Teaching Spanish to high school students can be rewarding.
It can also be a little overwhelming.
But rather than getting caught up in the enormity of the task before you, consider the fact that you’re being given a unique opportunity to ignite and foster an adolescent’s love for Spanish that will very possibly carry into their adulthood.
Basically, you’re in an amazing position to share your love for Spanish and provide invaluable learning experiences for your students.
So how do you go about getting your stuff together and impacting the next generation?
First, take a deep breath.
Second, check out these four simple steps for becoming a successful high school Spanish teacher.
How to Teach Spanish to High School Students in 4 Simple Steps
1. Love the Language
This is a no-brainer. If you’re going to be teaching Spanish to students, you better be lovin’ you some Spanish. If you’re not into it, your students probably aren’t going to be either. It’s far easier to foster a love for language in adolescents if they can see how much you enjoy it. Plus, you’re just a better teacher when you’re teaching what you love.
So how can we maintain a passion for Spanish? We can always go to conferences, search Pinterest and research what other successful high school Spanish teachers are doing to put a little wind in our sails.
For me, though, it’s always about relationships. For one, my husband’s first language is Spanish and my toddler is being raised bilingual, so it makes sense for me to constantly strive to be “more fluent” and to truly understand Hispanic culture. Apart from being married to a Latino, I want my Hispanic friends feeling comfortable speaking in their heart language to me.
But what if you don’t have a Spanish-speaking spouse or friends? Do what it takes to be involved in the Spanish-speaking community around you. Whether you look for a Spanish-speaking church service, find a good salsa dancing joint or get involved with a local organization working with new Spanish-speaking immigrants in your area, fostering relationships with Spanish speakers will constantly motivate you to love and learn more about the language and culture.
At the end of the day, your high school students will see that you enjoy Spanish if you’re introducing them to enjoyable aspects of the Spanish language and related cultures. If you bore them to death with endless repetition and meaningless worksheets, they’ll suspect you’re bored with the whole thing, too.
Teenagers are especially observant and will realize the Spanish language stirs something within you if you “practice what you preach.” I love sharing my experiences and the opportunities I’ve had with my students all because of my interest in other cultures and Spanish. I hope that conveying these things will open students’ eyes and plant a seed of curiosity within them as well.
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2. Know Where to Start
This is where you’re going to calm the panic and keep the profuse sweating at bay. Having a plan will keep you focused and feeling like you have a manageable task. To get you started, here’s what you need to know:
- Know your students’ level. Are you working with beginners? Advanced students? Obviously, your objectives will look very different depending on student ability and prior knowledge, so start there. My recommendation: evaluate them on prior knowledge and establish a good starting point from there.
- Know your goals. What are your high school students expected to learn? Have you been given a guide (like a curriculum or set of standards)? If you’ve been given one, start there and expand on that. Set some manageable goals based on the standards and plan activities accordingly.
- Know your method. How are you going to approach teaching Spanish? Are you going full immersion? Are you expected to just give an introduction to the language? In my first year of teaching, the students were in a full-immersion classroom, which meant they learned some subjects fully in Spanish and some subjects fully in English—we just figured everything out as we went along.
3. Create a Comfortable Learning Environment
This is more than just being an all-star bulletin-boarder (although the power of a good bulletin board should never be underestimated). Especially in language learning, teachers need to create a safe place. Learning a language is exciting and different, but it can also be intimidating. This is important to keep in mind with teenagers because they may tend to feel self-conscious in front of their peers.
Here are the three big essentials for a comfortable learning environment for high school students:
- Make it clear that language mistakes are welcome. We learn from our mistakes. Most of us have a story about a time we made a language mistake and that mistake is seared into our brains, never to be committed again. Not only do high school students learn from their mistakes, but specifically giving students room to make mistakes helps them feel secure even if they do mess up. It’s important to never criticize or embarrass a student for a mistake.
- Create encouragement and positive reinforcement. The key here is to stay positive. Rather than focusing on an error, call attention to something the student did well. Then you can correct the student subtly by repeating their answer in the correct form.
For example, if a student says, Nosotros vamos la playa (We go the beach), you can praise the student for correct verb conjugation and then follow up with, “Sí, nosotros vamos a la playa (we go to the beach)” with emphasis on the forgotten word. High school students are far more willing to respond positively when they are encouraged.
- Create a culture of acceptance. Make your classroom a place where students are accepted and feel loved. Challenge them to do their best, expect their best and accept their best. While they’re not necessarily fragile, adolescents are going through a lot of changes and are starting to figure out who they are. Accepting who they are as a person while challenging them academically will go a long way in their desire to succeed.
4. Provide Authentic Experiences
Providing authentic experiences is what will set you apart when it comes to your students’ actual Spanish acquisition. High school students are at an age where they need to be able to apply their learning in real-life settings and they need to know that what they’re learning is actually useful.
In short, authentic experiences are activities that get students thinking critically about Spanish. In applying authentic experiences, students should take ownership of their learning and use real-world opportunities to further engage themselves in subject matter.
Here are some practical examples of how you can start using authentic experiences in the Spanish classroom with your high school students:
- Use authentic videos in the classroom. You can’t get much more authentic than this. For students to truly be successful with Spanish, they need to be exposed to native speakers conversing.
You can find a lot of Spanish videos on the internet, but definitely consider using FluentU to turn the best among them into the ultimate teaching tool. FluentU has collected the web’s best Spanish video and audio content—including commercials, movie trailers, music videos, news and interesting talks—and put it in one place.
Not only will students be exposed to Spanish in a real-world context, they’ll also be able to engage in interactive lessons with what they’re learning. You can even assign videos as homework! FluentU is a fun, easy and practical way to integrate technology in the classroom.
- Have your students tutor elementary students in Spanish. One of the best ways to learn is by teaching others. If possible, set up a program to get your high school students putting their learning into practice. Having to teach Spanish will require your students to work harder to understand and apply their learning.
- Set up blogs for writing practice. Blogs are a free and fun way to provide writing practice for your students. Blogs are relevant to today’s culture and students can tailor their blog to fit their personality. Rather than assigning students written work in a journal, have them post on their blog about everyday experiences. This method may motivate your students to take ownership of their Spanish learning, since they’ll have an online audience.
- Read age-appropriate Spanish literature and discuss it. We’re not talking about textbooks here. Find an age-appropriate and level-appropriate book or article and have students dissect it. Conversing about the literature in a social environment (i.e., a group discussion) gives room for students to practice something in their second language that comes naturally to them in their native language.
In general, I love to read, so one way I improved my Spanish was by reading novels that I wanted to read anyway, in Spanish. Obviously, “Don Quixote” is a fabulous book to use in the classroom because of its classic nature, but I remember not being all that excited about it when I was learning Spanish in high school.
Consider that your students may have a similar reaction, and instead, try looking for some popular young adult books in English that are translated into Spanish—especially books that have been made into movies or books that are previously known to your students. While your students may not understand every word they read, they’ll already have an idea of what’s going on and be able to pick up new vocabulary along the way.
Some books that could work depending on student level are:
“The Chronicles of Narnia” (Las Crónicas de Narnia) by C.S. Lewis.
“The Selection” (La Selección) series by Kiera Cass.
“The Hunger Games” (Los Juegos del Hambre) series by Suzanne Collins.
Side note: I like working with a book series (as you can see above), because students get to know the way an author writes. This helps with comprehension, and also keeps the students motivated to continue reading the next books in the series.
- Have students give presentations on present-day issues in Spanish-speaking culture. Have students do research on current events or social issues in Hispanic countries. Ask them to investigate different points of view, explore different solutions and brainstorm different outcomes. Have them present the information that they found and lead a class discussion pertaining to their subject.
High school students have opinions and they love to share them. Help them find something they feel passionately about and let them take off with it.
- Expose students to native speakers through field trips, interviews, pen pals, etc. Immerse your students in Spanish-language culture with real-life experiences that get them talking with native speakers. One thing that profoundly impacted me when I was learning Spanish in high school was going to Mexico to build a house for an extremely impoverished family with Habitat for Humanity. We got to experience the language, the culture, the food and, most importantly, the people.
If you have the guts and the opportunity to take a group of teenagers to a Spanish-speaking country to invest in the community in some way, students will be changed. Period.
- Use Spanish-language music in the classroom. This one is a given, people. It’s no secret that music is an amazing teaching tool, plus your high school students will already be familiar with many Latino artists such as Shakira, Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and more.
- Research a cultural practice and bring it to life. Whether you get students cooking traditional dishes or building traditional instruments, these hands-on activities will bring Spanish-language cultural practices to life. Students will be creating something useful that they can share with the class—an essential authentic practice.
- Use board games. Break out some Spanish games to mix things up in your classroom. Require them to speak only in Spanish as they play. Some of my favorites games for the Spanish classroom are Spanish Bananagrams, Manzanas con Manzanas and Spanish Spot It!.
The truth is, authentic learning opportunities are endless. They literally open up a whole world of opportunity to your students. Going the extra mile and making your high school classroom authentic will make you a rock-star teacher.
If you love Spanish, get organized, create a great learning environment and provide authentic experiences, you and your students will have a great year.
Get the basics right and the rest will fall into place.
Tricia Wegman Contreras has spent the last seven years in Costa Rica working as a bilingual Learning Specialist with students of all ages. She enjoys using her background as an Intervention Specialist to help all types of language learners succeed.
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