How to use Secret Pen Pals in a Heritage Speakers Class to Engage Students in Authentic Writing

Sneak peek: How writing to an amigo secreto will engage students in authentic writing in heritage speakers class.  

pen pal notebooks

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It’s always a huge win in a World Language classroom when we get students practicing the use of the target language in an authentic scenario. A setting where they are communicating for the purpose of exchanging true meaning. In a class for heritage speakers of Spanish, writing practice is a major focal point. I have found a great way to engage students in writing with purpose is to assign pen pals. In order to increase student engagement levels even further, I spiced it up by assigning students a SECRET pen pal. The mystery of an anonymous pen pal from another class period really piqued student interest.


red and blue notebooks
  • You need to purchase enough composition notebooks for at least one section of students. For me, that meant purchasing around 30 notebooks as I have about 60 students total between my two sections.
  • Stickers (a variety, but also at least two of a kind) to mark the notebooks.
star stickers

Assigning Pen Pals

In order for this to work, you need to have more than one section of a heritage speakers class. Ideally, you would have an even number of sections. In my case, I taught a 4th hour and a 5th hour.

I created a list of students from one class period and matched them up with someone that would be a good pair for them in the other hour. I marked each notebook with a sticker as the identifier, using the same sticker for the notebook on my master list by their names (thus the reason you need two of each sticker type). Using stickers to mark the notebooks, instead of names, works very well for keeping the pen pals anonymous.

amigo secreto notebook

Students don’t put their name on the notebooks, they simply memorize which sticker is theirs. Since I put the same sticker by their names on my master list, I know which students are using each particular notebook, even though they don’t.

On the first day, I simply called a student to my desk and assigned them their notebook. I told them to memorize which sticker their notebook had on it. It’s a good idea to have students take a photo of their sticker or draw what their sticker looks like so they don’t forget which notebook is theirs the next week.

secret pen pals master list
amigos secretos master list

Getting Started

This activity works very well as a class warm-up exercise for a given day of the week. It does not hurt that journaling is a healthy coping mechanism for life in general, and it never hurts to equip your students to process life as it plays out in front of them. This was the first ten minutes of our day on Thursdays for the first trimester of the school. year. Essentially, this meant 12 writing sessions for us.

girl student writing

I created 12 different prompts that were displayed on the SmartBoard during our writing time. When students finish writing, they return their notebook to a designated place in the classroom. Students are not allowed to take them home for accountability purposes. This way you never have to track down a missing notebook and their partner is never left without a notebook to write in.

secret pen pal writing prompts for heritage speakers class

The Big Reveal

At the end of the trimester, students were anxious to meet their secret pen pal. Since their pen pals were in a separate hour, organizing a physical meetup wasn’t feasible. Instead, I used FlipGrid. Students were required to record a short video on FlipGrid for their secret pen pal simply stating their name and a short hello. Once the videos were all recorded, I told students the name of their secret pen pal and they looked up the video that their person had recorded. Here is an example of a student who did a great job with her video.


There were a few challenges you will want to be aware of.

  • Some students were able to figure out who their person was because of being good friends with them. That made it less exciting, but they were still able to participate in writing to them. If you know which students from different hours are best friends, you can avoid this by not assigning them to be pen pals.
  • If you don’t have an even number of students in each section you will need to assign some students two pen pals.
  • When a student is added to the class or a student moves away mid-trimester, you will need to assign someone to another penpal.
  • If a student is absent, they miss out on the class time needed for writing to their pen pal. This results in a disappointed partner when they find that their pen pal didn’t write to them. If this happens occasionally it isn’t a big deal, but when it happens frequently, the partner can lose interest in writing to someone that doesn’t respond. When a student is absent and they miss the writing time, they should find other class time throughout the week to make up their journal entry.
  • One idea I have for next time is to assign pen pal groups of three instead of two. This way, there should always be someone responding.
male student writing


As far as grading this task goes, there are many ways you could go about it.

  • You could have the pen pals correct each other’s writing by highlighting words they think are misspelled.
  • You could check their notebooks for completion.
  • You could focus on a specific grammatical structure and grade each notebook for accuracy.
  • You could choose to not grade these at all, but rather use them as a formative assessment in order to get a better understanding of each students’ writing ability.

What other ideas do you have for grading an activity like this? I’d love to hear from you!

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