Teach Spanish from the Heart: How to Truly Reach Your Spanish Students

Has Spanish class become boring for you or your students?

Swap the textbooks for some heart—some real, genuine emotional engagement.

Time to switch it up. Yes, the ol’ switcheroo.

Adiós, textbooks! ¡Que tomen unas vacaciones! (Take a vacation!)

After all, any skilled Spanish teacher knows how to use diverse avenues, tricks and tools to get through to students.

Some students learn best through novels or videos, others through tech, social media and mobile apps, others through worksheets. Then there are others that really engage when you use music or poetry.

It’s vital that we have an array of tools in our teaching arsenals to maximize our students’ potential for learning. We’re most effective when we can learn our students’ preferences and what works best for them. They all learn in different ways!

And there’s more. Varying it up, unfortunately, isn’t enough. Our students’ brains (just like ours) tend to forget things easily. We’ve all had the experience of repeating ourselves to students!

However, there’s a solution to all this. We can ensure that students remember lessons by keeping them emotionally engaged. This level of engagement is a true indicator that we’re learning. Let’s go through some quick neuroscience to illustrate this key point.

Why Emotional Engagement Is Important for Learning

Think back on a memory from childhood. Odds are, you most quickly recall memories of particular emotional significance!

The emotional center of the human brain, called the amygdala, is housed right next to the memory center of our brain, the hippocampus. In other words, our brains evolved to especially remember anything of emotional salience. This means that to get students to remember, it can pay major dividends to intentionally engage their emotions in learning tasks.

When we’re feeling, we’re learning and remembering! So how can we keep students’ amygdalas engaged in our classrooms? Here are my top five tips.

Spanish Teaching 101: Engage Students Emotionally to Improve Their Learning

1. Consistently weave in stories

Research shows our brains favor stories. They innately interest us, so we forget them less. Any new Spanish lesson can be neatly packaged into a story-like version. For example, there are 12 key irregular verbs in the past tense, dubbed the “dirty dozen” in Spanish because they’re challenging to learn!

After frequent exposure to them, many students still have difficulty learning them. These are poner, tener, poder, venir, andar, estar, hacer, traer, decir, querer, saber, caber. In English, these mean to put, have, be able to, come, walk, be, do, bring, say, want, know and fit, respectively.

While they’re tricky to learn in isolation, you can create a story (or have each student create their own) that explicitly uses each of the 12 verbs. The story you create to teach these verbs might go something like this:

Once upon a time (a great way to begin and hook students) a special daughter of the queen of Pluto put down her mirror, then had a realization that she could…

Do you catch my drift?

Once the story that encompasses all 12 verbs is in Spanish, you’re more likely to keep students’ interest if they begin to feel something like empathy or curiosity about the queen’s daughter, the story’s protagonist! Continue to practice this activity and conjugation patterns will naturally become second nature for your students.

Moreover, we’re additionally less likely to forget if we, along with students, create a unique story together! If you still want to use stories but don’t feel confident in your storytelling skills, here are some other choices. You’ll find lots of options for students of varying levels.

2. Consistently weave in video

Videos can tell stories and engage students actively. First things first: Choose a topic relevant to your class syllabus and your students’ level of grammatical expertise. For example, if your students are learning conjugation in the present tense, this video tells a story that engages students through a well-known pop song. Clearly, it naturally incorporates emotion (interest, humor and curiosity) that can rapidly enliven the classroom. It was even created in a classroom!

This song brings this skill to the forefront of students’ minds with the young Justin Timberlake. Instead of bringing “sexy” back, this version has him bringing conjugation back in style! Since this is such a well-known song (especially among our adolescent students) they’ll naturally relate. As long as students remember the key idea in the middle of the song, “that verbs aren’t worth much unless you conjugate,” students will never forget this song!

If Justin Timberlake isn’t your cup of tea, here are some other engaging options.

3. Consistently weave in cutting-edge tech

Apple sold its billionth iPhone last year. Amazon has sold over 11 million Echo devices. There are over 220,000 Google searches per second. The average smartphone user unlocks their phone 20 to 150 times daily.

Clearly, I don’t need to present more statistics to show that the world is becoming increasingly technological by the day. In the classroom we can harness this trend to serve our students! It’s the key to keeping them emotionally engaged. Have you seen students engrossed in tech? They love it.

How can we hook them in with tech in ways they won’t forget? To incorporate emotion so it sticks, students can begin to deepen their relationship with tech by talking to it in Spanish. Siri, Bixby, Cortana and other voice assistants are increasingly getting smarter. And yes, their Spanish knowledge base is strengthening by the second.

Voice assistants can now tell jokes in Spanish. They’re fun because they’re pithy and prematurely spill the punchline. Jokes are akin to stories in that they’re a lot easier to remember! Can each student share one? My favorite is:

¿Por qué al iPhone le gusta contestar el teléfono? (Why does the iPhone like to answer the phone?)

Para que le dijeran “bueno.” (So that they’ll say “good” to him)

This is funny because in many Spanish-speaking countries, instead of saying “hello,” speakers say, “bueno” (good). I know jokes aren’t exactly stories, but they do accomplish our ultimate goal of sustaining students’ emotional engagement during Spanish learning. There are many others ways to weave these tech voice assistants into Spanish learning. In class, you can demonstrate a few popular commands with Siri, for example:

Oye, Siri. (Hey, Siri.)

(Wait for the bell signaling she’s listening.)

¿Qué tiempo hace hoy? (What’s the weather like today?)

Or try the following:

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. Cuéntame un chiste. (Hey Siri, tell me a joke).

You can get students practicing in class. If Siri understands their Spanish, anyone can. There’s no better way to engage emotion than by using humor and novelty by forming a “relationship” with voice command tech!

4. Consistently weave in social media

Why not incorporate other technology into Spanish class? Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and more are platforms students already spend a major chunk of their time on, highly emotionally engaged and engrossed.

Clearly, we should capitalize on these resources by putting them to work or using them to get through to students. But how? One way is through Instagram stories, which is a relatively new feature created in the last year. It allows users to upload videos and photos that last 24 hours. During each class, teachers can create one with their class.

If there’s no time in class, you can always make this a homework assignment. But how do we make it even more memorable? To incorporate emotion and engage the amygdala, have students create stories on emotionally salient events in Spanish, like their graduation or their cousin’s wedding! Other strategies are creating a learning Facebook page for your classes so that they can post important stories or learning experiences.

5. Consistently weave in mobile apps

Among the plethora of useful learning apps, Duolingo offers lessons that integrate conversation, vocabulary, speaking and listening skills. At the end of each section, students are tested on the relevant skills and then the results show what parts users are excelling in, as well as where they could use more practice.

It’s also helpful in classrooms with students of varying skill levels. I would recommend daily homework on the app. At least 10 minutes daily is a common goal among Duolingo learners.

When the more advanced students finish their work early, they can stay productive by advancing to the subsequent levels in Duolingo, similar to a video game. While it’s hard to weave the element of story here, one way to engage emotion is to personify the app’s secret weapon: its owl mascot.

The friendly, little automated bird that accompanies each student during all of the lessons sends users texts or email reminders to put in their daily 5 to 10 minutes of study time. If these reminders are ignored after a while, the poor bird finally caves and says, “these emails don’t seem to be working. I’ll stop for now.” Ha! One student told me this response actually encouraged her to practice Spanish on the app! How’s that for emotional engagement?

Duolingo isn’t the only tool great teachers use to motivate their students to practice outside of the classroom. Continue the gamification fun with other great apps like Memrise and MindSnacks. Whatever you choose to use, consistently check on the progress of your students, create challenges and set goals and you’ll see that telling them they have homework will no longer be a chore!


It’s up to you to breathe life into Spanish learning. Will students just forget your class and all the Spanish you worked so diligently to teach, months after they’re done with your class?

Or will they remember it and continue to sharpen their Spanish skills due to your efforts to engage them emotionally?

You make the difference!

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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