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tutor span 1-6: brice stuhr

Brice Stuhr

Dear future language tutor,

I have worked for 6 months as a Spanish tutor and over this I have made numerous failures and gained many insights into being a language teacher. The key to learning a language is speaking it, rather than just studying the grammar. I would like to share some of these insights I have gained with you to help you avoid some of these failures.

Most importantly, it is important to keep in mind that learning a language is not like learning history, biology or linguistics. It's more like learning to play guitar or gaining stamina through running. It is a skill. Like any other skill, it must be practiced. One can study the grammar, but this will not directly transfer to the ability to communicate. A language learner must practice speaking as much as possible, even if they are making mistakes. Intellectually understanding the grammar is not the same thing as internalizing it. The ability to communicate is the ultimate goal when it comes to learning a language. Simply studying the grammar and memorizing the vocabulary will allow the students to express themselves in the language. The main focus of teaching should be to get your students to express themselves.

Unfortunately, many of my sessions turned into nothing more than hour-long explanations of grammar. To many people, including the students, this seemed to be ideal. However, having the grammar explained will not help you improve your ability to speak. Speaking a language is the way the only way to learn to express yourself in that language.

In fact, many students love getting grammatical explanations because it makes them feel like they have a key that they can now use to bypass any challenging situation they might encounter then they are speaking. This is, unfortunately, not the reality of the matter.

Let me share with you one of my biggest failures:

I had one student who was having trouble with gustar type verbs. She couldn’t grasp what a sentence like “a Juan le molestas” would mean, as she had only seen gustar used as a chunk like “me gusta X.”. I spent nearly 45 minutes of our hour session explaining how gustar verbs work, and at the end she really seemed to get it. However, when she returned for the next session, everything I taught her had gone in one ear and out the other. She was dumb-founded when I asked her to translate a sentence like “you bother Juan”. She took very good notes on it during the session before, so I told her to review them. That hardly helped. After another 10 minutes of discussing it, she was able to intellectually understand the construction, but the problem was that she was unable to internalize it because I never gave her the opportunity to use a sentence like “a juan le molestas” in a meaningful context. A meaningful context is what is needed to internalize a language.

This was how the first 4 months of my tutoring went. I could make the students happy because I had clear answers to all of their questions about grammar. I could help them get better grades on the test, but as far as teaching them to speak at all, I was a colossal failure.

A meaningful context is when the student is using the language for purposes other than merely practicing grammar. This requires getting the student to speak about something that he or she is interested in. Believe it or not, this is actually the hardest part of being a language tutor.

Let me give you some hints on to avoid failing in the holes of only discussing grammar in a meaningless context:

Always greet in Spanish. Do not have a “let’s get down to business” approach at all. In fact, try to put off the grammar as long as possible. Talk to them about what they ate for lunch, which classes they went to, what their cat’s name is, how long they have been dating their boyfriend, anything, just talk to them in Spanish. They need to hear input and they need to produce output. Try to figure out what kind of topics they enjoy talking about, and make a note of it. If you find some aspect about them that they like talking about, run with it. Even with Spanish 1 students you should be able to do this. One of my students had an extremely large family that she really seemed to enjoy talking about. Asking her questions about what her cousins were like proved to be extremely productive. She described all of her cousins and listed how many kids each of her uncles had. Even though I had to constantly remind her to speak in Spanish, and she made uncountable grammatical errors, this was a great exercise. She didn’t think it was an exercise; she just wanted to talk about her family.

Since you and your students have the common language of English, it becomes extremely easy to fall back on this. Talk to them in Spanish even if it is above their level. Even if they are only getting the gist, at least they are getting something. When you speak in English, they are not using their Spanish skills

Plan activities. Even 10 minutes of planning can work out really well. For one of my activities, I printed out a list of South-American countries, and I showed them on the map where each of these countries were. I then asked them to discuss with each other which country had the most people and which country had the least. Then they had to speak Spanish with one another and come to an agreement on how to rank the countries in order of population. This activity went unbelievably well. They spent a solid 15 minutes speaking Spanish and negotiating. Before we started the exercise, I wrote on the board how to describe populations and some comparison structures, vocabulary that I thought they would need in order to express how big they thought each country was.

For another one of these activities, I told the students we were on a sinking boat and I made a few lists of different kind of items. The students had to come to an agreement about what items they wanted to take to the island. They could only finish when everyone had agreed. This one went very well and the students ended up using a lot of “if… then…” clauses. If the students didn’t know what an item on the list was, I would describe it to them in Spanish until they figured it out and said it in English.

I tried to do this exercise with one of my Spanish 2 students, but her level of Spanish wasn’t high enough to do this, so instead I simply spent 20 minutes describing (in Spanish) the different items on the list and seeing if she could figure what they were. She enjoyed doing this a lot more than when I lectured her on grammar for an hour.

I have included samples of the three exercises. I intentionally left the directions vague. They would have to listen to me explain them in Spanish. Attempting to comprehend directions is a very important part of language acquisition, and is almost as important as the exercise itself.

Coming up with your own activities is extremely rewarding and truly forces you to be creative. When trying to make an activity, it’s best to force the students to come to an agreement on something. This will cause them to communicate with one another, which is precisely what you want. Also, try to think of phrases they will need to express themselves accurately while doing the exercise. If you can’t think of what words your students will need, try having a couple of your friends do the exercise in English, and then record and translate the phrases that that were most common or useful. If you can’t come up with a clever exercise, go see one of your favorite language teachers and ask them if they have any ideas.

I am not a native speaker, nor a heritage speaker of Spanish. I have only spoken Spanish for about 6 years but I have spent a great amount of time abroad learning the language and I consider myself functionally fluent, but my ability to speak is far from perfect.

If you are like this, keep in mind that it doesn’t matter very much. Do not hold back from speaking. Your students will not notice if you screw up the gender on something, or you conjugate something in the present instead of the past. Your students need to be spoken to, no matter what their level or yours.

Discussing grammar for an entire hour-long session is not particularly productive when it comes to acquiring a language. It is also extremely boring. Your students will undoubtedly have questions about grammar, and being able to answer them is important. However, if you want to see your students improve in actually speaking Spanish, rather than just getting better grades on the test, get them to use the language in a realistic manner.

Example activities:

iiiiEl barco se está hundiendo!!!! iHay una isla en la distancia! iEstámos salvados! Podemos llevar sólo una cosa de cada lista.


Sacos de dormir

La red de pesca

un rifle de caza


Botellas de agua


Una lancha inflable


Tienda de campaña

Tabletas de yodo



Papel Higiénico


Grabadora de Casetes


Papel y pluma


Fruta Seca


Latas de frijoles

Chaquetas impermeables


Lleguen a un acuerdo con tus compañeros y ordenen los países siguientes por números de habitantes.












Here is an additional activity. Ask them what advice they would give the girl who posted this on yahoo answers. This was taken directly from mx.answers.yahoo.com:

Tienes consejos para ésta chica?

¿Ya no tengo tema de conversación con mi novio :(?

No se que hacer, como que ya no hablamos mucho, solo besos besos y más besos y si hablamos pero no como deberíamos hacerlo creo yo... Nos vemos todos los días y cuando hablamos por fb no tenemos de que hablar, solo te amo yo más, no yo más.. también que haces, nada tu nada? y repetimos eso; la verdad no se porque pasa eso llevamos 8 meses de relación *-* y la verdad es que no quiero terminar con el y menos que el lo haga, ayudame por favor!

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