one student randomly to keep an eye on this lesson (focusing on the use of English language)

This is a win-win: you do not have to listen to all students and they do not know who the 'secret student' actually is.

During the lesson, you motivate them to speak English

I sometimes mention during the lesson I have not heard everyone speak just yet, and I cannot provide feedback if I have not heard the 'secret student' speak at all.

Also, it also helps to mention casually that some students should hope they are not the 'secret student'...

At the end of the lesson you provide feedback

Make sure you provide feedback on the fact students try hard and complement students for doing this. If you want, you can provide feedback on the use of English, but personally I would refrain from being too critical. 

The purpose of this activity is to motivate, not to correct.

Key Take Away

The 'secret student' activity works because you only focus on one student who you provide feedback on at the end of the lesson.

Other ways to implement this activity

Just a complement or a thumbs up might not be enough to motivate some students. 

Some other things I do to motivate students are:

1) Provide points in Classdojo for speaking

Using Classdojo I reward students with points for a lot of things in class: doing homework, bringing their books, providing correct answers. But also: speaking English.

At the end of the certain amount of weeks they receive a reward as a class at a whole if the positives outweigh the negatives.

2) Reward the entire class

Instead of providing feedback or rewarding a singular student, rewarding the entire class also motivates self-regulation. I noticed students correcting others to speak English, because they wanted to win.

3) Implement a competition element

Students generally speaking want to win. An interesting way to motivate them is to make them compete with other classes. You just have to keep track of one student each lesson and score if the class indeed scored the point.

Because the level of English is not relevant for this activity, it can easily be implemented to compare students from various levels and age groups.


I use the 'secret student' activity a lot to motivate students to speak English and, so far, have found it is one of the few easy-to-implement and effective CLIL activities that actually works.

What do you think? Will you try this in your lesson? Do you have other ways of motivating your students to speak the second language? 

Please share below in the comments!

  • Thanks! I have heard of this activity in previous CLIL workshop, but I forgot all about it. I’m going to try it out sometime this week!

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