Posted in teaching

things that worked: teaching conjugations.

Over the last year, I have had the chance to try a lot of things with a lot of different kids. I have been in: Middle school Spanish, Spanish 1, Spanish 2, Spanish 3, AP Spanish and ESOL classrooms working with kids and helping them learn something that matters.

Anybody reading this who has taken a foreign language knows about the dreaded conjugation. However, chances are… unless you still speak or teach that language, you probably remember next to nothing about how to do it, when to do it or why to do it. Which is why I took a different approach.

With the exception of my middle school (beginning Spanish) students… all of the students I worked with this year learned how to conjugate from somebody other than me. And, as a result the paradigm shift between what they learned and what I wanted to teach them was much to large to grasp… so I had to work with what they learned. BUT! In my middle school Spanish class, I got them before they ever learned conjugations from anyone else… and it was awesome.

Here is a small recap of what is usually taught:(im gonna use -ar verbs as my example…)

(Students have a list of verbs: Hablar, llegar, llevar, etc.) We tell them that these are verbs, and that in order to use them we have to conjugate them. How do we do that? Well!

You drop the “-ar” part and add an ending. The ending depends on who the subject of the sentence is.

If the subject is:                                         Then you use this ending:

yo                                                                     -o

tú                                                                    -as

él, ella, Ud.                                                   -a

nosotros                                                         -amos

ellos, Uds.                                                      -an


Here are the problems I see with this method. First of all, it is grammar heavy… in a world where we are phasing out formal grammar and replacing it with basic grammar accompanied by things our students can actually use. These kids, no matter how old, are all confused by the word conjugation, and even though they receive some grammar instruction through 11th grade… chances are they haven’t located the subject of the sentence or the verb in a sentence in at least 2 years by the time we, as foreign language teachers, get them. Now, instead of changing the way we teach to help students learn better… we jam this “formula” in to their heads–knowing full well that they don’t have the grammar background to use it with success.

I have sat with student after student who struggles with this concept and lets is ruin his or her love for the language.

Here’s what I did instead. I thought of something our kids ARE learning in their English classes that is related to conjugations. As a linguistics lover, I have never been able to ignore the fact that conjugations are just manipulations of morphemes to change the meaning of the word being used for the subject of the sentence… (if that lost you: read: Conjugations use root words and suffixes to change the meaning of the word.) Our kids are being suffocated with SAT prep etc. and that stuff is full of prefixes, suffixes, root words, etc. That is something kids know and they know it well. I thought… well, heck! I’ll just use that!

So, to start out, I gave the students all of the vocabulary for the unit, and had them look up the words. This vocabulary included the infinitives (like Hablar, llegar, & llevar). For nearly a week we used all of these words just as vocabulary words, learning what they mean and being able to recognize them.

Then, one day, I had students open up their textbooks to a page in the chapter completely in Spanish. And… I made them translate it. They were angry. and flustered. and very loud about it. The things I heard were, “This is too much!” “We don’t know this much Spanish yet!” “I don’t recognize a single word!” When they calmed down enough to let me talk… I informed them that every word on that page was a word we had learned together before, or was a word from our current vocabulary list. They just stared at me. Still angry I was going to make them do sooo much work.

They settled down and started working. About 30 seconds later 5 hands shoot into the air.

“Yes, Kevin?” I say.

“But this word isn’t on our list!”

“What word is it?”

“Its in the 2nd sentence. It says, ‘Yo hablo con mi amigo.’ We don’t have ‘hablo’ on our list.”

“You’re right. Everyone listen up. (Class looks up.) What word from our list looks just like ‘hablo’?”

(The kids think for a second. Some take out their list to compare…) Suddenly the class yells “Hablar!”

“And what does hablar mean?”

“To speak or to talk.”

“Exactly, so, what do you guys think this sentence means?”

“I to talk to my friend.”–someone says.

“Kind of. Does that sound right in English???”

“Oh! True! Maybe it means, “I talk to my friend.” ? Right?”

“Yep. See you guys have everything you need to do this. Go ahead. If you have a question, ask the people around you before you ask me, ok?”

You see, what I did wasn’t a simple translation. It wasn’t torture. It was in-context learning. The kids figured out that the same word can look a little bit different and mean something just a little bit different too.

After we went over the translations together, I asked the kids, “Was that easy, medium or hard?” They all shouted “Easy!

The next day the kids came in and we talked about the vocabulary words on our list that ended in “-ar”. The students knew that they were verbs, and I said, “Can I use the word the way it is now? Think about it. Did you see the word “Hablar” at all yesterday in the passage?” They suddenly realized… that no. They usually do not see the word written with the -ar at the end.

Using sentences from the passage they had translated, we went over the words again.

“Yo hablo con mi amigo.”

“Tú hablas mucho.”

“Ella habla con la maestra.”

“Nosotros hablamos en clase.”

“Ellos hablan con los chicos.”

I asked the students a critical question: What do they think the root of the word is? And what do they think that root word means?

After a minute of discussion amongst themselves, they answered, “habl” must be the root, because its in all the forms of the word that we have seen. And, it probably means “talk” since that part never changes.

Then I asked, “What are the different suffixes we have used?–Make a list with your partner.”

They come up with a list like this one: “ar”, “o”, “as”, “a”, “amos” & “an”.

Now, I said, ” Just like in English, suffixes change the meaning of a word a little bit. Write down what you and your partner think are the meanings of these suffixes.”

This is what I got:

  • -ar = to
  • -o = i
  • -as = you
  • -a = he or she
  • -amos = we
  • -an = they

Then I showed them the words again. “hablo” -What does this one mean? The class all says, “I talk.”

You see, what they learned are vocabulary words… not conjugations and formulas. They learned to recognize that the ending has its own meaning and tells you something special about the word.

Instead of having entire classes (like in my Spanish 1-Ap Spanish classes… grr!) of students writing things like “Yo hablar mucho” (I to talk alot). These kids would say, “Hey! That one doesn’t make sense. You used the wrong word. You should have used “hablo”.”

And you know what? These kids really had it. It took more time on the front end, but when we got to -er/ -ir verbs… they caught right on. To them, seeing “amos” is the same as seeing the ending “tion” at the end of a word. They just know that it means something important, and they use that to inform how they listen, read, write and speak. 🙂

So. That’s one thing that worked.




Spanish Teacher, in love with life, and dancing til its over. I like giraffes and chocolate. If we aren't living for God, then what are we living for?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s