The day I became a Spanish teacher

The other day I was catching up with an ex student of mine from Ohio, when he mentioned he was going to spend 3 weeks in Costa Rica, taking part in a biology course. Before I had time to think about what I was saying, I offered to give him a crash course in Spanish over Skype. Yeah, I know, I am a French teacher and I have NEVER taught Spanish. But I lived in Costa Rica, my husband is a Tico, we have family living in San Jose, and my Spanish is good enough. It is funny though because I have turned down a few leads to teach Spanish since I moved to Tennessee, and yet here I was offering my services.  The truth is though, I had a vision for how I was going to approach this because I know this student’s abilities pretty well and I was excited for the challenge.

So, instead of doing what any normal teacher would do: ask my Spanish colleagues for some Spanish 1 materials, I decided to design a course based on what I knew about my student and what I understood his needs to be (student-centered):

1. He was leaving in a little over a week, so we were only going to have 5 sessions of 45 min each. I had to make every minute count using Comprehensible Input (Duh!)

2. He had never traveled to Costa Rica and had not had any significant exposure to Spanish, so he needed basic cultural understanding and survival language (in context)

3. He is fluent in French (received a 5 on the AP exam, which is close to impossible for non native speakers) and has studied Chinese. I knew his French would transfer over to Spanish, especially with regards to reading

4. He is highly motivated and very analytical

I decided to deliver Comprehensible Input using a combination of three approaches:

  1. Story Listening
  2. Picture Talk
  3. Personal Questions & Answers (PQA)
  4. (Homework: reading a CI novel)

I purchased two copies of “Robo en la noche” a CI novel by Kristy Placido. This book takes place in Costa Rica, has a lot of cultural elements, and the main character’s dad is an ecologist! This book is definitely not a true beginner book, as it has 379 unique words (for reference “Brandon Brown dice la verdad” only has 75 unique words) but I knew my student’s French would help him tremendously and there was a strong connection between the book and his own trip.

Lately, I had been experimenting with the Story Listening approach developed by Dr. Beniko Mason and binge watching Alice Ayel and Kathrin Shechtman‘s story listening videos for beginners (I will write another blog post about Story Listening later). I decided to use Story Listening to deliver daily summaries of what happens in the book.

I followed this procedure:

  1. Each night I send him a mini “word wall” handout, with chunks of language my student is going to hear a lot the next day (Note: this is not pre-teaching, this is to jump start his comprehension of what I am going to say the next day).
  2. Drawing on my small whiteboard, I tell him a short story, summarizing what happens in the book. I modeled this from Alice Ayel. He refers to his word wall and I let him tell me when he does not understand (this happened maybe three times total). Usually about 10-15 min of uninterrupted input (No circling, just telling the story).
  3. I picture talk images related to the story using the Skype screen share function (E.g. a picture of a “Plato casado“, a typical Costa Rican dish). Usually about 10-15 min of mostly input. Some spontaneous questioning also happens during picture talk. 
  4. I ask him Personalized Questions & Answers. Usually about 5-10 min.
  5. When I am done, I *graciously* allow him to ask me any questions he wants about grammar. Because I know he is part of the 2% of students who actually care about grammar. He floods me with brilliant observations and follow-up questions…
  6. The night following our class, I send him the mini story, which he translates into English and emails me back. He then reads the corresponding chapters of the novel on his own. Note: my student told me he understood 80-90% of what was printed in the book. While this percentage is amazing for someone who has never read a word of Spanish (The force is strong with this student and did I mention his French is amazing?), I realize it is not “comprehensible enough” but I am still glad I assigned it as homework because this student is so motivated.

Did this crash course meet his needs? Granted, my student is not going to interact with locals like a native after such little exposure. But the course was conducted 95% in Spanish, was highly cultural, stayed focused on foundation language without forcing language repetition (the language repetition was there but it felt very natural), was highly comprehensible and personalized, generated enthusiasm and excitement for the upcoming trip, and there was laughter and “aha” throughout.

My student said “I really liked having the lessons customized to Costa Rica and to my own learning pace.” I have asked him to let me know if the course was really helpful once he comes back from his trip (isn’t that the true test?).

For me as a teacher, I really enjoyed pulling different CI techniques from my “mochilla” to create this mini-course. I am so glad I am at this point in my career where I can actually do that. I am also grateful I have such a wonderful network of CI teachers “around” me with insightful blogs and websites, from whom I have and I am still learning so much: Martina Bex, Judith DuboisMike Peto, Claire Walter, and more recently Kathrin Shechtman and Alice Ayel.


  1. Merci Cécile, super intéressant ! The major “issue” I have teaching online is that my learners want to speak! They feel they have to repeat what I say and speak a lot. So I am doing lots of PQA and also the Invisibles. I am going to try Picture Talk too, it sounds great. I also send the written story we created to my learners but I don’t ask them to translate, I just ask them to read it and sometimes I add comprehension questions in the target language. If they are beginners, there are closed questions with yes/no answers. Thank you again for this very informative post. I am glad you enjoy the videos, it is not easy to be in front of the camera, lol!

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