Learning Spanish Verbs: How to Clear Up the Confusion with Tenses

The Root of the Problem – Ser or Estar?

Any Spanish learner who wants to get past the phrase-book phase eventually will have to begin mastering verbs. Typically, the beginning learner develops a prejudice toward that effort because most Spanish courses start with the “evil twins” ser and estar. We somehow steepen our students’ learning curve by asking them to figure out two uses for our verb “to be.” To complicate matters further, we ask them to learn the baffling irregular conjugation of “ser.”

Getting Learners Over the Hump

As a Spanish tutor for high school and young adult students, I have used a successful method to help students move from the confusion of ser and estar to a more orderly view of Spanish verb patterns. Once students begin to see those patterns, they can approach Spanish language learning almost in the same way they learn math or science. Read on to learn how.

Learn Verb Stems First!

The first part of the “verb formula” is that (almost) every Spanish verb has what’s known as its stem. Teach the student to chop off the -ar, -er, and -ir endings of the verb to get to the “root” of understanding verb conjugation and inflection. This is an especially important concept when it comes to teaching verb stem spelling changes in verbs like contar, querer, and pedir.

Concentrate on Regular Verbs

To learn the exceptions of irregular verbs, it helps to know exactly what is being “excepted.” It is comforting to learn that the verb hablar has a consistent conjugation as aclarar and that their gerund forms (hablando, aclarando) and past participles (hablado, aclarado) are likewise a result of adding endings to their stems. Also, the –er and –ir regular verbs provide similar comfort, with the added bonus that their endings in the preterite tenses are the same!

Regular verbs are amenable to drill and written practice in a way that mimics math. Teach a student a “formula” and pretty soon regular verb conjugation becomes second nature. Once the conjugation is mastered, the next step of filling in the blanks to where those verb forms fit into everyday usage follows.

Verb Stem Changes are Next

After emphasizing regular verbs, students should focus on stem changes. This emphasis keeps the focus on present tense verbs and irregular spelling changes to the verb stem. This family of verbs is also amenable to a “formulaic” approach, which seems to add confidence to the slower learner and speed up verb comprehension to the average to gifted student. It is also a stepping-stone to the more irregular verbs.

Patterns of Irregularity

What makes irregular Spanish verbs more palatable is that we do much the same in English. The pesky verb ir (to go) is a classic example. This verb not only forms its own verb stem, but is irregular in the present, imperfect, preterite, as well as present and imperfect subjunctive. The only break we get with ir is in the future and conditional where the verb stem holds firm. On the other hand, the Spanish verb ir is used frequently in forming the foundation of the learner's beginning practice, which eases the difficulty of learning this extremely irregular verb.

The verb ir does have a pattern, though. Like every irregular verb, its tense endings in all conjugations are the same as other Spanish verbs. The student only has to learn the variations of the verb stem. (There is also a questionable bonus with ir Its preterite conjugation — fui, fuiste, fue, etc. — is the same as that rascal ser It is translated “went” or “was” on its context in the sentence.)

Stay In the Present for Now

A good grounding in Spanish present tense verbs is the key to Spanish language skill building. If students know that the present tense, first person singular (yo form) of almost every Spanish verb is used to form the subjunctive mood conjugation, or that the third person singular is used to make requests (commands) to our friends, they have a double incentive to master present tense conjugations.

The Last Resort – Rote or Pattern?

Each student has an individual learning style. Some do better through simple memorization. Those students need only to be shown the verb conjugation table. Most students I have tutored, though, need the pattern approach (which is why they needed special tutoring in the first place). By the time I see them they are confused and frustrated. To help them move past that frustration, I encourage them to learn the pattern of verb conjugation and fill in the blanks from there. Once they learn to fill those verb forms where they belong, they are on the path to mastery of idiomatic Spanish.

This post is part of the series: Teaching Spanish: The Basics of Spanish Verbs

Learning Spanish verbs is the key to developing a strong foundation in Spanish grammar and vocabulary. Spanish verbs are formed in a consistent patter of adding verb tense endings to regular or irregular verb stems. This series discusses the basics of teaching these patterns.
  1. Learning Spanish Verbs: A Method to the Madness
  2. All About Spanish Verbs: The Infinitive
  3. Learning Spanish: Doubling Up With Spanish Compound Verbs