how-to-teach-spanish-subjunctive

How to Teach the Spanish Subjunctive Creatively and Effectively

High blood pressure. Goosebumps. An overwhelming urge to stay in bed all day.

Got these symptoms?

You just might have subjunctivitis.

It’s a common issue among Spanish students, but educators can get it, too. Teaching the subjunctive can be just as taxing as trying to learn it!

Aside from the conjugations, it’s often difficult for students to grasp when, exactly, the subjunctive should be used—leaving them frustrated and bored.

But don’t worry—the doctor is in.

In this post, we’ll show you how to cure subjunctivitis and get your whole classroom happy, lively and ready to tackle this area of Spanish grammar.
 


 
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Why the Subjunctive Is Vital to Your Students

Teaching the Spanish subjunctive gives students a view into one of the most unique and important elements of the Spanish language.

The subjunctive is indispensable because:

  • It’s ubiquitous in Spanish.
  • It enables students to tune in to and express beautiful subtleties of the language that aren’t so clear or simply don’t exist in English, especially those involving subjectivity, emotion and layers to reality.
  • It allows students to express their points or opinions with more specificity.
  • Using it correctly exudes Spanish language competence.

The subjunctive can even put students at an advantage, as many Spanish speakers don’t consciously know how it works (even if they use it correctly as they speak and write), so students can be encouraged to inform natives!

Quick Tips for Teaching the Subjunctive

Learning the Spanish subjunctive goes beyond the basics and is therefore usually taught in the third, fourth or fifth year of academic Spanish programs.

Thus, to teach the subjunctive successfully, I recommend educators focus on it mainly with upper-intermediate to advanced students who already have a strong command of Spanish and can communicate the basics with a considerable degree of comfort and confidence.

¡Ojo! (Beware!): Many students may come to view the subjunctive simply as another tense, when in fact it reflects another vantage point, or a dimension of subjectivity, emotion, attitude, opinion and judgment—a mood.

Lastly, this post focuses on regular verbs in the present subjunctive, not the imperfect and not irregular verbs. It’s crucial to go slow with the subjunctive, so we deemed those additions out of scope for this post.

How to Cover Uses of the Subjunctive

Before diving into activities with the subjunctive, it’s important to introduce when and how this mood is used. Here are the nine subjunctive-indicating contexts you can use as a foundation for the following educational activities.

Context 1:

The subordinate clause has elements that express doubt or negation.

Es difícil que lleguen a tiempo. (It’s hard for them to arrive on time.)

Context 2:

The subordinate clause has elements that express desire, fear, other emotions/feelings or judgment.

Estoy feliz de que lleguen a tiempo. (I’m happy they arrive on time.)

Context 3:

The subordinate clause has elements that express possibility.

Es probable que lleguen a tiempo. (It’s probable they arrive on time.)

Context 4:

The subordinate clause has elements that express need.

Es necesario que lleguen a tiempo. (It’s necessary they arrive on time.)

Context 5:

The subordinate clause has elements that express an expected pattern.

Es normal que lleguen a tiempo. (It’s normal that they arrive on time.)

Context 6:

The subordinate clause has elements that express specificity.

Quiero una novia que sea guapa. (I want a girlfriend that is pretty.)

Context 7:

The subordinate clause refers to a past event before it occurred.

Ya supe eso antes de que viniera Juan. (I knew that before Juan arrived.)

¡Ojo! This context will be less of a priority, as the main focus on this post is the present subjunctive, not the imperfect.

Context 8:

The subordinate clause depends on the main clause.

Eso depende de qué hora lleguen. (That depends on what time they arrive.)

Context 9:

The subordinate clause directly causes or affects the main clause.

El clima hace que no lleguen a tiempo. (The weather makes them not arrive on time.)

Prevent Subjunctivitus: How to Teach the Spanish Subjunctive the Clear, Fun and Easy Way

1. Apply Those Nine Contexts

You can transform those nine main contexts into a fun and effective learning activity. To start, put sample sentences (we’ll show you some below) on the whiteboard and then have students answer the following:

  1. Does the sentence require the subjunctive?
  2. If so, which of the above nine contexts does it apply to?
  3. Is the subjunctive implemented correctly? Fix, if applicable.

While I provide six examples below, feel free to add, delete or modify them to better fit your class:

Juan llega a las 11. (Jon arrives at 11.)

In this example, students should recognize that the subjunctive isn’t necessary.

Me sorprende que te lleves bien con Alex. (I’m surprised you get along well with Alex.)

In this example, the subjunctive is necessary.

Espero que no salga el sol tan tarde esta mañana. (I hope the sun doesn’t come out so late this morning.)

In this example, the subjunctive is necessary and students should know to make this change.

Regresamos si llueve. (We return if it rains.)

In this example, students should recognize that the subjunctive isn’t necessary.

Les preocupa que no está ella. (They’re worried she hasn’t arrived yet.)

In this example, the subjunctive is necessary and students should know to make this change.

Me relaja que el avión está por aterrizar. (It relaxes me that the plane is about to land.)

In this example, the subjunctive is necessary and students should know to make this change.

Depending on your students’ proficiency level, you can expand on this activity by having them act out the sample sentences in brief skits, which ideally should emphasize the relevant context (whether that’s a specific emotional tone, opinion, perspective, etc.).

You can also have students get in groups and do the exercise in worksheet format.

It’s important to note to students that there are other contexts where the subjunctive is employed that weren’t mentioned here (as you most likely already know). Likewise, you probably know that the subjunctive in Spanish follows a varied set of conjugation ending alterations in the imperfect or past tense (see context number seven) not covered in this post.

2. Use Examples from Music

This is one of the most straightforward but engaging ways to introduce students to the subjunctive. Because songs are typically brief, you can really dive into how the subjunctive is used, and how it impacts the meaning/tone of the song, without students getting lost or bored.

Bring in a recording of the song you’re using, and you’ll hold students’ attention for much longer than if you were using plain old textbook examples.

One fantastic song I’d recommend for this activity is “El problema” (“The Problem”) by Ricardo Arjona. It’s among my favorite songs for learning Spanish and has several examples of the subjunctive.

Here’s how you can use songs like this one to make the subjunctive come alive for students:

  1. Share a printout of the song’s lyrics with students and play the song (or better yet, the lyric video).
  2. Ask students to identify as many examples of the subjunctive as they can on the printout.
  3. Discuss why each incidence of the subjunctive was necessary.
  4. Discuss how the subjunctive impacts the tone, emotion or story of the song.

Clearly, this activity can apply to any song that utilizes the subjunctive sufficiently. I would recommend choosing songs that have at least five occurrences of the subjunctive, but preferably 10 to 15.

Check out this post for more song recommendations. These are great to learn the subjunctive because of the high subjectivity in and emotional impact of the lyrics.

3. Bring in Text Examples

As you’re reading the news in the morning or tearing through your favorite Spanish novel, keep an eye out for examples of the subjunctive in the wild. You can copy and print these examples out for your class to examine.

As with music, real-world examples will help students not only get familiar with using the subjunctive in context, but also realize why this is a relevant and important grammar concept. You can either collect examples from multiple sources and consolidate them on one printout, or better yet, copy a page from a book/news source/etc. that has several uses of the subjunctive.

Once you have a text that you think fits the content and skill level of your class, you can amplify their learning with educational dialogues. Ask them the following questions:

  1. How many examples of the subjunctive can you identify in the text?
  2. Which of the nine subjunctive contexts applies to each example?
  3. How does the subjunctive serve to communicate the author’s perspective or the tone of the text? Cite as many examples as you can.

Of course, feel free to add as many questions as you like depending on your students and curriculum!

4. ¡Subjunctify Sentences!

As an extension of the first activity, here I propose a fun way to quiz students with less formality after they start to grasp how the subjunctive functions.

You can put a few sentences on the board, all in the present indicative tense, instead of the subjunctive. Then, students will need to fix the sentences, applying the subjunctive when applicable. I’ll go over three examples below, then you can add your own tailored to your class.

Quiero que comes should be written _____.

Answer: comas

Prefiero que se quedan should be written _____.

Answer: queden

Creo que no lo pueden hacer should be written _____.

Answer: as-is! The subjunctive actually doesn’t apply here.

To spice things up, you can split the class into teams and make it a race.

5. Snap It!

Here’s a fun game that’ll enliven your classroom and get students thinking quick. You’ll present a verb in its infinitive form and then students will use the following rules to conjugate as a group:

  • Students snap their thumbs together in unison when they say the verb in the yo form with their right hands one time.
  • Same for left hand for the form, but two snaps.
  • Both hands snap together three times for the él/ella/Usted form.
  • Back to right hand alone for the nosotros form four times.
  • Back to left hand five times for the ellos, ellas and Ustedes forms.

As they snap, they say each verb form aloud. For example, comer: coma, comas, coma, comamos, coman.

The most engaging way to do this activity is to accompany it with instrumental music, so students can snap to the beat. You’ll find that it’s so much more engaging—and memorable—than drilling conjugation flashcards or worksheets.

6. Hot Subjunctive Potato!

Similar to Snap It!, Hot Subjunctive Potato adds some fun and energy to conjugation practice.

Before you get started, you’ll have to pick your “hot potato.” You could always go with a squishy ball, but I’d suggest something like an action figure or a doll head with a distinct emotional expression.

Here’s how to play:

  1. Announce a verb in its infinitive form.
  2. Hand the potato to a student, and he or she has four seconds to conjugate the verb in its subjunctive yo form. Then he or she passes the potato on to the next student.
  3. The next student has four seconds to conjugate the verb in its subjunctive  form.
  4. Repeat for él/ella/Ustednosotros and ellos/ellas/Ustedes.
  5. Then repeat the whole process again for new verbs.

If a student errs or goes blank, the potato goes to the next student until it’s conjugated appropriately. You can have students drop out of the game when they lose the potato so that the last person standing wins. You could also do it in quiz format, with each error costing a point. Still, it’s your call whether you want to have any penalty at all or just keep it fun.

 

What could be better than seeing your students’ faces replete with satisfaction and confidence once they learn the subjunctive? I hope you found these tips and activities helpful in your classroom to approach an all too often dreaded topic. You have the power to prevent subjunctivitis!


Jason Linder, M.A., is a doctoral student and intensely passionate Spanish tutor and blog writer. In his free time, he enjoys telenovelas, traveling around Latin America, meditation, yoga, exercise, reading and writing. Learn more about his free Spanish learning resources and tutoring.

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