“Kill me now!”
That just might be the general feeling towards verb conjugations.
If we’re being honest, it’s probably the feeling many teachers get when having to introduce verb conjugations to their students. If this is true for you, and you’re still wondering if there can be an end to the pain, you’ve come to the right place!
Verb conjugations – a horror story
So, what can I do?
Well, the first thing we should think about is how we present conjugations to our students.
Our students trust us. Even if they don´t like us, they trust us. If we tell them verb conjugations are difficult, that is exactly what they’ll believe.
Our battle as teachers is already lost! We’ll walk into a classroom of already defeated students who won’t even bother trying because, well, they don’t really expect to succeed. Best case scenario, our students will follow our instructions without any kind of motivation or excitement, learn how to to conjugate, and go home feeling relieved. Worst case scenario, students will get so blinded by the fear of failure, they won´t even understand what a verb is anymore.
Describing something as ‘difficult‘, rather than challenging, builds a set of expectations that will hinder their learning and, more importantly, the love of learning itself.
Let’s face it: half of the time we don’t even give our students a chance to decide for themselves–we make them hate verb conjugations from the beginning!
So, let’s give our teaching a fresh approach. Let’s play around with the wonderful world of euphemism and opt for ‘challenging’ instead of ‘difficult’. Because, yes, we know they can be tricky, but we don’t want our students to give up before they even start.
I tried this last term, after many years of preparing my students for verb conjugations as if I were about to send them into a battlefield. After all, the best thing I got out of my ‘verbs are difficult’ approach was a premature acceptance of failure. Whereas now, with all my efforts in turning ‘difficult’ into ‘challenging’, students leave my classroom feeling empowered–feeling able to tackle something big and succeed in their quest. One of my twelve-year-old students even told me “I like Spanish because it makes me feel smart”!
Techniques that Work
Step 1: Teach the Basics
One of my colleagues came to me some time ago on the verge of tears, after a disastrous lesson with her students, and said: “They don’t even know what a verb is!”. That is probably the biggest issue you could face and it’s not as uncommon as we might think.
Some people’s knowledge of grammar matches my understanding of quantum mechanics. That is, non-existent.
If this is true for your students, then the only thing I can suggest is to invest some of your precious time in reinforcing basic grammar in their native language. Do they know what a verb is? Can they understand what a tense means? If the answer to these and similar questions is no, there’s your starting line. There’s no point in running if they can´t walk yet.
Step 2: Simplify Your Methods
Once we’ve dealt with grammar, we need to consider what kind of approach we want to use when teaching conjugations. I remember when learning French, my first teacher insisted on us learning the endings off by heart every week. While this was useful for those of us that did manage to memorize small patterns, some found it completely discouraging.
This year, I faced a complete redecoration of my classroom and decided to put the whole set of endings and conjugations for different tenses up on the walls. I am still amazed by the impact this has had on my teaching and my students’ learning.
Instead of teaching one tense at a time, linking them with different topics, I decided to spend a lesson showing my students how to use the display to conjugate tenses.
Two simple steps: drop your ending, put something back.
By the end of that fifty-minute lesson, my eleven-year-olds were able to change verbs in the present, past and future tenses. I left that room thinking either I was on to a winning technique or those eleven-year-old boys were the smartest kids I had ever met.
Step 3: Encourage Trial and Error
Once I provided my students with the resources, taught them how to use them and ensured they knew the basics, I let them be independent. Here’s their chance to try things and make mistakes. This links in with the final step: try, try, try and try again. If you give students enough opportunities, they will eventually learn that the ‘I form’ in the present tense takes an –o…without having to go home and learn it off by heart.
10 Games and Activities to Practice Verb Conjugations
But how can we make them try, try, try and try again without driving them to the point of “kill me now!”? Now’s the time to explore the games and activities that will get your students looking forward to Spanish class again.
This video is a goldmine, not only because of its amazing way of explaining verb conjugations, but also because it´s catchy and fun. It’s a great taster for this complex grammar, but it’s also a fantastic idea for consolidating their learning later on. Why not get your students to do their own versions? Creating a rap or song in which they explain conjugations is a fantastic way for them to do some revision and check their understanding.
It takes a bit of time to create the game, but once you have created the boards you can use them as many times as you want. Print out a “Snakes and Ladders” board and write an infinitive in Spanish in each square as well as the conjugation in English. For example, ayudar (to help) – I help. Students have to conjugate the verb correctly when they land on that square.
3. Act It Out
Get a list of activities or verbs you’ve been using during the lesson and ask students to act out the action and indicate what ‘person’ or tense it is, while the rest try to guess the correct conjugations. This game works really well as a plenary to your lessons, to consolidate the learning of specific vocabulary.
4. The Grid
This is one of my personal favorites. Prepare a 3×3 table with a conjugated verb on each square and stick it outside your classroom. Students work in small groups or pairs, with one of them running outside to memorize the grid and then coming back in to copy the words down in the correct positions, while the others try to translate the conjugated verbs correctly.
Create a set of cards with a conjugated verb on each of them. Students take turns telling others the verb meaning in English, while the teammates try to translate it correctly. This game is most useful when applied to specific vocabulary that has been previously studied. For example, last week I was teaching free time, so some of the cards included things like escuchas musica, montan en bicicleta and juego al futbol.
6. Educational Posters
Students can consolidate their learning and understanding of conjugations by creating posters in which they explain how to change verbs appropriately into different tenses. They can be fantastic displays for your room and students will probably refer to them to regularly get some help.
7. Knots and Crosses
Like “Snakes and Ladders,” the only challenge for teachers here is to create the different boards. Include an infinitive in Spanish in each space and indicate ‘person’ and tense that students should conjugate it in. If a student wants to place their knot or cross in the space, they must conjugate the verb correctly.
8. Weather Forecast
One of the best ways to teach students about irregular verbs is by teaching them the weather. This topic uses a variety of common verbs such as estar, ser, haber and hacer. Why not get your students to prepare a weather forecast in different tenses? They can act it out, prepare the maps to display and they can either film themselves or be filmed in class. They will love it!
9. Look Around Competition
Making students stand up and run around the room is a great way to step away from the traditional grammar worksheets. Put up some infinitives in Spanish and English on the walls with blue tac and give your students a list of verbs in English (for example, we play). Students run around finding the right infinitive and then conjugate them correctly on their lists.
10. The Verb Game Show
Have you got access to iPads or iPods in school? Then this game could be a fantastic way to practice the conjugations as well as familiarize your students with great verb apps, like Verb Trainer. Individually, in pairs or in groups, students are given verbs to translate and conjugate in 30 seconds, with only the help of the app. They will then get points for every correct answer. This kind of resource can really help students with their conjugations, especially with irregular verbs. Allowing your students some time to explore it will give them a new and useful resource that enables them to be more independent.
Getting the balance right between having fun and learning is tricky, but having a bank of activities to break up the lesson will ensure that your students stay focused and motivated.
Yet another great way to prove verbs can be fun both in class and at home!
And One More Thing…
If you already love the idea of teaching with snippets of authentic Spanish content, another option is to use 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.
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.