Sonrisas Spanish Blog

Teaching Tips from Sonrisas Spanish

Posts from Brooks and Blue

SunMeet Katy Harris

Katy Harris began teaching kindergarten in 1993 in Steamboat Springs, CO after attending the University of Arizona and receiving her degree in elementary education with a minor in Spanish and an endorsement in bilingual education. In 2005 Katy took a break from teaching to raise her two boys. During this time she tutored and taught Spanish to a homeschool co-op group of elementary through middle school students. When she returned to teaching in the public schools in 2012, she taught reading intervention and then landed a job teaching Spanish at Soda Creek Elementary School in Steamboat. Katy teaches grades K-5th , seeing almost 600 students once per week for fifty minutes as part of the Specials team. In her first year teaching Spanish, she traveled to the different classrooms with a cart, which was very challenging. She is now fortunate to have her own classroom where she creates a lively and immersive Spanish environment. Soda Creek Elementary recently received the John Irwin School of Excellence award given by the Colorado Department of Education.


BookHow Sonrisas Spanish is Effective for Katy

Katy uses Sonrisas Level I and Level II for her K-3rd grade students, and she adapts content from those lessons for her 4th and 5th graders. She recently purchased Sonrisas Level III and is planning on diving in with that for her older students. Katy loves the literature that accompanies the lessons, and she feels that the storybooks really help her connect with her students. She says that the literature helps them to stay grounded in their Spanish—especially when she has only a limited amount of time with them. She also appreciates how the storybooks in the lessons are effective at helping students retain language concepts. In short, Katy thinks that the Sonrisas lessons really stick with her students.


lightbulb4Teaching Tips from Katy

A common practice for Katy is to have students hold on to the art projects from the lessons so that she can use them for review. She’ll have students write phrases, vocabulary, and questions from the lessons on their art projects and then review with them—often times holding on to them for weeks—before sending them home. Katy’s 1st-5th grade students have composition books in which they glue many of the art projects and write key phrases and vocabulary. Katy will then use these for review throughout the year. This also provides her students with a nice portfolio-like product that they can use for reading and review and that they can show to parents at the end of the year.

In her classroom, Katy sets up a variety of different stations for her students where they can practice their Spanish through reading, writing, games, and interacting with the many visuals in the room. Her younger students do an activity where they “write around the room”—they search for words from the various classroom visuals and write them on white boards. Katy also mentions that she likes to keep her students moving.


heart4What Inspires Katy

Katy loves the subject she teaches and believes that learning languages is fascinating. She likes that she gets to have a lot of fun with her job, and she enjoys singing, acting, and being dramatic. She loves the energy of working with children and having the opportunity to learn alongside them. She feels that teaching elementary Spanish is a great profession because she gets to grow and learn more every day. Katy really enjoys that she is able to help kids realize that learning Spanish is an attainable goal.

Circle TimeIf you would like to connect with Katy, you can do so by emailing her at


Sonrisas Feature Teacher celebrates teachers who are using the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum and tells their stories. If you know someone who would be a good candidate for a Sonrisas Feature Teacher, email us at

SunMeet Irene Quinonez

Irene holds both a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degree in education from Arizona State University with a minor in Spanish. After a thirty-year career as a teacher and curriculum specialist in the Mesa Unified School District, she retired and went into the mortgage business for nine years. Irene was approached by the principal at Christ the King Catholic School in Mesa, Arizona about teaching Spanish, and she accepted. She is in her sixth year of teaching there, and she teaches eleven different classes in grades K-8. When Irene started teaching Spanish, she noted that the school did not have any teaching materials that were appropriate for young children. She knew they needed something exciting, special, and engaging.

BookHow Sonrisas Spanish is Effective for Irene

The Sonrisas Spanish curriculum helped reaffirm for Irene that she was going in the right direction and teaching what children needed to be taught. Because of the time frame of her classes, Irene uses the teacher’s manual to pick and choose activities that work well with her classes. She loves using the songs in her classes and appreciates how they keep her students engaged. Her students love the songs on the Sonrisas CD so much that they often sing them completely on their own. Irene tells the story of the kindergarten teacher taking her children on a field trip to the Phoenix Zoo. When the children saw the elephants, they began singing the song “Un elefante” (track #7 on the Sonrisas CD) to the elephants in their enclosure! Needless to say, the kindergarten teacher as well as visitors were surprised to hear the children singing in Spanish. Irene also utilizes the storybooks not just with her younger students, but across the grade levels.

lightbulb4Teaching Tips from Irene

Irene’s advice to teachers is to start slowly and realize that you do not have to teach your students everything right away. It is more important to take the time to determine what your students’ needs are and then do what you have to do to meet those needs. In regard to native speakers in Spanish class, Irene believes that we need to assess where they are and move forward from there. She recognizes that while many of them know how to speak Spanish, they do not know how to read or write Spanish, and they have much to gain from Spanish class.

Irene also offers this idea for teaching colors. Cover some food boxes and cans with colored paper. Then you can do a variety of the following:

  • Put the items in a grocery bag. Unpack the grocery bag, one at a time, and ask children to give you the name of the color.
  • Set out the colored items. Select one student to choose an item. Let that child say the name of the color in English. Another child then gives the Spanish word for that color.
  • Have students pack up the grocery bag. As they put each item in the bag, have them say the name of the color in Spanish.


heart4What Inspires Irene

Irene is inspired by being with children and seeing the love they have for learning. She enjoys hearing stories from her students about them being in their community—for example in a restaurant—and then telling her that they heard Spanish and were able to understand it. She is also rewarded by the love her students show her and the opportunity to give it back.

Circle TimeIf you would like to connect with Irene, you can visit her teacher page on the Christ the King School website or email her at


Sonrisas Feature Teacher celebrates teachers who are using the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum and tells their stories. If you know someone who would be a good candidate for a Sonrisas Feature Teacher, email us at

SunMeet Rebecca Schackow

Rebecca graduated from the University of Florida in 1999 with a degree in Spanish and Education. She moved to Denver, CO where she helped create the elementary and middle school Spanish program at St. Thomas Moore Catholic School. After teaching for two years, Rebecca moved back to Florida and spent twelve years raising her children. Two years ago she was offered the opportunity to teach Spanish at Brentwood School in Gainesville. Rebecca teaches Spanish to every class at Brentwood—two year olds to 5th grade—with each level receiving one class per week ranging from 15 to 30 minutes long. She travels to the preschool classrooms, and the elementary students come to her Spanish room for class.

BookHow Sonrisas Spanish is Effective for Rebecca

Rebecca started using Sonrisas Level I with all of her classes last year. The content was the same for everyone, but she differentiated the activities for age, space, and length of class time. She does not do any of the art projects with the preschoolers—instead doing a completely oral class with the songs, games, and stories. Rebecca appreciates the literature component of the Sonrisas curriculum. She remarks, “Children love books!” Rebecca values the time saved planning and trying to find good books in Spanish, with good illustrations, that fit the topics her students are studying. She says, “Sonrisas has done that research for me—what a gift!” Rebecca follows the Sonrisas curriculum pretty closely and moves at a slow and steady pace with her students. Last year she completed twelve lessons from Sonrisas Level I, and she expects to complete another twelve lessons this year. Last December Rebecca’s fourth and fifth grade classes practiced and performed the “Las Posadas” play (Lesson 32 in Sonrisas Level I) for some of the younger classes. They studied the history behind Las Posadas and practiced speaking and singing the lines of the play that is included in the curriculum. With simple costumes and props they performed the play, and it was wonderful.

lightbulb4Teaching Tips from Rebecca

Rebecca suggests that teachers need to be willing to look up something or create a new lesson plan if students show a real interest in a particular topic. For example, one of her students asked if they could learn the dance “Macarena.” Rebecca found a teaching video on YouTube, learned the dance, and taught it to her students. It was a lot of fun and a great way to get the wiggles out before class. Students learned about who wrote the song, who made the dance, where the song originated, and more. Rebecca says, “It was a great lesson—and one that I had never intended!”

heart4What Inspires Rebecca

Rebecca is inspired by learning. She loves to learn new things, and she loves to help people learn new things. She has loved studying and learning Spanish throughout her life and is thankful to be able to share what she knows with the children at Brentwood School. She finds Spanish to be a beautiful language that is fun to learn. Rebecca hopes to pass along her love of the language to her students.

Circle TimeIf you would like to connect with Rebecca you can reach her at or visit


Sonrisas Feature Teacher celebrates teachers who are using the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum and tells their stories. If you know someone who would be a good candidate for a Sonrisas Feature Teacher, email us at


Home Page ImageOnce again summer is coming to a close, and it is time to start planning and prepping for a new school year. Summer break is a valuable time for teachers to relax, reflect, and recharge. Hopefully you are feeling rejuvenated and excited about the year to come and all the rewards that it has to offer. As you get ready to teach your Spanish classes, here are five things you can do to plan and prep for your Sonrisas Spanish lessons:

  1. Read the introduction to your teachers manual thoroughly. The introduction is an in-depth look at the methodologies and implementation of the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum. The perspective you will gain from reading the introduction will make your lessons more effective and will provide you with knowledge that will be useful when talking to parents, administrators, and colleagues about your classes. Reading the introduction to the Sonrisas teacher’s manual is like taking a class on how to teach Spanish to children.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the activities in the lessons and practice them. Every lesson in Sonrisas Level I and Level II has a main lesson activity that introduces the language concepts. Some of the activities are simple, some are more complex. Become familiar with the activities, and even practice them beforehand. This will insure that they will go smoothly and that your students will benefit from them.
  3. Use the music CD’s as a resource to learn the songs and sing them yourself with your students while you perform the accompanying movement and gestures. This is way more effective than playing the songs on a player for your students. Your teacher’s manual has a section that contains the lyrics to the songs and the directions for all the movement and gestures that go along with the songs. The movement and gestures provide comprehensible input for your students, and they connect the language to your students’ physical bodies. This is a very important component of early childhood language acquisition.
  4. Start gathering art supplies for the art projects. There is an art supply list in the appendices of your teacher’s manual. Look at this as a starting point. Review the first several art projects that you will do and make sure you have the supplies for them. Most of the necessary supplies are common school supplies such as crayons, construction paper, and glue.
  5. Before you teach any given lesson, read the accompanying storybook. The storybooks that you read during the Story Time segment of each lesson have been chosen based on their effectiveness at teaching Spanish to children. They contain elements such as illustrations that convey the meaning of the text, repetitive text, and familiar, age-appropriate themes. The storybooks give your students an authentic experience with Spanish, and they engage your students’ imaginations in Spanish. When you are familiar with the book, you can use your tone, facial expression, and gestures to create an engaging and effective storytelling experience.


Remember that we are always available for any questions or support that you may need in teaching the Sonrisas Spanish lessons. Feel free to contact us anytime.

(970) 946-9780

Sun  Meet Sonja Whisman

Sonja began teaching in southern California in the early 90´s where she taught primary classes in grades K-3 (one being a K-2 combo for native speakers in Spanish). In the mid 90’s she moved to Texas and then Iowa where she home-schooled her children for seven years. Sonja worked as a substitute in Iowa, and as the local school districts learned that she could speak Spanish, she was called frequently for long-term Spanish substitute teaching jobs. She found that she really enjoyed it, and she discovered that the Midwest has vibrant foreign language programs. She enjoyed teaching Spanish so much that she went back to college to earn her Spanish language teaching credential for Iowa. Sonja’s first position was at Goodrell International Baccalaureate middle school in Des Moines, Iowa. Three years ago she moved to Arizona and was hired last year to teach Spanish at Mountain View Preparatory International Baccalaureate school in Cottonwood. IB schools require a foreign language to be taught at all levels. Sonja currently teaches Spanish for grades K-8 using the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum. She teaches the primary grades twice per week for 30 minutes and the upper grades twice per week for 40 minutes.

Book  How Sonrisas Spanish is Effective for Sonja

Sonja appreciates the organization and natural approach of the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum. She enjoys the songs, games, books to read, and art projects. She really loves the time that the independent projects give her to check each student’s understanding, one-on-one. She uses the curriculum suggestions for how to teach the different segments of the lessons, such as Circle Time, and she appreciates the focus on teaching to the multiple intelligences. Sonja uses Sonrisas Spanish in all grades and supplements the curriculum with additional vocabulary and grammatical concepts for her upper grades. Being a musician herself, her favorite part of the curriculum is the music, which she uses with all her classes—accompanying the class on her ukulele. She enjoys repeating the songs through the grade levels and believes that this repetition is helpful for her students. Sonja says, “Families who have siblings at our school have enjoyed the fact that their older and younger children can sing together at home and report that they frequently do (as well as reenact different lessons and activities)!” For Sonja, the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum has been fun to implement, easy to apply and easy to adapt. Her principal and the entire staff at Mountain View Preparatory have been very pleased with the results, and they are happy to have happy students of all ages enjoying Spanish.

lightbulb4  Teaching Tips from Sonja

Being a former English language Spalding-style reading teacher, Sonja feels that consistent practice in physically making the sound-symbol connection in any language is important. She includes in each day a short practice of sounding, writing, counting out (each student with a whiteboard and dry erase marker), and pronouncing current vocabulary words or sentences syllable by syllable. During the “sílabas” portion of class, students eagerly learn how to use the Spanish articles, other grammatical concepts, and new vocabulary. The entire school (460+ students) has responded very favorably to this, saying that this practice helps them very much with learning new words, understanding how Spanish words are written, and knowing what is expected from them on their independent work.

Sonja also has interpreted and incorporated many concepts and practices of Chris Biffle’s Whole Brain Teaching into her Spanish lessons, which has added another level of fun and motivation. (She says, “As if the Sonrisas Curriculum needed any more!”) These class management methods and techniques for good teaching incorporate a lot of physical movement and verbal response, keeping “teacher talk” down to around 50%.

heart4  What Inspires Sonja

Sonja loves to see children using their creative juices as they learn a foreign language because she feels that it gives them a feeling of freedom—that it is ok to try things, that it is ok to make mistakes, and that it is ok to have fun—all at the same time. She believes that barriers to learning come down as children express themselves in music, art, dramatizing the lyrics to a song, or performing skits. This seems to her to be the most natural and painless way to learn a language. She feels that learning a new language should be something like going on an interesting journey.

If you would like to connect with Sonja, you can do so by finding her on Facebook or by visiting the Mountain View Preparatory website at .


Sonrisas Feature Teacher honors exceptional teachers who are using the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum by telling their stories. If you know someone who would be a good candidate for a Sonrisas Feature Teacher, email us at

Fehl photo2Sun  Meet Debra Fehl

Debra has been teaching elementary Spanish at Rutgers Preparatory School in Somerset, NJ for six years. She started her career teaching literature, reading, and writing in grades 7-12. She then worked as an assistant in Pre-K at Rutgers Preparatory School where she learned all about early childhood development from the lead teacher. When the school needed a Spanish teacher, Debra stepped in to fill the position. Debra appreciates the cultural diversity at Rutgers Preparatory School and the fact that the school offers Spanish at the elementary level and five different world languages at the secondary level. Rutgers Preparatory School is the oldest independent school in New Jersey—celebrating their 250th anniversary this year! Debra teaches Spanish in grades K thru 5th with a schedule that goes from teaching twice per week for 30 minutes in the early grades to teaching three to five times per week for 45 minutes in the upper grades.

Book  How Sonrisas Spanish is Effective for Debra

Debra appreciates the organization of the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum. She likes how each lessons spells out which songs to sing, which books to read, and which projects to do. She finds it helpful that the curriculum explains how to teach the different segments of the lessons, such as Circle Time, and she likes how the curriculum connects to methodologies such as teaching to the multiple intelligences. Debra uses Sonrisas Spanish 100% for her early grades and implements different parts of the curriculum for her upper grades. Her favorite part of the curriculum is the music and the books which she uses with all her classes—she enjoys repeating the songs through all the grades and believes that this repetition is helpful for her students. For Debra, the Sonrisas Spanish curriculum has been easy to apply and easy to adapt.

lightbulb4  Teaching Tips from Debra

Debra uses puppets or stuffed animals to engage her students in conversation. For example: she will have her young students greet a puppet and introduce themselves to it using the phrase, “Hola Señor Plátano, me llamo ___.” She repeats this activity for up to six months until her students have mastered this very practical language usage. Debra also uses a mystery box to practice vocabulary with her students. They get to pull an object out of the mystery box, and then they say, “Yo tengo ___.” Debra emphasizes that she tries to keep her classes as fun as possible. She believes that speaking a new language can be intimidating for students, so she tries to make it as enjoyable and comfortable for them as she can.

heart4  What Inspires Debra

Debra is inspired by getting to watch children of all ages learn a new language through play and music. She says, “I get to set the tone for them, for years to come, that learning a new language and culture is fun and exciting, and it opens new doors for them.” Debra truly gets a lot of pleasure out of watching how much children can enjoy learning—and that inspires us.

If you would like to connect with Debra, you can do so by clicking on her social media links or by visiting the Rutgers Preparatory School websitefb  twitter  insta


Sonrisas Feature Teacher honors exceptional teachers who are using the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum by telling their stories. If you know someone who would be a good candidate for a Sonrisas Feature Teacher, email us at


One of the things that we talk about a lot here at Sonrisas Spanish is how learning a second language is a long-term endeavor. Many parents and administrators have the expectation of seeing results right away simply by putting their child in a Spanish class or making an elementary Spanish curriculum available. Teachers know the truth—that learning a second language takes time, consistent effort, and lots of repetition. The Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum provides an effective program in which preschool and elementary students acquire Spanish naturally with consistent instruction, age-appropriate activities, and lots of repetition. As you have been teaching this year, you have probably been moving forward through your lesson plans, adding new activities during Circle Time and dropping others that you did closer to the beginning of the school year. April is great time to start reviewing.

Look back on your lessons from earlier in the year to see if there are activities that you can begin to integrate back into Circle Time for review. Your students will welcome these activities as they are familiar, and they offer students the opportunity to use their prior knowledge. Don’t be hesitant to lengthen the duration of Circle Time in order to incorporate this review. A common practice for us in our own classes is to periodically take a day and do only Circle Time for an entire class—an entire class of singing, conversation, games, and activities—all in Spanish. In doing this, we are able to see the results of our long-term effort and realize that our students know a lot of Spanish. This is best practice—it gives you perspective and helps you to remember the big picture. Happy teaching!

Feeling Unsettled About a Trend

When I was in high school I placed third in a state-wide essay contest by writing a paper that argued all the reasons why two years in French or Spanish was not an adequate foreign language offering at our high school. I argued that students should be able to take at least three years of Spanish or French. Now, at the same high school, students can take as many years as they want of various world languages through an online program. And yet, if they want to study a second language with a fluent, living, human teacher, their only choice is Spanish for two years—less than they offered twenty-eight years ago when I wrote my essay. This seems to represent a trend in second language instruction.

It’s easy to see why this trend is happening. Now students can go to a computer lab and take an “interactive” video or computer-based course for literally pennies on the dollar that it would take to hire a qualified teacher. These programs advertise well. Administrators at schools K-12 are presented with advertising materials that sound amazing: “innovative,” “immerse students in language and culture,” “language-learning anywhere, anytime, from any device,” “you don’t need any prior Spanish knowledge for your students to effectively use the program,” and my personal favorite, “A name you know, a brand you trust.”

It occurred to me more than once that this unsettled feeling this trend gave me may indeed be sour grapes. As an elementary Spanish teacher for 20+ years, perhaps I am obsolete. My confidence was further compromised because I am not a native speaker, and indeed, most of the videos available use the voices of native speakers. Maybe students can learn better from a computer or a video. Or maybe I could improve the quality of my teaching by creating a “blended learning environment” for my students. I decided to sit down at my computer and “try a sample lesson.” I was met with a two-dimensional cartoon animal floating in a two-dimensional world, speaking in stilted “comprehensible input.” This was the “engaging, immersion in foreign language” that was advertised on the company’s website.

Without being able to put my finger on why, I decided not to incorporate video or interactive computer programming into my teaching. After all, my students were already engaged in an immersion environment. I knew they loved Spanish class, and most important, they were understanding and speaking Spanish. No, they weren’t learning from a native speaker, but nevertheless, they were learning Spanish.

Recently, I was hit with an “aha” moment. All of the sudden I had the answer to why my gut told me not to shift into a “blended learning” model as a teacher. It went deeper than everything I had read and learned at conferences about immersion, native speakers, comprehensible input, foreign language standards, and all the research-based lingo about effective foreign language teaching. It dug down deeper than all of this into the nature of language itself. What is language? I realized that every human being has an innate understanding of what language is— even if they speak only one language—and, the fundamental qualities of language that we all understand innately, are truths.

A Living, Dynamic Exchange

The first Merriam-Webster definition of language is: “the system of words and signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other.” In order for language to have meaning, it must have a receptive audience. When human beings communicate, we accompany words with gesture, animation, tone, facial expression, and eye-contact. The quality of these characteristics all shift depending on our audience. Our tone changes dramatically when we speak to an acquaintance as opposed to a family member. If you listen to two teenagers speak to each other, the vocabulary and gesture of speech are radically different than a student-to-teacher exchange. As speakers of language, we constantly scan the body language of our audience and adjust the quality of our communication to match our audience. When we sense an engaged, eager listener, we forge ahead confidently. When we see a skeptical frown, we may pause and ask for input from the listener to make sure that our communication is effective.

We have created all kinds of fillers that we put in our language to check the quality of our exchange. As someone tells a story or explains something to us we show that we are following them by interjecting: “mm-hmm,” “yeah,” “sure,” “right.” These all affirm our understanding and encourage the speaker to continue. If we are speaking, and we aren’t sure how effective our communication is we might say, “you know what I mean?” or “does that make sense?” or simply, “you know?” These are all phrases built into our exchange that cue the other party in the exchange to the effectiveness of communication. We have just as many cues that we give each other to convey when communication is not effective. For example, we might furrow our brow in confusion or interject, “wait, what?” or “would you repeat that?” In this way we cue each other to the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness in our linguistic exchange of information.

In fall 2014 I attended the ACTFL conference in San Antonio, TX. I went to several workshops, many very useful and educational. One workshop, however, stood well above and beyond every other experience I had at the conference. It was led by a woman named Darcy Rogers who founded an organization called OWL (Organic World Languages). After a short presentation she asked all of the attendees to join a breakout session with an OWL-trained teacher. She encouraged everyone to join a workshop in a language they had never studied. I ended up in a Swedish workshop. Through a series of dynamic activities, the teacher quickly observed what language exchanging opportunities were alive in this group of 30+ strangers. In less than twenty minutes, I had shared greetings with several strangers. When we exchanged names, the workshop leader seized upon the fact that my name is also a color to engage us all in a conversation about “what items are blue in our circle?” Sooner than later, in Swedish, I was telling my neighbor to my left that the woman to my right was named Edith, and she was wearing a blue scarf. This entire process happened without a single word of English spoken between anyone.

Afterwards, the workshop leader took questions is English. She had been teaching college Spanish in this method for several years, and she was getting measurable results. Her students were outperforming their peers on standardized language tests, and she wasn’t using a Spanish college textbook. The key, she said, “was recognizing what language was alive in the group.” In a group of strangers, the natural starting point was greetings and names, easily communicated through gesture. From there she was able to follow the natural progression of communication by tapping into what was alive in our conversation. In this case, it was a name that was also a color that provided the springboard for her communication. You certainly couldn’t write that into a textbook lesson.

Remembering the quality of this experience was a part of my “aha” moment. It was part of my affirmation to myself that my role mattered in my Spanish class. Curriculum is of course still important, and for my elementary Spanish curriculum, I use Sonrisas Spanish (I am the co-author). It systematically works through useful language concepts and provides opportunities for meaningful exchange of language. There is nothing stagnant, two-dimensional, one-sided, or stilted about the quality of language exchange in my classroom. The curriculum is a framework; not a script. I understand now that the effectiveness of my teaching relies most heavily on my very human engagement in the process of communicating with my students.

Another resource that contributed to my “aha” moment was a video (that I highly recommend) that I watched in a Ted Talk from 2010 by Patricia Kuhl, entitled “The Linguistic Genius of Babies.” It’s a fascinating study in baby brain development. In summary, researchers take babies and expose them to a second language (in the study, the babies are from English-speaking families, exposed over the course of six months to twelve sessions with a Taiwanese woman who interacts with the babies solely in Taiwanese.) At the end of the six months they test the babies’ brain activity to determine if the babies’ brains are taking language statistics in Taiwanese as effectively as English. The answer was yes. Then they conducted the same study, exposing the babies to the same woman’s voice, the same number of sessions, over the same period of time. The only difference is that in the second study the voice is coming through a television screen, and in the third, the voice is recorded and played in earphones. When they test the babies at the end of six months, these babies had no ability whatsoever to take language statistics in Taiwanese. They draw the conclusion that it takes interaction with a human being for the baby to take language statistics in a new language. This study affirms the nature of language being inherently connected to the living, dynamic exchange between human beings. The woman, who was physically and emotionally present with the babies, was able to make eye contact and to adjust her body language, her tone, and her gestures to engage with the babies. Something in the woman’s physical engagement lit up the region for sound development in the babies’ brains. I have seen this happen again and again with my students who have ranged in ages between two and fourteen. This living, dynamic exchange must be present for effective communication.

Choosing Effective Materials

I have decided to stop doubting that feeling in my gut that tells me that the role of live human beings in second language acquisition can’t be conveniently replace with a video or a computer program. With clarity and confidence, I share what aspects of second language-teaching materials provide the most effective learning experience for students. If you find yourself in a school that is being seduced into the money-saving world of online language learning, and you feel in your gut that this is a step backwards, I feel your pain! I encourage you to share the Ted Talk, the OWL Languages website, and this blog with your administrator. If you have been put in charge of creating or purchasing curriculum materials for your school, choose a curriculum with components and resources that provide a catalyst for allowing communication to take the form that is alive in your students. These can include:

●       rich, well-written, beautifully illustrated books. I have always used children’s literature to teach Spanish. One may argue that reading a book to students is no different in the quality of linguistic experience than students would receive from watching a video. I argue to the contrary. I choose books that I love—books that invite the reader into another world. As I read, I use gesture and tone to bring life to the author’s words. I watch my students, and I know immediately from the looks on their faces if they are feeling the same delight that I feel. If I sense confusion, or disengagement, I can adjust my communication on the spot to meet their needs. A video does not provide this kind of engagement, but rather it provides an opportunity for students and teacher to disengage. There is no opportunity for a living, dynamic exchange of language in a video.

●       images, paintings, drawings, and photographs that invite dialogue, opinions, sympathies, and antipathies. These can include storybook illustrations, art projects, and classroom posters. I avoid graphics that appear as if an illustrator was hired to create a cartoon image that one imagines will appeal to a child. I think we all know the stock style to which I am referring. These images lack gesture, tone, or depth of interpretation. When an artist creates something from the heart, we feel it. It doesn’t have to be complex to provide this quality. These images provide the student with a rich context for language, and their open-ended quality provides teachers with an opportunity for a living, dynamic exchange.

●       games and activities that have infinite possibilities to evolve, twist, and turn into living, dynamic exchanges of language.

●       student-created art projects that provide students with a creative, hands-on connection to language concepts and that invite a living, dynamic exchange of language.

Part of what makes the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum so effective is that it includes all of these components. My word of caution in evaluating elementary school and preschool Spanish curriculum materials is to avoid materials that claim to provide a platform to teach language effectively “without any prior knowledge of the target language.”  These materials lack the open-ended opportunity for a living, dynamic exchange of language. Look for materials that provide a framework for you to bring out the language that is already alive in your classroom. Unfortunately for the students currently enrolled in my high school, they find themselves in a predicament where they have less effective second language-learning opportunities than I had twenty-eight years ago. I hope that this trend reverses and that someday my argument for three years of Spanish and French seems inadequate because the school district has implemented a teacher-led, K-12 world language or immersion program which provides for a living, dynamic exchange—because that is in fact how students acquire a second language.

Blue Lindner is co-founder of Sonrisas Spanish and co-author of the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum. She has bee a Spanish teacher for twenty years.

Over the years, one of the most common questions we have received from teachers looking for elementary Spanish curriculum is, “Do you have student workbooks?” For many years, our reply was, “no.” We were hesitant to create one because the Sonrisas Spanish curriculum was designed in a way that workbook activities weren’t really necessary. The lessons were designed so that the teacher could check for understanding orally through the activities and also through the one-on-one work built into the art projects. We didn’t want to encourage teachers to replace any component of the lesson with a workbook activity that didn’t provide the depth of learning that these activities provided. We also didn’t want to encourage any part of Spanish class to contain “busy work” that didn’t necessarily contribute to the rich learning experience that our curriculum provided.

As we continued to teach and develop our Spanish curriculum, we gradually began to refine our assessment piece. Previously, the assessment rubrics in our curriculum relied on a teacher’s memory of students’ performance from class. This could be very challenging for a teacher with many students. We came up with a solution of combining “workbook-like” activities, communication objectives, and language outcomes to create a comprehensive portfolio which includes formative and summative assessments. In doing so, we knew that we had created something much more than a workbook. The Student Portfolio is not only a useful assessment tool for teachers, but also an ongoing record of student learning. The Student Portfolio contains portfolio activities, student assessment pages, and home reports.

The portfolio activities were designed so that, if completed independently and effectively by students, they provide performance indicators for the language concepts taught in each lesson. They also provide a tool to help the teacher ask questions that guide the evaluation of student progress. For example, in the portfolio activity for Lesson 11 in Sonrisas Level I, La ropa, students are asked to label articles of clothing in a picture of a girl dressed in winter clothes. If the student does this independently, it demonstrates the language outcome of being able to identify clothing vocabulary. The teacher can record this on the student assessment page. However, the deeper concept in the Communication Objective for the lesson involves students providing information about the clothing they and others are wearing by answering the question, “¿Qué lleva la niña?” with a complete sentence, “La niña lleva ___.” A teacher has two possibilities here. She can use the portfolio to jog her memory to the activity in class that involved asking and answering the question and remember if the student was able to do this effectively, or she can use the image in the portfolio to assess the student right there. The activity provides an opportunity to ask the question. If the student can answer it correctly, the teacher has evidence that the concept has been taught effectively, and she can record this on the student assessment page. If the student struggles, the teacher has a formative assessment tool at her disposal—she can revisit activities that allow the student to master the communication objective.

If used in this way, the Student Portfolio provides so much more than a workbook. It provides an opportunity for evaluation and reflection that informs effective instruction, and it provides a record of student progress. This allows teachers to teach effectively and to communicate effectively with parents about how their student is doing. Ultimately, the Student Portfolio is a useful assessment tool and a comprehensive look at the progress of each student.

The Sonrisas Level II lessons are divided into seven thematic units. We designed these themes to have relevance in the context of young students’ lives. In each unit, students interpret written and spoken language, engage in conversations, and present information using background knowledge from their own lives while learning new language concepts. This allows them to acquire meaningful and useful language skills, rather than merely learning vocabulary in isolation. All of the thematic units are centered around one big idea, or central question, “What are the experiences that make us human?”

One of the biggest differences between humans and animals, plants, or objects is simply that humans possess the gift of language. We are able to communicate in thousands of languages, and in doing so, express our worldviews, cultures, and values. By centering our thematic units around diverse topics related to the human experience, we give our students an awareness of the power of language to interpret the world around us with our uniquely human perspective. As humans, we have a history of using cultural and linguistic differences as barriers. If we can help our students see that our differences are expressions of our shared humanity, then we are teaching them tolerance and compassion in addition to language skills. If this seems like a lofty goal for the language classroom, we would argue that the foreign language classroom is perfectly suited for this purpose. By learning Spanish, our students have the unique opportunity to remove one barrier between themselves and the Spanish-speaking world.

By organizing the units thematically, we also provide an opportunity to engage our students in more complex and sophisticated thinking and language use. Because no skills are taught in isolation, the focus stays on developing skills for effective communication. The questions in the graphic below are the essential questions that guide each thematic unit:

The essential question in each thematic unit connects the content of each lesson to the theme. At the beginning of each thematic unit, you will find a thematic unit overview page with a graphic map (similar to the one above) that illustrates the connection between the lessons and the essential question. The essential question also allows you to differentiate instruction based on your unique knowledge of Spanish-speaking cultures and your understanding of your students. You can bring each lesson to life by making a personal connection between the content and your students. The thematic unit overview page also provides guiding questions that help you do this, such as:

  • What matters about this theme to my students?
  • What will be engaging about this theme for my students?
  • How can I ensure that they see the connection between this theme and their own lives?
  • How can I use my own experience with Spanish-speaking cultures to give my students a unique perspective of the target culture in relationship to this theme?

Planning your lessons with the thematic overview in mind will allow you to maintain a focus on the theme of the unit as you teach. This will make all of the activities in your lessons more effective.