Category Archives: teaching Spanish

Reading buddies for Spanish literature

Why can’t Johnny read…Spanish?

Last semester I taught my department’s highest-level language class for the second time. This class serves as a bridge to subsequent classes that focus primarily on literature, cinema, and other aspects of Hispanic culture. For this reason its syllabus includes a handful of short stories and poems, as well as advanced grammar topics.

I’ve always felt at a loss when it comes to teaching literature. This is partly because, as you might expect from this blog, my forte as an instructor is grammar. In addition, while I distinctly remember, and even treasure, the effort it took to master different grammar topics, reading Spanish came naturally to me, and was fun from the start. This makes it hard for me to empathize with my struggling readers and to know how best to help them.

I had an “aha” moment toward the end of the previous semester, when a student came to me after class with questions about Mujer negra, a terrific poem we’d read some weeks earlier. We were looking at her copy of the poem as we spoke, and I was struck by the disparity between her obvious effort in reading the poem — she had looked up so many words! but not always correctly! — and her lingering doubts, even though we’d already discussed the poem in class.

I knew that if we were to sit down together and go through the poem more carefully, I could help her understand it better. But what instructor has the time to do this with every confused student — assuming they request it? And isn’t it our goal to teach our students to read literature without professorial hand-holding?

Accordingly, this semester I came up with the idea of assigning each student a “reading buddy” (compañero de lectura). The plan was that the students would work through each reading together, and optionally complete a joint homework. I hoped that this would help students to (i) understand the readings better, (ii) improve their reading skills, and (iii) see reading as a serious and time-worthy task.

I assigned the readings buddies semi-randomly. First, I asked students to fill out a short form (below) in class. I also asked them to indicate if there was anyone in the class they would especially like to work with. Almost all the students described their reading ability as “normal”, and all of them expressed willingness to work with a less advanced partner. I assigned buddies on the basis of this information.

At the end of the semester I administered a brief survey to gauge how useful students had found found this approach, and to decide whether I should repeat it the following semester. Overall, the results was positive. There are two ways to look at them.

First, as shown below, half of the sixteen students surveyed chose to work with their reading buddy on at least half of the semester’s four readings. Of students who didn’t work together, most cited scheduling conflicts; only four students said that they preferred to work by themselves. I was surprised that scheduling was such a big factor.

Second, almost all the students (all but two) said that assigning “reading buddies” was a good idea and that I should continue to do this in future semesters. In response to the question “Did reading with a ‘buddy’ help you understand the readings and develop your skills?”, positive answers included:

  • “definitely”
  • “could have not done [readings] as well alone”
  • “we discussed the readings in detail and shared ideas”
  • “we helped each other understand”
  • “It was quite helpful”
  • “It was nice to have someone to ask for help if needed”
  • “I was able to become very close friends with my buddy. Plus the way we worked was extremely productive.”

Overall I was encouraged, and I will definitely repeat this program. However, now that I know that scheduling is such a concern, I will encourage students to get an earlier start on each reading as it begins to loom in the syllabus.




¡Felicidades Shelly Simonds!

[A mournful update. Shelly’s opponent disputed the elimination of an ambiguous ballot during the recount, and a three-judge panel ruled that it was, in fact, intended as a vote for Shelly’s opponent. A random drawing was held, as per state law, to break the resulting tie. Shelly’s opponent’s name was picked in the drawing and Shelly conceded the race.]

I have to crow!

Shelly Simonds, the Democratic candidate for the 94th District in the Virginia House of Delegates (the state legislature), who today won her seat by ONE VOTE in a nail-biting recount, thus unseating Republican incumbent David Yancey and undoing the longstanding Republican majority in the House, is…

…a former Spanish teacher!

From her biography:

In college, I studied in Spain and Chile, where I became fluent in Spanish and discovered my love of writing and journalism. My passion led me to pursue a Masters in Communications from Stanford University, then to a job in journalism. I moved to Newport News in 2000 with my husband Paul, a NASA engineer. We decided Newport News was the perfect place to raise our two daughters, Georgia and Tessa. I became a Spanish teacher at their school, Hilton Elementary, and found my second passion: teaching.

How cool is that? ¡Felicidades to Shelly!

Vocabulary: to gloss or not to gloss?

Everybody knows that flossing is good for you. But what about glossing?

The Spanish textbook series we currently use at Fordham University is Pearson’s Gente. The beginning and intermediate books in the series provide glosses, or translations, for the vocabulary list at the end of each chapter. But the advanced textbook does not. There is a Spanish-English glossary at the end of the book that students can use to look up words.

The first time I taught this course, I was struck by how inefficient it was for each student to have to look up the words. Moreover, I found some mistakes, or at least weaknesses, in the glosses:

  • missing words
  • glosses that average college students wouldn’t necessarily understand (‘foment’, ‘infusion’)
  • glosses that are correct but not necessarily satisfactory, such as ‘commitment, engagement’ for compromiso (leaving out that it’s often a pre-marital engagement) or ‘offer’ for oferta, where the usual meaning involves a special price.
  • glosses that conflate differences, such as genialidad and genio both glossed as ‘genius’
  • no heads-up for false cognates such as compromiso, which doesn’t mean ‘compromise’

So this semester, at the beginning of each chapter I gave the students a screen shot of the vocabulary page on which I had written on my own glosses. I photocopied these onto yellow paper — a teaching trick I picked up somewhere along the way. Here’s an example: my original, hence not yellow. Note that I don’t generally gloss cognates. This drives home their ubiquity, and also makes false cognates stand out.

(post continues after graphic)

When I told a colleague about my approach, she was mildly horrified. She thought that it was important for students to look up the glosses themselves, and that this was their first step in learning vocabulary. I believe that while it’s beneficial to use a dictionary while reading, and that this is a special skill that we need to teach our students, looking up 100 words, in alphabetical order, in a simple glossary is fundamentally different. It’s mechanical, rather than intellectual, essentially a secretarial task of collating two lists.

What do you think?

In this follow-up post, I describe my students’ unanimously favorable assessment of the glosses.



Linguistics projects for the foreign language classroom

In a workshop I recently gave in Atlantic City, I distributed the following list of possible linguistics-based projects for the foreign language classroom. They are adaptable for a variety of languages and levels of instruction. To download a PDF version, click here.

This list is a subset of the projects included in the companion website for my book¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish. Here I divided them into the four categories of “Language history,” “The target language in the world,” “Language learning,” and “Language use”.

If you make use of this list, as an instructor or a student, please write back and let me know how the project(s) turned out.

Language history

  • Examine a few pages written in an older form of the target language. What are obvious ways that the language has changed?
  • Look up the origins of the words in either (i) a sample of text from the target language, or (ii) a specific vocabulary domain, such as clothing or animals. Where do the words come from, and what does this teach about the history of your language?
  • Research and create an infographic about a phase in the history of your language, such as the Golden Age of Spain or the Napoleonic period in France. What were the linguistic landmarks of these periods?
  • Research vocabulary borrowings into English from the target language. What do they tell you about how the two cultures have interacted?
  • Research the etymology of a dozen place names (names of cities, towns, etc.) in a country that speaks your target language. What does it this exercise teach you about the language’s history? Summarize your findings on a map or other infographic.

The target language in the world

  • Use Ethnologue (an on-line database about world languages) to gather data on where the target language is spoken and what other languages are spoken in those countries. Present as an infographic or a slideshow.
  • Profile a language academy such as the Académie française or the United States branch of the Real Academia Española. Who are the members? What are their activities and/or publications? What would you ask if you could interview them?
  • Research and present information about a language controversy, such as Catalan versus Castilian in Catalonia, or the historical tussle between French and Alsatian in Alsace.
  • What information does the most recent USA census provide about speakers of your target language in our country?

Language learning

  • Try to predict which features of English are most hardest to learn for speakers of other languages. Interview an ESL teacher to test your predictions.
  • Try a few lessons in the target language from Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, or other language learning software. How does the software try to teach the language? How is this different from classroom learning?

Language use

  • How might you reform the spelling of your target language to make it easier? Argue for your changes and transform a sample page using your proposed changes.
  • Pick your favorite language rule: ser vs. estar, passé composé vs. imparfait, and so on. Analyze actual text (perhaps a newspaper article) to see if the rules taught in class explain the actual usage.
  • Learn how to speak “Pig Latin” in the target language (e.g. Spanish jerigonza). A speed contest may be in order! What do you have to think about as you speak in order to accomplish this?
  • Find, watch, and compare instructional videos on some difficult aspect of pronouncing your language (like rolling your r’s). Make your own instructional video.