religion in the classroom

Can Religion be Removed from Language Teaching?

I pose this question as a follow-up to our last blog (“Culture + Fun = Learning All Year”) about incorporating cultural teachings into our classroom. When we bring in culture, must we bring in religion? Many of us in the public school system, feel the slightest bit of unease when religious concepts enter our rooms. Yet, how can we celebrate important days like Los Reyes or El Día de los Muertos or view masterpieces from Goya or El Greco, without touching on religion?

Religion is woven into the fabric of Spanish vocabulary, idioms and expressions and to say that it has no place in our classrooms is to deny relevant, meaningful communication skills to our students.

¡Vaya con Dios!
Si Dios quiere…
¡Ay Dios mío!

Religion is an integral part of Spanish culture and culture is an integral part of Spanish language. To try to extricate religious associations from the language we teach is not only impossible, but unnecessary. To be safe and respectful, follow these 3 rules:

  1. Communicate with school administration: Before the year begins, find out what school policies are regarding religion in the classroom. Let administration know of your plans to celebrate certain holidays or to watch certain movies. Always put your plans in writing and get written permission from the powers that be.
  2. Communicate with colleagues: Be respectful of your coworkers. You are a Spanish teacher and teaching culture is second nature to you, but other teachers may have different experiences. Take time to have open conversations about your plans and invite staff to your room participate in class festivities.
  3. Communicate with parents: This has to be the cardinal rule before planning any cultural activity in your class. Always send a letter home explaining exactly what your plans are and include links for parents to read even more about whatever concept their children will be studying. Be available to answer questions parents have about the activity and provide a relevant “Plan B” for students unable to participate.

ACTFL’s World Readiness Standard for Culture states that learners will, “Interact with cultural competence and understanding.” In order for our students to be competent in Spanish language, they must be exposed to a varied cultural landscape.

Therefore, teach your students about Spanish culture. Appreciate the strong religious roots from which Spanish evolved. Guide your children to be respectful and tolerant ambassadors of language learning and maybe they will help create a more tolerant and respectful world. Ojalá…

dia de los muertos culture

Culture + Fun = Learning All Year

Isn’t it nice when we have something to look forward to? Something that we’re excited for?

One of the things that I quickly learned about Latino culture was the love for celebrations!  Whether it’s a birthday or a national independence day, there’s nothing like a Latino celebration to make you feel like part of the family.  Celebrations are full of fun, music, food, and loved ones.

Now, what about your classroom? Does it feel like a celebration? If you answered no, why not? Let’s make it happen! We all need a little something to celebrate!

There are a ton of opportunities throughout the year to celebrate a culturally significant day.  Which holiday did you look forward to most when you were younger? Different days hold different meanings for everyone, so I’m inviting you to share a day with your students that has special meaning to you.  Check out the calendar below for some ideas for every month of the school year:


  • Bolivian independence (August 6th)
  • Uruguayan independence (August 25th)


  • Mexican independence (September 16th)
  • Chilean independence (September 18th)
  • Costa Rican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, and Nicaraguan independence Day (September 15th)


  • Día de los Muertos


  • Thanksgiving
  • Panamanian independence Day (November 3rd)


  • Las Posadas (9 days before Christmas)
  • Nochebuena
  • Navidad


  • Año Nuevo


  • Valentine’s Day
  • Dominican independence Day (February 27)


  • Saint Patrick’s Day


  • Easter


  • Cinco de Mayo
  • Paraguayan independence day (May 14)

Please, know your school!  If your campus doesn’t allow for celebrating outside holidays, look back at some of my past ideas for fun in the classroom (see “The Three Keys to Fun in the Classroom”).
If this is something you can see in your classroom, even our curriculum includes this love for celebrations!  Be sure to check out a trial of our curriculum to see for yourself.

The Best Spanish Dialect to Teach Your Students

I have been asked if our program teaches “Spanish Spanish” or “Latin American Spanish” and which of the two is better.  I am here today to tell you which! The answer is:

Stop differentiating the two!!

We need to stop talking about the “Spanish lisp” or thinking that one is “more proper” than the other. One of the most beautiful things about the language is its variety and its “sabor”!

I feel blessed to work with such a diverse staff.  On any given day, I can converse with a teacher from Chile, another from Colombia, another from Argentina, another from Spain, one from Costa Rica, and many from Mexico.  I have been exposed not only to a large variety of vocabulary, but to the best “dichos” (sayings), songs, and food from each country, among other things.  There is palpable passion and love behind the Spanish of each teacher and never ONCE have I had to translate between “Spanish Spanish” and “Latin American Spanish.”  If anything, differences in the way we say something leads to discussions about how and why it is said differently in another country, rather than which way is the “correct” way to say it.

We are different from each other, yes.  What I love is that we celebrate and relish in these differences! The best part is that our students are also benefiting from these differences! They are learning that there is more than one way to do or to say something and that one is not necessarily better than the other.

So…what is the best Spanish dialect to teach to your students?


Put love, passion and “sabor” behind your words!

Below are two of my Sombrero Time maestras demonstrating some of these differences in a short video about pronouncing the letters “s,” “c,” and “z”.  Click HERE to watch (this could also be a fun listening exercise for your students)!

Targeted sounds “d” and “t”

Read the following two phrases:  “Two dots” and “tengo diez dedos.”

What did the vowels sound like in the first phrase? What did the consonants sound like? Now go back and read the second phrase again.  What did the vowels and consonants sound like here?

For me, I noticed a big difference in my “Spanish voice” and my “English voice” (look back at my blog post “Pronunciation is the Key to Finding our ‘Spanish voice’”).  I want to focus specifically, however, on the letters “d” and “t” with these examples. With the letters “d” and “t”, the one factor that will make or break your students’ pronunciation is:


If your students are not touching their tongue to their teeth when they are pronouncing these letters, they aren’t pronouncing them correctly!!

Yes, we want to celebrate when students learn new vocabulary words and are applying them correctly in sentences. Remember, though, the importance of pronunciation (see “3 reasons why you can’t skip pronunciation as part of your daily instruction”). Have them follow your lead!  We want them to focus both on what they are saying and how they’re saying it.

When I practice these two consonants with students I make them literally touch their tongue with the tip of their finger!

Let’s repeat the first phrase: “tengo diez dedos.” Now say it again, this time touching the tip of your tongue with your finger.  Were you more aware of your tongue coming to your teeth? Good! Our students should be more aware of that, too.  I also compare the sound the “th” sound in English.  Even if they are over exaggerating the “th” at first, let them! This practice will lead to a more native-sounding “d” and “t” sounds in time.

For your next lesson, take a minute to have your students focus on these letters in their pronunciation for the whole class. Have them hold each other accountable for touching their tongue to their teeth!

Targeted sounds: “rr”

Will they ever learn to roll their “rr”?

I am not a native speaker but I have been blessed with the ability to roll my “rr”.   I think this gift comes from a childhood of playing G.I. Joe (yes, I was into action figures) with my best friend.  We had imaginary rifles that could spray bullets at the evildoers.  The sounds we made were eerily similar to the beautiful sound of the Spanish “rr”…as in the infamous “ferrocarril”.

Long after my G.I. Joe days, I began to study Spanish.  Although I could make the “rr” sound easily on its own, I had a hard time incorporating that sound into actual words when speaking Spanish.  It was not until I was in college, while watching my favorite telenovela (a great way to absorb Spanish) that I really began to use the “rr”.

The main character of that novela was named “René”.  I loved the way everyone on the show said his name.  I began to listen very carefully to their pronunciation and every time I heard them say “René”, I repeated it, trying to mimic their sound.  I practiced religiously and still, to this day, when I want to warm up my tongue for Spanish-speaking I say “René” over and over again.

It is this repetition and explicit focus on sound that improved my pronunciation of the “rr”.  And it is this targeted practice that we must allow our students.  When I work on pronunciation with my class, I have a few tricks for those poor souls who cannot roll their “rr”.

  • I show them the correct placement of the tongue. We practice blowing air and try to loosen the tongue muscle to let it roll freely.  We use mirrors to watch exactly what we are doing and to make corrections with tongue placement. We play all sorts of silly games with the mirror just getting comfortable making new sounds.
  • I post a list of “rr” words and I say them over and over again. The students repeat after me.  We practice closely listening to the “rr” and saying the words over and over.
  • I play authentic music (a lot!). We sing lyrics to songs specifically chosen because they contain words with the “rr” so that we can practice pronunciation and have fun!  Jesse y Joy’s Corre is a great song to sing along to!
  • I teach them tongue twisters and sayings that illustrate the “rr” sound and we practice, practice, practice.

When all else fails, I teach them that if they can’t roll their “rr”, they are definitely not going to get away with simply using the hard English “r”.  They must find a compromise! The best compromise I have found seems to be an aspirated “dr” sound.  So “perro” becomes “perdro” not  “pERo”.

Then, we practice some more. I’m gentle on them and I don’t allow anyone to ridicule anyone else’s mistakes.  Most importantly,  I turn our pronunciation struggles into a life lesson with the hope that when they come across someone speaking English with imperfections…they will be gentle too.

Pronunciation Play!

In our last two blogs, we discussed the merits of incorporating explicit pronunciation instruction into your classroom, now let’s get to the FUN part!  Here are 4 pronunciation games that my students LOVE to play in class!

Dot to Dot

This game can be played at students’ desks with paper and pens or at the whiteboard (or on mini whiteboards at students’ desks, even better!)  First, write down a word on the board to model. For example, write “mira”.  Then, draw a big dot above the stressed syllable “mi” and a smaller dot above the non-stressed syllable “ra”.  Have the students repeat after you many times as you exaggerate, “MI-ra”.  Repeat this modeling with a few more two-syllable words, “luna, hola, agua…”. When students have mastered the idea, change the words.  Write multi-syllable words on the board and have students copy them down.  Say the words several times and ask students to place the big dots and little dots over the correct syllables.  Always check for mistakes.  Have a volunteer draw the correct dots over the words on the board for all to see!


Tongue twisters are easiest and most amusing way to practice pronunciation in a classroom!  The trick to saying tongue twisters is to warm up the mouth!  Do mouth calisthenics for a few minutes until everyone is ready.  Have students open and close their mouths several times.  Make them stick out their tongue and wiggle it all around.  Make crazy sounds or say funny sounding words, like “hipopótamo”.  Let the class be super silly!  Next, write a basic tongue twister on the board or on poster paper.  Say the tongue twister slowly as a model.  Now, have the students chorally read it with you a few times.  Next, allow them practice time with a partner.  Encourage students to really enunciate the sounds.  Focus on pronunciation rather than speed at first!  Now, let the tongue twisting battle begin!  Make sure to challenge the class “winner” to a duel with you!

El Périco

You are the pirate and your students are the parrots!  This activity is just a dressed up way to make old school dictations fun!  I even have a pirate hat that I will wear!  Come to class prepared with a few words, phrases and sentences that touch on current concepts and target vocabulary. Make sure to incorporate some tricky words that give students trouble.  Say the words slowly first and have the “parrots” repeat them.  Next, move to phrases and then sentences.  Really emphasize proper sounds. Call on “Superstars” to model as well.  I have also incorporated “dichos” with this activity.  “El Périco” is a great way to teach some awesome Spanish sayings and practice pronunciation at the same time!

¿Qué rima?

An essential part of perfecting pronunciation is to teach your students to hear the similarities and differences of the actual sounds that are found in words.  Rhyming games are a great way to do this!  In ¿Qué rima?” the teacher makes several groups of words that rhyme.  For example, “foca, loca, poca”. The teacher says the words aloud and the students repeat them.  Then the teacher will add to the list and the students will decide if the word belongs to the group or not by saying, “sí, rima” or “no, no rima”.  A further step could be to let students create silly sentences with the rhyming words and recite them to the class.  Make sure you really focus on pronunciation for those that are presenting!  Here is a link to a fantastic Spanish rhyming dictionary!

We owe it to our students to model and teach beautiful pronunciation.  We must raise the bar high and challenge them to speak Spanish with their Spanish voice. Don’t let innocent mistakes become permanent bad habits.  The work we do now will lead our students to a richer Spanish experience later in life and they will thank us!

Proper pronunciation should not be an afterthought!

3 Reasons Why You Can’t Skip Pronunciation as Part of Your Daily Instruction

Read this out loud (yes, even if there are people around):  “may goose-tah law ham-boor-gway-sah.”

Did you cringe?  If this resembles anything that you’re hearing in your Spanish classroom, you’re probably not focusing on pronunciation with your students enough!

If they’re learning the vocabulary and understanding the syntax and grammar, then that should be enough, right?  I agree that vocabulary, syntax, and grammar are essential for students to be able to produce the language, but technically “may goose-tah law ham-boor-gway-sah” is using those three elements correctly.  We can’t just let it slide!  Have your students open their mouths, practice their vowel sounds, and look at the way YOUR mouth is forming the words.


Authentic Pronunciation Distinguishes Your Program

One of the biggest pieces of positive feedback we get about our students at Sombrero Time is about their pronunciation!  Even in moments when their grammar or syntax may have errors, the habit of speaking with solid pronunciation characterizes their language more closely to that of a native speaker.  As our program has grown, we have now heard that about our students both domestically and when we’ve traveled abroad!

Practicing Pronunciation is Critical in Building Language Skills

It is impossible for students to practice pronunciation without opening their mouths!  The syllables, words, and sentences that students will be practicing pronunciation with will reinforce their understanding and get them used to speaking with more fluidity.  It will also making speaking less nerve-wracking for students since it will be something they do all the time!

Pronunciation Respects the Language

Along with learning the language, our students must learn respect.  When students have to be conscious not only about the words that they’re saying but also how they’re saying them, it doubles the effort behind the language!  It creates a group of students that don’t only “add an ‘o’ to the word in English” and can say with ease, “me gusta la hamburguesa.”

Check out my next blog for some games to practice pronunciation in your classroom!

Pronunciation is the key to finding our Spanish voice

I have always enforced a very important rule in my classroom, “You may not speak Spanish with your English voice.”  It’s true, really. In order to pronounce the sounds that are needed for flawless, or close to flawless Spanish, you must find your Spanish voice.

It is like an alter ego of sorts.  This voice, when discovered and cultivated, will lead to new experiences, new friends and new life lessons not attainable in the monolingual world.  This voice, however, is elusive and the older the language learner is, the harder their “Spanish voice” will be to find.  That’s why, as language teachers we must insist on proper pronunciation at an early age.

Here are 4 reasons to start focusing on pronunciation now!

Risk Free Environment

Younger learners are usually more willing to make mistakes in front of their peers.  In fact, because they have not yet learned the advanced language learners skills of “self correcting”, many early learners are unaware that they are even making mistakes.  This freedom from constantly self correcting breeds a natural risk taking environment.  In this environment younger students can seek out and practice their Spanish voices, perfecting pronunciation while being worry free.

Good Habits Start Young

Unfortunately, bad habits start young too.  Therefore, it is never too early to explicitly teach students proper pronunciation.  The more langauge learners work on articulating the difficult sounds of Spanish, the better they will get at saying them.  This early pronunciation practice builds the muscles in mouth and larynx and provides a strong foundation for perfecting a near native sound.  Conversely, not focusing on pronunciation early, leads to fossilization of incorrect sounds that are nearly impossible to correct later in life.

Future implications

Pronunciation is more than just about saying words correctly and the implications of properly pronouncing words go far beyond simply being understood.  Cognitively speaking, if students focus on pronunciation early and solidify native like sounds, they will free up mental space to focus on more advanced concepts later in their language development.  Simply stated, older students will be able to focus on the task, not the pronunciation.  They will have developed muscle memory that will allow them to effortlessly recite “Erre con erre cigarro…” while learners without early pronunciation instruction will struggle with any oral task.

Image is everything

Perhaps the most convincing argument for early pronunciation instruction is wrapped up in a single word, “image”.  Whether we like it or not, our image is important when speaking another language.  Students that sound competent, will be treated as competent speakers.  Students that sound less refined, will be treated as such.  Audiences will judge the speaker not just on grammar alone.  Listeners will assume that a speaker has more competence based on their native like pronunciation and will communicate with them at a higher level.  This high level of communication, provides more opportunities for the learner to further develop their Spanish language ability.

Truth be told, perfecting pronunciation early will pay dividends in our students’ lives.

We owe it to them to explicitly teach them how to speak Spanish like a native speaker.  We must allow them opportunities to find, cultivate and reap the rewards of beautiful pronunciation and we must start early!  Read our next blog for some fun games to help you incorporate pronunciation practice in your classroom!

5 characteristics of a successful student

Grab a cup of coffee and get into a comfortable position.  Close your eyes (of course after you finish reading this!) and imagine your classroom with a class full of engaged, responsive and confident students.  What does that look like?  How does it feel?

We are going to take a few minutes to describe what a successful language student looks like.  Why?  Well, because it is impossible to aim at something if you have not created the target. If we have not defined what we are trying to accomplish with our students, we will never attain it.  We have to create the vision of what it looks like to manifest it in our classroom.  It has been said, “The people perish without a vision.”  I believe we have to define how to build the learning momentum with our students.  You have read how to BE YOU with your style and your gifting in the last blog.  Now we are going to define and describe the student portion.  If students are two-thirds of the equation in generating the momentum, then we have to define what the goal is for them.

In one sentence, the goal is that students are engaged in your instruction, responsive to your prompts, quick to extend their learning, willing to risk initiating conversation and confident to take their Spanish into the world. Not that  this is our reality everyday, but this is the vision of where we want to go.  Be patient.  With intense focus of the vision, you can get your students there.

The five characteristics of a successful student are:

1 – Engaged students are participating in learning.  This is a two way street.  Ask for 100% response in your instruction.  If you are asking them to repeat something to practice pronunciation, expect everyone to repeat.  You, the teacher, have to come to class with the belief that all students can and will learn in your class.  Then you have to uphold the expectation that requires all students to be engaged.

2- Responsive students demonstrate that they are interested and prepared for class. They are not only engaged and listening, they are giving you feedback in their verbal and written responses.  Reward the behavior you want to see and see how that draws them in.

3- Quick students who attempt to take their learning and extend it into new areas are building their confidence.  When students can respond quickly, it tells us that their skills are becoming more automatic.

4- Willing students have confidence to initiate conversation as they move out of the classroom.  This is a huge step for most students but needs to be part of every language teacher’s objectives.  Part of what we strive for is students willing to engage the world in the Spanish they are learning in class.

5- Confident students have demonstrated a willingness to initiate and mobilize their Spanish in the world.  Now they have become Spanish speakers that are functional.  They not only attempt conversation but engage people in Spanish.  They can press through those moments when they don’t know the exact word they want to use.  They have the courage to ask someone to repeat something and stay engaged.
It is the development of these 5 characterics that give students what they need to truly become functionally bilingual and take their language skills into the world.  This is the vision, the goal and the target we are all aiming for our students to attain.  Now go get it!

A Confident Teacher Has Style!

A confident teacher has style?  As in great fashion sense?  Well, it doesn’t hurt to look and feel great in front of your classroom but I am actually talking about develop your own teaching style!  How you ask?

Through the Power of Observation…with a twist!

Every accredited teacher program requires that credential candidates spend hours observing other teachers.  Many veteran teachers continue this practice long after their newbie years because the hours they spent observing other confident colleagues proved invaluable when they were just starting off.

While observing greatness is certainly valuable, for many teachers, observations can also feel overwhelming.  Watching how one teacher masterfully conducts her classroom as if the students were spellbound or witnessing another teacher use brand new technology to captivate young learners or analyzing the intricate point systems your classroom neighbors have for homework, participation, discipline, rewards, kindness… AHH!!!!  The great ideas that teachers have created and implemented are endless!

Unfortunately, watching all of the greatness out there can lead many of us to feel less great.  In fact, as a newbie, I remember feeling very self-conscience.  I would compare my classroom and my teaching to the others that I had observed.  I would even try to emulate those teachers!  I would copy their point systems that worked so well in their classrooms.  I copied class rules and homework logs and bell ringer activities…let’s be honest, I tried to be a copy of them.

It didn’t work.  It never works.  I am me, they are them, and YOU ARE YOU!  I wish someone had told me early on while I was observing and absorbing all of those great teaching styles, that the purpose of observations was not to become those teachers, but to become great like those teachers… in my own way, with my own style.

To be a  truly confident teacher, you must have your own style.

To have your own style you must be honest with yourself and know your strengths.  Teaching with your own strengths, leads to better teaching.  Better teaching, leads to more student learning.  More student learning, leads to a very happy and confident teacher!  Just as the Confident Teacher Cycle articulates! (see last blog post!)

So, make a list of your strengths!  Know yourself!  I can honestly say that no point-based reward system for oral participation ever created in the history of awesome, creative point systems will ever work for me!  It feels great to say it and even greater to not ever have to try another point collecting plan in my classroom!  But, I do love music….so I fill my lessons with music and I have classrooms full of children singing aloud in Spanish, practicing their pronunciation all the time…without points!!

Let go of the expectation that you have to a carbon copy of someone else in order to experience the success  that they feel!  Instead, embrace what makes you happy, proud, and inspired and create your systems and activities to highlight those inner strengths.  The result will be a confident teacher with a successful class and or the cycle contends….a successful teacher with a confident class…..and the cycle continues!