What’s the Acronym for Acquisition?

We’ve all heard them. Most of us have probably even used them at one point or another. I’m talking about those cute little songs and acronyms to memorize grammar rules, irregular forms, verbs, and more.

commands irregularsExample: Your students are learning about command forms. So, you give them this little trick (on right) to remember the irregular forms for positive tú commands: Ven Di Sal Haz Ten Ve Pon Sé.

Easy Peasy. Your students are going to rock out on the commands quiz.


verbos irregulares preterito
Or how about using the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to memorize the irregular yo form verbs in the preterite. Sing that little tune during the quiz, and you’ll be set!

Then there are all the acronyms to remember the difference between Ser and Estar (Doctor Place), when to use the subjunctive (WEIRDO), and I’m sure they are many many more examples.


These tools may be great help to pass a quiz. But are they really that useful when it comes to acquiring a language? If your objective is for students to be able to list all the irregular yo forms in the past tense, then this is great! However, that is not a communicable goal. Show off my conjugation skillsStudents do not take your class to learn how to conjugate verbs or to create a list of grammar concepts. They want to be able to use the language. If you can find me where in the ACTFL standards, it says that students should know all the irregular yo forms, then I’ll be happy to start practicing that song with my students. But in the meantime, I am going to give my students comprehensible input so that they hear those words used in context and eventually they internalize them and can use them in conversation.

Don’t get me wrong, my favorite lesson used to be dressing up like a doctor and pretending to be “Doctor Clift” to teach my students the differences between Ser and Estar. I thought it was great. But even after spending weeks on this “unit” I would still have a student who would write “Los tacos SOMOS deliciosos hoy”. I wanted to pull my hair out. The problem wasn’t with the students. It was with me. Ser and Estar shouldn’t be a unit. Students need to be exposed to these words in context all year long. And yeah, they are going to mix up “es” and “está” quite frequently, but you know what? They should! They are novice learners! I can not expect them to be perfect in the language they produce. But I should be darn happy if they are able to express themselves using “is” in Spanish. And eventually they will figure it out. They will use the right one, and not because they have to think “Oh, this is the E of Emotion from PLACE”, but because “está asustado” sounds right.

I haven’t taught “conjugations” in several years. My students don’t know what a “boot verb” is. They don’t know what a “go verb”. But they can communicate. They can tell me a whole story because they have the confidence! Do they use “boot verbs” and “go verbs”? You bet, but they’ve acquired them, not studied them. I am not to to stop them after their third word, and correct them: “No, make sure you use está instead of es“. I am going to listen to them and encourage them.
Why is there such a decline in numbers of Spanish students after they fulfill their stem changing boot verbsminimum amount of credit? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to learn ABOUT the language. They want to learn the language. There is a big difference in learning about a boot verb and actually being able to use the word “empieza”.  That was the most important concept for me when I began shifting my teaching style. I was teaching them about the language. They knew what an “infinitive” was, what a “boot-verb”/”stem changing verb” was, what an “irregular verb” was. But, were they proficient in using the language? And isn’t that the goal of my class?

acquire structure by singing song

Share your opinions in the comments! Does singing the forms of a verb to “La Cucaracha” help students become proficient? Is that an acronym or trick that you use in your classroom that truly helps students? (And no, I’m not saying that they are all bad, some certainly have their merits.)


Update: Check out this post from Terry Waltz: I found this great song that teaches…

songs* are mnemonics — ways to help people remember things. And mnemonics only work when there is time to stop and think of them. So for acquisition, not so much. But it could have use for output when there is time to stop and think, such as during a writing assignment.

It’s fine to use mnemonics — they’re really useful for what they’re intended to do: help people remember things. Knowledge. Not to acquire language.

*songs that teach a grammar concept
-Terry Waltz
Read this entire post.

About SpanishPlans

Spanish Educator, with focus on acquisition Educator Enthusiast I love learning about and sharing culture.
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11 Responses to What’s the Acronym for Acquisition?

  1. Chris says:

    Here’s my question –
    Does it have to be one or the other? Is the inclusion of boot verbs and DOCTOR in one’s teaching a polar opposite of teaching for proficiency? If I teach that stuff in order to make input clearer, and then also give my students a lot of input through narratives and communicative interviews, am I mixing two teaching philosophies that cannot be reconciled?

    • spanishplans says:

      Great point! I think they can be great to help clarify and they certainly do have their place in the classroom. But if they are leading the teaching instead of being an accessory, then I don’t know how much value it has. Thanks for your input. I love hearing other people’s perspectives.

      • And I now repent of my perspective 🙂

        I do believe that there are some really good meta-cognitive students out there who will benefit from the verb charts and the patterns and quickly apply them. That’s not the majority though. And maybe flipping up some of these rules and conjugation charts can be good AFTER lots of input, but… yeah. My department and I are now seeking to move on, and I’m excited 🙂

  2. Thank you for taking on this sacred cow of language teaching. It helps me to feel less alone when I am in language meetings and people ask “how are you teaching ser and estar?” I have avoid teaching that particular lesson during all my 13 years of instruction, and this year tried it for the first time, with exactly the results you suggested. No one became more proficient, just more confused .

    • Chris says:

      Nancy –
      I just dropped these questions below to Annie. How do you assess students, and how do you hold them accountable for learning, if you teach totally implicitly?

      • Chris, this reply is rather lenghy but I hope it helps:

        For starters, I definitely can’t claim that I teach without explicitly discussing grammar. My lesson plans are always built with some supporting grammar in mind. For example, “describe your winter break” is paired with a review of the preterit. I try to keep the grammar lessons brief and always explain why the form is necessary to our the task at hand. Many of my quizzes contain half (or more) of straight grammar questions, but increasingly my tests are simple, communicative tasks. They might be a purely listening activity (these I can use from the book), a piece of basic writing (“Tell what you did over the holiday break”) or reading comprehension. For a recent reading tests I had Level IV read a news report on the success of the musical “Hamilton.”

        As for speaking, we have recently moved to PALs task tests in our county (“Describe a recent party and tell three things people did, what they ate or drank and what they wore.”). These are pretty neat tests, but they’re all presentational, and to me conversation is much more important. In the past, I had students answer questions from the class about a situation we had been practicing. The class got the questions ahead of time so they could practice answering, and they were allowed to create their own questions, provided they were within our range of comprehension. For example: the topic “Shopping in Spain”: The student being tested tells the class two facts about their recent (virtual) trip to El Corte Inglés. Then they answer questions such as “What did you get your mom?” “How much did it cost?” “What was the shirt like?” This test had students using preterit verbs and direct object pronouns, but they could pass even if they did not show grammar mastery. (During this test the audience is graded for asking questions. They lose points for asking a question whose answer has already been stated. They also keep a chart with the basics of what each students has said, so essentially they are being graded on listening. ).

        I try to use a lot of input with a limited number of examples that they can personalize before discussing any grammar. While I am not religiously CI I believe completely in the idea of teaching that is “narrow and deep” for retention. For example, when it was time to cover the present perfect, I had my students list famous places and things they had seen, and converse on that topic for days. They could all say, “He visto…/Has visto…” (I /you have seen…) without knowing the name of the tense or that it was an irregular form. Eventually I widened the conversation to other common stems, such as “I have eaten …” and other forms, showed them the whole verb chart and had them try a few drills and questions with different voices.

        I give credit for any successful communication — no matter how imprecise the forms — and try not to give grammar lessons about things that are similar or parallel, whether it be grammar or vocabulary. I agree with the philosophy that bad teaching can confuse a person for life (I still struggle with “ancho” and “estrecho”in Spanish, since I learned them at the same time). Mostly, I discuss verb conjugations and a bit of pronouns. I stay away from “por” vs “para,” “ser” vs “estar,” for example. There is a lot of pressure this year for us to do things in tandem, so I recently added these lessons. I’m not happy with the results. I’ll have to find a way to make my peace with them or incorporate the information more explicitly into what I do.

        Hope this helps

  3. Annie Rivera says:

    I totally agree with this and with Chris’ comments. As a teacher who shifted from “traditional” methods to a comprehensible input method, I can tell you it works. But a certain levels, especially in high school, kids want and/or need to know the “why”. This has been so much easier with CI because I’m not spending a unit teaching it. It comes up in class conversations, you explain it, and move on. No quiz necessary. Will they all understand? Sometimes at different times in the year, sometimes immediately, sometimes even before you explain it, and sometimes not at all. Honestly, though, most of my traditional students never got it even with units of explanation. My CI students have acquired that information much better. The bottom line is what you said in your post: is my goal for the students to learn “about” the language or to learn the language?

    I also think many teachers are afraid of CI because they may not be native speakers and they’re unsure of their own skills. It’s also easier to teach songs and charts than to speak in the target language all day and I’m a native speaker! It takes a lot of mental energy especially if you have a lot of unwilling to learn high school students.

    Just my dos centavos. 🙂

    • Chris says:

      You bring up some interesting points, Annie. Here is one question I’d like to ask you — How do you hold students accountable for learning? How do you assess them? Those two questions are tied together, but they are separate questions.
      I’d be willing to shift away from some of the traditional elements of my teaching if I can get that resolved, but I haven’t seen a satisfactory response to that yet.

  4. Lynn Hazen says:

    I taught in a hybrid manner for many years. I didn’t pretend that verb chart memorization would help anyone speak. I told them that was academic for tests, and everything else is to help them actually use the language. Recently I have been relying almost completely on CI, but I am unsure there is no place for such memorization of vocabulary and, yes, verb conjugation, at some point. The reality is the CI teachers didn’t get to write the new district final, and it is all grammar. thoughts?

    • SpanishPlans says:

      Hi Lynn,
      I agree with what Terry Waltz said in her comment- memorization of mnemonics do have their purpose. For students that have internalized the language, they can help them sort the rule. And they may be helpful when monitoring language in writing, when students have the chance to edit. So I agree with you that these can be of use in the academic situation.
      Some students may be good at memorizing words and be able to recall quickly to use them in context. I find that many students acquire vocabulary words best through context, so I don’t give out vocabulary lists for students to memorize and the grammar that I teach is always in context.
      If a final assessment is all grammar-based, I might just increase my grammar pop-up explanations (again, keeping the grammar in context and the explanations to the point)..

  5. Jeanette Moszeter says:

    Here is a poem to help students with demonstrative adjectives and pronouns. The first line has been around forever, the second line used to go “that and those don’t”. I wrote the rest of it and turned it into a poem.

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