Once upon a time there was a prince who could only speak a few words.
He could think them but was cursed with the inability to say them.
One day, he met a princess and instantly fell in love. “I have to tell her,” he thought.
He plucked up his courage and headed to the palace. But just when he was about to let her know about his feelings…
He couldn’t find the words.
10 Flexible Resources for Teaching Spanish Vocabulary in Class and at Home
Language learning is just like a fairy tale: the best possible ending is waiting for us just around the corner. Trips to mind-blowing new places, amazing people to be met, six-figure job opportunities…
But just like in the fairy tales, those kinds of magical endings will only be within reach if we can step up to the challenges and overcome them.
Funny enough, the most important key to becoming a fluent Spanish speaker is also its biggest challenge: learning lots of Spanish vocabulary words.
So, how can we help our students find their fairy tale endings?
Tips for Teaching Spanish Vocabulary
- Expose them to a range of vocabulary: Topic-based vocabulary learning can be an effective way to practice new words, but it’s also artificial, lacking context and doesn’t prepare students for real life. Or have you ever had a conversation solely based on one topic? They’ll need a range of vocabulary to be fluent, so don’t just stop with Christmas and New Year vocab—keep the ball rolling all year long!
- Set them up with regular vocabulary learning: In an ideal world, our students would be learning Spanish through immersion curricula. However, the majority of us aren’t that lucky. Structured vocabulary learning is essential to ensure new words stay with us and come back when we need them.
- Teach them how to decode new words: Students tend to get really nervous when they have to work around new vocabulary because they lack strategies to figure out the bigger picture. Regular translation exercises and a focus on cognates and morphology will help your students connect new words with their prior knowledge
This year I gave my first year students a translation exercise based on cognates on their very first day. They hadn’t learned any languages before and most of them were quite antsy about it.
With that in mind, I introduced the translation as a bit of a challenge to them. “Trust me. I’m going to show you that, on your very first day in Spanish class, you’re already able to translate and understand a paragraph in Spanish.”
Most of them didn’t trust me at first, of course. When do they? But then they realized that they could decode the text because the words sounded just like English. Two people went to a restaurant (restaurant), ordered ensalada y hamburguesa (salad and hamburger) and then headed off to the cine (cinema) to see a comedia (comedy). See the trick?
That day my students learned what cognates were and until now not one of them has forgotten. Plus, they got a huge confidence boost by seeing that they’re definitely capable of learning the Spanish language.
Games for Teaching Spanish Vocabulary in the Classroom
Ensuring that our students learn vocabulary is challenging. I struggle with it just like every other teacher does.
Some pupils lack consistency, others don’t really understand the importance of revising the new words and a few others haven’t got a clue what vocabulary learning actually means.
What can we do as teachers to help our students with this demanding yet vital part of language learning?
A great technique to make vocabulary learning part of your lesson plans is to dedicate some time every week to it. Set one class aside (or one portion of one class) for teaching vocabulary through games and engaging activities. These activities also serve as great as ice breakers or plenaries to our lessons.
In all honesty, for the first few months as a Spanish teacher I completely overlooked vocabulary learning. Somewhere around December I realized what a huge mistake I’d made. Since then, at least once a week I include some kind of vocabulary practice in my lessons and the impact is huge.
Battleship: Battleship is a memorable way to end a lesson. If you’ve never played it, make sure you read through the instructions first.
So, how can we transform Battleship into a successful learning tool? Simple, just replace the numbers (rows) and letters (columns) with specific vocabulary.
Have a look at this example resource. The letters have been changed with different items of clothing while colors have substituted the numbers. Students make sentences with the vocabulary (for instance, “tengo una camiseta amarilla“) to try and sink their partner’s boats.
Noughts and Crosses: In this version of the classic game, the spaces have been filled up with pictures of specific vocabulary. To be able to place their nought or cross in one of the gaps, they must previously name or make a sentence with the correct item.
These two resources show different examples of noughts and crosses games that you can adapt, one to revise movies and opinions and another one to practice words on the topic food. My top tip, after a couple of years using it, is to differentiate the game for lower ability students by writing the first few letters of the words. This will refresh your students’ memories and boost their confidence!
- The Grid: Place a grid with a different words outside your classroom and get your students in pairs. Pupil Number One in the pair must run out of the room and memorize as many words from the grid as they can and then run back in to dictate them to Pupil Number Two, who copies the words into a blank grid and translates them, while Pupil Number One runs back out to memorize more words.
Check out this example. You can use pictures to help your students memorize vocabulary..
- Taboo: Taboo is a great way to practice vocabulary. If you think your students are not prepared to define words in Spanish, you can change the game around. Instead of providing them with a “word to define” and three words they cannot mention, use those three words as support. For example, if the word is “comedia,” include the words “television,” “película” and “humor” to help them define it.
- Charades: Another nice and simple game to turn your dull Spanish class into a much livelier experience. Give your students a set of words for them to act out, while others try to guess what they mean. Use cards with words and pictures to support those that need some extra help with vocabulary. You’ll be on to a winner!
- Snowball: This is a great ice breaker to re-cap on previously learned vocabulary. Get your students to write down as many words as they can on a certain topic, on a piece of rough paper. Then, get them to make a paper ball and throw it somewhere in the classroom. Ask them to go and pick a different snowball, and give them an extra minute to add any new words to the list. Finally, each student gets their own snowball back. You can set learning the new words for homework. They’ll probably moan about the homework, but throwing papers around the class is definitely popular with students!
Vocabulary Learning Activities to Assign for At-Home Practice
Same students claim they find learning vocabulary at home really difficult.
In most cases, the problem is students just sit in front of the words and do what I tend to call “passive learning”, which is basically reading through the vocabulary list over and over again, while their mind is on something else.
Memorizing words requires “active learning”, a set of lively strategies to keep your mind focus at all times.
Here are some tips and techniques to do just that!
- Flashcards: There are great new ways out there to create flashcards that can help us with vocabulary learning. One of my favorites is Bitsboard, an app that helps us learn new words on the go.
- Language learning tests and quizzes: Resources like Memrise or Socrocative enable teachers to create their own lists of vocabulary for students to learn. You can also track their progress and target students that are finding it really challenging.
- The key ring: I got this one from a friend that was learning Chinese. Another great way to learn vocabulary on the go is to make small cards for each word (Spanish on the front, English on the back), hole punch them and put them on a key ring. You can take them with you and practice learning and revising the vocabulary anywhere you go.
- FluentU: FluentU is a great way to learn new vocabulary in a natural way, as it turns trailers, music clips and other videos into language learning resources. It also provides multimedia flashcards, vocabulary lists, audio support and other resources to make Spanish much easier for students!
Your students can’t stop with the chit chat in class? Transform your vocabulary sessions with these games and resources, and put them back on the right track. They’ll stop chatting in English and start gabbing away in Spanish!
And One More Thing…
As I mentioned a moment ago, FluentU is a great tool for teaching Spanish. Let’s talk a little more about what FluentU offers!
We feature tons of clips—the modern, audio-visual equivalent of short stories, if you will.
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.
Use FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU App for iPad and iPhone from the iTunes store. The Android App is coming soon!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach Spanish with real-world videos.