There are many, many things that I love about the Spanish language, and one of them is the uniqueness of it. For instance, the existence of two different past tenses, or two different ways of saying to be, or the freedom to switch around words in a sentence a bit. Although this is a really fun aspect of language, it is also really difficult to teach!
So, as a first year teacher, I decided I would do some different things, test the waters, and (of course!) search the internet and see what everyone else is doing. I found this post from Sarah Cottrell's blog. In her post, she explains that she has discovered that teaching the preterite and imperfect tenses apart from another just doesn't make sense because "acquisition doesn't happen that way."
If my teachers had taught me the preterite and the imperfect together, as part of a "team" in the past, how much confusion would I have been saved?? If they had explained to me that they don't ALWAYS follow the rules, but instead have general rules, I think I would have gained fluency and proficiency sooner. There is no doubt about that.
Well, when I had found her post, my Spanish 3-ers had already learned the preterite, and I had just taught them the imperfect tense apart from the preterite (OOPS). There was nothing I could do about it now!! (Excuses, excuses....)
So, instead of making excuses and blaming it on teachers before me and blah blah blah, I tried to help them understand how P & I work together instead of continuing in the past way of telling them that they are two separate tenses, independent of one another.
So, we did our first "project" as Spanish 3-ers. They, being the 16-year-olds that they are, didn't want any part of this "project" business. But I thought it might help, so we did it.
OF COURSE, there were things that I could (and should) have done differently. I could have explained things better, I could have given them a good example of what a finished product would look like, I should have given them a more difficult, more complex rubric. But hey, ya live and ya learn, right? Es la vida, no? Especially in the life of a First Year Teacher. We noobs just don't have a clue what we're doing (but we pretend and we try our very hardest...does that not count?!)
OKAY, so here was the project, I read on Cotrell's blog that she recommends to create the timeline of a story, putting the "descriptive" (imperfect) verbs on the bottom and the "sudden" (preterite) verbs on the top. In doing this, the students are not only able to see the constructions of the two tenses, but also the "clustering" of them, as Cotrell puts it. It allows for them to see (generally) when the preterite and the imperfect are taking place in the story.
So, we did one together as a class. We read through the story first. I asked some comprehension questions. Then, we made our timeline on the board. We read through the story, placing the imperfect and the preterite events on our timeline. We did do one thing slightly different, though. A suggestion I read somewhere else (though I am not sure where) stated that the imperfect can look like two arrows pointing in different directions (<--->). Because it is a description, and it (usually) occurs over a period of time, the imperfect is marked in this way. The preterite, or the sudden action, is marked as an X on the timeline. This shows that it was a one-time deal, and that it occurred suddenly, and not over a period of time.
After doing this example, the results were crazy! The students were able to see that the imperfect occurred more towards the beginning of the story (as a way to describe/set the scene) and the preterite occurred in the middle/towards the end, as the action began and things actually started happening. (Some of my Spanish 2-ers even asked me to explain it to them when they saw it on the board!!) But I didn't want it to stop there. So, I made them do their own. (They were super happy about this ;)
As a new teacher, I don't have a ton of resources, such as fun books for the kids to read. However, I do make use of TONS of resources I have found on the web (seriously, how did people teach in the old days??!). I scheduled the "mobile lab" for my students, and had them pick a story from
these FREE STORIES: Zona 33 Cuentos Preescolares. I went through and picked the ones that seemed like they would be most easily understood by my students. I also made sure that the stories had a good amount of preterite/imperfect tense verbs. I had the students pick one of the stories; one story could not be chosen twice (so that students could really try to work it out on their own! I find in my Spanish 3 class that they "mooch" a LOT when they collaborate. So, I've tried to find ways to individually assess them!)
Then, the students made their timelines. Although they always "act" like they hate doing anything that involves "work," I could tell that deep down, they liked that it was a mystery that they had to figure out. I required them to include every verb in their book on their timeline. They had to mark it as "descriptive" (<-->) or "sudden" (X), as we did on the example on the board. This was VERY time-intensive (though I genuinely believe it was worth it).
**One problem I ran into was that some students had SUPER long, intense stories, while others had 3-4 descriptive and 3-4 sudden verbs. A possible recommendation is to assign higher-level books to more proficient students and lower-level books to the less proficient. This allows a little bit of differentiation in the project, and it saves you from the hassle of explaining the present perfect subjunctive to a student that is still struggling to understand the present tense irregularities.
After they were finished with their timelines, I required that they write a 5-6 sentence summary of their book, using the descriptive (imperfect) and sudden (preterite) past tenses. This was good for them to be able to verbalize and write down the actual meaning of the book instead of just writing down the verb, making a little line, and being done with the project.
**Another problem that occurred was that students had their computers in front of them as they were attempting to come up with a summary of their story. It was very tempting for them to use lines straight out of their books, or to simply go to Google Translate and find the answer. Therefore, I might recommend that this comes in the form of a post-project assessment. Instead of giving the students time and opportunity to cheat and use Google Translate (though not ALWAYS a bad thing), you give them time to develop an understanding of the story so that they can explain it to you in an oral assessment. Make sure you give them some practice time.
One requirement of the project was that the students had to make their Timeline creative. I know I have some creative thinkers in my class, and yet their projects were on a piece of construction paper, with little to no color, and not much in the way of "creativity." I think my mistake here was that I did not set the standard high by showing them a FANTASTIC example that they could use as a form of reference and also as a standard. I also didn't set the bar high enough, and I did not grade hard enough.
If I have learned one thing from my first year of teaching, it's that setting the bar high MUST be followed by following through in grading. If the students hear you say that creativity must be shown on the project, and there is no creativity, the students should lose some points for that! This sets the bar high, keeps students reaching for their best potential, and does not allow them to slack off.
I'm still working on it... And I think I will be for the rest of my teaching career!
What are some ways that YOU have taught the imperfect and preterite tenses? Have you found it difficult to teach them separately/together? What are some problems that you see in the current way that Spanish is being taught? How can we reform some of those problems one step at a time?
Love, from a teacher who admits that she is definitely taking teaching one step at a time,
For some resources on the preterite tense, visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store:
Freebie Preterite Verb Practice/Game/Review - Free
Preterite Irregular & Regular Extensive List - $1
Irregular Preterite Packet - $1