How Should I Teach Por and Para?

Today’s question, from Facebook: any fun ways of teaching por vs para? This is a classic question, much like how do I teach ser vs estar?

For those not teaching Spanish, these words can be translated as “for.”

So how should we teach por and para?

First, we do not make a list of their similarities and differences, and we do not  make a list of usage rules for kids to memorise.  Why? Because even if kids do something totally boring and dumb, like memorising grammar rules, not even the best of them– in real time speech or writing– will be able to remember and apply the rule.  There isn’t enough time in real time.

Imagine having to memorise and then remember this!  😦

Image result for por vs para

Second, we do not make a “unit” around por and para. The textbook “unit” around a grammar concept, verb tense, topical vocab set etc is a bad idea: it will artificially narrow and limit language: John buys a blouse for Suzie.  He buys it in order for her to like him.  He pays $20 for it. He passes by Nordstrom on his way home from buying the blouse for Suzie.  He wonders, “did I pay too much for that blouse?” You can see how limiting this is.

Third, we start using them, from Day 1, appropriately, in context.  A perfectly good sentence for a beginning story comes from Blaine Ray: el gato quería un iPhone para comunicarse con otros gatos (“the cat wanted an iPhone in order to communicate with other cats”). In any quest story, we can have a character try to buy something:

¿por cuánto salen?      (“how much do they go for?”)                                                                      — salen tres por veinte (“three go for twenty”)

Fourth, when we do translate, we avoid using the word “for” (which will be confusing). Instead, we translate each “use type” of por and para with context (and usage-) specific words.  So we write

le da veinte por tres he gives her twenty [pesos] for three [of those]
es para su madre it is meant for his mother
fue por la calle she went through the street
aprendió por escuchar he learned by listening
por ahí close by
se perdió por haber dormido she got lost because of having slept
te amo para siempre I’ll love you forever

(This is much like ser and estar.  We don’t translate them as “to be (+ a bunch of rules)”.  Rather, we translate them as “to be” for ser, and “to feel” or “to be located in” for estar.)

Finally, we don’t obsess about it. The gringo who ends up in a Mexican market saying le doy veinticinco para dos sounds foreign to a Mexican, but also perfectly comprehensible.  This is the equivalent of a Mexican saying why you don’t have no oranges? to a Canadian Safeway employee.  The Mexican’s not having acquired any yet has zero impact on how comprehensible she is to a Canadian.





  1. I agree with this! But… how do we help fill the gap for kids who have to take advanced tests, who go on to college level, want to CLEP out of college language classes, etc. I’m not being facetious- I haven’t read up or know what other teachers say about how not to teach grammar, yet bridge the upper levels to standard college language path… I would love any input or if you would point me toward people who talk about this.

    1. The only real way is through input. If you have students aimed at college/IB/AP etc, your secret weapon is READING. This is the only realistic way to up input beyond the limits of class time. Novels. Duolingo and Rosetta Stone if they don’t bore kids. L1-subtitled L2 films or videos.

  2. So felicitous that this is the topic so recently, because I have a job interview coming up where I’ve been asked to include “review/practice of por and para” in my teaching demo. And I roll my eyes so hard they nearly fall out…

    And I don’t know what to do, because I will not teach por/para acronyms (which abound on Pinterest, I’ve discovered, much like Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp, like you mentioned for avoir/etre verbs), but 50 minutes isn’t exactly enough time for the natural exposure method…

    1. I would just say “there are no shortcuts in language acquisition.” BVP said exactly this. Tell them if the kids hear anf read por & para in context 4,000 times, they will pick it up.

  3. I am currently transitioning to a C.I. approach and in addition to trying to shake off things like traditional textbook organization of grammar, I also have to deal with departmental expectations to organize unit/year plans around textbook grammar objectives. I think it’s important to point out that under the traditional grammar model, students don’t actually learn the usage of por/para, but rather learn (at best) a set of rules to explain the usage. My practical solution (it’s too early to determine how well it’s going) features two main components: 1. since C.I. utlizes “real” language, the grammar is always far more advanced than the curriculum requires, so I just keep score of the grammar targets we’re hitting. I just did that with a mini-unit that included por/para. The stories I’m telling already use both, but as it was a focus, I threw in a few additional uses of each. 2. I still include occasional brief grammar lessons along with “old school” worksheets. I also did this for part of one lesson – a brief discussion followed by a practice worksheet. In addition to keeping critics at bay, this is actually helpful for the students who see language acquisition as a math exercise where they need to memorize facts/formulas (sorry math teachers). I always have a few students who are focused on grades, but not that keen to actually learn the language. They seem comforted by the anchor of traditional grammar explanations, but meanwhile I’m engaging them with actually learning the language. My greatest resistance actually comes from the students who would prefer to do nothing. It’s far easier to do as little as possible and barely squeak by in a traditional model than it is in C.I..

    1. Jamieson, I see my teaching practices reflected on the comments you make here. Would you mind sharing with me what unit did you use to teach por and para, is it a unit that can be bought? Just in case it is this is my email at school: Thanks!

      1. Hi Juan-Carlos—

        Most of us who use C.I. don’t do “units.” For things like por/para, best is just to include them constantly in everything you do.

      2. As suggested above, the idea of a “unit” doesn’t fit very well with how I actually teach using C.I., but I have been in situations where I am expected to follow an imposed structure. For example, I have taught on temporary contracts where the incumbent teacher was following a textbook, chapter by chapter, and I was expected to keep the class “on track”. In those cases, I would identify the main grammar targets of the textbook and organize my lessons as “units” focused on those targets. I would also use the textbooks/workbooks for practice exercises, so the students’ perception was that the overall structure of the course was consistent. As for actually teaching, however, I have been using Adriana Ramirez’ wonderful lessons ( I have purchased some of her books – I find these to be simple, engaging, and effective. As I mentioned in my original post, C.I. lessons (like Adriana’s) tend to contain a decent variety of grammar structures, so you can affix a label if you really need to. Ideally, we will reach a point where department heads/administrators/curriculum creators recognize that linguistic mastery is not best achieved by memorizing and applying rules or charts.

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