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5 Things to Know when Teaching English to Secondary School Students in Spain

Teaching English to Secondary Schoolers spain

I have now been teaching secondary school students in Spain for three months. I’m a Language Assistant, thus I am mainly focused on the student’s conversational skills. By this stage, I’ve got to know my students quite well. I know which classes behave well, and which classes to be extra prepared for.

My experience teaching ESL secondary school students in Spain is very different to my experience as a secondary student in Ireland 5 years ago. However, teenagers are teenagers, and education is a universal experience wherever you go. Here I will tell you 5 things to know when teaching English to secondary school students in Spain.

Teaching English to Secondary Students in Spain
At the entrance of my school with a teacher, right before Christmas.

1. Embrace the Energy of Spanish Secondary Students

Firstly, as anyone who has met a Spanish person knows, they are extremely talkative and loud. From the very first training session with Meddeas, a Spanish ESL Secondary School Teacher told us, “Look, it’s in our culture, you can’t expect them to stop talking.”

I received this advice during the Induction meeting that Meddeas and the International University of Catalonia organised in September in Barcelona. In that meeting, we attended workshops designed to teach specific age groups.

Teaching ESL Secondary School Students
Workshop: Secondary School teaching.

As a classroom leader, you need to channel this talkative energy into something more productive. Students can either talk and disrupt; or talk and contribute. It’s your responsibility to steer them in the right direction.

Adapt to the Age Groups

The most effective way of doing this depends on the age group. Thus, looking for adapted ESL classroom activities for secondary students is a main factor to engage with them.

With the older years (16-18), I’ve started doing classroom debates on relevant topics or events. These are very popular and are an excellent way for students to practise using particular vocabulary.

For younger age groups, (12-15) I’ve been playing ESL games that require elaborate answers like Taboo or Would You Rather. Would You Rather sometimes escalates into debates which shows how the Spanish love to carry on talking!

2. Personalised ESL Lesson Planning for Secondary Students

Every class is different, there is no such thing as an average 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 or 17-year-old. In some classes, the boys are a lot more mature. In other classes, girls are a lot more mature. Because of this, you need to tailor a lesson for each individual class.

If your Spanish secondary students in a group are particularly excitable, then don’t expect them to sit down and listen to you for an entire lesson. On the other hand, if your class is quite studious, then find extra resources to encourage them. The bar will be different for every class. For example, I have nine conversation groups for 2nd ESO (14yo), and the groups are totally different in terms of behaviour, level of English, and willingness to learn. One lesson plan for all nine groups rarely works, so personalised lesson plans are essential.

3. Be Adaptable when Plans Change

While lesson plans are key, it is also important to be versatile. Sometimes I’ve shown up to class and the main teacher has told me “Actually, can you do this with them today?”; or “Actually some of them have an exam, can you take this group instead?” In these situations, you need to improvise. Teaching is continuously a process of trial and error. If something works well, then I incorporate it into future lesson plans. If something doesn’t go well, then I’m back at Square One and I decide to try something else.

4. Pop Culture to Get to Know Your ESL Secondary Students in Spain

While getting to know your class in terms of behaviour, English level, and learning attitudes, you should also get to know them in terms of their hobbies and motivations.

With my 14-16-year-old students, I’ve asked them to start watching episodes of their favourite TV shows in English (instead of Spanish). That way, we can have our own Netflix club and discuss different shows every week. It’s a good opportunity as well to see what pronunciations or vocabulary they learn from the shows.

Most male students are obsessed with football and some already watch football commentary in English. Other obsessions include social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat. One student told me that his favourite way of practising English is by watching celebrities’ snapchat stories.

Whatever they’re interested in, they can use this to practise their English. If you take interest in your secondary students’ hobbies this way, then they’ll take interest in the subject.

5. Promote Fun through Learning

Yes, we are teaching, but classes don’t always have to be serious. For most secondary school students in Spain, this is their weekly opportunity to spend time with a native English speaker. They don’t want to spend this time regurgitating the same grammar rules that they do in the classroom. Indeed, this is your chance to make English come alive to them.

As you can see, I’m continuously learning from my students. Every teaching day is different and often challenging, but overall it is an immensely rewarding experience. Be prepared for lots of coffee and lots of mistranslation, but also a great year of learning and travel.

35 Responses

  1. Hi Orla! I am teaching a Colegio Jesus Maria Alfonso X this year and I agree with each of the points you made. I have prepared some lessons that have gone completely off the rails into a discussion I did not anticipate, and those classes are often the ones that I have the most fun with. I definitely agree that different groups need different lesson plans and while broad themes can be incorporated into each lesson, the activities will vastly differ depending on how introverted or extroverted a group is in addition to their language level. I also agree with your idea to incorporate Netflix and sports news into the class. In a conversation class, it is important that students are actually passionate about what the class discussion is about.

  2. I teach at the same school Colegio Jesus-Maria too! I’ve loved my experience here and the kids are all so bright, but I agree with you on how you need to embrace the energy of the kids and promote fun learning. It was difficult at first to get the kids’ attention but with time, I’ve learned the importance of creating relationships to create a fun and supportive learning environment. Through this, I’ve been able to earn their trust and now they see me as someone they respect and listen to. Teaching in Spain is unique because they are learning from us as much as we are learning from them!

  3. These tips are all SO accurate, I don’t think I could possibly add anything further! Definitely the part about being adaptable and dealing with the high energy – so jealous of how energetic some of these kids are, where do they get it from?!?!

  4. Hi Orla! I am one of the current Language Assistants at Colegio Jesús-María and I am teaching both primary and secondary here. It’s cool to see the entrance of the school and the classroom that we are still using for classes this year! I have used some of these tips before having read this article but it’s nice to know that the former language assistant also used similar skills and techniques. Last week we did some classroom debates in 2nd of Bachillerato and the students were so involved and so engaged! And I definitely agree that secondary teachers have to embrace the energy of the Spanish students and be prepared to personalize classes as needed because every class has its own style.

  5. This article is so insightful! I have always tried to avoid teaching secondary as I’ve always thought I wouldn’t know what to do with them, but I would be keen to give it a go after reading your advice. Thanks!

    Also – the entrance to your school looks awesome!

  6. My biggest takeaway from being in a Spanish classroom is always expect the unexpected. If you think you’re going to present a slideshow of your hometown on Tuesday, you might end up doing it today!! If you think you’re going to do Cambridge prep with some students today, you might have to teach another class because your original suddenly is having an exam. Schedules and lesson plans are fluid and changing, and it’s easy to stress over, but when you realize that the teachers aren’t stressed, then you learn not to be either.

  7. Yes to all of these! I recently just found myself tailoring classes with specific interests, it definitely keeps their attention more! Thank you for all of the tips, I think that using games like taboo would definitely help my class say more focused.

  8. great article! I’m also teaching 2eso and it can be a real challenge with such mixed abilities, age levels, and behavior, but I have learned that fun and engaging games like jeopardy, 20 questions, ect work real well in getting them involved.

  9. Deffo point 4. I experience this every day. As long as they are interested in something, everything goes well, but if not, it is hard to motivate them.

    1. Hi Svenja, I completely agree! There’s nothing worse than uninterested students and if they’re bored, it’s up to you, the teacher, to help them.

  10. I liked your games ideas! I also love playing Heads Up with older students as they really find it fun and its a great way to practice fluency in aore enjoyable way. I liked what you said about taking their interests into account because I feel that’s absolutely essential to getting them on your side and really helping them get the most out of the classes. This year I’m in charge of a Cambridge advanced class of Bachillerato students and I realised just how important it is to keep tracking their progress because the majority of them speak very well but when it comes to reading and use of English, it’s another story entirely! Sometimes teenagers can make you think they’re doing alright when in reality they need support. Thanks for your insightful article!!

    1. Hi Hannah, I’ve played heads up with my host family and they love it! I’d never thought of doing it as a class activity but that’s a great idea. That’s very true about students needing suppprt, as native English speakers it’s easier for us to identify any flaws they have and help them.

  11. As someone who teaches infantile and primary students, I found this article extremely informative. I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I want to switch to secondary students next year and you gave some great insight into what the experience might actually be like. Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Mariah, I’m glad that you liked the article! Teaching infantil and primary must be very different, but equally rewarding. Good luck with your decision!

    1. Hi Emma, I agree. They can be very tough at times but very worthwhile to teach, especially once you’ve gotten to know them.

  12. I thought this blog post was actually pretty spot on in terms of how it is working with secondary students in Spain. The author gives great advice and I really liked the debate/game ideas. It’s definitely true that with the older students they can be a bit more talkative, so you’ve got to steer that energy in the right direction.

    1. Thanks for your comment, I’m glad that you liked the article! While younger children can also be talkative, they benefit from different activities, whereas with older students I’ve always found debates to be very successful.

  13. Brilliant post! I loved every single bit of it. I loved the 5 point breakdown. My favourite two were the first and the third points because for me they are quite related because I find myself have to change the class activity because of the energy that the students have. From experience, while some activities fully engage the students, for example the memory game, they result in too much excitement from the primary kids I work with and it is something that then requires me to think on the spot about what I can do to bring order. In that regard, I have refrained from playing memory with my kids. The last memory game we played, the kids had to make a sentence with the matched cards but that was not challenging enough for them so it was quite a frenzy. I decided to challenge them a bit and ask them to tell a story, adding more detail or changing the story with each new mach but then because some students began to encounter difficulties with this new challenge, others began laughing at them so in the end this wasn’t good competition. Because of that I no longer play memory with the kids. As emphasized in the blogpost, teaching is a trial and error process full of surprises and one must always be prepared for such.

  14. Great article, Orla! These tips are really helpful and valid. I teach primary school students but I can say that these tips can be applied to younger students too. Primary school students are VERY talkative and it’s hard to grab their attention, which means you need to do fun activities with them and hone into their interests and personalities. Glad you’re having a good experience!

    1. Thanks Paige, I’m glad that you liked it! Getting to know the students and their personalities is definitely the most important thing to remember when teaching.

  15. I completely agree that it’s important to be flexible and embrace changes! Things do not always go according to plan in the classroom, so it’s important to have back up ideas and activities in case this happens!

    1. Hi Natalie, yes this seems to happen to me on a weekly basis! I either have to rely on activities I’ve done with other students or completely improvise and usually it goes fine.

  16. Thanks so much for your article, it is so interesting and will definitely help me! I was just wondering if you found any debate topics particularly successful with your older students? Thanks!

    1. Hi Rebecca, I’m glad that you enjoyed the article! The most successful debate topics have been: social media, voting, choosing a university course and school uniforms. I try to stay away from controversial topics, but students tend to find topics like politics or the environment quite boring so you’ll have to suss out what your students are interested in. Hope this helps!

    1. Thanks very much! Teaching secondary can be challenging but also very rewarding and I enjoy getting to know the students during an important stage of their lives.

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