Our students need words.
Expanding vocabulary is essential in language learning.
Yet, as Spanish teachers, we’re often left scratching our heads, wondering how to make huge quantities of new vocabulary fun, easy and relevant for students.
Turns out, there are some simple ways to do this.
We can breathe zeal and freshness into any vocabulary-focused endeavor by:
- Weaving frequently-used technology and social media into lesson planning, classwork, homework and assessment.
- Encouraging students to become intrinsically motivated to expand their vocabulary in areas that they deem germane to their personal and professional interests.
This way, students not only become fully engaged, but also:
- Enjoy the super-fun and invaluable process of vocabulary expansion.
- Learn new words for the long haul by immediately and creatively putting them into practice.
- Learn vocabulary in ways consistent with society’s technological pull.
- Master creative techniques so they can learn new words on their own, outside of class.
Why Do Some Students Have Trouble Learning Spanish Vocabulary?
Students often get bored with the traditional vocabulary lists and the picture-label format prevalent in many Spanish learning textbooks.
Moreover, our picky human brains tend to forget isolated words, so rote memorization doesn’t work well in general!
I remember when I took Spanish in high school. Our first vocabulary lesson was on sports words. Not only did I find this irrelevant (I just wanted to be able to say “hi” to someone or order food in Spanish), I was quickly bored with the textbook lessons and forgot most of the words within hours after the lesson.
Testimony from countless others confirms this.
The more relevant the vocabulary is to your students, the better.
And even when your students simply must learn less-than-relevant vocabulary, the more you can shake things up, the better.
The good news is there are plenty of creative solutions, even beyond awesome vocabulary-boosting apps!
5 Creative Ways to Boost Spanish Vocabulary in the Classroom
1. iSpanish: The Spanish smartphone challenge
Apple recently sold its billionth iPhone. Facebook currently has over one billion active daily users. There are over 200,000 Google searches per second. The average iPhone user unlocks their phone 20 to 150 times a daily.
Clearly, I don’t need to present more statistics to show that the world is becoming increasingly technological by the day. In effect, developing tech vocab is vital in today’s world, for many reasons aside from increasing one’s professional competitiveness in the employment marketplace.
In some cases you don’t just need to talk about technology—you need to talk to technology.
This lesson is about incorporating the technology students already use frequently in educational ways. Here we can boost vocabulary by encouraging constant active use, as opposed to more passively learning with boring lists. This can offer students a unique type of technological immersion.
Let’s go through the steps in this 1-hour lesson plan and the subsequent homework:
Prepare by presetting your smartphone’s Siri (or other voice-command feature) to Spanish. Practice alone for a while before the class starts, especially if you don’t normally use voice-command technology in your daily life.
In class, demonstrate a few popular commands with Siri, for example:
Oye Siri (wait for the bell signaling she’s listening): ¿Cómo es el clima hoy?
(Hey Siri, how’s the weather today?)
Oye Siri: Recuérdame a sacar la basura cuando llegue a casa.
(Hey Siri, remind me to take out the trash when I get home.)
Oye Siri: Llama al 555-555-5555.
(Hey Siri, call 555-555-5555.)
Oye Siri: Mándale un mensaje a Jason que llegaré 15 minutos tarde a la cena esta noche.
(Hey Siri, text Jason I’ll arrive 15 minutes late to the dinner tonight.)
Oye Siri: Cuéntame un chiste.
(Hey Siri, tell me a joke.)
You can provide your students with a basic handout about weather, reminders, class and text commands similar to the examples above. Siri is capable of much more, including what movies are playing in theaters nearby, defining words, telling jokes and setting alarm clocks, timers and calendar appointments. Students should be able to make a few of these commands comfortably to their Spanish Siri!
Next you can ask students if they would like to know how to say or ask anything else to Siri. Then each student can practice in groups of 2 to 5 for 10 to 15 minutes. The lesson can end by having a few audacious students demonstrating their newly-learned Siri skills in front of the class.
For homework, students are to:
- Practice daily with their most frequently-used devices.
- Look up new words to say and use with Siri for constant input/output on iPhone.
- Demonstrate learning by showing the class a new Siri command in Spanish the following day.
- Share their Spanish Siri experience on Facebook (to be shown to teacher the following day).
- Show the class a Siri joke by asking her to tell a joke to the class (don’t forget to laugh together).
Make sure that all your students have the technology to be able to participate in these tasks. If some students don’t have access to smartphones, computers or Internet at home, then this can all be done together in class, with shared technology.
2. YouTube it! Students YouTube their favorite topic in Spanish
One of our many challenges as Spanish teachers is to teach vocab that students find relevant enough to genuinely pique their interest.
Why not leave the choice of vocabulary up to them for a change?
We can accomplish this by encouraging students to YouTube their favorite topics. This can help students learn new specialized vocabulary that relates to their individual interests. While watching and choosing videos, they’ll also be able to tune into pattern differences, take notes in Spanish, think critically and express their opinions with learned new words.
Let’s go through the steps in this 1-hour lesson and subsequent homework:
Find a YouTube video on a topic that you suspect many students will enjoy in Spanish. Ideally, this wouldn’t be longer than a few minutes so students’ attention spans don’t wane.
A great place to track down a crowd-pleasing video is FluentU. After all, that’s kind of what it’s all about. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. We’ve gathered entertaining clips from all corners of the Spanish-speaking world, covering everything from Nicaraguan boxing to Cuban politics and our favorite translated musical numbers from “The Little Mermaid.”
Directly from the video, identify and share with the class five new:
- Sustantivos (nouns)
- Verbos (verbs)
- Adjectivos (adjectives)
- Adverbios (adverbs)
- Dichos o frases, si aplican (sayings or phrases, if they apply)
You can review each of their meanings and specific uses from the video. Make sure students have time to ask questions and identify any other new words or phrases they noticed. If you’re using FluentU, you can assign this specific video and its learn mode exercises as classwork or homework, or you can work through them together as a group.
For homework, to demonstrate learning, students are to:
- Post a YouTube comment in Spanish under the clip they chose to focus on.
- Present 8-10 new words to the class (2 from each of the above categories) and their own original sentences employing them.
- Use half of the new words in conversation with a fluent Spanish speaker outside of class, if possible. If not, they can pair up and have a phone chat, Skype chat or in-person conversation.
- Share their experience of the conversation and any new words the Spanish-speaker used to the class, or in writing.
3. Teach students to master cognates and false cognates
If you’ve already seen my previous post about teaching Spanish through pattern detection, you may already know that 30-40% of words in Spanish share a cognate in English from their umbrella language, Latin.
When it comes to teaching Spanish vocabulary, this fact proves indispensable!
Here you can see how pleasantly surprised students become when they realize they already know many words in Spanish! You can also see their dazzled eyes when they learn not to get confused by the many false cognates out there!
Let’s go through the steps in this 1-hour lesson and subsequent homework:
Provide students with a cheat-sheet and show this “English-Spanish Cognates: Hundreds of Words You ALREADY Know!” YouTube video as a class dialogue prompt.
- Remind students they already possess Spanish-deciphering skills from English (active is activo etc.).
- Introduce students to the app HelloTalk to practice cognates with other language learners.
- Each student formulates a few of their own sample sentences from a given list of false cognates.
- Put a few sample sentences on the board, and have students identify which are and aren’t correct uses of false cognate words.
- Encourage students to peruse related YouTube videos outside of class (possibly doing a report or project with them as extra credit).
For homework, to demonstrate learning, students are to:
- Prepare for a false friends quiz the following day, which will be designed to fool them. Make sure you include a couple words that aren’t on their cheat-sheet!
- Write a coherent paragraph using five false friends correctly.
- Download the app HelloTalk from the App Store and practice using a few sentences with false cognates to other language-learners on the app.
- Put together a brief presentation to teach the class another false cognate that has not yet been reviewed in class.
4. Role play your way to ultimate vocab boosting
The next best thing to full immersion (studying, living or working in a Spanish-speaking country) is creating similar travel scenarios in the classroom. Acting out roles obliges students to “get with the program” and master the necessary words and phrases so they’re prepared to speak in front of the class.
Create handouts for six common traveling scenarios in English:
- searching for a lost or stolen smartphone, laptop or tablet
- checking luggage in at the airport, after automatically checking in on your smartphone
- ordering food online or over the phone
- navigating public transport with maps and apps on a smartphone
- checking into a hotel after reserving your room with an app
- another scenario proposed by student(s) if you approve it
Depending on the size of your class, you can assign each of the six options above to groups of two to six students.
Rather than providing a detailed script, I would only recommend offering a bare outline of each scenario so students have the creative freedom to formulate their own complete sentences in Spanish (with your support) and tailor their role plays to what they deem most relevant in each of the six options above.
Depending on how much time you choose to allot to this activity, groups can be randomly selected to do their 2- to 5-minute role play live in front of class, where they demonstrate new nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and sayings/phrases. They’ll be assessed on the amount of relevant vocabulary they’ve worked into the skit. The class can be held accountable to take notes and try to pick out all the most relevant vocabulary during the skit.
Costumes or “dressing up” can help make it feel more authentic (and not silly or contrived). If you’ve got time and resources, add costumes to the mix.
To ease the pressure (or bail out students if they happen to forget a word or phrase), students can be allowed to use Siri or voice-command technology once in the skit.
You can even give the rest of the class, sitting in the audience of the role play, a bingo card to keep track of the relevant vocabulary being used during the skit.
5. Sing your way to vocabulary memorization
We humans have an innate connection to music. It tends to deeply move us and stay stuck in our brains.
As educators, we know music is often a fundamental maestro for many language experts out there.
If we had to summarize the main theme of the millions of popular songs, especially those that smoothly facilitate language learning, it would be love. This fact proves even more salient for music in Spanish, a romantic Romance language, known for naturally being emotionally evocative.
I recommend starting with these popular Spanish love songs, as they arouse powerful emotions. Ample research suggests that emotional investment is vital for learning in the long-run, and these Spanish songs will do the trick:
- Student recommendations!
I also recommend not telling students the name of the song, and instead encouraging a brave student to ask Siri what song it is in Spanish as it starts, before the lyrics take off. Then you can follow the past suggestion of highlighting 1-3 new nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and sayings/phrases from each song.
You can also easily generate a Spanish bingo card using the lyrics of each song, and have students follow along and mark off all the words they hear being sung.
Similar to the homework suggested for activity number four above, each student can be held accountable to know a few words from each song reviewed in-class in preparation for a quiz.
Alternatively, the students can show the class a new song (depending on the amount of class time), give a brief presentation and highlight 1-3 new nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and sayings/phrases from each.
My hope is that these five creative lesson plans prove useful with your students’ vocabulary goals!
It’s time we modernize and gussy up our vocab lesson plans to make them more effective, fun and highly pertinent to where the world is moving.
As an educator, you have the magical power to inspire students, help them navigate Spanish vocabulary and expand what they can understand and speak about!
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. Learn more about his free Spanish learning resources and tutoring.
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