Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Teaching through song

Other than the children's songs mentioned here, I also like to use more current (or at least recent) popular songs to provide examples of vocabulary and grammar in a cultural context. For example:

No Voy a Trabajar (Bermudas)
Ir + a + infinitive
Days of the week
Informal Commands

Mariposa Traicionera (MANA)
Informal Commands
Negation words

A Dios le pido (Juanes)
Indirect Object Pronouns
Subjunctive verbs

Ojalá que llueva café (Juan Luis Guerra)
Subjunctive verbs
Dominical regional food words (cultural interest)
Website with helpful grammar and vocab tips for this song

Early-morning Pronunciation Wake-ups

Having taught several early-morning classes, I've often seen my students walk into class half asleep. On such days, it can be helpful to do something to help wake up their brains (or, if nothing else, their tongues) before getting deeply into the subject material for the day.

Tongue Twisters
For focusing on a particular sound (such as rr or ñ), tongue twisters can be a productive warm-up activity. This website provides a useful selection of Spanish tongue twisters.
1. Go through the twister one short phrase at a time, with the class repeating after you.
2. Go through again, putting together somewhat longer phrases.
3. If needed due to length, repeat step 2
4. Have the class recite the tongue twister together with you in its entirety.
5. Pick out sections of the class or brave individuals (or people who come in late) to recite the tongue twister solo.

Children's Songs
With their simple vocabulary and limited vocal range (let's face it, your students won't all be singers), children's songs can be a good way to teach or reinforce some vocabulary and get the students thinking in the target language. One of my personal favorites for this is Los Pollitos Dicen (tener hambre, tener frío, the suffix -ito).

While the Three Stooges aren't exactly known for educational material, this song can be great for practicing tricky sounds and combinations of letters. I've had students tell me that this song gets stuck in their heads for days which, while potentially annoying, could also be quite helpful.

When the song is first introduced, use simple letters like B, D, K, etc. H is also a good one for early use to help students reinforce the idea that H is silent in Spanish.

Later, C and G can be used to discuss and practice the differences in pronunciation of the two depending on what vowel follows (C and G are hard before A, O and U but soft before E and I). This provides helpful scaffolding for when they later need to change between those vowels in verb conjugation (such as the formal command form: Jugar -> Juegue).

Another day, you can substitute dipthongs for the vowels to demonstrate their mono-syllabic nature.

Market Day

(Oral interactive/communicative)
This is a great activity to get students to creatively use a variety of vocabulary, have some fun and absorb a bit of culture at the same time. To set this up, you'll want to prepare (print or cut out) a series of pictures for items being sold. This can be done with food, clothing or other household objects covered in the vocab. You also select some things to set the scene - perhaps the type of music which would be heard in a marketplace in a studied area, pictures of such a marketplace, etc.

You select a few students (probably some of the students with a better grasp on the vocab) to be vendors - 1 for every 3 or so buyers - and distribute the items to be sold among them. More than one copy of each item should be available in the marketplace but not every vendor needs to have every item. If desired, vendors can also be supplied with "recommended" prices.

Each buyer is given a shopping list and a supply of "money" (preferably using pictures of the currency of a currently discussed country: Guatemalan Quetzales, Mexican Pesos, etc.). They then go to the assorted shops trying to purchase all of the items on their list. If a desired item is not available, a vendor may attempt to sell the buyer a similar item (black pants instead of dark blue pants, for example). They then haggle over the price (since many Spanish-speaking countries feature haggling as an essential part of their business practices) and complete their transaction, then move on to the next item on the list.

Prizes of some sort can be awarded for things like:
First buyer finished shopping
Buyer who most accurately fills their shopping list
Buyer who spends the least
Vendor who earns the most
Vendor who unloads the most merchandise

Sample Quiz


Identifica los muebles y cosas indicadas (identify the indicated furniture and objects), usando el artículo definido correcto (using the correct definite article). (1 × 8 = 8 puntos)

1______________________ 2______________________

3______________________ 4______________________

5______________________ 6______________________

7______________________ 8______________________


Rellena los espacios (Fill in the blanks) del siguiente párrafo (of the following paragraph) con la forma apropiada (with the appropriate form) de los verbos reflexivos. Incluye el pronombre apropiado (include the appropriate pronoun) (1 × 6 = 6 puntos)

Vestirse Levantarse Afeitarse

Peinarse Cepillarse Ducharse

III.  Gramática

Rellena los espacios (Fill in the blanks) del siguiente párrafo (of the following paragraph) con la forma apropiada (with the appropriate form) de los verbos. (6 × 1 = 6 puntos)

empezar jugar perder

almorzar pedir volver

Querido Alberto:

Estas vacaciones son fabulosas. Yo                  1 el día con un
desayuno ligero
en un café y después voy a las canchas de tenis. Como sabes,

yo                  2 al tenis bien y casi nunca                  .3 Mi hermano Roberto prefiere jugar al golf, pero viene al café y                  4 conmigo todos los días. Roberto siempre                  5 un sándwich y una ensalada. Después de las vacaciones,

nosotros                 6 a casa. ¡Nos vemos entonces!

Hasta pronto,


Oral Assessment

It can often be difficult to give detailed, individualized feedback to students about their oral skills in a class dynamic. Thus, I like to plan this activity for a slower week where some class time (as well as some office hour time) can be scheduled to meet with the students individually. This can either be done as a form of oral exam or simply as an activity to improve their oral skills.

Have the students prepare a brief conversation about a selected topic (ideally including recent vocabulary and grammatical constructs, making this part of the process a good communicative activity in and of itself). The students then call and leave you a voice mail with their conversation (Google Voice can be useful for this purpose). When you meet with the students, play back their recording and have them first evaluate themselves, giving them the important opportunity to recognize their own errors and areas of improvement. Afterwards, give the students your assessment and suggestions for improvement.

The perfect house/apartment

(interactive verbal presentation and comprehension, writing presentation)

When learning words for furniture and rooms of the house, this can be an useful and entertaining exercise which students have usually enjoyed in the past. It also has the benefit of being very communicative.

Basic setup: Place the students in small groups (2-4 people, depending on class size and dynamic) and present basic home/furniture vocabulary.

In groups, have the students plan out their ideal home. They can draw blueprints if they wish but they should discuss their future dream home in complete sentences . After discussing it, they should write down their plans and present them to the class. Students should be encouraged to be creative and as detailed as possible.

Verb conjugation game

This can be a useful tool for review, allowing students the opportunity to find out what they need to study more in terms of their verb conjugations.

Basic setup: Divide the class into 3 or 4 teams (Depending on number of students and available space). Provide each team a marker and an eraser.

Start the game simply - state a verb in the infinitive form and the currently selected team member tries to be the first to write the verb's conjugations on the board. Team member assistance can be permitted as necessary. Team members rotate after each verb.
As the game progresses (or as the class progresses), additional complications can be added such as using an image representative of the verb or putting the verb in a context so that they have to think about what the verb actually means and how it is used.

Pedro Pistolas / Shootout game

This is a game which students usually quite enjoy which is good for reviewing vocabulary. While it may not be wonderfully communicative, it gives them and opportunity to find out exactly what they need to study more.

Basic setup: One student is selected to be Pedro Pistolas, the champion and is placed at the front of a line. The next student is the first challenger. The line rotates as students proceed through the vocabulary.

A term from their vocabulary is prompted (by a picture, where possible) and the first student to respond either becomes or remains the champion. The line should be gone through at least a couple of times so that every student has multiple opportunities to succeed.

Optional rule: If the class has vastly different levels of students, a limit can be placed on consecutive victories before that champion moves to the back of the line.

Another optional rule: Students with sufficient knowledge to do so may be prompted to form sentences using the words after correctly naming the item in question. This allows the activity to be somewhat more communicative as the students are presented an open-ended opportunity to express themselves.

Spanish 1001: Midterm Review

I know everyone’s getting nervous about the midterm and all the new material they need has been both presented and reviewed to some extent, so I wanted to mainly focus on their questions today. While I have some idea on where they could use some help, I want to give them the opportunity to give me feedback on where they believe they need help. I gave them back their quizzes (on which they generally did quite well) and asked if they had any questions about those, then wrote up a quick “study guide” and asked what they wanted to review from it. In case they didn’t have questions (always a danger), I also had some review activities planned, such as Pedro Pistolas to practice vocab and verb conjugation competitions – games they are already familiar with so they didn’t take a lot of time on setup.

Results on September 29, 2010: Thankfully, both classes had a lot of good questions and we were able to review just about everything I think they need to know for the midterm. I feel as though they left class satisfied and confident today or, at the very least, more confident than when they came in. I feel as though I used a bit too much English today, though – I’ll have to be more careful about that.

Spanish 1001: More on possessives, adjectives and the verb Deber

Specific objectives: Students should

Work together to organize sentences with possessives and adjectives

Understand and use correctly the verb Deber in both verbal and written form

Since we’re gearing up for the midterm at this point in the semester, there’s not a whole lot of new material right here. Thus, we can really focus on some fundamental concepts and engrain well the new material. The idea that “should” functions as a verb can be a tough one for native English speakers, so I really wanted to dedicate a good portion of today’s lesson to it.

Results on September 28, 2010: Interestingly, the first class, which went somewhat poorly yesterday, was far more “on the ball” today. They knew their possessives and were able to use them well and had obviously studied up on their adjectives. Working in their teams, I had them come up with lists of things that they should and should not do in given situations, then gave teams points for having unique answers, allowing the students to work communicatively and talk about things that interested them. They had some fun with this one, stating such things as “We should not dance in our Spanish class.” I feel like today got everyone on the same page and that the day was effective.

Spanish 1001: –er and –ir verbs and possessives

Specific Objectives: Students should. . .

Learn some basic verbs

Correctly conjugate basic -er and -ir verbs

Recognize and begin to use possessive pronouns verbally.

After introducing some new verbs and their conjugation patterns (using pictures on a powerpoint rather than simply putting the English word with the Spanish word), I gave them a bit of culture in the form of a poem, Borges y yo but with many of the verbs unconjugated. My main objective in doing this, beyond giving them some cultural flavor, was to give the students confidence by showing them tgat they now had the basic tools needed to conjugate A LOT of verbs, even if they were unfamiliar with the verb itself.

I then used a photo album from my time in Guatemala to demonstrate some possessive pronouns and planned to have the students talk about some objects they were carrying in pairs or small groups.

Results September 27, 2010: Things didn’t quite work out as hoped in my first class – the students got a bit frustrated with the poem (while it uses comparatively simple vocabulary, they got caught up in the existentialism) and ended up taking longer than hoped with it. As a result, I didn’t quite get to all that I had planned. Since the students were already a bit frustrated, my brief presentation on possessives using my photo album from my time in Guatemala kinda fell flat. I reorganized things for the second class, placing the students in pairs to work out the poem together and worked a little more on the presentation of the poem itself, so the second class went a bit more smoothly.

Quiz days

Quiz days are always tough days to try and teach. You either take the beginning of class reviewing the material on the quiz (in which case, experience has shown that students won’t study for it) or teaching new material (in which case students won’t absorb it because they’re focusing on the quiz). If you try and teach afterwards, the students feel burned out and, again, absorb nothing. Thus, when I have a brief class (50 minutes) I try to keep quiz days simple – answer any questions they have, give them the quiz and either give them a brief in-class writing assignment or simply let them go. This setup also allows me to grant the necessary extra time to any special needs students I may have without scheduling a completely separate time for the quiz.

In preparing students for a quiz, once they have enough knowledge to do so (This can begin as early as mid-way through the first semester), I will sometimes have them prepare a quiz in groups and hand it in to me the day before they receive the actual quiz. I then use some of what is provided by the students (in addition to some items of my own invention) in creating their quiz. Students seem to appreciate being involved in the process of assessment and it gets them to think critically about the material they've absorbed.

Spanish 1001: Chapter 2 review

Specific objectives: Students should . . .

Identify family-related terms and expressions

Express (both verbally and orthographically) age with numbers up to 100

Demonstrate some fundamental cultural knowledge

Prepare for Quiz

Results on September 22, 2010: I feel that today went exceptionally well. I set up a jeopardy-based powerpoint to review the major concepts, including a column for culture (some reading for which was assigned as homework). I had the teams working together but, instead of a race to state the answer first, I had each time write the correct answer to the question. This gave an opportunity for all of the students to participate (as they discussed the answers among themselves) and allowed everyone an opportunity to succeed. Thus, I think the class was both useful/informative and enjoyable, as well as a good confidence booster for the quiz.

Family Logic Puzzle

This puzzle (translated into Spanish, of course) is an exercise I use in teaching family terms. I convert the names into typical Spanish names and have modified some of the descriptions to include a bit of Spanish culture.

Can you help me figure out my family tree? There are two grandparents, who had two children, who both got married and had 2 more children each. Totaling 10 people in all (Alex, David, Jamie, Jessica, John, Justin, Lincoln, Martha, Mary and Tina).

1. One of Jamie's ancestors was David.

2. John's sister gave birth to Tina.

3. Mary baked flan with her nephew last Saturday.

4. Alex visited one of his primas at Christmas and shot off fireworks.

5. Justin married Mary.

6. Jessica is not an ancestor, nor cousin of Tina.

7. Lincoln's brother played soccer with Justin's son.

Spanish 1001 Chapter 2 day 2: Family in practice

Specific objectives: Students should

Understand basic information about family members

Be able to express information about their own family members

Today, to make sure they could work with family terms in a written context, I gave them a family-based logic puzzle in which they had to fill in a blank family tree based on clues. Having organized the students into teams, the new teams set to work to be the first group finished. After each team finished, I assigned the students to each write a brief description of their family, using the new nationality vocabulary and other adjectives.

Results on September 21, 2010: While some of the students were mildly frustrated by the end of the logic puzzle (I recognize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but every student has a different learning style), even that frustration may help them to lock in the vocab. Their comprehension was good as were their writing samples. In general, I think it went fairly well, in spite of a small mistake I made in my directions for the logic puzzle (I took 5 points off from myself, turning the situation into one of humor rather than frustration).

Spanish 1001: Beginning Chapter 2

Specific objectives: Students should. . .

Understand basic family vocabulary
Ask and express ages verbally
Use numbers up to one hundred in those expressions of age.

I decided that the best way to talk about the family was to use examples from my own. I prepared a series of photos (pulled from Facebook) with various members of my family. I planned things so that, where possible, I could introduce one or two family members then use another picture with them and some other family members, showing a natural progression of building outward. (i + 1 model) For example, I first showed a picture of me with my wife, then one with the two of us together with my brother, his wife and their son, then one with all of them plus my parents.

Results on September 20, 2010: I feel as though today’s class went fairly well. I got every student to speak briefly about a member of their family, including telling their age and having them ask another student a similar question. While that particular activity might have taken a bit too long (maybe I should divide the class in halves next time), I think it really helped to engrain these new terms and concepts for them.

Teaching Philosophy

I help my students to enjoy the learning process and motivate them to succeed, both in the classroom and in the rest of their lives as life-long learners. This affects both the presentation of a class and its content. For students to really enjoy and profit from a class, I help them to be actively engaged with each other in realistic (or, ideally, genuinely real) situations and conversations. Planning communicative activities which incorporate culture is central to preparing my language courses.

At the same time, I’m not an entertainer, nor engaged in a popularity contest. While I do my best to be likable and games and humor have an important place in my classroom as teaching and review tools, I’m not afraid of doing what is necessary even when it will not be popular.

In evaluating students, I work to strike a balance between mercy and justice. I do my best to be neither rigid and unapproachable nor a pushover. I make class guidelines and requirements clear from the outset but each student's individual situation must be understood and taken into account in my evaluation. While I hope to be liked, I feel that I must be respected in order to be effective, as must the course guidelines.

Where possible, I frequently incorporate appropriate technology, be it film, the internet or other forms of telecommunication in my teaching. I have found them to be a vital part of engaging students' interest and that they can be a powerful teaching tool. While I don’t use technology as a crutch – I’m not, for example, addicted to Power Point – I always consider well my presentation options and use technology as appropriate and available. I’ve also discovered first-hand the importance of being flexible and having a back-up plan in case the technology fails.