How to Teach English to Spanish Speakers: 20 Things Every ESL Teacher Needs to Know
I first started teaching English at a language school in Miami.
Due to the city’s close proximity to Latin America, I had many students from Latin American countries.
Later on, I taught English in Buenos Aires. Then I took my talents to the Internet and started teaching online.
Between all these classroom settings, I noticed certain similarities and differences between the Spanish-speaking students from various countries.
So in this post, I’m going to show you how to teach English to Spanish speakers with 20 must-know things about them.
- 1. The Number of Spanish Speakers Is Growing
- 2. Spanish Speakers Are Not the Same
- 3. They Take Pride in Their Countries But Not in Their English Skills
- 4. They Think Their English Sounds Bad
- 5. They Appreciate It If You Can Speak Some Spanish
- 6. What They Lack in Grammar and Syntax Skills, They Make Up for in Fluency and Confidence
- 7. They Can Talk…a Lot!
- 8. It’s Easy to Get Them to Participate in Discussions
- 9. You Should Speak English Slowly When Necessary
- 10. They Bring Good Vibes to the Classroom
- 11. English Is Overwhelming to Many of Them
- 12. You’ll Be Greatly Respected as the Teacher
- 13. Spanish Grammar Is Quite Different to English Grammar
- 14. Pronunciation in Spanish Is Exactly How It’s Written
- 15. Some English Sounds Are Hard to Produce
- 16. Some English Words Don’t Have Spanish Translations
- 17. Direct Translation from Spanish Can Lead to English Mistakes
- 18. Spanish Speakers Often Confuse “Do” and “Make”
- 19. Phrasal Verbs Can Be Tricky for Spanish Speakers
- 20. Spanish Subtitles on English Media Aren’t Always Accurate
1. The Number of Spanish Speakers Is Growing
Over 20 countries use Spanish as an official language. These include large, economically powerful nations like Mexico, Spain and Colombia.
Not to mention, there are tons of heritage speakers—whose parents and/or other relatives taught them the Spanish language in their childhoods—in the United States and elsewhere.
All in all, the world’s Spanish-speaking population is growing, and many of them want to learn English for work, travel, fun and personal reasons.
As an English teacher, you’re bound to come across some Spanish-speaking students (SSS) during your teaching career!
So, it’s extremely valuable to start learning about their linguistic heritage, the way Spanish translates into English and the unique challenges they may face in an ESL or English classroom.
2. Spanish Speakers Are Not the Same
Sure, we’re calling this group by one big umbrella name at the moment, but SSS are an immensely diverse group!
Unlike Japanese-speaking students, who usually come from the same country, ethnicity and cultural heritage, SSS have a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities.
The term “Spanish” itself is an umbrella name, combining a vast array of varieties, dialects, accents and vocabularies.
So you can imagine how very different each one may be from their peers, even if they all speak the same native language.
Students from Spain may have different troubles with the American English accent than students from Chile or Cuba.
Even students from neighboring nations like Argentina and Bolivia may bump into completely different sets of English challenges or have surprisingly distinct worldviews.
Take the time to really get to know your students individually.
And give them time to get to know each other. By fostering a collaborative, unified and curious classroom environment, the learning experience can extend far beyond learning English!
3. They Take Pride in Their Countries But Not in Their English Skills
Whether they’re from Spain, Morocco or Argentina, SSS tend to really, truly love their home countries—it’s just something I’ve observed a lot.
The trick is that this sense of pride doesn’t always transfer over to their English skills, even with the most advanced learners.
If you happen to praise them on their English, be prepared for a “No, my English is terrible!”’ or even a “No, that’s not true.”
But tapping into their hometown pride can help them overcome this.
Get students talking about their home countries, traditions and customs—anything they find fun and exciting—in English.
You won’t be able to stop the conversations you get going!
You could also have them write reports, create posters or give presentations on their favorite aspects of their countries and cultures. They’ll love having the opportunity to share their personal knowledge!
4. They Think Their English Sounds Bad
Quick story here.
So, I had a student in Chile who was reluctant to speak English and I didn’t know why.
At the time, I also had a roommate from California who spoke great Spanish with the exception of his very “gringo” accent which, I’ll admit, sounded quite ridiculous.
My student later told me, “I don’t want to speak English because I’ll sound like your roommate!” (her wording was much more colorful, but that’s the gist).
That’s when I discovered that SSS think they may sound somewhat silly speaking English, just as some people speaking Spanish with a thick, unabashed American accent may sound.
Tell your students that they don’t sound ridiculous if they’re feeling self-conscious and that Americans (among others) will simply love their Spanish accents in English.
Beyond this, it’s a valuable lesson to teach that no accent is really a bad accent—even an American accent.
Having an accent only means that you’ve been working very hard to learn a new language. It should be worn proudly, like a badge of courage and honor!
5. They Appreciate It If You Can Speak Some Spanish
Sometimes SSS will feel lost trying to communicate with you when they’re speaking English.
What really helps them overcome this feeling is knowing that their teacher understands what they’re going through.
This disoriented feeling suddenly disappears once they’re aware you can speak some Spanish to them.
They appreciate it so much, and the class is less of a burden for them than if you couldn’t speak any Spanish at all.
When discussing a challenging English topic, you can always swap to Spanish to explain a little. Or you could offer a few words of encouragement in their native language.
I recommend breaking out a couple of Spanish examples or explanations if you feel confidence dipping or confusion rising.
If your Spanish isn’t strong, all the better.
Saying a few broken words in Spanish can seriously lighten the mood, get a few laughs and help students see that speaking in a foreign language is nothing to be worried about.
6. What They Lack in Grammar and Syntax Skills, They Make Up for in Fluency and Confidence
While teaching English in Asia, I came to realize that my students lacked fluency and confidence skills, but made up for it with their grammar and syntax.
We’ve got the opposite case in other parts of the world, especially in Europe and the Americas—especially with SSS.
What some SSS may lack in grammar and syntax skills, they typically make up for with their fluency, confidence and willingness to speak.
From my experience, SSS are usually not reluctant to make mistakes and are more willing to speak than students from more reserved, silence-is-golden cultures.
This inclination towards speaking is actually quite helpful for them. It’s a good quality to have in life and language learning.
7. They Can Talk…a Lot!
Okay, let’s keep rolling with this idea of the fluency advantage.
Of course, this will vary greatly from individual to individual. It boils down to personality type, as opposed to cultural heritage—or so I thought.
After many years of teaching SSS, I’ve personally come to the conclusion that most of them are capable of speaking a whole lot.
Again, I link it to the energetic, loquacious personalities that Spanish-speaking people are typically known for.
SSS tend to be very talkative in their own language, as smooth, friendly conversation is a key life skill in many of their home countries.
Once they reach a comfortable enough level of English, you may notice that they can talk and talk for hours.
This isn’t necessarily bad, as long as their fluency and confidence get experience. There’s a way to harness this strength for productive learning, and we’ll explore this a bit in our next “thing to know.”
8. It’s Easy to Get Them to Participate in Discussions
I learned this once when I had a classroom full of Spanish speakers and pitched out some great conversation starters to help them build their fluency as a group.
I struck gold when I brought up soccer, and they all began passionately sharing their views on this easily debatable topic.
The group ended up straying from whatever the original question was into a long-winded discussion about the nuances of the game.
From there they just kept drifting away from the main topic and straight into tangents.
I just thought to myself, hey, at least they’re speaking English, right?
The strategy was for me to throw out a juicy discussion topic and let them have at it.
As the teacher, you can simply pop back in to redirect the conversation, encourage quieter students to get involved, help shine light on minority opinions and, of course, gently correct any major English mistakes as needed.
9. You Should Speak English Slowly When Necessary
This one is super important.
Since a lot of English TV shows and movies that are shown in Spanish-speaking countries (especially Spain) are dubbed into Spanish, people don’t get much of an opportunity to train their ear for English.
The lack of English exposure can hinder their listening skills and thus, your SSS may have some trouble understanding an English speaker talking at their normal pace.
If you’re working with heritage speakers, they might only hear Spanish at home—and then the rapid-fire English outside becomes too much of a leap.
The good thing about this is that they really appreciate it and learn better when you speak slowly.
Use a slightly calmer pace and strong enunciation.
A simple rule of thumb is to speak at the same tempo that they speak in English.
If you want to give them an occasional challenge, designate specific class days or short blocks of time to speak at a natural, native speaker’s pace.
10. They Bring Good Vibes to the Classroom
The more vivacious elements of the Spanish language may still make their way into English classes.
You might notice that students express themselves with comical, exaggerated facial expressions, flailing arms and hand gestures, and even some untranslatable sounds like “uyyy” and “ayyy.”
All in all, this makes for a fun environment and it’s a good thing to keep in mind.
Well, this may mean that you’ll need or want to animate yourself more.
If you tend to be shier, quieter or more reserved in the classroom, try and get on their level if you want an even greater rapport.
11. English Is Overwhelming to Many of Them
Some students feel overwhelmed in a language classroom for many reasons.
To some ESL students, English could be just another subject to learn.
Or perhaps it’s even something fun or the accomplishment of a lifelong dream. For them, learning isn’t a source of stress.
However, others may face personal struggles when staring down textbooks and chalkboards full of verb tenses.
They may not have received an excellent education in the past, or maybe they’ve been having challenges adjusting to life in an English-speaking country.
Maybe everyone in their family speaks English but them, or they’re feeling pressure to learn English to get a good education or job—or even just to fit in.
Regardless of the possible reasons, they may feel intimidated. Be prepared to handle this in your classroom.
First, you’ll need to be sure you’re paying close attention to all your students.
Are some more reluctant than others?
Is someone not doing their homework routinely?
Has one student’s attitude been getting worse?
These are superficial warning signs that there are deeper problems you can address as a teacher.
And it might be time to check in on a one-on-one basis with students who are struggling or not enjoying class.
12. You’ll Be Greatly Respected as the Teacher
Teachers in Spanish-speaking countries are more celebrated, appreciated and respected than in many others.
Of course, this is a major generalization. But I’ve noticed that this does show through my SSS when they interact with me.
They’re more receptive to my concerns, ideas and feedback.
They’re more respectful of my words and tend to cause less noise and disturbances in class. They may call you “teacher,” even if you’re younger than them.
My impression is that this is because teachers in Spanish-speaking countries hold more of a respected role in society, especially compared to teachers in the USA who are often underpaid and overworked.
The times change, and teachers probably encounter all those same work issues in Spanish-speaking countries too. But SSS remain very well-behaved and respectful when in the presence of a teacher.
13. Spanish Grammar Is Quite Different to English Grammar
Anyone who has studied a Latin-based language knows that the grammar differs a bit from English.
There are different verb forms for different people, ways of saying “you” with varying degrees of formality, masculine objects, feminine objects, obligatory articles and even more curveballs that we don’t encounter in English.
If you haven’t studied Spanish or another Romance language, try to pay close attention to the grammatical errors that SSS tend to make.
Soon enough, you’ll start to hear the same ones popping up—and I bet you’ll find with a little research that these come from elements of the Spanish language that don’t quite translate into English.
Even advanced speakers tend to make the same small, simple mistakes—especially with verb tenses.
English also has its own challenging grammar topics that are a far cry from the linguistic systems of any Romance language. So it’s best to be prepared for students to need a little more elaboration on these.
Take a look at these key differences between English and Spanish so you know what to expect.
14. Pronunciation in Spanish Is Exactly How It’s Written
The beauty of Spanish is that words are read just how they’re written.
As you probably know all too well, English is not at all like this.
It’s got tons of weird sounds produced by slamming odd letters and letter pairings together, and many words defy common logic in how they’re pronounced.
This frustrates ESL learners to no end, and SSS are no exception.
It’s natural for them to read words in English as they’re written when they’re first getting started. So, it’s no surprise that some words come out a little different than you’d expect.
For example, Miami is often pronounced as “MEE-ah-mee” and future is pronounced like “foo-TUR” instead of “FEW-churr.”
This can be overcome with lots and lots of listening practice and pronunciation exercises.
Reassure your students that we all know English sounds are kind of crazy and unpredictable, and that most learners hit stumbling blocks learning how to sound things out.
15. Some English Sounds Are Hard to Produce
Some sounds in English just don’t exist in Spanish. These are imperative to study and brush up on.
For starters, the English R sound poses some trouble, as SSS usually pronounce the English R by rolling their tongues, or by keeping their tongues touching the tops of their mouths.
In English, our R sound comes more from the backs of our throats.
Then there’s the English J sound.
SSS will usually give this one more of a Y or H sound since that’s what J does in Spanish.
Some vowel sounds are also tricky, like the English “i” (as in “this” or “finish”) and “ŭ” (as in “sun” or “thunder”), along with others.
For example, my name is Chris and some SSS pronounce it like “Kreese,” with a roll on the R.
So pronunciation is always good to touch up on.
Keep these and other difficult English sounds in mind, and gently correct your students by saying words the right way yourself, slowly and clearly.
16. Some English Words Don’t Have Spanish Translations
I like to think that speaking Spanish is like coloring with a box of 24 crayons while speaking English is like coloring with the massive 64 crayon box (with the Razzle Dazzle Rose color, too).
With a language as vast as English, you’ll find out that sometimes there isn’t a word for a certain thing or concept in Spanish.
Because of this, I highly recommend learning how to describe words without relying on direct translation into Spanish.
Rather than giving students the Spanish word, try to describe it as best you can using other English words—unless they’re really struggling to understand what you’re talking about.
17. Direct Translation from Spanish Can Lead to English Mistakes
Every language learner is guilty of directly translating from their language into the foreign language that they’re trying to speak.
This will happen with SSS too, and it may be understandable, but sometimes you’ll hear something like “she has nine years” or “happy weekend” and you may need to come through with some correction assistance.
The best way to correct is to repeat the phrase that was said, using correct English.
So, if someone says, “I have 15 years,” you can repeat back, with emphasis on the correct phrasing, “oh, you’re 15 years old? That is very cool!”
18. Spanish Speakers Often Confuse “Do” and “Make”
Like other Latin-based languages, Spanish has the same word for “do” and “make,” despite the big difference between the words.
This confusion will come up more than a few times when teaching SSS since the resemblance is uncanny to them.
Even with the more advanced students, you’ll hear things like “making work” and “doing progress.”
It’s something to look out for and something you may need to spend some time brushing up on.
Handing out make/do worksheets every now and then is a great way to help them through this sticking point.
19. Phrasal Verbs Can Be Tricky for Spanish Speakers
Adding a tiny little preposition to the end of a verb can totally change its meaning.
Some verbs have numerous associated phrasal verbs!
Even with more modern, party-oriented phrasal verbs like “turn up” and “party on,” they’re growing exponentially.
This is a big challenge for Spanish speakers.
While there are some phrasal verbs in Spanish, the amount pales in comparison to the plethora of ones in English.
Even words like “get” and “put” have so many multi-word verbs alone.
Then there are those phrasal verbs that exist but aren’t so common, and those can be intimidating to SSS as well.
I’ve even had students who want to strictly practice phrasal verbs because of their relevance and challenge.
Here’s a great way to explain phrasal verbs and games to practice key English ones.
20. Spanish Subtitles on English Media Aren’t Always Accurate
This might seem like it’s coming out of left field.
Why does it matter what Spanish subtitles on English shows and movies are like?
Well, I know I said that some programs in Spanish-speaking countries are completely dubbed. But for those that aren’t, this is important to keep in mind.
A lot of the subtitles in Spanish don’t fully capture exactly what’s being said in English.
Sometimes the meaning is changed entirely. And other times the wording is totally different to capture the same meaning.
Even more times, esoteric pop culture references from the English-speaking world are completely removed or altered for Spanish-speaking audiences.
Your students are very likely to be watching English programming with Spanish subtitles at home. Some may even be practicing their English this way.
So, it’s super important to note that what they read on-screen may not be exactly what they hear. It’s not a 1:1 translation, so they can’t rely on this.
One way to combat this is to use a program like FluentU.
FluentU uses authentic videos to help students learn English. Each video has interactive subtitles, so students can hover over words they don’t know to see their meanings, pronunciations, example sentences and more.
That way, they’re learning English words in context and the way native speakers actually use them.
Knowing how to teach English to Spanish speakers boils down to understanding them well.
With more and more of them seeking out ESL classes around the world, it’s good to understand the points above.
I hope that these notes from my teacher’s log will help you and your students have the finest classroom experience, where everybody is collaborative, engaged and satisfied.