Advice for Teaching Spanish to Younger Students Online: How a Formula Can Help!

The Challenges of Teaching Spanish On Line

I tutor Spanish for a national tutoring service and use both a “chat room” and “whiteboard” software configuration to communicate with my students. Dealing with younger students in this medium poses special challenges. The students frequently have difficulty telling me exactly what they need, and many have poor typing skills. Also (and obviously) I am unable to get the visual cues so important in determining whether the student is actually “getting it.” Younger students tend to be reluctant to "speak up,' so it is important to ask questions and make sure the student is keeping up.

Many younger students also tend to confuse vocabulary with grammar and can become discouraged when the lesson proceeds too quickly. It is vital that the student knows the vocabulary before proceeding to grammar principles, otherwise learning difficulties can be compounded to the point of total confusion. I find it useful to provide a running list of the student’s vocabulary words on the online whiteboard. Once the student understands the vocabulary, I can proceed to mixing the new words with the particular lesson or concept where the student is having difficulty.

From the instructor's perspective, there is also the technical challenge of using Spanish accented letters and special characters on line. The classroom software I use is Windows based and access to special characters is either through cutting and pasting from a previously prepared list or through the tedious keyboard «alt+[number]’». For example, typing "¿Cómo está usted, Sr. Nuñez?" on an English computer keyboard can be a somewhat lengthy process. I prefer the cut-and-paste method from a Word file I have open and ready. Whichever method is used, it is important that the student sees properly accented Spanish online.

Teaching Spanish by “Formula”

The young student who comes online for help is typically confused, discouraged and has fallen behind the rest of the class. I have found that an initial dose of encouragement and an assurance that I can help calms the student and lowers learning anxiety. It is important, then, to slow the student down and show how Spanish grammar falls into a patterned set of rules (and exceptions) and that applying these rules is like using a formula in math. For example, If the student is having difficulty with the use of the Spanish verbs «estar» or «ser», I review the rules first and ask the student to help me conjugate both verbs for the whiteboard. I follow by noting the rules on how each form of the verb is used, and then ask the student to apply the whiteboard information to the particular assignment the student is working on.

The foregoing method works especially well with students who have trouble with grammar but are good at math. By presenting conjugation tables and consistent rules, the student, who was once floundering and lost, begins to learn the pattern of language. Just as mathematical formulas rely on substitution of variables, Spanish grammar can be taught in much the same way.

“Cross-Grammar Overflow”

Many students have problems with Spanish grammar because they are weak in English grammar. This will become apparent by asking the right questions: What part of speech is a particular word? How does it function in the sentence? How does knowing its function help us figure out the question being asked? When students show weakness in grammar in general, that weakness is compounded when learning Spanish. Online Spanish instructors need to quickly recognize students’ deficiencies in grammar and tailor the instruction accordingly. The beneficial “overflow” occurs as the student "re-learns" English grammar and applies the similarities (or differences) to the Spanish lesson. Bright students soon make a connection between their own and other languages and begin to "connect the dots."

Using the “Testing Hook”

Students’ main worries about any subject, Spanish included, are the quizzes and tests they must pass. Here is where I try to encourage and motivate the younger student by showing a direct connection between the concept being learned and what to expect on future quizzes. Here, the “formula” approach that teaches the student how to work through homework questions restores the student’s confidence. The key is to convince the student that the only thing needed is to figure out how to apply the “formula” consistently to multiple examples, and success will follow. Once the student realizes that the "formula works" over and over, confidence and enthusiasm quickly return.

“Parting Gifts” to Online Students

Since most online tutoring sessions are time limited, it is a good practice to leave the student with a resource for further study. Some very good online Spanish instruction web sites for younger students are listed in the References section below.