“Nod and smile, nod and smile…”
I felt like I could read her mind. My student just stared.
I looked at her patiently and asked my question again: “¿Qué significa sombrero?”
She smiled and nodded. “Sí.”
Does this sound familiar to you?
Have you ever spoken Spanish to your students only to realize none of them had a clue what you were talking about?
Why is it that we struggle so much to get students to understand oral Spanish?
It might be the lack of time available to process the information, or that they get blinded by fear when put in the spotlight…or maybe we’re just not practicing enough.
Let’s face it. Until our students are able to understand the basics of the language, listening skills are a tough nut to crack.
What’s more, attempting to tackle listening head-on often disengages pupils and discourages teachers.
Teaching a language is teaching all four skills, and we can’t be successful at communicating in Spanish unless we can understand what people are saying.
Sounds really obvious, but it’s not an easy battle to fight.
The question is: Why is it so hard?
Why Traditional Teaching Strategies Are Useless in Your Spanish Listening Activities
It’s impossible to be an expert in every area of your job, and the skill I used to struggle to teach the most was listening.
However, six months ago, I was lucky enough to be part of a training course that changed all that. It made such a difference in my teaching that I just have to share what I learned with you!
So, first things first, why is it so hard to find memorable listening activities? Here are a few possible reasons:
- Because listening activities feel like tests. Whenever you play one of the tracks that come with the textbook, it’s a test. You might call it something different, but in their minds, it’s a test. Unless you’re always using Shakira to teach Spanish listening, you won’t escape this judgment so easily!
- Because listening activities are incredibly hard to customize to every student’s needs, which often means our higher ability students get all the answers easily, and those struggling find the exercises daunting. Unless you have IT facilities to give each student a different task, you’re probably facing this problem just like I am. (Preliminary tip: Providing your lower ability students with audio transcripts, or with multiple activity options from which to choose, can be a good way to keep them involved. For your higher ability students, why not challenge them by asking them to jot down any extra information they hear?)
- Because they’re just so boring. Tracks from textbooks are monotone, unnatural and even exasperating. No wonder some of our students feel like falling asleep on top of their books!
- Because they’re all the same. There is such a lack of originality in these kinds of activities, which makes it extremely hard to get our students engaged. (Trying out videos from FluentU or even using your own storytelling as activity material will definitely be much more exciting. More on this later.)
If you want to put your students back on the right track, identifying problem areas is key, as is finding the right ways to deal with those problem areas.
So we’re going to talk about how to do that, and also how to construct effective listening activities around your students’ needs.
For me, these new approaches have made such an impact that I’m now able to teach 100% of my beginners Spanish in the target language. Okay, not every day, but still. Impressive, right?
Read on and prepare to be amazed at these winning techniques!
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6 Fresh Spanish Teaching Strategies to Jumpstart Student Listening
So, how do we introduce listening into our lessons in a funky and low-pressure way?
First, think fun.
Then, think useful.
Brains need to be switched on for listening, probably more than for any other skill. So if the activities aren’t engaging, our students will opt for nodding and smiling. While this could come in handy if we wanted to trick them into tidying our rooms, it won’t be much help when touring around Seville in a taxi!
The following ideas employ techniques to keep our students active and awake. They include general ideas for teaching listening, as well as suggestions for fun exercises to do with the whole class!
A more nuanced approach on your part, along with fun, engaging activities, will enable your students to learn something new in every lesson. Which is, of course, the ultimate goal for every teacher.
1. Don’t keep a record of listening activities
As soon as you tell your students they’re going to do an activity on a mini whiteboard or piece of scratch paper, they’ll breathe a sigh of relief.
“So it’s not a test, after all…”
If students know you’re going to see their answers, they’ll be extra cautious with what they write down. But without a record, they’ll be prepared to jot down what could initially be a guess or something they feel is a stupid answer. Because if they get it wrong, who’s going to know?
And what if their guess or “stupid answer” turns out to be right? They’ll gradually learn that listening is about trusting your instincts, picking out a couple of words and figuring out the general meaning.
Listening is all about taking risks, and if not recording the exercises in their textbooks helps them do this, that might be just the way forward!
Still want to have an overview of how they did or how they found the activity?
2. Ask them to write a short reflection in their books
Students are very capable of expressing their concerns about the areas they found challenging through writing. They can give you a great idea of what you need to work on, and take the opportunity to ask for help.
In my school, students use a special color of pen (green, for example) to communicate with their teachers in their exercise books. This is a great way to glimpse their inner thoughts.
Have a look at these examples taken straight out of some of my books:
“I found getting the basic words easy, but picking out extra details is hard as they speak fast.”
“I found getting the opinions and names of the school subjects easy, but it was really hard to translate the adjectives without getting lost.”
“I thought it was OK to understand, but I didn’t have time to write it all.”
Just from those reflections, you can easily identify the areas you need to be working on, and plan your future activities accordingly.
3. Get the students to give themselves targets
As we’ve already established, listening activities are hard to customize. So allowing your students to work toward a target they’ve set themselves is a good idea. A target can be hitting a certain grade out of ten, or it can be something more specific, like identifying all the colors mentioned in a listening about clothes. If you opt for this last one, be prepared to model a target for students the first few times you do it, to give them some guidance.
Obviously, your job as a teacher is to check up on your students, pushing the lazy-yet-very-able ones to go for higher targets, and maybe suggesting to your enthusiastic-but-not-so-able students that they might want to start with something a bit lower.
The great thing about this system is that students judge themselves against that target, which reduces their fear of failure. Some pupils have the premature fear that they will be hopeless, and just won’t try. By encouraging them to work toward a lower target, you’re saying, “Listen, it’s OK. You don’t need to be perfect to be successful.”
Using this method is a constant learning process. The first time I did it, I thought it was going to be a disaster. After all, it’s not so easy to change how students think, right?
Well, I was certainly proven wrong. The reflections in their books were full of smileys and comments like this:
“I met my target and went over it, so next time I will make it a bit higher.”
“I think I did really well because I nearly reached my target.”
Another quick way to get a feel for how the activity went is to ask them to give a “thumbs up” if they met their chosen score or went over it, “shaking thumbs” if they were close and “thumbs down” if their results were far below what they had targeted.
4. Do listening activities through actions
This is a great, fun and easy way to get a good feel for your students’ understanding without picking up a pen or using a track from the textbook, although you can certainly use one for material in a pinch.
A better option is to get your best Spanish out there and make up a story of your own. You can also opt for a song or even a video from FluentU. FluentU offers authentic, real-world videos along with scaffolding that isn’t available anywhere else, making it easy to create engaging activities for your students while taking into account their specific levels, interests and needs.
This is a pretty simple activity technique that requires little planning and few resources. You’ll need to assign certain actions to certain vocabulary.
For example, say we’re watching a fashion show with our students (it can even be one they’ve created themselves following our previous post on Spanish class video activities). Every time they hear someone mention an item of clothing, they have to touch their heads. If they pick out a color, they have to touch their nose.
You probably already see how this can be a very fun way of doing a listening activity, but how is it useful?
Well, for starters, our students will be watching out for specific vocabulary, and they’ll be much more engaged with their brains in full working mode. It also encourages them to distinguish vocabulary in groups and learn words along with relevant subject matter.
Essentially, it will help them see the bigger picture.
Also, it’ll give you a really clear idea of your students’ listening abilities. This kind of activity makes it extremely easy to see how long it takes them to pick out information, what sort of details they struggle with and who is just copying whatever action the person next to them does.
5. Game idea: Grab my finger
Trust me, your students will absolutely love this game.
To set up the activity, get your students to stand in a circle, close enough to the person next to them to hold hands. Instead of holding them, though, they’ll offer their open right hand to the person to their right, and their finger to the person to their left. The finger must be positioned on top of the other person’s open hand. So if everyone closed their right hand, they would all be holding someone else’s finger.
Got the picture? Right, and make sure they don’t close their hands just yet. We’ll get there.
The concept here is similar to the previous one. We want our students to listen for specific details in what we’re going to say in Spanish.
I like to use this game to help them identify certain grammar points. For example, let’s say I want my students to identify the past tense.
Here’s what they have to do: As soon as they pick out that past tense, they close their right hand to try to grab the other person’s finger, while at the same time removing their own finger to make sure it’s not grabbed. It’s a sort of “catch and pull away” game.
Again, this gives you a very clear picture as to who identifies the past tense in a speech, who just grabs because others are doing so and, most importantly, it will help you distinguish who doesn’t pull away when everyone else does (if he or she believes other pupils are making a mistake).
It’ll also give your students a chance to see who among them is good at spotting the past tense. Those who are less confident will start mirroring that person and, even if they’re not able to figure out how he or she does it (some will definitely learn something from copying your top pupil), they’ll know who to go to for help in the future.
6. Game idea: Guess the picture
This is by far my favorite ice breaker activity. It’s also a good way to start lessons with a bit of a challenge, and it helps me to be consistent with listening practice.
I’ve called it “Guess the picture,” but it could also be “Guess the topic,” “Guess the celebrity,” “Guess the song” or anything you can think of.
For “Guess the picture,” you’ll need some photos. For some of these others, you don’t even have to prepare ahead that much. You can just write down five or six news-related topics or titles of songs. But for now, let’s say we’re doing “Guess the picture” and putting together five film posters on a PowerPoint slide.
The key to keeping your students engaged is to let them know, from the beginning, that they will all guess the picture at the end. Make sure they know that even if it starts off quite challenging, it’ll become easier toward the end. You don’t want to lose anyone in the heat of the battle.
Here’s what you do: Choose one of the posters and start describing it. Don’t narrow the options down too much at the beginning. You don’t want them to guess it too quickly! Keep your lower ability pupils engaged by using actions and ask them to translate key words. Stretch your higher ability students by asking them questions. For example:
“Esta es una película de acción. John, ¿te gustan las películas de acción?”
Remember, as with every listening activity or instructions you give in the target language, cognates are your best friends. They will ensure your students keep track of what’s going on.
Toward the end, make it really obvious. Remember, you don’t want to leave your students feeling discouraged. You want them to feel smart. So if someone in your chosen picture is holding a gun, make sure you mention the word “pistola,” accompanying it with an action if necessary.
You might want your students to write down their guess and show you on a mini whiteboard, or you can opt for extending this activity with some questioning, asking them about their guesses and turning it into some spontaneous speaking practice. If you’re teaching advanced Spanish, you can even ask for a volunteer to choose and describe a picture of their own!
Like these ideas? Give ’em a go and turn your dull and boring listening activities into fun and funky experiences!
Move away from the textbook and embrace videos, songs and your own crazy storytelling as the new listening tracks that will ensure your class finally masters a skill!
Your students will go from giving up to totally looking forward to the daily excitement you have to offer!
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you already love the idea of teaching with bite-sized snippets of authentic Spanish content, another option is to use the up-and-coming, video-based learning and teaching program FluentU.
How can video clips aid Spanish teachers in class? FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.
We’ve got a tremendous collection of authentic Spanish videos that people in the Spanish-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices here when you’re looking for material for in-class activities or homework. Plus, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students.
As I mentioned earlier, each video has interactive subtitles. If a student comes across a word they’re unfamiliar with, they can hover their cursor over the subtitled word. That word’s definition, pronunciation and in-context usage examples will all pop up on-screen instantly. This is what your students will get after they click “watch” on a video. Clicking “learn” opens up a whole new learning experience for them.
In learn mode, all the vocabulary and grammar from the video is taught and reinforced through varied repetition (practicing the same concepts in different forms and contexts). They’ll play with flashcards, games, word matches and exercises like “fill in the blank.”
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that they’re learning, and it recommends examples and videos based on what they’ve already learned. Every student has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re learning the same video.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach Spanish with real-world videos.