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How I Teach - Stay afloat in Spanish lessons

Can Japanese poetry really help with another language? Si, si

Can Japanese poetry really help with another language? Si, si

Students of Spanish constantly run up against an almost Shakespearean dilemma: ser or estar? For the uninitiated, they both translate as "to be".

A typical reaction when first presented with this superficially absurd and impossible choice is panic, soon to be washed away by a wave of ennui as the process of compare and contrast becomes mired in fine distinctions and academic qualifications. Entire books have been written on this.

What the teaching of ser and estar needs is radical simplification and a practical focus. And this is where the Japanese come to the rescue with the succinct haiku. Writing one is the ideal displacement activity for those discouraged by grammar.

The aim is to reduce the problem to its essentials. First, give children the classic rules of (Westernised) haiku, to be interpreted more or less strictly according to taste and ability: three lines of five, seven, then five syllables.

In line 1, state the subject of the poem: what it is (ser for definition). Classically, this might be a season: "It is now summer." Then, in line 2, describe the scene: "The leaves are green. Sunlight falls" (ser for description). And finally, in line 3, give an emotional response: "Here, I am content" (estar for mood).

And there you have it, the perfect, perfectly grammatical poem, inspired by one culture and realised in the words of another.

The great thing is that this formula readily accommodates both variation and differentiation. It is easy enough to use lines 1 or 2 to place a person or animal in a particular place (estar for location). Or for a more advanced group, there is scope for choosing estar to capture a fleeting moment, a change in state or a temporary condition. The season is autumn and the leaves are now, briefly, red - how poetic that, in Spanish, noun and adjective rhyme so sweetly.

Ya es otono,

las hojas estan rojas:

estamos contentas!

Get your students to write five haiku, one for each season and the last for a day of celebration, such as Christmas Day. For added encouragement, you can put to the test one of those clever publishing apps and show the work to the public. Or, more satisfying still, get students to illustrate their favourite by hand, calligraphy-style. Speak Spanish, feel Japanese. Eventually, you might be ready to share these famous lines from Jorge Guillen's Cantico:

Soy. Mas, estoy

Es la absoluta dicha.

One line, three words, careful punctuation and a dramatic pause. Banal and incomprehensible when translated more or less literally ("I am. And more than that, I am"), yet overflowing with vitality and promise when allowed to resonate in Spanish. Why have just one word for "to be" when you can have two?

Dr Heather Martin is head of languages and of enrichment at St Faith's Independent Prep School in Cambridge, England


1 Life lessons

These resources explore the famously healthy lifestyle of the Spanish through activities and worksheets. They focus on justifying opinions, so your students can debate whether paella, year-round sunshine and rioja are the ingredients of the elixir of life.


2 Fashion focus

Give students the tools to talk confidently about fashion in Spanish with these worksheets and presentations. Emphasis is on adjectival agreement as they practise new vocabulary by describing with colours.


3 Grammar gripes

This Spanish grammar booklet contains explanations and exercises for six tenses and a selection of common verbs. Good for homework and independent learning.


4 Set menu

Try this set of resources just before lunch: students are asked to focus on different meals of the day. The activities help them to use a variety of tenses and phrases to express opinions.


5 Town talk

Get students to describe and discuss their home town through activities that are ideal for measuring their progress.


6 Food review

Focus on plurals and grammatical agreement of adjectives in this set of activities centred on what students like to eat and drink.


7 Working Spanish

Discuss work experience, part-time jobs and pocket money using these PowerPoint presentations and supporting worksheets. You can stretch students by asking them to use the conditional tense to describe future plans.


8 Word search

These handouts get students practising their reading and writing skills to reinforce vocabulary learning across a range of topics.


9 Family portrait

Although The Simpsons may not be a conventional family, they make a great template for discussing family members in Spanish.


10 Valuable vocab

This writing skills literacy mat helps to support and extend written Spanish. It lists examples and synonyms of useful words and summarises key patterns in different tenses.


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