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Thursday, January 8, 2015 (read 1262 times)

Teaching the Spanish Past Tenses - Part Two

by Lauris

Picking up where we left off last week, I’ll go ahead and use the great Fray Luis de León’s famous line (I’ve always wanted to use it but never felt quite worthy) which he casually uttered when he returned to his post at the university after serving out a four year prison sentence: “Decíamos ayer…” or “As we were saying yesterday”… in my search for solutions, solutions that are magical or otherwise but which nonetheless work, to help my students on their road to understanding, integrating and using the different past tenses (I am a big fan of brain games and “tricks”) I came up with the following group activity.

A Story in Spanish

With the class placed in a circle without pens, paper, dictionaries, computers, phones etc. we'll begin our group exercise.  I begin by stating in Spanish, of course, "We're going to tell a story, a story in the past. Ok?" Next I will present to the group the following thought: "In a story there are many elements of information and what we are going to do is focus on each one of these one by one, individually. We must also keep in mind, of course, that we know perfectly the story that we want to tell. " 

The first thing that I need to ask myself is: "What do I want to tell? Can I picture it clearly like a painting or photograph?" If we answer yes to that question, we can say that a photo or any kind of image is a form of describing something or someone—if there is no action, then we can use the imperfect past tense. When this information doesn't correspond to a photo, we'll ask ourselves the following question: "Are we looking at an action that has been completed and also has some relation to the present?" If the answer is affirmative, we will have to use the past perfect.

If, on the other hand, the answer is negative, then we must go on to our third and final question of this very simplified system for deciding which verb tense to use: "are we describing a specific, one-time action with a specific limit?" If the answer is "yes", then we must use the past simple. If the answer is negative, then we must use the imperfect past once again. Below is a link that will let you visualize this question path and its different results.


A Frequent Situation Arising in the Classroom

A situation that often arises with this activity is when some students answer "yes" while others answer "no". This situation can put us in a situation that may not be the most comfortable since we'll have to respond to unscripted and unpredictable reactions. It seems we're in trouble, but that's just what it seems, he..he…he…" (you'll have to imagine my Machiavellian teacher laugh).

If we're telling a story in which the main character is walking along a street…

Student A will clearly see in their mental image that the person is in the act of walking and not simply standing. This student they will clearly decide to use the imperfect past.

But student B doesn't see things that clearly. This student thinks that with just a photo we cannot deduce what the protagonist is doing exactly. Okay, all we have to do is ask our second question and the answer is negative because we are not talking about something that happened today. Student B explains that they see the information as though it were a movie, with movement (action but no description).

The student is not wrong for thinking this, we are talking about perceptions that each one has and so we will proceed to ask our third question. "Ok. So how long is the protagonist walking?" Since this question is impossible to answer given the information we have, the only possibility would be to use the imperfect past. Having come to this point, and seeing that both students have come to the same conclusion by different paths we can assure our students that this system, as unorthodox as it is and even less scientific, works.

In my next post we will take apart and examine an example that I have successfully used in different classes and which you will be able to implement easily in your classroom.

Keywords: past tense spanish,spanish past tense,spanish tenses,past perfect spanish,teaching spanish,imperfect past tense spanish,past tenses in spanish,spanish past tenses


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