20 Things to Know About Teaching English to Spanish Speakers
Spanish speakers are a diverse bunch, hailing from all around the world.
Spanish is spoken far and wide, serving as the official language in countries of North, South and Central America, Europe and Africa.
It’s only natural that, of the nearly half a billion (yes, billion) speakers worldwide, some will end up needing or wanting to learn English.
Well, I happen to have a wealth of experience teaching Spanish speakers from different corners of the world, and can definitively say that they’re quite delightful as students.
I must also add, there’s a lot to know about teaching them!
So, I’ve created this list of 20 important things to know in order to help ESL educators get some more in-depth knowledge on this growing market of students and learn a thing or two to benefit their classroom experience.
Before I go into the list, I’ll share a brief introduction of my experience. I first started out teaching in a language school in Miami where I had all sorts of students from many different countries and, due to the city’s proximity to Latin America, I had many students from Latin American countries.
I noticed some similarities and differences between the diverse Spanish-speaking students from these countries, and that was just the beginning. Later on in my career, I taught English in Buenos Aires. Then I took my talents to the Internet and started teaching online.
With online teaching, I had the fortune to meet students from even more Spanish-speaking countries that I hadn’t had experience with before, including Mexico, Spain, Costa Rica and Chile.
It’s from this breadth of experience that I draw my knowledge. I hope that you have the great fortune to teach so many wonderful people, from so many fascinating places. When preparing to teach Spanish-speaking students, I encourage you to read this list, keep some of this stuff in mind and be attentive—I guarantee you’ll learn many more things about these students along the way.
Teaching Spanish-speaking students (or SSS) can be a highly rewarding experience, and hopefully some of these tips can help you teach them to your highest potential.
Now, onward, to the list!
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20 Things to Know About Teaching English to Spanish Speakers
1. They’re on the Rise!
Over 20 countries use Spanish as an official language, counting among them large, economically powerful nations like Mexico, Spain and Colombia. These and others are making a bigger global impact economically, politically and culturally than ever before.
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 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. They’re Not All 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 generally come from the same country, ethnicity and cultural heritage—with exceptions, of course—SSS bring to the table an incredibly wide range of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities. Plus, even the term “Spanish” itself is a huge umbrella name, combining a vast array of varieties, dialects, accents and vocabularies.
So, since SSS come from different continents, backgrounds and walks of life, you can imagine how very different each one may be from his or her peers, even if they all speak the same native tongue. You’ll find different perspectives and linguistic issues arising from different students, based on the origin of their Spanish knowledge.
Students from Spain may have different troubles with the American English accent than will students from Chile or Cuba. Even students from neighboring nations like Argentina and Bolivia may bump into completely different sets of English challenges, or might have surprisingly distinct worldviews.
Sure, many Spanish-speaking students may share some similar characteristics, mannerisms, expressions, English issues and whatnot, but you can’t expect them all to think, feel or learn alike.
This makes the teaching experience a lot more fun, vibrant and interesting, if you ask me! Take the time to really get to know your students individually. 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, Not so Much 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. They often take great pride in their nations, their people, their cultures and their language.
When you talk to them about home, I wouldn’t be surprised if they strongly encourage you to visit with gusto and speak fondly about life there (most of the time) even if the country is facing its own issues.
The trick is that this sense of pride doesn’t always transfer over to their English skills, even with the most advanced of 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 if you happen to praise their country, the answer is almost always the opposite!
Luckily, 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, and you won’t be able to stop the conversations you get going! This is wonderful for all in terms of English speaking and listening practice.
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 May Believe They Sound Foolish Speaking English, When in Fact They Sound Charming
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. After all, sad as it is, the American accent is notoriously unpleasant when applied to foreign languages.
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.
First of all, it’s actually the opposite! SSS sound quite charming when speaking English. Spanish accents are lovely, even when they make their way into English. It’s worth telling 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. It’s only natural! When learning a foreign language, everyone feels a bit discouraged while speaking from time to time.
What really helps them to 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.
In the case of a particularly hairy 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 Spanish examples or explanations if you feel confidence dipping or confusion rising.
Now, I know there’s a big debate on whether or not you should be speaking the student’s native language in class, but if it’s to make the student feel more at ease in the classroom, to get to know them a little better or to explain a tricky topic or two, then go for it.
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.
I’m sure all speakers of all languages appreciate it when their teacher can speak their native language—if for no other reason than that it makes you more relatable and understanding of their learning experiences. From my time teaching, SSS definitely appreciate knowing that you know some Spanish.
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 skills. We’ve got the opposite case in other parts of the world, especially in Europe and the Americas, and especially with SSS.
What some SSS may lack in grammar and syntax skills, they typically make up for with their fluency, confidence and basically their 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. I’ve noticed this trend enough for it to be noteworthy.
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 (or even a comfortable enough state of mind) you may notice that they could talk and talk for hours.
This isn’t necessarily bad, as long as their fluency and confidence gets experience, no? 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. You Can Harness Their Main Strong Speaking Skills
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 conversational fluency as a group.
I struck conversational gold when I brought up soccer, and they all began vociferously sharing their views on this easily-debatable topic. The group ended up straying from whatever the original question was into a long, winding discussion about the nuances of the game. Then they stayed on that topic for some time, since it was something of high passion and interest. From there they just kept drifting and drifting away from the main topic, and straight into tangent after tangent.
I just thought to myself, hey, at least they’re speaking English, right?
The strategy for this class, and other similar ones focused on conversation practice, 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. Slow Things down Once in a While
This one is super important.
Since a lot of English-language TV shows and movies that are shown in Spanish-speaking countries (especially Spain) are dubbed right 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 speaking at a normal pace. If you’re working with heritage speakers of Spanish, they might only hear Spanish at home—and then the rapid-fire English outside home becomes too much of a leap.
The good thing about this is that they really appreciate it and learn better when you speak slowly.
I’m not talking super slow, like you’re on the moon or underwater or something (not like, “hhheeelllooooo”) but at a slightly calmer pace and with strong enunciation. A simple rule of thumb is to speak 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 speaking at a natural, native speaker’s English pace. Overall, your students should always feel comforted that they’ll know they can understand you and your usual pace.
10. Good Classroom Vibes Will Be Had
Spanish-speaking people are often known for being joyous and vibrant, from their upbeat, dance-able music to their zesty cuisines.
Overall, I’ve found this general idea to be quite true—and my Spanish-speaking students, no matter their nation(s) of origin, have always been a particularly happy, pleasant, fun-loving group to teach.
The more vivacious elements of the Spanish language may still make their way into English classes, and 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. Why? Well, this may mean that you’ll need or want to animate yourself some more. If you tend to be shier, quieter or more reserved in the classroom, you’ll want to try and get on their level if you want an even greater rapport.
From my experience, the higher the energy level, the more fun. Never a dull moment, I tell you!
Another great way to maintain a dynamic and engaging learning environment is with native videos from FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
11. English Is Overwhelming to Many
For all this talk of happy-go-lucky students, high energy levels and pleasant demeanors, we should always remember that some individual experiences will vary. Some students may well feel overwhelmed in a language classroom, for a variety of 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 in order 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
Unlike countries like the USA, where teachers simply aren’t as respected as they should be (most of the time), teachers in Spanish-speaking countries are more celebrated, appreciated and respected. Of course, this is a major generalization, but on the whole 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 well 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 Compared to English Grammar
Anyone who has studied a Latin-based language knows that the grammar differs a bit from English grammar.
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 languages, so it’s best to be prepared for students to need a little more elaboration on these. English grammar may not exactly come easy to them all at first, but does it come easy to anyone, really?
Take a look at these key differences between English and Spanish so you know what kinds of things 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” upon first glance. It’s a tricky thing to get past, but can you blame SSS? It’s how their native language was designed, and all our lives would be easier if English pronunciation were more intuitive.
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.
The usual suspects? 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 in the early and maybe even later stages could be 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. They’ll soon begin to pick up on the differences and correct sounds!
16. There May Not Be a Word For That in Spanish
I like to think that speaking in Spanish is like coloring with a box of 24 crayons, while speaking in English is like coloring with the massive 64 crayon box (with the Razzle Dazzle Rose color, too). With a language as vast as English, filled with lots of specific words for specific things, you’ll find out that sometimes a word in English may exist but there just isn’t a word for that thing or concept in Spanish.
So, it’s good to note that, since a word for that may not exist in Spanish, you can always try to do your best to learn 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.
And, speaking of direct translation….
17. Direct Translation from Spanish Can Lead to English Mistakes
I’m quite sure that every language learner is guilty of directly translating from their language into the foreign language that they’re trying to speak, and who can blame them? Most of the time it’s understandable. Most of the time.
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!”
But, hey, it’s all good—if direct translation were so flawless, I might be out of a job, know what I’m saying?
18. “Do” and “Make” Can Create Confusion
Like other Latin-based languages, Spanish has the same word for both “do” and “make,” despite the big difference between the words. This confusion will come up more than a few times when teaching SSS since, to them, the resemblance is uncanny. 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, and SSS greatly appreciate anything you can do to clearly reinforce their understanding of the differences between “make” and “do.”
19. You’ll Need to Introduce Them to Phrasal Verbs
The English language is like a parasite that just grows and grows, always adding more to the grand vocabulary pile, and phrasal verbs are no exception. As you know, 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,” phrasal verbs are 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 English phrasal verbs.
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 the concept of phrasal verbs and games to practice key English ones.
20. Spanish Subtitles on English-language Programming 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, other times the wording is totally different in order 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 studying their English in 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. This is good to keep in mind and to address with your students!
So as you’ve now read, you’re bound to have a great time teaching Spanish-speaking students. With more and more of them seeking out ESL classes around the world, and many more bound to come along seeking the same in the future, 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.
¡Buena suerte! (Good luck!)
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)