How to Teach Spanish, Post-Textbook: Finding Your Way to CI

How to Teach Spanish, Post-Textbook: Finding Your Way to CI

Inside: How to teach Spanish without a textbook– finding strategies that really work.

When I got rid of my Spanish textbook, I wanted to jump right into planning. Just tell me what to do, on a day-to-day basis, please!

The WHY has to come first, though. Even really good materials can go wrong if the teacher doesn’t know WHY she’s doing what she’s doing. So I spent a lot of time studying up on HOW students learn language and WHERE we were going as a class. Once you have that down, it’s finally time to look at methods, materials, and strategies.

how to teach spanish without a textbook

When I looked at what was out there, I felt lost in a sea of acronyms. Everyone seemed to be preaching his or her method, and showing off the student success I yearned for. Was TPRS® the only right way? Should I spend my summers hunting down authentic resources? And really– is an IPA a beer or an assessment?

It’s tempting to join a FB group, hear all the awesome things other teachers are doing, and want to do EVERYTHING, right now. My advice is to read up, and choose two or three strategies to begin with. Start there, and watch your students. What is bringing life to your class? What satisfies your school requirements? What do you love to do?

As you research, ask two questions about any method/strategy/activity:
1) Does it provide compelling, comprehensible input?
2) Does it efficiently support growth in proficiency?

Activities that answer “YES” should be the meat of your day.

Under that criteria, I dropped a lot of traditional work: out-of-context vocab lists, isolated grammar drills, projects that looked pretty but didn’t result in proficiency growth, etc. (Caveat: Some of you have requirements to teach explicit grammar, or a certain way. I still do a teensy bit of grammar. But it doesn’t support 1 or 2, so I work hard to keep it to a minimum.)

As a fellow beginner, I’d like to run down the list of popular methods and acronyms, give my opinion if I have one, and then point you to the experts I trust. If something resonates with you– AND supports proficiency/provides good input– start there. Some of these are little pieces of teaching and assessing language, and some are entire methods.

How to Teach Spanish: Finding Your Way Among the Acronyms and Strategies


1. CI

It’s important to note that Comprehensible Input is not a strategy or method. CI is more of a definition: messages that students understand. Through CI, our students acquire language.

Here’s the thing: there are different ways of providing CI. Even a grammar textbook will incorporate a tiny amount of CI. El libro es grande. It’s just normally limited, out of context, and woefully dry.

Our job as teachers is to ask: what activities provide the best input? What is interesting to my students?

When I started to calling myself a “CI Teacher,” it really meant: I believe that students acquire language through CI. Therefore, I now employ strategies that maximize exposure to quality CI. (Spoiler alert: my favorites are TPRS®, MovieTalk, authentic music, and novels.)


 2. TPRS®

Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling® is a collaborative method of storyasking, between the teacher and the class, and originally created by Blaine Ray. I rely on it heavily, though not exclusively or strictly. I found that by using student actors and creating a memorable story, the structures stuck. As in, I almost completely eliminated vocabulary quizzes, grammar exercises, and homework, with better results.


Many people picture it as a marathon of ridiculous stories, or repetitive questions. It can be, but it needn’t be. I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with TPRS and doing a training, before you rely on hearsay or one impression to make the decision. Many other techniques utilize and build on the skills you’ll acquire through TPRS.

For Spanish 1 and 2, I story-ask about once or twice week unless we’re in a novel unit. It’s an exhausting day, but the stories remain so vivid that the follow-up activities, discussions, and readings usually go well.

Read & see more:

TPRS with Martina Bex
TPRS with Ben Slavic
What I Love About TPRS by Musicuentos
TPRS Strategies I Don’t Put in My Toolbox by Musicuentos
See an example of a unit built around storyasking once a week, from Martina Bex.



 3. #authres

Authentic resources are materials from native speakers meant for native speakers, not learners. I LOVE a good authentic resource when I can find one. My absolute favorite is authentic songs or video clips that coincide with structures we’re learning.

Where I differ from the #authres movement is the assumption that authentic is always better, or that students will learn better Spanish. I am cautious when I hear of schools trying to base everything they do on authentic resources.

For upper-level classes, they are incredibly useful. For novices, it depends. I think #authres are best used when the end goal is very clear. For example, if I want the students to acquire Spanish efficiently, I’ll grab a novel written for students. If I want them to feel the thrill of reading a “real” Spanish text or work on finding the main idea, I’ll give them an authentic reading.

Too much dependence on #authres: Students acquire less. They have good real-word skills of finding the main idea, or recognizing vocabulary, but fewer internalized structures.
Too little exposure to #authres: students are frustrated that in real life that everything isn’t comprehensible. They are give up easily or lack the confidence to persevere in confusing situations.

Creative Language Class is an amazing resource for centering your lessons on #authres.
How to Find #authres on Social Media from Secondary Spanish Space
Authentic Resources vs Learner Materials from Musicuentos
Authentic Songs for Spanish 1, Spanish 2, and Advanced Spanish Classes


4. IPAs

Integrated performance assessments reflect the ACTFL standards. They measure interpretive reading, interpretive listening, presentational writing, presentational speaking, and interpersonal communication. Instead of parsing sentences and conjugating verbs, the students interpret and respond to authentic resources.

In Spanish 1, I diverged a bit from my mainly-TPRS track to do a unit on food. My students travel sometimes or eat a Latino restaurants, and a themed food unit would help them be ready for real-life interactions. I decided to backwards design from an IPA at the end of the unit, in which we would read authentic restaurant menus and watch YouTube videos of recipes made by native speakers. Months after, I had students report back how they’d ordered for their whole family in Mexico, pleased as pie with themselves.

In this case, although I incorporated CI through readings and stories, I was deliberately targeting other skills. We used lots of authentic resources because the goals went beyond just acquisition: we were developing skills of getting the main idea from reading and listening to native speakers.

I am on the fence about IPAs, though that may be because I haven’t been trained to use them. They are far better than grammar-based tests. They do a great job of prepping for Spanish in the real world. They tend to produce confident students with real-world skills.

On the other hand, IPAs are a lot of work without being entirely authentic. The interpersonal section doesn’t reflect speaking with a native, and the #authres are still weeded through carefully, to find resources that are fairly understandable and appropriate. I feel like my free-writes or tests on learner materials (which are way less work on my end) give me an equally good sense of their proficiency levels. I think IPAs can be really great, as long as you are careful to provide rich input, and not just teach to the test.

IPAs with Jen Shaw  Jen is fantastic and will be so helpful for beginners.
Examples of IPAs
Seven Steps to Creating an IPA from Madame Shepard

5. Novels

My favorite way to teach Spanish is through novels created for earners. There’s huge selection available at Fluency Matters. You can develop a months-long unit based on the novel that incorporates culture and history, and read together as a class. Novels are also perfect for FVR (Free Voluntary Reading) or SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), and I often start class with 10 minutes of SSR/FVR.

Fluency Matter Novels
Teaching with Novels 101 from Secondary Spanish Space
How Should I Use Novels in Class? from Martina Bex

6. PQA

Personalized Question and Answering is as old as the hills: talking with your students, about them and things that interest them. I had tried my hand at it from the beginning, but after seeing it done as a TPRS skill, I learned more how to make it comprehensible and compelling. It can be a way to create input around target structures leading into a story, and some skillful teachers can spend an entire period on PQA.

PQA is very simple and effective: ask students about themselves. Center the conversation on them. It gets in many reps, and is usually high-interest.

How to Do PQA from Susan Gross
PQA in a Wink from Ben Slavic
PQA My Way from Alina Filipescu



7. MovieTalk®

MovieTalk is another TPRS technique for delivering CI. I LOVE it. MovieTalk is basically narrating a video clip through comprehensible language. The teacher narrates the story, pauses, points, and ask questions as necessary. I actually like it better than storytelling, because it’s so compelling and you don’t have to come up with the story on your own.

After the MovieTalk, you can give readings of the story or do extension activities. I choose MovieTalks that show structures we’re learning and lend themselves to what we know.

See examples of MovieTalk mini-units here from Martina Bex: Justino and The Janitor Story.





8. OWL

OWL (Organic World Language) sounds amazing!– but I am not sure how to find out much information aside from attending a training directly from the organization (which I haven’t done). I do know it uses 100% TL, and tons of games, interactive activities, and movement. Several bloggers I follow incorporate OWL into their teaching:

La Maestra Loca
World Language Classroom
Organic Language Learning


9. PBL

I know nothing about Project-Based Learning, but Laura at PBL in the TL does!


10. Story Listening

I am totally new to story listening, but I’m intrigued. Here’s a video demonstration from Beniko Mason:


And here’s the website to read more about the SL method. I like that this method focuses on great, classic stories. One of my criticisms of TPRS has been that it seems to be silly, crazy stories all the time. That’s fun, and effective, but it seemed to be missing the component of filling our students beautiful, good texts. Perhaps this is the missing key? I haven’t wrapped my head around non-targeted input, though, and how it would work to do this full-time.


11. OWI

Haven’t done One Word Images personally. Check out the videos below for more:




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How to teach Spanish with Authentic Songs

How to teach Spanish with Authentic Songs

Inside: How to teach Spanish with authentic music, in the middle and high school classroom.


I didn’t know how to teach Spanish with authentic music, as a new teacher. Fresh from living in Peru and head over heels for the language and culture, I sat down with the textbook. Apparently, for the first half of Spanish I, we would learn classroom objects, articles, greetings, and regular verbs. Hmm. How did authentic songs with irregular verbs and  fit in?

I tried out some of my favorite music in class anyway, but it kind of bombed. We were listening to noise. Extremely catchy noise, but nothing comprehensible. I reverted to grammar songs and conjugation jingles. They were cute, but I was feeding my students the parts: hoping one day all the pieces would come together into the whole language I wanted them to acquire.

Then I finally got that I needed to start with whole, intact, understandable language. Real-life communication is the goal, and songs became more accessible because we were learning high-frequency verbs right away. I saw how comprehensible input and authentic resources could work together. My students could acquire authentic language and real-life skills like getting the gist of a text and picking familiar words out from unfamiliar word. My job was to introduce songs with the language we needed, and find a way to make it comprehensible.

(Just here looking for music suggestions? See my Songs in Spanish by theme and category.)

So, here’s what I wish someone had told me as a newbie teacher:


1. Think through the goal.


How will the song connect to your current targets? Will it be a cultural connection? Are you looking to highlight a pattern (present progressive, ir + a, etc.)? Do you want to focus on certain phrases or vocabulary? Here are some huge lists of authentic Spanish songs I came up with for Spanish 1, Spanish 2, and Spanish 2.


2. Think about how much of the song can be comprehensible.


How much of the song can you use? I used to get stuck because I didn’t know how to use a song that used many words we didn’t know, or grammar we hadn’t learned. I really think that songs are the best way to hook students to content just above their proficiency level. You can, of course, explain the entire song or provide a translation.

– Some authentic songs can be 100% comprehensible, if you work through them a bit. Very simple songs-perhaps children’s songs- are a great way to see how language works as a whole.

– Some are best because they repeat key phrases. Your students might not understand everything, but esto no me gusta and te estaba buscando get repeated a bazillion times and they never forget those phrases. If you are using a grammar-based approach, this is a good way to help set patterns; if you are CI-based, it helps to cement target structures from a different context.

– For other songs, the verses aren’t the focus, but the chorus can be understand and remembered. Voy a reír, voy a bailar, vivir mi vida, lalala…  The chorus is what your students will walk away singing anyway, so in this situation zero in all of your activities on that part.


How to teach Spanish with authentic songs


3. Plan how you’ll make the song comprehensible.


How can you bridge the gap from what your students know, to the song? There’s a whole lot more out there than what I’ve done in class, but here are some ideas. This will of course depend on how much of the song you plan to use and teach.

-Pre-teach important vocabulary/phrases.

– Listen to the song and project the lyrics onto the board. Focus on the parts you want them to know, and summarize the parts in between so they get the gist of the lyrics. Circle the phrases you want to emphasize, asking personalized questions to the students. In La bicicleta, for example, Shakira says, puedo ser feliz… I pause there, and we discuss. Students might fill in the blank for themselves (puedo ser feliz… tomando café, sin tarea, etc.) I don’t pause and translate/discuss every line, as that would kill the enjoyment. We will listen to the songs many times, so there is plenty of time to study different parts.

– Create an embedded reading to scaffold the text of the song.

– Watch the music video if it’s appropriate (preview, preview preview…  I speak from experience!), and pause to discuss. Use language the students know to discuss what’s happening and to help them interpret the lyrics.

I think songs are one of the best uses of authentic resources. While most of the time I want class to be comprehensible, music is a good way to get students to take risks and try to derive meaning from something above their level.


4. Create some activities to work through the song.


– Try Draw, Write, Check: have your students divide a piece of paper into 4 or 6  parts. Give them a phrase to draw for each part. Then, play the song. Each time they hear the phrase they drew, make a tally mark and check numbers after the song.

– Do an old-fashoined cloze activity.

– Type up the lyrics on the left side of a paper, and have students summarize each section on the right.

– Ask several questions (Is the singer sad? What does he wish would happen?) Give the students markers to highlight and color code the lyrics that give evidence for the answers.

– Change the voice of the singer from third to first person, or vice-versa.

– Make up actions and sing along!


If you’re looking for an easy activity packet to teach with authentic songs, you may want to check out my bundle:




More ideas from other teachers on how to teach with authentic music:


¡La música! from Kristy Placido

What can I DO {-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-da} with a song?

– Create a PPT with screenshots of the music video, a la MovieTalk like in this example from Kristy Placido

Música miércoles for using Spanish songs weekly from Mis Clases Locas


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how to teach Spanish with authentic songs

Why I’m Throwing Out my Spanish Textbook

Why I’m Throwing Out my Spanish Textbook

Inside: Teaching Spanish without a textbook.


I finally did it.

Last year, I half-used my textbook, wanting to get rid of it and yet not quite knowing what to do instead. It had been a year of feverish research, scrolling through blog posts late at night, reading opposing opinions and sometimes coming away more confused than ever.

I knew at a gut-level there was a better way. Perhaps it was that years of being homeschooled had impressed the word textbook into my mind as a dirty word. My mother mostly eschewed traditional textbooks for subjects like history and language arts. We were too busy reading real books– living books, as Charlotte Mason termed them. Drills, passages out of context, and multiple choice answers seemed like an oddity, as if one were being asked to study and label the parts of a bicycle instead of just getting on and riding it.

teaching spanish without a textbook

Like most of you, I started with a thick textbook when I first taught high school Spanish. My formal background is Elementary Education, and I’d dabbled in TPRS when tutoring and teaching Spanish in younger grades. So when it came to teaching high school, it was me, my gut, and the textbook. And the internet. Thank goodness for the internet!

Over the first few years, I saw that the textbook wasn’t best. I couldn’t have told you why at first, but I think I can finally explain what wasn’t working and why.

As you read, keep in mind that here I’m referring to traditional textbooks– there may very well be textbooks out there that work better than mine did. Also, I’m not in the “better a bad day of TPRS than a good day with the textbook” camp. To be honest, some of my lessons this year were embarrassingly bad. I’m not about to say that an amazing teacher working within the constraints of a textbook couldn’t possibly teach as well I can on a good or bad day. The point I’d like to consider is whether the textbook is the best tool for teaching language.

(Update: since writing this post, I’ve since created am entire page for all my posts on Textbook-Free Spanish Teaching.)


Teaching Spanish Without A Textbook: Why?


So, why am I throwing out my textbook? Basically, my textbook does not “get”

  • proficiency (where we are going and what can the student do), or
  • acquisition (how language is taken in, primarily through comprehensible input).

Once I began to understand proficiency and acquisition, it all began to make sense. Research was telling me that a proficiency-based, comprehensible-input-driven Spanish classroom is the path to acquisition. The textbook was just on much a different path, and in fact never used the terms proficiency, comprehensible input, or acquisition.

I’ve got some concrete reasons why I’m throwing out the textbook, but I’d like to unpack proficiency and acquisition first. I’m no expert, but I will cite some authors who are.


Teaching to Proficiency: Where are we going?


Most textbooks plan to give students an introduction to the language: to teach them about Spanish. Over the course of a few years, students are taught the entirety of Spanish grammar and a smattering of vocabulary themes. Their progress is marked by how many tenses they can use and the accuracy of their sentences, how many vocabulary lists the students have “memorized.”

As I understand it, in the proficiency-based classroom, expressing and understanding meaning is the ultimate goal. The point is not what material has been covered: I am an advanced Spanish student because I can conjugate verbs in the subjunctive. The question is what the students can do to express meaning. Beginners understand and produce simple messages; progress is shown as those messages grow in complexity.

The real goal is to actually “rise in proficiency” as Joshua Cabral at World Language Classroom says. Progression through proficiency mimics the process that children go through in learning their own native language. They begin with words, move to phrases, and eventually string together increasingly complex sentences to communicate meaning.

Proficiency is what a student can do in an unrehearsed context and therefore a true measure of one’s ability in a language. Once I became familiar with the ACTFL Standards and Can-Do Statements, I realized that my lessons– based on the textbook– were designed to help students memorize rules and terms to pass a test. Teaching to actual proficiency was going to require entirely new methods, and certainly new assessments.

This may seem like a lot of theory, but it has a huge impact on where we spend our time. Where we were are going directly affects all the little things we do in class, day in and day out. Will we spend precious hours drilling rules and marking exercises with a red pen? Will we spend time reading real books and having interesting discussions? Are we trying to ride the bike or become bike mechanics?


Acquisition: How do students “get” language?


Most textbooks are based on the explicit theory of language: that language can be broken into rules which are taught, memorized, and drilled.

Sara Elizabeth Cottrell at Musicuentos has a good breakdown of the approach textbooks take:


The problem with this focus on “forms” is that it assumes that language is acquired through learning about the language. Stephen Krashen and and Bill Van Patten have done extensive work researching the difference between learning and acquisition, and both argue that acquisition is achieved through massive amounts of comprehensible input. I still think accuracy has its place, but CI is ultimately how language gets into our heads.

It’s a lot of semantics– when I looked up learn in the dictionary, acquire was a term used to describe the word learn– but this distinction is important. Before, for example, I would have assumed that because a student could correctly conjugate verbs in the present tense, that they had “acquired” the present tense. And I would move onto the next grammar point. If a student couldn’t correctly conjugate verbs, I would have assumed they needed more conjugation exercises– not more compelling, comprehensible input.

Bill Van Patten explains this really well in this series:


So, those are the theoretical reasons. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, here are more immediate reasons why the textbook wasn’t working.


1. The Crazy Vocabulary Lists


I am not entirely ready to abandon vocabulary lists, but I am done, done, done with the ones my textbook created! They usually center on a specific theme, and are unbearably long. Students will make flash cards, take quizzes, see the words in boring worksheets, and then never see 75% of them ever again. But words learned in themes like this, out of context, individually, are actually really hard to get into the long-term memory.

I am increasingly convinced that if lists are to be given, they should be given in context, chunked (set in phrases) if possible, and short. They should also be needed words. My textbook started with greetings, which is a logical place to start. However, since this was the book’s opportunity to introduce greetings, every possible greeting was taught right then. My students authentically needed ¿Cómo te llamas? right away, but el placer es mío, el gusto es mío, igualmente, and encantado/a were overkill. For students two weeks into Spanish class, mucho gusto is plenty to get by on.

I don’t mean those terms should never be introduced. When we do speed dating activities, the students love variety and I build the terms in. But the textbook’s method of introducing every variant on a certain theme, at once, is overwhelming. At the end of the day, students still walk away with ¿Cómo te llamas? and not the other terms, even if all of them were “memorized” and quizzed.

As an aside, Charlotte Mason advocated fewer, but higher-quality picture books and poems for young children. You will hear now that parents should expose their children to many, many, books and poems. The thought is that the more vocabulary and stories children hear, the better and more diverse their own language will be. I’ve come to agree with Mason that fewer stories– but dearly loved, memorized, recited, stories– will actually produce richer language. Sometimes more is less.


2. Not ordered by High-Frequency


Vocabulary and grammar are introduced as complete, deep themes, to be thoroughly studied before moving on. In my textbook, students spend the first months learning greetings, classroom objects and subjects, ar verbs, numbers, days, etc. Now, I have some fun games to make this less painless. But try creating compelling content and interesting discussions with those topics! –AR verbs are presented first because the pattern is “easy,” not because they are actually higher frequency verbs. So my students were learning la física and descansar before tener and hay.

If I were required to use the textbook, I would still make sure to incorporate some storytelling from the get-go and introduce the “Super Seven” that Terry Waltz came up with:



3. Grammar as the Path to Language Acquisition


Most textbooks look at a language and break it down into pieces of grammar. In Spanish, the first year is generally focused on the present tense and all the parts that go with it: ser vs. estar, direct object pronouns, all regular, irregular, and stem-changing verbs.

Instead of introducing real content that includes these patterns, the language is introduced grammar concept by grammar concept and then drilled. When teaching ser vs. estar, for example, the students take notes on every. single. rule. that applies to ser vs. estar. Students who can barely express and understand meaning at a very basic (novice) level are expected to “master” this quite difficult concept because it falls under the present-tense Spanish-One category.

I haven’t, actually, hopped onto the “grammar is evil” boat. I think there’s a time for it. But I used to think that in learning the rules for accuracy, we were acquiring Spanish. I now see grammar as a tool for accuracy, specifically.


4. Too Little Comprehensible Input


Our textbooks were packed. They just weren’t packed with comprehensible input. Aside from some videos, cultural notes, and song lyrics or emails here and there, the bulk of the program was “practice.” My students need massive amounts of quality input– to be read, heard, watched– to understand and speak Spanish.

Most of the input they DID see in the textbook, unfortunately, was confusing  (= not comprehensible), and made them feel like Spanish was just “too hard.” I think this was because we began with explanations and lists, practiced the skills, and that led up to the content. Of course, because the vocabulary and grammar went really “deep,” it was hard to master both thoroughly enough to be comfortable with the related content.

Here’s another video from Musicuentos that explores grammar, input, and “skill” a but further:


5. Comprehensible Input That Isn’t Compelling


Of the little CI available in textbooks, most of it is sad, sad, sad. This is true of most textbooks anyway: content is soon outdated, boring, irrelevant, and low-quality as far as literature goes. Most of time, grammar (with vocab), was the point. Content was there as a way to practice the particular “skill.”

Now language, of course, is a means for communicating an actual message, a story, or an emotion. If the message or story is boring, the students will think that language is boring. If the students don’t feel invested in our discussion–i.e., they feel no emotion– then Spanish is tedious.

Reading real living books this year, Esperanza and Piratas del Caribe, showed me what can happen when input is absolutely compelling. All of a sudden we were debating whether romance or money was more important (in Spanish) and boy, did they pay attention to what the others were saying! In a thank-you note at the end of the year, one student wrote, “Now I know the priorities of the guys in our class, hah.” These moments were hard to come by with a textbook. Authentic resources and non-fiction have their places, but it’s pretty hard to find anything as compelling as a story. 

Again, here’s another video from Musicuentos to explain this better than I can:


Whew. This post was a long time in coming. The internet can be both an awesome resource and a path to self-condemnation for teachers. I know that many of you don’t have flexibility like I do, and have to follow a set curriculum. I know that many of you have zero time to plan, and go home to kids or other responsibilities. Throwing out your textbook just isn’t realistic right now. Hopefully my complaints against the textbook can just help you think through how to use yours and work with what you have.

Again, Musicuentos to the rescue with a Checklist on when to use textbook activities and advice on when you are Forced to Adapt a Textbook. Be sure to follow Joshua Cabral from World Language Classroom on Periscope– he has great scopes on teaching for Proficiency, regardless of what materials you use. Throw Away Your Textbook is another good resource.

What about you? Do you love your textbook? Are you already teaching Spanish without a textbook? Do you want to throw it out, but can’t? Are you totally starting from scratch like me? I’d love to hear your experience!

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