Setting The Right Tone
Most students come to a beginning Spanish class believing Spanish is easy because it is pronounced phonetically or, when they haven’t learned the word phonetically, that Spanish is pronounced exactly as it is written (whatever that means!). This lesson plan is offered as one approach to set the right tone and get students working correctly. It may bear repeating in various forms during the term.
These misunderstandings are too dangerous not to address on the first day of the first Spanish class, whether in high school or college. The first presents Spanish as something that does not require (code for deserve) the serious attention that other classes demand and often receive. The second misconception sets up students for fossilizing the worst pronunciation imaginable – and nearly guarantees bad classroom chemistry. You, as a teacher, don’t want to hear them speak out of tune, so to speak, any more than a violin teacher would want to listen to screeching all semester. And, let’s be honest, bad chemistry in class means bad evaluations – that mechanism by which the inmates run the asylum. Starting with the way you teach the alphabet, you can begin to dispel some darkness.
Prepare Students for Proper Learning
Tell students that you know they learned one alphabet (probably English) in pre-school or in first grade, but that they did not learn the Spanish alphabet. What students think they know about Spanish will make them incredulous but it will get their attention.
Next, tell them that the written letters may look the same as the letters we use in English, but that they are not, not really. Next, tell them that English had no alphabet of its own and borrowed the alphabet of the Romans to begin to represent the sounds of English. To convince them of how differently the Roman letters can be pronounced, get a hold of a handful of Gaelic or Welsh words and learn to spell and pronounce them! Next, tell them that Spanish evolved out of the language of the Romans, Latin. Actually, the Roman alphabet belongs more to Spanish than it does to English! Some students are intrigued by the idea that languages existed prior to their being a written system to represent their sounds – and that some systems do not represent sounds at all, such as Chinese.
Now they might be ready to be receptive learners. Write the letter A on the board and ask someone the name of the letter. Don’t ask them how it is pronounced in Spanish (or English). Simply ask them for the letter’s name. Most likely, you will hear ey-ee – the English pronunciation of the letter when saying the ABCs. Then ask them how it is pronounced. Whatever you hear, offer another word that pronounces it differently, such as cat, warm and wager. Then, tell them that the letter A has a name in Spanish and that its name also happens to be its sound – always, then pronounce it for them and have them repeat it. Some students may begin to feel overly secure about the second misconception and may blurt out that Spanish is pronounced as it is written and so it is easy. Acknowledge the opinion but gently let them know that it is not exactly so, and to hang on.
The next letter gives you your opportunity to begin to crack this second misconception. The grapheme or written letter B is, as Spanish teachers know, equal to the V, both being pronounced hard or soft depending on context. The verb beber offers an example of each allophone (the first B is hard, the second is soft). I ask students to say Cuba (not CUE-bah, but KOO-bah), with a pencil eraser on their upper incisors. If they feel the air escape around the pencil and feel the way the B is softened, they have just learned that the pronunciation of that letter in Spanish, just as in English, can depend on where it is, and the the B between vowels is soft, not hard. Point this out very directly and then announce that these two pronunciations of this particular letter are slight, but that other letters of the Spanish alphabet will be pronounced quite differently and that they need to re-learn the alphabet. Now you can tell them that yes, Spanish is pronounced as written, but only if you already know how to pronounce it!
Finally, tell them that even though the same symbols are used, many of them have new sounds. You are now ready to proceed slowly through the letters and their new pronunciations, followed by even more special attention to the vowels. There are two other lesson plans, one for the natural sequence of the vowels from i-e-a-o-u and another for contextualizing them in five sentences, each of which in turn has a high concentration of each vowel.
You may find it helpful to use this article in conjunction with the article ABC: Listen to the Sounds of the Spanish Alphabet. There are links in the article to sound files for all 26 sounds of the Spanish alphabet, along with example words showing how the sounds are used in speech.
As you progress in your study of Spanish, you will need to face the details of grammar — but they need not be painful. You can master the pronoun system, the past tenses and even the dreaded subjunctive!