4 Tricky Spanish Topics for English Speakers and How to Teach Them Smoothly
As Spanish educators, we basically have magical powers.
We can anticipate our students’ confusions and nip them in the bud before they manifest!
While doing this, we even have the skills, experience and knowledge to inspire students, keeping them engaged and motivated.
So let’s put all this into practice when teaching Spanish to our English-speaking students!
All you need are a few key teaching tips to send you in the right direction.
These tips won’t only make Spanish easier for your students, but more importantly, they’ll help students to loosen up about making mistakes, notice their learning successes and stick with Spanish for the long haul!
Where Do English Speakers Have Trouble When Learning Spanish?
You know, I’m willing to bet you’ve heard English speakers make similar mistakes, due to their familiarity with their native tongue. There are several main areas where English speakers tend to struggle more with Spanish.
This post hones in on four of the most ubiquitous.
The first and most fundamental one is the Spanish alphabet. Since most of the Spanish letters look the same as English letters, many students assume all their sounds will also be the same, which unfortunately compromises their ability to understand spoken Spanish and their ability to pronounce words correctly.
Many students also never learn how to move their tongue in new ways to facilitate accurate pronunciation, and become frustrated when they can’t say certain words in ways that Spanish speakers understand them.
Another trick are those linguistic details that are prevalent in Spanish and not so (or nonexistent) in English. Two of these that we’ll focus on here are Spanish article use and applying noun genders correctly.
How to Teach 4 Tricky Areas of Spanish to English Speakers
1. Teach key distinctions between the English and Spanish alphabets
Because Spanish pronunciation is much simpler than in English, many students take this for granted, glossing over key sound and pronunciation differences!
Here, we’ll give you a lesson plan for teaching the deceptively simple topic of the Spanish alphabet.
You can begin this lesson plan by reviewing the names and sounds of each Spanish letter with this fun song.
Beware that, while it repeats the alphabet multiple times, these repetitions are helpful for students! After the video has been watched and learned from, these worksheets and presentation slides are great for engaging students of all ages and skill levels. With your students’ needs in mind, choose the ideal additional materials here to further reinforce the Spanish alphabet and its sounds.
For the bulk of the lesson, you can highlight the seven below points that distinguish Spanish pronunciation from English, and which depend on knowledge of the Spanish alphabet. Each can be taught in 5-15 minutes depending on your students’ level of Spanish.
a. Unlike English, the B and V in Spanish produce the same sound. You can start this mini-lesson first by asking students about the pronunciation differences between the beginning sounds in words starting with B and V such as barco (boat) and venir (to come). After students attempt those, you can then remind them that they do indeed generate the same initial sound.
b. The H is always silent in Spanish. You can start this mini-lesson by asking students the pronunciation difference between hola (hello) and ola (wave). Soon you can come to the consensus as a class that they’re pronounced the same. Then you can share jokes that illustrate this, such as:
¿Qué le dijo una ola a otra ola? Hola, ola.
(What did one wave say to the other wave? Hello, wave.)
You can then use words like hambre (hunger), hablar (to talk) and helado (ice cream) to foment learning.
c. While the L in Spanish is very similar to the L in English, students often mispronounce the Spanish LL because it makes a Y sound, not an L sound. You can start this mini-lesson by having students note the pronunciation difference between llamar (to call) and lavar (to wash) and then practices with others, such as luego (later) and llego (I arrive) or pila (battery) and pilla (she/he catches [while noting that atrapar is more commonly used than pillar to translate “to catch”]).
d. The I in Spanish is pronounced very similarly to the E in English, and unfortunately this perplexes many students of varying skill levels. Start by asking students to pronounce the word identificar (to identify), and then more deceptively complicated pronunciations such as idea (idea).
e. The Z and S produce the same exact sound. In this mini-lesson you can have students place their fingers on their throat to feel its vibration when pronouncing the English Z, as if they were mimicking the noise a buzzing bee makes, and notice this contrast from Spanish Z and S. In the English Z sound, the throat should vibrate, while for the Spanish Z or S sound, the throat should not. This difference is readily detectable by simply touching the throat.
Linguistics refers to sounds that produce this throat vibration as “voiced.” Students can then make sure not to say any voiced Zs in Spanish, as all Zs are identical to non-voiced Ss in their pronunciation—unless you’re talking about Spanish from Spain, where the Z gets a TH sound. It’s helpful to use Brasil (Brazil) or cero (Zero) as initial examples, and then move on to cerveza de raíz (root beer) or pereza (laziness) for more advanced examples.
f. The Spanish J often makes an English H sound. In this mini-lesson you can practice with jugar (to play) and jamás (never). It also appears in a few verbs in the yo conjugated form in present tense, such as encojo (I shrink) or escojo (I choose), and the irregular past tense of she/he in trajo (she/he brought), dijo (she/he said) and produjo (he/she produced).
g. LL and Ñ have their own unique sounds. While this may seem trivial to some students at first, you can remind them that these distinctions involve meaning and pronunciation changes. For instance, llama (she/he calls or flame) is totally different from lama (slime) in pronunciation. Likewise, the verb sonar (to sound) is drastically different from soñar (to dream).
These can be tested with a brief oral quiz, where each student is randomly assigned one of the seven options above to present to the class. You can call on them randomly to say each letter correctly and quiz them verbally with sentences involving the alphabet pronunciation differences outlined above.
Students may also get more extensive practice by listening to Spanish as it’s used naturally in conversation. For this, you may want to use FluentU as a teaching tool.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
With FluentU’s authentic content, students will be exposed to the Spanish language as it’s used in different contexts. This will certainly aid their ability to become familiar with the sounds of the language.
2. Train their tongues for certain Spanish sounds
You can start this lesson by reminding students that the tongue has distinctive movements it needs to complete to produce nice Spanish pronunciations. This can actually be a relief when they finally find out why they’re so tongue tied while pronouncing certain words.
These two examples can be helpful:
a. The tongue’s tip goes to the inner-gums above the top incisors when pronouncing the R—and especially the RR—when a word starts or ends with R. To teach students to roll their Rs, you can use the following video.
b. When pronouncing the Spanish L, the tongue’s tip goes to the roof of the mouth right above the top incisors, not touching the back of the teeth at all, unlike most L sounds in English, where the tongue rests against the backs of the top incisors.
For homework, students can be encouraged to seek competent bilingual or native Spanish speakers and ask them how their tongue moves or where in the mouth it’s placed (even though this may feel awkward) for the certain words each student feels she/he struggles to pronounce.
Students should be strongly encouraged to make mistakes, to seek corrections and to listen carefully to those corrections, especially while practicing the speaker’s tongue tip. They should learn to do so without worrying about their self-esteem. So, this assignment does have a psychological element. As you’ve probably noticed, students’ learning is clearly hindered when they’re overly bashful or cautious because it prevents fluid practice. This assignment encourages students to take risks and connect with native or bilingual speakers, which is always a big plus.
To assess learning, students can present a new tongue tip from their encounter with their Spanish speaker to the class that facilitates accurate pronunciation, hopefully of a certain Spanish word they had previously struggled to pronounce.
3. Point out key distinctions between English and Spanish article use
In this lesson, you can begin by explaining that the articles el and la correspond to the word “the” in English, and that Spanish uses these articles a lot differently.
A tangible example of this is when referring to general topics or subjects. In English there’s no article use here, whereas in Spanish there customarily is. To illustrate, the discipline economics in Spanish is la economía, but in English it’s not The Economics, it’s just economics. Similarly, love is el amor (literally: the love) in Spanish.
Once students seem to grasp this distinction, you can introduce a second example, how Spanish refers to body parts. To practice with body parts initially, you can start with how to say “my elbow hurts” (Me duele el codo), or “move your hips” (Muévete la cadera).
You can stress for students that there are many other patterns with different article uses besides general topics and body parts in Spanish. You can point them toward other areas where this applies, such as the days (Thursday becomes el jueves) or seasons (spring becomes la primavera) in Spanish, to more complicated areas, such as emotions (happiness becomes la felicidad) and certain geographical regions (India is often referred to as la India).
Their homework can be to find two or more similar examples that weren’t covered in class. For assessment, students can present or write two to five sentences where article use changes distinctively from English.
4. Teach gender use trends
To start this fourth lesson, remind students that every noun has a gender.
This means that when they learn a new noun, they must also learn its accompanying gender before they fully know that noun in Spanish.
This YouTube video is quite helpful to pique interest. It’s very concise and palatable. Since it’s 12 minutes long, you can simply show parts that you feel are most germane to your class’s level of Spanish. Still, all the expounded 10 rules shown in the video are worth watching!
After reviewing questions from the video, you can highlight that clearly many nouns don’t follow the general pattern, where those ending in O are masculine and those ending in A are feminine, as is noted in rule #1 in the video.
Once they learn a few basic patterns of exceptions to the rule, their homework can be to apply one of the 10 rules to new words that they find on their own from their research outside of class, such as la bici (the bike), from rule #1, or el ave (the bird), as another unmentioned exception for rule #4 in the video.
To assess, you can quiz students orally or in writing by having them translate a few sentences where the noun’s gender is different from what common sense would dictate. In this activity, ideally each sentence they craft will explicate one of the 10 rules from the video.
My hope is that these four lesson plans based on crucial areas to teach will come in handy in your classroom!
These ideas are good to cover at any skill level. So, board the plane and use these tips as a reference to what your students need, based on their level of Spanish and commitment to the language!
Now you can clear up these common mistakes before students’ frustration grows and their errors become a habit.
You’re fundamental in their ability to grasp the often bumpy terrain of the Spanish language and expand their communicative horizons.
Enjoy the ride!
Jason Linder, MA, 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. Find out more about online Spanish tutoring with Jason here.