Verb Forms

Frequency List Lessons

There was a recent discussion in which a teacher said, my department head insisted on teaching only the present tense in Level 1, the preterite in Level 2, etc.  This Head’s reasoning was, people must “master” one set of “vocabulary” at a time. Bad idea.

Anyway, let us look at which verbforms in Spanish are actually most frequently used.  Here, from’s Spanish Frequency List, are the most-used verbs in Spanish, then some ideas about what this means for teachers.

The verbform is as given, and the number refers to how close to most-used the verbform is.  The lower the number, the more often used the verb is. Reference point: in Spanish, the most-used word is que (“what” or “that”) whose number is therefore 1.  The second most-used word is de (“of” or “from”) whose number is 2, and the articles la and el (“the”) are the 6th and 7th most-frequently-used words.  OK, verbs:

8.             es
22           está
42           vamos
44           hay
47           estoy
48           tengo
53           ha
55           sé
56           estás
58           puedo
60           quiero
62           soy
63           tiene
68           fue
69           ser
70           hacer
71           son
73           era
74           eres
76           tienes
77           creo
79           he
81           voy
82           puede
83           sabes
91           quieres
100        estaba
102         están
103         va
109         siento
110         tenemos
111         puedes
115         ver
124         decir
128         ir
132         has
136         estar
137        estamos
141        quiere
146        trabajo
148        mira
149        vas
150        sea
154        hecho
156        dijo
157        pasa
162        hablar
169        espera
171        han
173        sabe
177        fuera
181        podemos
182        dije
184        necesito
185        estado
186        podría
187        acuerdo
189        tener
190        dice
192        crees
194        gusta
197        será
198        haciendo
202        había


First, the facts.

A.  The top 202 most-used Spanish words include

  • verbs in seven verb tenses (present, preterite, imperfect, present perfect, present progressive, formal future, informal future e.g. va a hablar)
  • verbs in two subjunctive moods (present and past)
  • reflexive verbs

B. Verbs we think are oft-used such as gustar are less-used than for example fue

C. The traditional textbook order of teaching verb tenses (typically, present ⇒ preterite ⇒ imperfect ⇒ present perfect ⇒ subjunctive) is totally at odds with how frequently verb forms are actually used.

The implications (in no particular order):

  1. Traditional textbook verb sequencing will not help students in real-world use. Most students will not take five years of Spanish– two is more typical– and so traditional sequencing will overplay less-used “categories” (e.g. stem-changing verbs) and underplay what actually gets used (everything, basically).  They will therefore understand less than they should/could.

    We know this:  according to Davies and others, the 1500 most-used words make up 85% of all spoken language (in any language).  A reasonable target for a five-year high-school language program would therefore be, 300 words per year, more or less.  What if students only take two?  Well then, they will get the most benefit from using the 600 most-used words.

  2. Textbook sequencing does not properly “model” grammar “rules.”  It is pretty obvious that everything normally used is “mixed together.”  A four year old will say something like yesterday Daddy took me to a playdate.  I hurt myself playing with Jason. But it was fun.  I like playing with Jason.  He’s nice.  Here, there are three verb tenses and a reflexive verb.In Spanish, English speakers have a whack of verb subtleties to soak up.  For example, the term “I was” could be estaba, estuve, me sentí or fui. If we teach one tense as a time, as the textbook does, we play up the morphology (form) at the expense of contextual “rule” awareness.  E.g. a Colombian will say cuando estaba cansado ayer en la tarde, me tomé un tinto (“when I was tired yesterday afternoon, I grabbed a coffee”).  The Colombian has acquired the “rule” that the preterite tense “interrupts” the “background” that the imperfect tense establishes.In a traditional textbook, however (eg the ¡Juntos! books I used to use), students will spend quite a while on the preterite, and then on the imperfect.  Even if they acquire the specific forms (which they generally don’t, because nobody is on anybody else’s schedule in terms of acquisition), when a new form shows up, two things happen:

    a. they will start using the new form (verb endings) everywhere and apparently forget the older form’s endings.  Kids who knew to say ayer yo fui a la escuela now say ayer yo iba a la escuela intending to mean the same thing.

    b. when (if) they pick up the new form, they will have huge problems “knowing” which form to use where.  Why?  Because there are so many “rules” to remember that the only effective way to pick them up is from contextual input modeling.  Basically, we need to hear an ocean of meaningful Spanish sentences which use both these verb tenses together.  This is true in any language of any grammatical structure.

    An English speaker can do a thought experiment here:  what is the “rule” for using the very high-frequency English words some and any?  Why can’t I ask do you have some advice? or answer no I don’t have some advice for you?  Why can I say do you have some of those washers for my drum? but not do you have some ideas? 

Anyway.  There you go: some data and ideas about word frequency.  Comments as always welcome.


What Is My Daily Intro Routine?

I open every class with an intro routine.  I add one or two words per day, and by the end of the course, the kids have picked up about 90 expressions from just intro alone.  Here’s how I do it

  1.  I ask, class, what is the day? and class, what is the date? Then, I answer in the affirmative and ask a few questions:  class, is it Tuesday or Wednesday?  That’s right, it’s Wednesday.  Class, is it the 28th or the 29th?  That’s right:  it’s not the 28th– it’s the 29th.This will teach kids days and numbers 1-31 with zero effort.  Time: 1 minute

  2.  I ask class, what is the weather like today? That’s right, class: it’s snowing.  Class, was it snowing yesterday? That’s right:  yesterday, it wasn’t snowing: it was sunny! If the weather where you are never changes, talk about weather elsewhere.  Time:  1 minute.

  3.  Next up is The Missing Kid: I ask, class, where is [a kid not in class]?  Sometimes kids know (Johnny’s at the doctor, or Manjeet is in a soccer tourney).  Then, I ask some y/n and either/or questions about that kid. Sometimes, we have no idea, so here we speculate:  Class, is it possible that Baljit is playing soccer with Leonel Messi in Barcelona?  For people with the subjunctive tense in their target language, this is a goldmine.  Time: 5 minutes

  4. Finally, we do what did you do last night?  First, I model it myself:  I tell the kids about my evening, thus: Class, last night I drove my  purple Ferrari home, and then I had a date with Angeline Jolie.  That’s right, class:  Ang is single so we had a date.  Our date was fun and romantic.  We went to McDonalds!  Ang was very happy.

    I ask, Suzie, what did you do last night/yesterday?   Yes, I do this with Day 2 beginners.  I use the following “past tense PQA” chart.  Initially, the kids just read off it.  On Day 2, the question was what did you do last night? and they could only pick I went to…. and I played…

So I would ask a kid what did you do last night? and they would (in the first few days) read something like last night, I played GTA 5 or yesterday, I went to Wal Mart.  I would ask questions about their answers, re-state in 3rd person, and then do compare and contrast questions.  Here is a sample dialogue from today (we have had about 27 classes):

T:  Manpreet, what did you do last night?

S: last night, I went to Wal-Mart.

T:  class, did Manpreet go to Wal-Mart or to Safeway last night?

C: Wal-Mart.

T: Manpreet, did you go to 7-11 last night?

S: I went to Wal-Mart.

Here we are getting 1st, 2nd and 3rd person reps on the basic past tense.  I “allow” one new word per day, so after 8 days the kids at least recognise the basics (ie what is on the chart).  Yes, you can do this with total beginners and it’s a not-bad idea…because the longer people hear  _____, the more chances they have of picking it up.  After they recognise everything on the chart, I add a new word or two on the board per day.

Time: 5 minutes.

5. Finally, we do soap operas, which grew organically out of  me blatantly lying about my evening activities.  Kids, were like, well if Sr can date Angelina Jolie, *I* can kiss Dave Franco.  For soap opera details, read this.  Soap operas have two parts:  creating the story, and (once enough has been created to fill a page) printing it out and reading it.

Anywaythe aims with the intro routine are to

  • keep all language 100% comprehensible
  • introduce a variety of grammar and vocab incrementally
  • tailor language to student interests
  • recycle things daily
  • avoid themes or topics
  • unshelter grammar



What Is Rule Overgeneralization, and What Can We Do About it?

So you are teaching with your text and in year one the kids “learn” first how to say “I like” in Spanish– me gusta– and then how to conjugate regular present-tense verbs.  And suddenly they are saying *yo gusto no trabajo. Then in Level 2 you “teach” them the past tense, like “she ran” is corrió.  And suddenly they are saying *los lunes corrió a la escuela.  These are a lot like how kids pick up L1:  they acquire Daddy went to the store and then later say Daddy goed yesterday.

This is “rule overgeneralisation:” a new “rule” shows up and suddenly it gets applied everywhere, inappropriately.

Kids pull out of this very quickly, mostly because of the masses of input they get from L1 parents and other adults.  But what can we do about this in the language classroom?

So some random notes:

1. Avoiding conscious learning is the first key.  If you have to consciously learn AND remember AND apply “rules” in real time– ie during oral production– you will naturally default to the most recently-learned rule.  So all that hard work on the present tense seems to go out the window when the passé composé gets introduced.  This is not cos kids are dumb, lazy etc, but it is a brain-structure and bandwidth problem: you have a limited amount of conscious brainpower, and forcing it to “learn” and then remember and apply “grammar rules” (and the brain, as Bill VanPatten reminds us, doesn’t even actually use what we teachers call “grammar rules” in the first place) is too much.  Too many mental balls to juggle. TPRS or AIM-style stories, Movietalk, Picturetalk, novels etc– i.e. interesting comprehensible input– will take care of a bunch of this.

2.  Unsequenced or “unsheltered” grammar is second. Blaine Ray and Susan Gross pioneered using “unsheltered” grammar– using all verb tenses, pronouns, verb #s etc — from Day 1.  If the input is “modeling” L2 in all its diversity, the brain won’t default to conscious or recently-“learned” rules.  Yes, beginners can cope with sentences like El chico quería un mono que bailara (the boy wanted a monkey who might dance) easily.  There you have inperfect, subordinate clause and past subjunctive all in one sentence.

This way, the brain has “everything” coming in at once, and it is getting the “mental spaces” for the different “rules” built, ground up, from Day 1.  The kids won’t substitute trabajaba for trabajó because they have been hearing and reading them– mixed together, naturally– from the beginning.

(There is, btw, another argument for the use of unsheltered grammar: frequency.  A glance at any word frequency list shows us that the 250 most-used words (i.e. what Level 1 of any language class should teach) includes verbs in five tenses and the subjunctive mood.  And it’s not like Mexican moms or French dads delay speaking the subjunctive (or whatever) till their kids are ten years old!)

3. Avoiding “grammar practice” is the third key. The problems any output activity where we “practice” grammar are numerous:

  •  How do we expect people to do what they are trying to learn to do?  Are we not putting the cart before the horse here?
  • If we acquire languages via input, what good does output do?  “Little or nothing” is Steve Krashen and Bill VanPatten’s answer.
  • This will inevitably be accompanied by tons of English or other L1 discussion.  Even the eager beavers will be saying “is it the thingy, the subtunction?  Is that like you put an -a on it?  No wait that’s an -e. OMG this Snapchat. Shut up I don’t like her, OK it’s *ella trabajió.
  • It’s boring. Generating sentences such as “the girl wants her cousin to cook” or “I want my friend to run” is not fun.  I’ve tried everything–everything– and believe me, I can get kids to listen to a fun story that has [whatever grammar] in it, but I cannot get 90% of kids to “practice grammar” or “practice speaking” in any meaningful way.

4. Remember that “errors” do not exist, from the learner’s point of view.  If somebody “screws up” in writing or speech, they quite simply have not acquired what they need to produce the language properly.  They are being asked to do something they quite literally cannot do. There’s an entire Tea With BVP devoted to this question. So, rule overgeneralisation– like any error– has more to do with what teachers want than how “good” students are.

5. We have to remember that acquisition is non-linear.  We can minimise problems such as rule overgeneralisation, but we can’t get rid of them.  Check out this mama bear and her cub going rock climbing.

They test pawholds.  They back down.  They try the sequence differently.  They don’t get there in one fast line.

Teachers are mama bear and students the cubs, if you will. They’ll do the moves…when they are ready.

Finally, we need to up the input.  Students only acquire via input.  Yes, it may seem like they are learning from doing worksheets, or using the subjunctive chart above, or practicing dialogues.  But such “learning” is incidental, and as we see from research, much less effective than lots of good input.  If you keep hearing “j’allais à l’école hier” or “yo gusto hamburguesas,” the students need to hear (and read) more je suis allé and me gustan las hamburguesas.  In the long run, that’s the only thing that is going to work.




How Do I Get More 1st & 2nd Person Verb Practice?

There was a recent comment asking “how do I get more reps” (repetitions) on first and second person verb forms?”

This is one of my many weaknesses, but I am getting better.  I read somewhere that in language classrooms, the third person is overused while other forms are under-represented.  I can see why.  Here’s what I recommend based on what I have done.

FIRST, When we begin T.P.R.S., we start with first and second person questions, on the board if we must, and ask our actors.  It’s Sept 2015 and I just finished asking Los Gatos Azules.  I teach fully unsheltered grammar, so I narrate in the past (or whatever) tenses, and I talk to actors (and kids in class) in present tense.  The following questions go on the board:

¿Eres __ ? – Sí, (no, no) soy __ .  (Are you ___? — I am (not) ___.)

¿Quieres tener ____? – Sí, (no, no) quiero tener ____ . (Do you want to have ___?  — I (do not) want to have ___)

¿Te gustan ____? – Sí, (no, no) me gustan ____ (Do you like___?  — I (do not) like ___.)

¿Tienes ____?  –Sí, (no, no) tengo ___. (Do you have ___?  — I (do not) have __.)

¿Vas a ____?  — Sí, (no, no) voy a ____ (Are you going to ____?  — I (am not) going to ___.)

¿Estás en ___? Sí, (no, no) estoy en ____.  (Are you in/at ____?  — I am (not) in/at ___.)

¿Qué necesitas? – Necesito ____.  (What do you need?  — I need ___.)

This is a fair bit for first story so we go slowly.  I will narrate a sentence in the past — e.g. el chico estaba en Watts– and circle that a bit, then I’ll ask the actor one of the present tense questions, like “¿Estás en Watts?” and s/he answers “Sí, estoy en Watts.”  You go s.l.o.w.l.y., you point-and-pause, and you do a LOT of comprehension checks (in unsheltered, comp check focus with verbs is on meaning and tense).  I have two actors right now.  Miguel knows some Spanish from his Salvadorean Dad, and Shyla is just very enthusiastic.  If they can answer, great; if not, they read off board.

This is my beginner PQA chart which I also use for stories.



SECOND, we do P.Q.A.– personalised questions and answers.  For this, wejust ask the class members the same questions we ask our actors.  We can do this mid-story, or after.  We start with our “fast processor” kids and just ask one, say, ¿Te gustan los gatos? and have them answer Sí, me gustan los gatos or maybe No, no me gustan los gatos.  If they aren’t comfy saying the whole sentence, they can answer Y or N, and we rephrase: “Class, Baninder just said me gustan los gatos.  What did he just say?”

For PQA, it’s important to figure out your kids’ output skills and tailor questions to that.

  • You ask everyone y/n questions.  E.g. ¿Te gustan los gatos? (Do you like cats?)– Sí/no.
  • Faster processors can handle one-word answer questions, e.g. ¿Te gustan los gatos o los perros? Do you like cats or dogs?)– Los gatos.
  • the fastest processors you can ask whole-sentence questions e.g. ¿Por qué te gustan los gatos? ¿Son cómicos? (Why do you like cats– because they’re funny?) — Me gustan los gatos porque son cómicos.

I have trained myself to always model answers– with a comp check– before moving ahead and asking the kids.  So if we’re working on, say, trabajo (I work/am working), I’ll say “yo trabajo en la escuela. Yo no trabajo en casa.”  (I work at school.  I don’t work at home).  Then I ask “what did I just say?” to make sure they get it.  Then I ask a fast processor ¿trabajas? (do you work?), get a y/n answer, comp check– “class, what did Johnny just say?”, and ask again, pointing to board.  I model for the FPs and everyone else, and the FPs model for the SPs.  I usually seem to end up with 1-3 kids in a class who immediately pick up how to say something so I just use them.

Third, do P.Q.A. with Movietalk and Picturetalk. Just throw the same questions at the kids– using vocab from your movie or picture– as you did in your story.  If there’s a girl in the movie who is happy, you ask a kid “are you happy?” or ask her and her friend “are you guys happy?”

Fourth, for plural verbforms (“you guys, they, we”), there are two strategies.  First, we have a “double parallel character” e.g. two girls or two guys.  Or have two protagonists doing the same thing.  All our questions to them will be “Do you guys….?” and all their answers “We…” and you will narrate in third person plural.  For example, we narrate “Class, the girls asked for 37 hamburgers” and after we circle that for a bit, we ask the girls “Are you guys asking for 37 hambugers?  Yes, we are asking for 37 hamburgers”). Second, we do P.Q.A. in plural.  So you ask a random fast-processor kid “Johnny, do you and Mike play Call of Duty?” and Johnny says “Yes, we play C.o.D.” or “No, we don’t play C.o.D.”  We then do a bit of circling– “Class, do Mike and Johnny play G.T.A. or C.o.D.?  That’s right, they play…”  

Of course, we must write the verbs on the board or overhead with translation.

I have a restaurant story for which I use two girls as protagonists (and they encounter a series of very handsome but very stupid celebrity servers), so the whole thing is “they” and “we” and “you guys.”

Fifth, reading is essential.  If you follow storyasking with embedded readings (a reading which uses the same vocab as your asked story to tell a different story, and which comes in three (or more) progressively more complex versions), make sure one version of the reading has plural verbforms.  Also do P.Q.A. during (or after) the reading process in both singular and plural verbforms.  If the embdded reading says “John went to the theatre at 6;30 A.M.,” you then ask a kid “do you go to the theatre at 6:30 AM?” and s/he says “Yes, I go…” or “no, I don’t go…” Or you ask a pair of kids “do you guys go to the theatre at 6:30 AM?” and they say “Yes, we go” or “No, we don’t go…”

Sixth, I loooves me some text messages like this one….you can build this in 2 min on any computer, using this free website, then print or project…

A few things to remember:

a) this takes time.  We cannot expect kids to pick this all up in one go.  A skilled T.P.R.S. practitioner will recycle this stuff in every story, and with time the kids will pick it up, first just understanding, and later spontaneously saying things.  My 2s I am expecting will be fully online with plural verbs (we, you guys, they) after about 2 months.

b) we must write what we want on board when introducing first and second person verbs

c) we must do comprehension checks.

Say you ask a girl ¿Te gustan los chico estúpidos? and she says No, no me gustan los chicos estúpidos.  When you ask “Class, what she just say?”, they will often answer with “She doesn’t like dumb guys.”  This is wrong– she said “I don’t like dumb guys.”  We have to stay on top of this because this is a classic easy way for kids to “acquire”  the wrong thing.

Anyway, that’s all I can think of right now for upping our first-and-second person input.