How to Teach Reflexive Verbs: Help Students Understand Why a Verb Is Reflexive in Spanish

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Introducing Reflexive Verbs

Once your Spanish I students are reasonably comfortable conjugating verbs in the present tense, it’s time to introduce the reflexive. They’ve probably seen that mysterious “se” crop up at the end of a few infinitive verbs already, and wondered what it’s all about.

You can present all the examples in the world of how reflexive verbs are conjugated with their appropriate reflexive pronouns; the real challenge is to get them to understand why a verb is reflexive. Sometimes a picture–or in this case a demonstration–really is worth a thousand words. As an added bonus, the aural, visual and kinesthetic elements of this activity will accommodate multiple learning styles.

Start the class off with a short review on how to conjugate and pronounce the reflexive verbs you’re introducing in the current chapter. Most books give the students reflexive verbs they can use to describe a daily routine. For example: despertarse (wake yourself up), levantarse (get/stand up), ponerse (put on, as in clothing), and so on. Give a few examples of simple phrases using the reflexive verbs, then have your students create and share a few phrases of their own. If they seem stuck, offer a few nouns they can pair with the verbs (for example, list items of clothing they can practice using with ponerse, such as zapatos, calcetines, sombrero, blusa, pantalones, or abrigo).

Illustrating the Examples

Next, use specific examples to demonstrate how a verb’s meaning changes if it is or isn’t used reflexively. Write two phrases on the board for each verb, one using the verb reflexively and one not. Then stand up and demonstrate the difference between each use of the verb yourself: For example, use your own jacket to show how me pongo la chaqueta is different than yo pongo la chaqueta en la mesa. The goal is to let the students see how a verb used reflexively involves the subject doing something to or for himself, as opposed to acting on someone or something else. Give them a chance to practice by pointing to the two phrases involving whichever verb you’re demonstrating, then have the class shout out which is the appropriate phrase.

Now, before the students start working on their own, write out the sequence expressions in Spanish on the board. These are words like: primero (first), después (after), and luego (then/later). Instruct the students to pair up and work together to describe their typical school day–or an imaginary character’s school day–and write the descriptive phrases down. While describing their daily routine they must use a reflexive verb, followed by that same verb used in a non reflexive way. For example, if a student begins his description with m__e despierto a las seis, his next sentence could be Entonces despierto a mis hermanas a las siete.

Have the students continue using using reflexive and non reflexive verbs, plus the sequence expressions listed on the board, until they’ve described their way through an entire day. Then call on each pair to come up in front of the class: One person will read the descriptions while the other one acts them out.

This activity doesn’t just show your students how reflexive verbs work, it also gives them a chance to practice speaking and writing with reflexive verbs. As the teacher, you can evaluate their performance and make the call on whether they’ve gotten the concept or need some more practice.