I Spy! 5 Spanish Language Exercises Turn Students into Pattern Detectives

Give a Spanish student a lesson, and you teach them for a day.

Teach a Spanish student to identify language patterns, and you’ll teach them to teach themselves for a lifetime.

You might think it’s good enough to lay out grammar laws and conjugation tables one day at a time.

But teaching pattern detection as a skill can do so much more.

So, what’s the deal with pattern detection?

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Why You Should Teach Spanish Students Pattern Detection Skills

Pattern detection—what is it, and why is it so important for your students?

Well, just imagine trying to learn English without identifying its key language patterns!

Let’s have English pronunciation patterns serve as an example. When English language students run into words like “the” and “phone” for the first time, they need to know what patterns they’re looking at.

After all, how good of a reader or speaker would you be if you pronounced the “th” and “ph” as they look, without knowing the sounds that t+h and p+h produce? No one wants to be like Lloyd from the classic movie “Dumb and Dumber,” who pronounces “the” as “t-he.”

Another crucial English pattern we learn early is the natural order of subject-verb-object for sentence structure. When English is our native language, we normally pick up these patterns automatically and effortlessly as young children.

However, since many of your students are most likely learning Spanish a bit later in life, after the first years of childhood, the optimal time to learn a language, they need to pick up on these patterns to survive!

Aside from the fact that language learning hinges on pattern detection and subsequent proper application, developing a sensitivity toward patterns and rules—such as when, how and where they’re normally applied and their exceptions—it additionally deepens our understanding of how ideas translate between Spanish and English.

Consequently, cultivating a keen awareness of language patterns can also:

  • Minimize written and spoken errors.
  • Maximize understanding and clarity of expression.
  • Expand your teaching tools into a creative terrain, beyond the conventional.
  • Increase student awareness of often unnoticed patterns to accelerate learning.
  • Keep students engaged with exercises that involve excavating patterns; they can be super fun!

Now, let’s go through some practical ways you can readily train your students to become stellar pattern detectives.

5 Spanish Language Exercises That Train Students to Become Pattern Detectives

1. Investigate gender patterns among Spanish nouns

As you probably noticed as a Spanish educator, every single noun in Spanish has a gender. New Spanish learners notoriously apply the incorrect gender article to many nouns, such as saying “la problema” or “el mano,” based on the simple idea that words ending in o are masculine and words ending in a are feminine.

As you know, there are many exceptions to this.

That said, luckily there are also many helpful patterns to these exceptions! Teaching these well can expediently curtail many written and spoken errors related to gender. But how do we teach them all in a fun and palatable way for students?

I would recommend beginning with an in-class demo. Here you can demonstrate many typical patterns and patterns to their exceptions. For example:

a. Nouns ending in idad, edad, ción, sión and ión are invariably feminine.

b. Nouns ending in ema, often of Greek origin—such as el tema (topic/theme), el poema (the poem) and el lema (the motto)—are invariably masculine!

c. Nouns with different articles in singular and plural forms. These were quite confusing for me to learn initially! As you know, although the word agua (water) in Spanish is a feminine noun, the correct article to use in its singular form is el, not la.

Stopping on the third point above, you can explain to students that Spanish dislikes placing similar sounds consecutively in a word or phrase. La agua just sounds awkward, right? So, the pattern goes that if the natural stress of a feminine word is on the first syllable, and that word happens to start with an a, the article becomes masculine (from la to el) in its singular form, for clarity of pronunciation! This is true with the words ave and águila, which are el ave, (the bird) and el águila (the eagle) respectively in their singular forms, and las aves and las águilas respectively in their plural forms.

Here you can pause for a quick brainstorming or research exercise, and ask students to think up—or use a dictionary or the Internet to find—words that interest them and have seemingly incongruous articles.

Alternatively, have them choose one word ending that corresponds to an unlikely article, and then encourage them to find any other examples, such as el clima (climate/weather), el planeta (planet), el sofá (sofa/couch) and so on.

Challenge your students to unearth more of these exceptions by providing them with relevant magazine articles or YouTube clips—chosen in accord with their skill level, germane course topics and personal interests—where writers or speakers employ this unique pattern. Then students can write a paragraph exemplifying the pattern to further solidify it.

A great option for tracking down fun video clips of a word is FluentU. You can import a list of words with particles that don’t seem to match the gender of the word, and FluentU will track down usage examples from real-world, Spanish-language videos, like hot movie trailers, trending YouTube clips, popular music videos, documentaries, topical news shows and much, much more.

After that, you can share this vocabulary list with your students, and have them complete interactive exercises with multimedia flashcard decks. You’ll even see how many they get right or wrong, individually and as a class! Then you can assess what needs to be more thoroughly covered in class.

2. Have students investigate their favorite acronyms in Spanish

Similar to the above exercise for gendered articles, I find it helpful to begin this topic and its exercises with an in-class demo.

Give some examples of how acronyms differ between languages. Cool acronym examples such as DNA (ADN in Spanish), UFO (OVNI in Spanish and FBI (also FBI in Spanish, as this police force is unique to the United States) are relatable because they’re so commonly used by English speakers.

After presenting the acronyms, lay out all the words behind the acronyms. What does OVNI actually stand for, and what stopped it from being directly translated from English word-for-word, in the same order?

The next step is to have students try to guess the Spanish translations of familiar acronyms, like USA, UN, UAE, DUI (depending on your audience) and so on. How would they translate those into Spanish? How different are their guesses from the actual Spanish versions? This is a great teaching opportunity where you can cover the rules of Spanish acronyms, for instance, how plural objects get worked into acronyms (like in the case of USA becoming EEUU in Spanish).

Now, it’s time for students to get involved in an interactive exercise on this topic. What I find most effective is that each student displays their own favorite acronym, what patterns it demonstrates and what they learned from the translation. Have them go home, research any acronym that they like (that hasn’t been brought up in class already) and write a research paper on it, or even have them each create a big, informative poster that can be hung in the classroom afterwards.

Encourage students to articulate differences between the respective acronyms in English and Spanish, and consequently their conceptualizations about patterns related to word order and other linguistic patterns. Bonus points if they can find more Spanish acronyms that follow the same patterns as their original choice!

As you can see, this exercise goes far beyond simple acronyms. Raising awareness of acronym translation and related patterns also increases students’ awareness of patterns in noun and adjective order.

3. Identify identical words with different meanings

Again, give your students some good exposure to this pattern in an in-class demo. This discussion and its subsequent exercises can significantly minimize written and spoken errors related to word choice, word stress, accent placement and pronunciation.

After all, you want to make sure your students quickly learn not to put the wrong emphasis on the wrong syllable when they speak and practice Spanish.

Oh, did the way I write that just a ring a bell or two? To break the ice before launching into the topic, you can watch this funny English clip with your students (assuming it’s appropriate for their age) to get the importance of word and phrase emphasis across.

a. First, review some basic examples, starting with Spanish homonyms:

tu (your) and (you)
el (the; masculine singular) and él (he)
si (if) and (yes)
mas (but) and más (more)
como (like, as, I eat) and cómo (how, what)
te (you) and  (tea)

Students can be assigned to each find at least two more homonyms and explicate their differences by perusing literature that interests them in Spanish. This can be done in class or as homework. Since these may be hard to find, this list can give students more hints.

Once they find homonyms they like, they can search them in Google as keywords, and find examples where they’re used in news articles, YouTube videos or blogs written in Spanish that interest them personally to present to the class and explain the differences.

b. Here are a couple of intermediate examples for more experienced students:

pérdida (loss) and perdida (the adjective for something that was lost)

asombro (amazement) and asombró (he, she, it, or you [formal] amazed)

Encourage students to explicate these crucial differences in accent placement, why they matter and what patterns they reveal. In class they can be instructed to form one to three complete sentences with both words that make logical sense. For example, you could give the class a sentence like:

Esa pérdida ya no me dolió porque para mí la relación estaba perdida desde antes. (That loss didn’t hurt me anymore because for me the relationship was already lost a while ago”)

Then, give them more word pairs like this, and have them come up with their own unique sentences using both. You could even create a worksheet that gives a large blank space beneath each featured word pair, so that student have space to draft their ideas.

c. When working with advanced and AP-level students, you can review advanced examples for AP level learners such as:

práctico (practical) and practico (I practice) and practicó (he, she, it, you [formal] practiced)

práctica (practice, as a noun) and practica (he, she, it, you [formal] practices)

Then, you can make this lesson more interactive by tossing them questions that have them get to the heart of the distinctions between similar-sounding words, for example:

Why is each word written the way it is?

What rule or pattern is behind each individual word?

How can you know where to place the emphasis on each word?

How can you know where to place the emphasis on a word that has no accent marks?

If someone uses one of these words in a sentence, how do you know which one they’re using?

How can the context of a sentence help you understand which word is being used?

AP-level Spanish students should be able to clearly articulate these differences. When they speak, the differences should be clear. They should also be able to understand them when being spoken by others, as well as when they write and read.

So, what should the main exercise for these words be? One great way to test students is to wait until the next class, and then write a few sentences on the board before class begins. These sentences should demonstrate each of the different ways to write “practice” in Spanish, but omit the actual “practice” words so the students can insert the right one in the right place. For example:

Ella _______ el yoga porque le gusta la _____. (She practices yoga because she likes the practice).

[key: practica, práctica].

Have them write down the full answers in their notebooks, read them aloud to the class, check them against the correct answers or turn them in for bonus points.

4. Train students to identify umbrella words

What are umbrella words?

These are words that tend to have multiple meanings when they’re translated from English to Spanish or vice versa.

Many native English speakers incorrectly implement umbrella words in Spanish. This is the result of direct translation or of not understanding the nuances of certain Spanish words. Raising students’ awareness of these special words—along with their related grammar patterns and usage rules—as you may have guessed by now, significantly minimizes written and spoken errors related to word choice.

To get started with this topic, give an in-class demo where you illustrate good examples of Spanish words that have two or more meanings in English. For example:

  • En — In, on, at
  • Hacer — To do, to make
  • Prestar  To lend, to borrow
  • Recordar — To remember, to remind
  • Tocar — To play an instrument, to knock on the door, to touch.
  • Can you or your students think of any others?

After your review in class, students can be instructed to form sentences using each meaning of each word.

For example, they could start by writing a complete sentence in Spanish where en translates to “in” in English, then they’ll do one where en translates to “on,” and lastly one where en translates to “at.” After they’ve finished those three separate sentences, they can be asked to formulate a sentence where all three meanings come across in the English translation. For example:

 En la selva en la noche las serpientes se mueven en el suelo. (In the jungle at night, the snakes move on the ground.)

It’s also vital to demonstrate the reverse pattern, from English to Spanish. For example, the common English word “for” doesn’t distinguish between the uses of por and para like Spanish. Por and para each have specific contexts in which they can and can’t be used.

Here are some great, common examples of umbrella words in English that have two meanings or more in Spanish:

  • To know — Saber, conocer
  • For —Por, para
  • To be — Ser, estar
  • To move — Mudarse, moverse
  • To leave — Dejar, salir
  • Can you and your students think of others?

Repeat the exercise above: Have them write one unique sentence for each Spanish word, that uses it appropriately in context. Then, have them write a sentence that uses both of the Spanish words properly.

After all this in-class work, students can be assigned daily at-home exercises for as long as practice is needed in this area, or any time that new umbrella words are learned. If nothing comes up in class, you can have them do research on their own to find a few of their own examples to share.

Once they’ve done this research, make a list of the words the whole class found on their own time. From that list, students can be asked to form sentences similar to the above example with en, or they can be quizzed using sentences with blanks.

5. Identify cognates and false cognates

As alluded to above, roughly 30-40% of all English words have a related word in Spanish! This is pretty great news for English-speaking Spanish students.

Heightening this awareness of cognates, as well as the deceptively unalike words (the ones which have been frequently dubbed the name “false friends”) is crucial to gaining top-notch comprehension skills, as well as being able to clearly express oneself.

Use the structure of the four exercises above to teach your students to further excavate patterns related to cognates and false cognates. Showing this video beforehand can be a great review and serve as a dialogue prompt in class.

Create a few sample sentences to translate from English before class starts. Choose key words that students are likely to mix up—the classic bunch of false friends—so you can all translate them together as a class, such as:

“I realized my aunt gets embarrassed easily.”

In Spanish, this would be: Me di cuenta de que mi tía se pone avergonzada.

That’s me di cuenta (not realicé, which instead means “I carried out”) de que mi tía se pone avergonzada (not embarazada, which would mean “pregnant”) fácilmente.

Make sure to provide examples from a text or video that students perceive as tangible, interesting, meaningful and, most importantly, fun before they begin their pattern detection and pattern application journey.

Find a relevant article that employs two to five false cognates and have them find all of them in pairs. Whichever student pair finds all the cognates first can get a prize!

For homework, I recommend that each student be assigned to independently investigate the etymology (often Latin or Greek) of some given cognates, which can further expedite this process.


As you can see, these exercises are none too difficult, yet teach students to stay alert and perceptive while moving forward in their Spanish studies.

Happy creative teaching!

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.

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