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How to Teach Spanish Effectively – DO’s and DON’Ts

Knowing how to speak a foreign language does not automatically turn you into a good teacher. There is a whole set of skills and tools you need to acquire in order to become one. 

I have been a language teacher for over twenty years. I’ve worked with different age groups, proficiency levels, and group sizes. 

Every class I’ve taught has been, at the same time, a new learning experience for me. I’ve learned a great deal about the psychology of learning, effective motivation, progress testing, classroom control, and many others.

For this post, I have prepared a few tips I’d like to share with my fellow Spanish teachers. All comments are more than welcome.

Tips for Effective Spanish Teaching:

DO:

  • Adjust the pace to your students´ possibilities
  • Practice all four skills (reading, listening, writing, speaking) 
  • Encourage conversation
  • Use visual aids to enhance learning and facilitate the practice.
  • Make technology your all

DON’T:

  • Correct every single mistake
  • Be afraid to translate
  • Spend the whole class doing grammar exercises
  • Make it boring and repetitive
  • Be rigid in your methods

How to Teach Spanish – Things to Focus On

To make sure the suggestions above are well understood, let me explain briefly what my point is in each of them.

Not everyone learns at the same pace.

Learning a foreign language, just like maths, physics, chemistry, or geography, depends on several conditions. 

Some people are simply more gifted than others when it comes to learning Spanish. Some are more responsible and hard-working, always doing their homework, memorizing new vocabulary, or practicing verb conjugations. Others might not have that much time or motivation.

Considering all that, it is impossible to expect that in a group of, let’s say, 10 or 15 or 40(!) students, each of them will progress at the same rhythm.

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Your role as a teacher is to detect who is faster than the others and who is lagging behind. In order for all of your students to keep motivated, you must be aware of their learning pace and adjust your activities accordingly.

Propose more challenging tasks to the ones who are ready, and be patient and non-judgemental with those who struggle. 

Make Your Students Talk, Read, Write and Listen to Spanish

“I can read Spanish, but I can’t speak it” – I have heard that from my students way too many times. 

In my opinion, knowing a foreign language implies that you can communicate in it both orally and in writing and that you can also understand texts written in that language. 

As a teacher, you must make sure that your students are developing in all the main areas of the Spanish language. Have them answer e-mails, improvise dialogues, read articles, short stories, books, watch movies or listen to music. 

Boost Confidence by Stimulating Conversation in Spanish

Based on my experience, what students tend to struggle with the most, is to SPEAK the language they are learning. 

Why? Probably because having a conversation in Spanish implies a higher level of stress than writing an essay, let’s say. You must think quickly, instantly pull out words from your memory, pick the right verb tenses, and conjugate accordingly. And that is not easy at all. 

It is much easier to understand a language than to use it actively. Your passive memory will help you recognize and understand the words that someone else is using. Speaking, on the other hand, is about making yourself understood, which is a whole different story. 

In all the years I have taught Spanish, I have learned that students tend to be very self-conscious when it comes to speaking. 

“My pronunciation sucks”; “I have such limited vocabulary,” “I can’t conjugate properly,” “it takes me forever to build a simple sentence” – I’ve heard them all. 

If you are a Spanish teacher, my advice is to insist that your students practice speaking as much as possible. The more they do, the easier it is going to get. 

Speaking a language is about communication. And you can communicate ideas effectively even if your pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary is not perfect. That has been my motto all these years. With this approach, it is easier to overcome the fear of being ridiculed when attempting to speak Spanish. 

Visual Memory And the Learning Process

Visual aids have helped me a lot with my classes. Alphabet pronunciation charts, body parts posters, verb conjugation tables – I cover my classrooms with them all over. 

My students rely on this readily available help, and it gives them extra confidence when practicing a specific topic. As soon as we move on to another topic, the charts and posters get replaced accordingly. 

I have been using this method since the very beginning, and it has always been welcome and appreciated.

Go Beyond Textbooks And a Blackboard

If you want to keep your students (especially the younger ones) engaged and motivated, make sure that your classes connect with their daily life. 

That means not only adapting your topics to the students’ interests and likes but also offering them the right study tools.

The older students might still be happy with the old-fashioned textbook and blackboard teaching style, but if your classroom is full of teenagers and youngsters, it will bore them to death. 

But if you swap your dictionary for an online translator, ditch your old recorder, and use podcasts, mobile apps, or youtube videos instead, replace old photocopies with modern audiobooks – I guarantee you’ll get their attention. 

How to Teach Spanish – Things to Avoid

When I started teaching English and then Spanish, I did not have much experience. I would prepare and teach my classes relying mainly on my instincts, which sometimes were spot-on and sometimes totally wrong. 

Along the way, I have made quite a lot of mistakes. I’ll tell you what they were so that you can learn from them.

Constant Corrections are Counter Effective

When you finally manage to get your students to talk, let them talk. Don’t interrupt with corrections unless they ask you to. Being corrected all the time kills self-confidence and inspiration and leaves you even more insecure and self-conscious than you were before. 

What has worked exceptionally well for me is to jot down any relevant mistake I hear and point it out once the student has stopped speaking and after I’ve congratulated them for doing such a great job!

Of course, grammar and vocabulary corrections in a written work are totally in place, but even there, it is better to summarize all the mistakes at the end of the paper than to hand back a text full of crossed-out words and red marks. 

And if you change your red pen for a green one, that’s even better. 

No-Translation Policy is Not Always Possible

Don’t get me wrong. I am entirely in favor of the methodology that tries to minimize the amount of translation that occurs when learning Spanish. Plus, direct and literal translation can be misleading and confusing. 

There have been times, however, when I did resort to translating certain words and phrases, especially at A1-A2 levels.

It’s one thing to explain in Spanish what “pez” (“fish”) means – you can use a photo or give a simple definition – and a totally different thing to try to do the same with, let’s say: “andar pato” (“to be broke”) or some other Spanish idiomatic expression

Whenever I have to choose between being practical and being 100% English free in my Spanish classes, I usually go for practical. Occasional translation saves time and helps to avoid frustrations and misunderstandings that might prove hard to eradicate. 

Don’t Overdose Grammar

I love grammar. As a teacher, I could spend hours discussing Spanish adjectives or verb conjugations. But I am well aware that most students “just want to talk” but don’t necessarily care about correct grammar structures. 

Even though I firmly believe that one can’t master a language without learning its grammar, I have learned not to spend the entire class doing grammar. At least not in the traditional “fill in the blanks” way.

I try to keep my classes as conversational as possible and assign grammar exercises for homework. And before you ask, yes, it is possible to explain and practice Spanish tenses, pronouns, or the subjunctive mood without boring exercises.

That leads me to my next point:

People Learn More Effectively When They Are Having Fun

Do you know how to play Tic Tac Toe? It is called “Gato” in (Chilean) Spanish, and it has been one of my biggest allies for vocabulary and verb practicing. 

My students and I play guessing games when we are learning professions or animal names in Spanish.  

Simon Says helps us with the imperative mood and body parts. 

We learn how to make questions in Spanish by playing Jeopardy!

We improvise dialogues for restaurant-related vocabulary (I even print out actual menus). 

We transform into business people negotiating a deal or shop assistants and customers whenever necessary. 

Boy, do we have fun!

And in case you’re skeptical if this is going to work with post-adolescent students, you have not seen my Spanish group from the local elderly club playing Jeopardy!

Flexibility Pays Off

My last piece of advice when it comes to teaching Spanish is not to be rigid.

So, you’ve always used the same exercises to practice numbers in Spanish? What will you do if tomorrow you forget to bring the materials? 

Or you want to do a pairwork exercise, yet you have an odd number of students in the class? 

What if the power goes out and you can’t show the .ppt presentation you have prepared?

Been there, seen that. 

What I have learned is that as a teacher, you can’t be set in your ways. Each student is different, and each class can turn out differently. 

An activity that last time took you over half an hour to finish may only take 10 minutes today.

Will you know what to do with the rest of the time?

If there is something I have learned throughout all these years, it is that to be successful as a teacher, you need to know how to adapt quickly and improvise whenever necessary.

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Joanna Lupa
Joanna Lupa
Polish by birth, Chilean by the turns of life. Has spent 20 years in that beautiful South American country working as a language teacher and translator. Has taught Spanish and English to students of all proficiency levels. Passionate about languages, books, and traveling. A mother of 2 trilingual teenagers.

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