Attack the Curriculum: The 4 Best Ways to Teach Spanish
Have you ever noticed that your teaching style changes from year to year?
Or that your preference for certain types of teaching materials has become more marked?
Or that you’re teaching difficult concepts faster and more effectively?
If you answered yes, that’s great news! After all, it takes time to become a great Spanish teacher, and it seems that you’re well on your way.
We know you’re constantly worrying about how to help your students. So in order to help you, we’re going to give you some ways to approach Spanish teaching that get you thinking even harder about what works best for you and your classroom.
Tips to Make the Approach Work for You
As a seasoned teacher, you know there are many approaches, or instructional strategies, to choose from. Here are some sure-fire ways to be sure that the ones you select are successful.
Be deliberate about your teaching decisions
Which approach appeals to you the most? Being decisive about your Spanish curriculum design or teaching strategies can be a big task.
Deliberating over options is a classic time-waster, so avoid this trap by making a decision and sticking with it. Don’t worry if you don’t know for sure if it’ll be the best choice at the end.
So what’s the best way to start designing new curriculum or new lessons? Decide on one approach and go for it—if it doesn’t work, no problem! Try something else.
Have clear overarching goals
What would you like your students to know by the end of the your time with them? The more specific you make these teaching goals, the better.
The secret lies in the language you use to make your list of learning objectives for your students. For example, “Students will be able to describe their families in ten complete sentences using the preterite” is a lot easier to measure than “Students will be able to write well about their families in the past tense.”
Including specifics in your Spanish learning objectives is a great trick to successfully measure outcomes.
Choose the method that works best for you and your students
This is a tricky one and very much a question that requires a lot of trial and error. If you try an approach and you can see it’s not a good fit, don’t let it stress you out.
If you’re at the beginning of your teaching career, you might want to consider inviting a trusted colleague to observe you in action and give you feedback.
Find resources that inspire you and your students the most
This is another tricky one that requires a bit of trial and error. Involve your students and allow them to articulate what works and why.
For example, if you want to incorporate more technology-based learning by introducing more videos, start with short ones that only last a couple of minutes. Then discuss the experience with your students—how did it go for them? What did they like or not like?
You might even set class time aside at the end of a lesson/unit and allow students to discuss what did or did not work for them.
Interestingly, grades on assessments aren’t the only way to know if students are “getting it.” How are students behaving while they learn? Are they working quietly? If they are, check to make sure that they’re focused in a content and challenged way and not a listless and bored way.
Are students excited and chatty? If yes, be sure they’re focused on the material and consider what it is about the lesson and/or delivery that’s eliciting that response.
Be a keen observer of your students and their responses to your instruction and adjust accordingly. You’ll more than likely see more progress when you can get the majority of your students engaged.
The 4 Best Ways to Teach Spanish
Whether you’re in charge of creating curriculum or simply looking for a different way of approaching lessons and units, these four ideas are sure to increase student engagement and achievement in your Spanish classroom.
1. Backward Design: Teach with the End in Mind
With backward design, you’ll set big teaching objectives before planning lessons and organizing materials. It’s a way to design curriculum that focuses on the goals and outcomes first rather than the content, which is typically the focus of traditional curriculum design.
So instead of planning your unit around concepts like “introductions and greetings vocabulary,” “business vocabulary” and/or “conjugating verbs in the Usted (you, formal) form,” you would begin with an end goal like “Students will be able to conduct a job interview in Spanish.” You would then structure your lessons accordingly, incorporating the concepts/skills students need to master that objective.
If backward design is an option you find interesting, consider working within the basic model on your own. In a nutshell, this model starts with the identification of the objectives and how you’ll measure student mastery (types of formative and summative assessments you’ll use). You’ll then plan lessons that take both the goals and assessments into consideration.
For example, if you’re planning on having students conduct a job interview, you might plan on a role-play at the end to assess their learning using a rubric. With that goal in mind and a clear idea of what students need to do to show mastery, you might decide that you’ll need one to two weeks of lessons to get there. One lesson might include introducing vocabulary, and another, perhaps, has students writing a practice dialogue using professional language.
That overarching goal ensures lessons and activities are purposeful for you and your students.
- Backward design works for all grade and age levels. However, because it relies on advanced planning for quizzes and tests, it works best if you’re able to try it at the beginning of a term, rather than partway through.
- Even if you’re not 100% sure that this particular kind of design will work for you, give it an honest try before giving up. Then you can evaluate your decision and either keep it or try something new.
- Try these fabulous backward design resources by the masterminds themselves, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe: “Understanding by Design” and “Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding.”
2. Task-based Instruction: Focus on Practical Opportunities to Communicate in Spanish
Task-based instruction is just what it says it is—planning lessons that allow students to learn by completing tasks in Spanish. With this approach, teachers emphasize real-life scenarios and situations that resonate with students on a personal and practical level.
So instead of asking students to learn a list of vocabulary words about nature, students might present a news report about the effects of pollution on their local park. Or, instead of watching a video about folk songs in Mexico, students will actually learn the songs themselves and sing them in class.
When planning task-based activities, consider the interests of your students and differentiate. Have a couple of different activities students can choose to show mastery of the same standards. For example, one group of students might decide to write and perform a song, while you have others create a video or write a poem (let students choose).
It’s also important to make sure students are invested in the activity. If you decide to have students report on the effects of pollution in their local park, ask students first why this task is important to them. Asking the students to identify the practical elements of the task is a great way to ensure buy-in.
Then suggest that students break the task down into manageable items for a to-do list of sorts. This checklist helps students working in groups stay on task, and students working individually can also benefit from practicing organizational skills.
- Task-based instruction is ideal for small units of study sprinkled among other kinds of lessons in your curriculum. You can even include goals, assessments and plans based on tasks in a broader plan, like one you might create with backward design.
- Check out this resource for an introduction to the broad scope of this teaching method: “Task-Based Instruction in Foreign Language Education,” edited by Betty Lou Leaver and Jane R. Willis. This book illustrates how tasks work for all different languages for all different kinds of students at all different levels, so you’ll find a lot of inspiration here for your own creative task-based lessons.
3. Text-based Instruction: Prioritize Spanish Reading Materials
Text-based instruction emphasizes reading comprehension skills by giving students different kinds of texts, like newspaper articles, and trusting that deeper learning will take place as the students learn for themselves how different kinds of texts work.
The teacher carefully chooses material while sequencing the curriculum and provides lots of guidance and scaffolding to ensure comprehension of the texts.
In the beginning Spanish classroom, students might read a Spanish short story or another lower-level text, while advanced Spanish students might read book reviews in El País. Students may also read song lyrics or poetry in Spanish, so they can learn how the rhythms of these kinds of texts vary and have different purposes.
These experiences are essential to give students the opportunity to focus on Spanish reading skills for any amount of time. You can also start with some informal reading time, where you read some Dr. Seuss in Spanish out loud to the students and gradually build up to books and articles.
If teaching only with texts feels daunting, but you think your students are up for the challenge, try implementing a sample series of text-based instruction lessons as a way to focus on reading comprehension. If it goes well, you can always do more!
- Whether you decide to start with an easy short story or with the newspaper, offer your students opportunities to practice using their Spanish dictionaries to build up their confidence. The more students use their dictionaries, the more familiar they’ll become with the format.
- Some excellent authentic materials are available for all ages and Spanish language levels on the internet for free. BBC Mundo is a great place for news articles and Cuentosinfin is an awesome site with classic short stories.
- Also, you can use household materials—a cereal box with Spanish text or other packaging material could make for an interesting lesson for your students!
4. Technology-based Teaching: Use Technology to Enhance Learning
Teaching languages with technology means planning lessons that incorporate all the different educational apps, videos, websites and online resources that are available to students.
In the Spanish classroom, a teacher who wants to include tech tools might ask students to download language apps like Duolingo onto their phones or tablets for personalized language review. Or they might have students watch any of the videos available on FluentU that incorporate vocabulary and grammar structures.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
That the content on FluentU is pulled from media that native speakers themselves would watch makes the resource all the more useful.
Another idea would be to ask students to look up different Spanish-speaking countries on Google Earth for an engaging geography project. Just remember, the most effective lessons stay laser-focused on the learning objectives while also using the best tech options.
So if you would like to try using technology in your lessons, you might want to start with some Spanish projects that take advantage of the most current technology available to teachers right now. Starting small allows you to troubleshoot and determine what resources are the most compatible with your students and teaching goals.
If it turns out to be a great teaching method for you, then you can dive in with more involved lesson plans. If it turns out to be a less-than-ideal match, you haven’t lost much precious teaching time.
For better or for worse, education technology works for most students at all levels of Spanish. Young learners like the screen time, while older students doing more advanced work enjoy working within their comfort zone—social media.
As these resources rely on steady internet and expensive equipment, you’ll have to determine what’s realistic for your school and your students ahead of time and plan sensitively for students who may not have everything they need at home to do an assignment.
- As the internet is positively teeming with resources, try narrowing your focus so you don’t get overwhelmed. If your school has an education technology specialist, recruit him or her to help you. Set up a lesson where the specialist leads the students through some of the best resources out there while you observe and gauge their interest in the various options.
- When you start incorporating resources, don’t incorporate all of them at once. Here’s a list of 37 tech tools you might start with. Become an expert at a couple of them and slowly start using them in your lessons; you can move on to others once you’ve mastered those.
- You can find the latest and greatest tech discoveries for all classrooms in the magazine Tech and Learning. Though it’s not specific to teaching Spanish, you’ll stay up-to-date on the most current technology available.
So there you have it. Four great ideas you can use to start planning your latest iteration of Spanish curriculum. Just remember to be flexible even while you’re being decisive, and be open to learning alongside your students.
Lynn Ramsson is an educator who enjoys working with students of all ages. She has taught in Virginia and California, and now, she writes from the south coast of England where she lives with her family. She travels to Spain as often as she can, in search of the perfect gambas al ajillo.