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Novice description with a deep cultural AP twist

Who are the most beautiful of the beautiful?

Where is your student in the 2014 cover?

Let’s take a basic novice skill that we all have in all our curricula:

I can describe someone using common adjectives.

Note the variety in what’s “beautiful” on the 2015 cover.

We’ve all seen and done a million activities to get students practicing description.  Today, let me offer another alternative, one that offers a deep, critical-thinking aspect to this Can Do statement and brings an AP theme (Beauty and Aesthetics) down to your Spanish 1 class.

People Magazine annually dares to don the right to define who are the most beautiful people in the world, and we breathlessly offer them that right as we eagerly sacrifice our self-esteem on the altar of “if only.”

As your students practice using physically descriptive adjectives, what if you asked them to take a look at the “most beautiful of the most beautiful” – the 24 people who have been elected to People’s list of Latino/a beauties five or more times?  What if you asked them to make a list of possible adjectives and check off the ones that describe each “beauty”?  Where would the check marks fall?

  • Blonde? Dyed? (You betcha.)
  • Indigenous? (Not one.)
  • Black? (No way.)
  • What about by gender? The darkest by far are male: Luis Fonsi and Shalim Ortiz are as dark as the most beautiful are allowed to come.
  • Eye color?
  • White, relatively? (Of course.)
  • Thin? (You know the answer to that one.)

2010 cover. I am not making this up.

Asking for the description is the easy part.  Asking why and then what to do about it – now there’s the real question. But at the end of such an exercise, students will certainly have a better idea about what Latina girls and Latino boys are being told is beautiful.  And then? What about comparing the rankings with the U.S. English versions?  With what Lupita Nyong’o has to say about her journey to the top?

Asking tough questions in low novice classes – that’s a challenge.  But here’s one that fits and is worth the asking.

And then Thomas Sauer comes along and asks me a question that gets me thinking:

I wonder if the problem is the original learning target. What if the question was embedded there?

In that light, I wonder if we could embed cultural, critical thinking in all our Can Do statements, even the Novice ones:

I can list characteristics of a person People en Español would consider the most beautiful and of a person I would consider the most beautiful.

How’s that for turning a Novice Can Do on its head?

Seriously. Do they have a *template* they’re using? (TC Candler)

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September 23, 2015 4 Comments

How I teach La ciudad de las bestias

coverI’ve been asked several times lately, particularly by teachers starting out their AP Spanish classes, exactly how I teach the novel La ciudad de las bestias as part of the course.  Here’s the answer.

  • If a class has higher proficiency, I set deadlines for chapters.  We do read on one set day per week, but students are responsible to finish on their own for the day a chapter is due.  Students finish the book in one school year.

  • In a class with lower proficiency, I coach them through the reading every week (whatever day is our reading day).  Students do not finish the book in the school year, but after the AP exam, they finish a set of questions I wrote to get them through the plot to find out what happens.

  • We read aloud taking turns in class.

  • Students sometimes have a reading day in a group together when I need to grade some of their work or if several students are absent.

  • We frequently stop to explore the book and enhance comprehension in the ways described in my guide under “Para comprender más.”  We’ll look up pictures of a guacamaya or find Manaos on Google Earth or diagram who is on the explorer team and what their jobs are.

If you’re interested in teaching this novel using the ebook reading guide I developed, you can find more information here.

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August 28, 2014 0 Comments

Introducing the past tenses together

Jhon Emmanuel

Jhon Emmanuel


Have you ever stopped to think about why we teach the past tenses separately?

When I first started investigating TPRS as a teaching method, a lot of things clicked with me (and some didn’t) but one of the tips that made the most sense was that it didn’t make sense to teach past tenses one at a time.  I think I know why we do it, because we think that breaking it into two steps will make students be able to do it better.  However, there are several glaring problems with this.

  1. No one uses them that way.
    Speakers do not use them separately; the whole point of how the past tenses (in Spanish, and in French too I think?) work is that how they work together.
  2. They often don’t follow the “rules.”
    You know this is true. As soon as you teach that the sudden past is used for something or other then some student finds some example and says, “But, Señor, why is it descriptive past in this part?”
    “Um…um…” You don’t know. I don’t either.  My standard answer is “Because the choice was all in the speaker’s/writer’s head and we’re not in there.”
  3. Acquisition doesn’t happen that way.
    When children are learning language they (of course) do not acquire one past tense and then the other.  My kindergartener, when telling a story, will use them in equally correct and incorrect ways with the same frequency.
  4. Learners can’t do it one at a time any better anyway.
    We often try to introduce past tense (with Spanish it’s usually the sudden past) at the end of Level 1 through the middle of Level 2, but a lot of students will not even reach Intermediate Low by the end of Level 2 and won’t get out of Intermediate at the end of four levels, which is what it takes to accurately choose and manipulate the past tenses more than half the time.  Isn’t that a relief?  It isn’t just your students who STILL can’t come up with me lastimé after you’ve drilled it and killed it!  So if it turns out we’re not actually gaining anything by separating them, why do it?

After I started approaching the past as a communicative goal, things started to make a lot more sense to all of us.  One of my major goals for Spanish 3 – out of only 3 major goals – was refining the ability to narrate a story, because this is something we all do all day every day.  We approached and practiced the past tenses together and throughout the entire year as part of the communicative function of narrating a story.  It was beautiful. It was so much easier for me to contrast them, and it was so much easier for students to understand their use.  Here are a few tips we learned along the way:

  • Introduce it as a timeline. (This post started out to be all about this timeline, and then I realized we needed some background first, so watch soon for a separate post illustrating this technique of storytelling as a timeline.)  From the first story to the last, draw a horizontal line and mark the beginning of the story and the end.  The sudden events are above.  The descriptive events are below.  This visualization not only divides the concept of the two, but also shows how they tend to cluster in various parts of the story.
  • Instead of dividing by tense, divide by subject.  Work on he/she for a while (it fits well with retelling stories you’re using as comprehensible input).  Then add yo, and the rest, one by one or two at the most.  Students will extract patterns better.
  • Include the irregulars all the time.  Irregular (especially preterit) verbs are some of the most common verbs used in the past.  It’s counterproductive and difficult to keep saying “Don’t use that one, we’re not there yet.”
  • Mark and focus on transitions.  Transitions are a key skill in themselves but also tend to trigger one type of verb or the other (“When I was a little girl….” “And suddenly….”).
  • Ask about it (in TL) the whole year.  The skill of narrating in the past is very slow to develop; if you’ve been teaching any length of time you know this.  Every time you read a story, ask.  Every time you look at a news article, ask.  Every time students tell a story, ask.  Here are questions that come up almost every class period throughout the whole year in Spanish 3 and 4 for us:
    - what time is this in?
    - is it sudden or descriptive?
    - how do you know?
    - what caused it?
    - can you use it in a similar way?
    - why did you pick that way to say that verb?
    - should it be descriptive or sudden?
    - why?
    - can you fix it?
    - who can help [her] fix it?

Work on the past tenses together and make it part of a large focus of an entire level.  You’ll watch it make more sense to students and be easier for you to teach as learners begin to narrate the past faster and with more accuracy.  If your learners have achieved intermediate level and are ready to work on refining verb endings, my free verb pack for Spanish includes both past tenses and the complete verb pack includes eight illustrated charts.  They’re a handy reference that help students visualize the structures that help them grow to be more accurate in their language production.

Go tell a story and have fun doing it!

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June 10, 2014 0 Comments

Best of 2013: #2 – Tips for the new AP

2013′s second most popular post offers tips for those of us approaching the new world language AP exams.

AP Spanish screenshot

The world of AP World Language teachers is all abuzz with the vast changes made to the exams this year.  Six years ago the Spanish language exam changed to what was  a more proficiency-based format. Last year other exams changed to move toward and past what the Spanish exam was, and for 2014 the Spanish exam will change to meet them.  Thus, every AP Spanish teacher in the country is submitting a new syllabus through the course audit to get College Board approval.

The most recent changes do not seem to be terribly significant for the Spanish exam.  The biggest one to me is that there are no sources to read, listen to, or cite for the presentational speaking task.  This is a positive, intuitive change  in my opinion.  The requirements for the task were far too in-depth for a two-minute prep time leading to a two-minute speaking sample. (See the recent post on what I think the AP exam measures. Also check out the popular post Dear novice-learner teacher – love, an AP teacher)

With a newborn, a baby age 1, and a preschooler age 4, I have been on hiatus from professional development this year, including any AP Spanish workshops.  So I’m asking and relying on other teachers who have been to the workshops to pass along to me what they have learned.  One such teacher is Cristy Vogel, a fellow #langchat moderator, who recently blogged what she learned from the AP French workshop.  Read her post and then see my comments below.  Then help us out – do my opinions bear out in your experience? Do you have additional tips you’ve learned?

  • Memorize directions.
    Indeed. If students already know the directions, they can spend more valuable time previewing questions and answers to prime themselves for comprehension or examining sources.
  • Focus on content.
    This is a proficiency move. Students cannot think that they can simply throw language out there and score high.  They have to show analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking.  I thought it was particularly interesting that Cristy’s workshop suggested essays of 5+ paragraphs seem to score higher.
  • Push opinions.
    This is a change for the AP Spanish exam.  Opinions were important before, but it’s even more important now for students to show that they can take a stand and defend it on… well, any issue.
  • Vary your sources.
    I’m glad to see a greater variety of sources used in AP courses.  I knew this change was coming and so this past year we did a lot more work with, for example, blog posts, tweets, and infographics.
  • Bring in cultural information.
    This has been on the Spanish language rubric for all free-response questions since the last change.  However, the language in the rubric for what this means is terribly vague, and many high-scoring samples on the website have no noticeable cultural references.  So, it’s still a guess as to what they want here.  My advice to students was to cite cultural information from sources with an opinion added on sourced tasks.  On the interpersonal tasks, 1) in writing create a situation that lends itself to showing some cultural knowledge, like your grandmother is in a Cuban neighborhood in Miami if you’re writing to your grandmother (who writes to their grandmother in Spanish?!), and 2) in speaking they will set up a situation designed for you to insert cultural information, like asking for categories (music! drop lesser-known names like Fonsi and Jesse y Joy!).
  • Use idiomatic expressions.
    I give my students a document of idioms that we practice using.  They know they cannot score “advanced” on my vocabulary section of the rubric unless I see at least one idiomatic expression.  Favorites in my class are “no veo la hora,” “para nada,” “para colmos,” and “al fin y al cabo.”
  • Use culturally appropriate letter conventions.
    We refer to the Oxford document on these conventions.
  • A score of 1 means…
    I have no idea. This is one of my major problems with the AP. Like I wrote in my previous post, I have had a functionally proficient student score a 1.  It is no reflection on language ability. It is completely a reflection of test-taking ability and critical thinking skills like analysis and synthesis of sources.  It infuriates me that my students can work hard and answer every question in the target language and get a score that equates them with someone who answers half in English and leaves half the questions blank.
  • Elaborate instead of listing.
    As in, instead of giving examples which looks like just pushing the word count – like “I visited France, Spain, Italy, and Greece” – elaborate on what happened in one in particular. (I think?) I thought this was a super interesting tip. I’ll be holding on to that one.
  • Kick the English transfer.
    Also known as “Google translate syndrome.” Teachers who push a lot of translation actually foster this problem.  It’s better to use more basic language that’s communicative than to try to get complicated and produce a jumbled mess with English structure mapped all over it.
  • Cite the sources.
    For sure. This has been a key on the Spanish exam for a while.  I tell my students to plan from the beginning and then double-check that they have integrated well all the sources given (which now only applies to the persuasive essay).  It’s better to be a little incorrect on some information (particularly common on the audio source) than to leave it out.
  • Include a direct quote.
    Wow, really? I always thought direct quotes were shallower integration than paraphrases were.  No, I know that’s true.  But anyway, Cristy heard that you can’t get a 5 without a direct quote on the essay.
  • Sources are predictable.
    I had no idea about this either.  She says the first and third source contradict each other and the second one is vague so students can use it for either point of view.  Critiquing this vague source and sharing a hypothesis raises the score.
  • Use transitions!
    I push students to begin trying transitional phrases at novice level.  This is a big proficiency goal for us.
  • Compare cultures.
    I’ve never been sure about how much students should bring in their own point of view but now I’m sure it’s critical.  Talk about how the target culture feels about it.  Compare your opinions.  Balance your time on the two. Students must compare the two cultures.
  • Push language.
    For a higher score, do something out of the ordinary, particularly in pushing vocabulary, deep critical thinking, supportive arguments, and understanding of the target culture.  Students need to show advanced structures, but these structures have never actually been spelled out.  Your guess is as good as mine.
  • Don’t present the topic.
    On presentational speaking. This is a new one for me.  I’ve always thought it was fine for students to begin with a greeting and tell what they’re going to talk about. Turns out this is taboo now. Good to know.
  • First complete the task, then show what you can do.
    On the speaking tasks – the most important thing is to do what they told you to do.  Then, just keep rambling until your time is out (on topic of course). Show what you can do with the language.  It’s okay if you’re cut off.

So, there you go.  Help! Based on your experiences teaching AP Spanish and attending the workshops this summer, what should we expect in the new exam?  Are we on track here?

Along that train of thought, keep an eye out this school year for the first Musicuentos eBooks coming available, many directly related to teaching AP or any advanced Spanish class.

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December 27, 2013 2 Comments

AP Spanish final exam: Controversia navideña y Vacunas para niños

Grupos partidarios del ateísmo invitan a celebrar la razón, y no la Navidad, en estas fechas; cristianos responden con sus propios anuncios

If you’re interested, here’s my final exam for AP Spanish, addressing two themes we have incorporated this semester: religious celebrations, and healthcare challenges.

The exam includes a persuasive essay and an audio prompt for a speaking response.  In the persuasive essay, students are asked to discuss whether we should try to change other people’s opinions about holidays, specifically how their religion is incorporated into their celebrations.  The sources include a print report about an atheist organization’s controversial billboard in New Jersey, an infographic about whom Spaniards are asking for their Christmas gifts, and an audiovisual report about a Miami-area community holding a public celebration for la concepción de María against the town mayor’s wishes.  The infographic in particular is a neutral source and requires students to think about the Santa vs. Three Kings vs. no one issue.  To prepare for this type of thinking, we talked about my 4-year-old telling her classmate that there was no real Santa Claus (in my house Santa Claus is a fun story much like Cinderella) and he didn’t believe her.  (To clarify, she’s not supposed to do this – she has clear instructions not to talk about Santa at school!)

For the speaking response, my longtime cyberfriend Pilar (@mundaysa) recorded the prompt for me.  The audio is a mother in a doctor’s office who needs to get a vaccine for her child but can’t afford the doctor’s price.  My students have researched and discuss low-cost and free healthcare options in our area and should be able to use this knowledge to explain to the mother where she can get a low-cost vaccine for her child.

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December 11, 2013 2 Comments

First-ever Musicuentos ebook: Reader’s Guide to Ciudad de las bestias

coverWhen I first set out to teach the novel La ciudad de las bestias by Isabel Allende five years ago, I wrote chapter guides for each chapter as I taught it through a year.   I never dreamed that teachers far and wide would use the document I made publicly available a few years ago.  Still, it continues to be my most-requested resource.  But you see, I wrote it for my students.  When I wrote the review vocabulary, I included words I knew my students had seen in previous years or in our regular vocabulary.  Word auto-corrected my lists in weird ways I didn’t catch.  I forgot what words were included in previous chapters and included them again (and again, and AGAIN).  My non-native Spanish made a few constructions awkward or I simply made mistakes.  And I didn’t even know how the plot ended, so I missed questions that were important to the plot, and I included random questions that were little details that didn’t end up having anything to do with anything.  I knew how I wanted to incorporate culture and technology, so I didn’t bother writing those down.  And I included bonus questions that may or may not have been worth asking as a bonus question.

All of that and more has been fixed and vastly improved in the very first Musicuentos ebook, La Ciudad de las Bestias: a Chapter-by-Chapter Guide to the Novel by Isabel Allende.  All review vocabulary includes only words mentioned in previous chapters.  No vocabulary is repeated in a new list.  Irrelevant questions have been removed and more critical-thinking questions have been added.  A native speaker has edited the document to minimize awkward or incorrect constructions.  There are no bonus questions – you choose how many points each question merits.  There are no English translations of anything until the dictionary.  And most importantly, the ebook edition includes profiency- and vocabulary-boosting activities with every chapter:


Each chapter’s section begins with a vocabulary list.  I chose the words based on their frequency of use, application to advanced themes, or importance in the chapter.  Words and phrases that are especially important to the plot or that help students improve their proficiency are emphasized.  Within the Vocabulary section, several activities get students using the words and phrases in memory-boosting ways.  Translations of the words are not included so that you can determine how students interact with the meanings of the words. All words and phrases and their English translations are listed alphabetically in a dictionary at the end.

A repasar

After the first several chapters, each chapter includes a list of vocabulary words previously mentioned in a Vocabulario section. Sometimes these words are variations of previously used words.


These questions enhance memory by causing students to relate vocabulary meaningfully to the world around them.


This section lists pairs or groups of words that are related somehow.  Boost memory by asking students to make connections among vocabulary words.  Are they all parts of the body?  Things that you wear?  Words related to injuries?

Diccionario Visual

Students remember more when a picture is attached to a word.  Students are encouraged to look up several vocabulary words using Google Images.  (Note: I have
looked up every word I recommend students to view, but still remind students to use discretion and turn on Safe Search.)


Students perform a task specifically related to improving their proficiency, such as describing a scene, making a comparison, or narrating a story.


Students have the opportunity to practice interpersonal conversation by talking with a classmate or friend about something related to the chapter and its vocabulary.

Imaginación con una frase idiomática

Students practice idiomatic expressions, a key to developing advanced proficiency, in a way that uses their imagination, which increases memory.

Aún más

This section is included from time to time to ask students to make a cultural connection using vocabulary words and concepts.


This section is included from time to time to give tips on how particular words are formed or function in sentences.

A leer

The second part of each “chapter” is a set of questions about the plot of the story, accompanied by proficiency-boosting activities.

Reading questions

These questions usually relate to major plot developments and often ask students to think critically about what they’re reading.

Para ti

This activity asks students to relate something in Alex’s story to their own world. Making cultural comparisons is an important skill for advanced students.

Para comprender más

offers comprehension-boosting activities such as making diagrams
or character sketches or looking up pictures or videos of things or actions mentioned in the chapter.

Aún más

This activity is included from time to time to suggest ideas for how to find out more about the world of Las bestias.


This activity is included from time to time to point out a grammatical function in a chapter and ask students to interact with it in some way.

Sample & Purchase

Ready to see a sample?  Check out the guide for Chapter 8.

Ready to get your copy?  Through the month of December I’m offering this resource at a special introductory price of $39.99 – that’s 20% off.  After that the regular price is $49.99.  Find purchasing and licensing information here or get immediate access and buy it now:

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December 2, 2013 5 Comments

AP Spanish essay – Obamacare

healthcareIt seems like the hottest political topic this year is Obamacare.  Boon? Disaster? And what about the Spanish-speaking immigrant population?  Seemed like a perfect topic for an AP persuasive essay.

First, navigate the new healthcare system’s newly functioning Spanish-language website.  Okay, so it’s functioning, but just about all it can do is tell you to call a phone number or visit your state’s website, which I did, and Kentucky’s Spanish-language healthcare site is not so shallow (“No se preocupe. Es rápido, fácil y seguro.”).

I needed to ask a question that elicits persuasion for the persuasive essay, of course, so I chose:

En cuanto a la reforma de salud, ¿está pensando el gobierno lo suficiente en la comunidad hispanohablante inmigrante? ¿Cómo debe el gobierno ayudar a esa comunidad a tener acceso adecuado al cuidado de salud?

Word is that of the three sources on the AP exam, one will be one opinion, one will be an opposing opinion, and one will be neutral.  For my source casting Obamacare in a positive light, I chose an article published by the AARP on the beneficios de Obamacare para los latinos  e hispanos.  EDITED: For a negative opinion about Obamacare, I chose a graphic from, Ese desastre llamado Obamacare.  My audiovisual source is my neutral one; it’s a news report simply answering two very similar questions a Spanish-speaker has about Obamacare and his Medicare.

My students’ final exam for the fall semester is the practice AP essay from the College Board, so I’m really trying to get them ready to write it.  Based on what they’ve produced so far, we’re working on focusing on content instead of quantity (they have “I wrote 200 words and that makes me awesome” syndrome), offering a good introduction and conclusion, taking a persuasive stance, paragraphing, avoiding summary, and including a quote while not including too many (like, preferably, not more than two).

What are your AP students persuading you of these days? Besides making them brownies, I mean.

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November 25, 2013 2 Comments

Interacting with authentic materials: a guide

At a conference a few years ago -I can’t even remember which, I think it was Central States in Indianapolis- I attended a workshop by an AP teacher who gave out a worksheet she used to help students through reading authentic materials.  I liked the basis of what she’d done so I took it and tweaked it and aligned it with prevalent AP standards from the College Board and came up with my own.  I really wish I had her name so I could give her credit, but since I don’t, here’s a thank-you shout-out to the AP teacher who had this idea.

Let me just run through the questions and features I think you and your students should be looking for in an authentic resource so you can make your own guide in any language, then at the end of this post you’ll find a link to my document.

  • Identify the title, author, and source
    The title, who wrote it, and where it’s from can help students prime themselves for increased comprehension.  They know a short story is different from a news article, is different from a radio interview.
  • What type of source is it?
    Authentic resources come in many types – visual, audiovisual, print, audio.  Identifying the type, for one thing, helps you figure out what contextual clues you’ll have.  None at all (radio)?  Pictures? Just print?
  • Key words
    The key words from the title and first few minutes (audio) or paragraph topic sentences (news) or headers (infographic) can greatly increase comprehension of the greater content.
  • Idiomatic phrases
    Identifying, understanding, and using idiomatic phrases fosters a big push in proficiency.  They are also the single greatest barrier, in my opinion, to student’s comprehension.
  • Author’s purpose
    This is a big AP question – who was the author writing to? Why? What are they trying to accomplish?
  • Author’s point of view
    Can you tell what the author’s opinion on the subject is?  No one is truly objective.
  • Facts vs. opinions
    I love this distintion because it’s a life skill to be able to distinguish what’s a fact and what’s the author’s opinion.
  • Distinctive characteristics
    What characteristics make this piece what it is?  Short paragraphs and bullet points (blog post)?  Graphs and large-print numbers (infographic)?  Dialogue (short story)?  Supporting quotes (news piece)?
  • Cultural aspects (products, places, history, etc.)
    It’s so important for students to identify what in the authentic material is culturally specific and then…
  • Cultural comparison
    …compare what they find to their own culture. (AP goal here!)
  • Aspects from other disciplines
    Why not throw a core content connection in there and identify what in this piece helps me understand other disciplines like science (global warming) or sociology (poverty issues)?
  • My opinion
    It pushes students’ proficiency to ask for opinions.  It also encourages critical thinking.
  • What helps me understand
    Help your students identify the tools that help them increase their own comprehension.  Headings? Cognates? Photos? Quotes?

You can find my Interpretive Guide in Spanish here.

Foto: Gabriel

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September 24, 2013 3 Comments

App review & Giveaway! High School Spanish

At a recent conference I had the opportunity to connect with the couple at the head of Common Ground International, who have recently put out an app for iPad (and iPod Touch and iPhone) called High School Spanish (check out their website).  It’s a useful, intuitive resource for students studying Spanish, and is especially tailored for students studying for advanced exams like IB or AP.

A word of advice: At first, I had a lot of trouble getting this to work in iPad 1.  The memory wasn’t enough to load the data and run other apps at the same time.  To try to bypass the problem, press the home button twice.  Along the bottom you’ll see all the apps the iPad is using its memory on. Tap and hold one until they all start shaking.  Tap the (“-”) icons on each app until they’re all closed except High School Spanish.  Now the data download should proceed.  The first time you load it, you’ll have to wait for a data download.  I still got tossed back to the home screen, and sometimes if I reopened it would work, sometimes not.  BUT, after a recent app update I haven’t had a repeat of any of these problems on iPad 1 or iPod, so it’s likely you won’t notice anything.

This app consists of several categories I’ll treat separately below.

Writing tips

writing tipsThe writing tips include some specifically directed at AP and IB students, with links to respective examples.  They’re good reminders and review as a supplement to an advanced class.

The writing tips section is divided into categories by the purpose of the writing.  This helps students develop a sensitivity to purpose and audience.

There is a section on “Debates” that should not be used for the persuasive writing section on the AP exam.  On the exam you don’t want a greeting, and you don’t want to announce what you’re doing.

My favorite part here is definitely the “useful writing words.”  Words students can use to make transitions, show cause and effect, sequence, and so on, are so important not just for the exams, but for overall proficiency.


essay tips       blog writing tips



verb chart

irreg verb video

por vs paraThe grammar section is a good reference, though if you’ve known me for long you know it’s obviously not my favorite for students. But it is good for review if you like that sort of thing, and for the advanced students the app is intended for, explanations of patterns may help them improve accuracy.  Students who are looking to understand accurate grammatical patters will really appreciate it.  The section even includes videos like a song for irregular preterit- which, like all the content, is available offline, a feature I love since I can only access internet when I’m near wifi.







dictionary listI love, love the dictionary/flashcards feature.  You can add words to a particular folder (e.g. Verbs) or create your own folder (e.g. Medioambiente) to make flashcards for yourself.  At first I thought it was a bit cumbersome that both languages are together, but on second thought, that’s one thing that bothers me on the WordReference app- having to tap back and forth between languages.  So after using it a bit, I like the HSS format  better.

One note, it would be a great feature to be able to tap on a word in the translation (often there are several) to take me to see that word, so I could get more detail on the nuances of the meaning.







flashcardThe flashcards are my favorite section.  Ok, so I don’t like translation in class, but personally, flashcards have always helped me, particularly as my proficiency advanced.  It’s always been helpful to me to keep a select list of words I’m working on somewhere where I can regularly, well, work on them.

If you created a folder in the dictionary section, you have a new category of words you’re working on.  Or, you can add words to existing folders.  If you “check” the flashcard, telling the app you think you’ve got it, you won’t see the word again, not in that language order anyway.



comprehensionThe comprehension section is particularly useful for students preparing for advanced exams like the AP, where they’ll have to answer multiple choice questions about authentic sources.  HSS includes reading and listening comprehension.  You can even play the audio for listening comprehension questions.  The comprehension sources and questions are not static; Common Ground updates the content here.  They’re actually getting ready to roll out new sets of listening exercises from native speakers from around the Spanish-speaking world.

don q reading     comp listening  comp listening q


Quizlet – a new feature of the app is that for an additional $0.99, can search for Quizlet flashcards by keyword (like “Paso a Paso ch 1″) by Author (like their teacher’s Quizlet ID) and download flashcard sets to their device.

Look like something that would help your students out?  Common Ground is giving this app away free to 10 Musicuentos readers. Here’s how to win:

Common Ground and I want to know-

1) Who are you? teacher/student/parent? What level do you teach?

2) What is your/your student’s biggest obstacle to developing proficiency in Spanish?

  • Comment with your answers on the blog
  • like Musicuentos on Facebook and answer the questions by commenting on the post mentioning this giveaway
  • follow me on Twitter and tweet the answer to @Musicuentos with a link to this post.
  • like Common Ground International on Facebook and comment your answers on the post mentioning this giveaway

Each method gives you one entry.  I’ll notify randomly selected winners on Saturday, August 24. Go!

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August 20, 2013 5 Comments

App review & giveaway: Word Magic dictionary and thesaurus

Want a vast unabridged Spanish/English dictionary app? Or a Spanish-language thesaurus at your digital whim?  Check out the complete dictionary and thesaurus apps from Word Magic.  The developer is offering twenty promo codes for Musicuentos readers.  Read my review and information on the giveaway below.

cover shot

The Word Magic dictionary is admittedly an expensive app at just under $25.  So why would someone drop that much money on a Spanish/English dictionary when you can get the WordReference app for free?  Good question. The answer is that the WM dictionary has lots of features (and I mean LOTS) that distinguish it from an app like WordReference.  The most obvious is that it works offline. This is super important to someone like me, probably my favorite feature.  I don’t have a smartphone; I have an iPad and an iPod.  Which means that when I’m not within reach of wifi, I can’t access apps that require a network connection.  And I am raising my children bilingual by speaking to them in Spanish, but I am not a native speaker, which means as I move throughout my day I find gaps in my lexicon.  When I’m out and about, there was nothing I could do about that except insert English words into my sentences – until I got this app.  I can look up words anytime, anywhere.

My other favorite feature is in the word unabridged. I am not a native speaker of Spanish, but I am a very proficient speaker.  Abridged dictionaries annoy me because if I’m looking for a word, it’s not a word like table or jump, it’s something like burp cloth.  I mean, check out the scope of this app:

  • 1,190,000+ entries
  • 2,000,000+ translations
  • 3,572,000+ synonyms
  • 740,000+ antonyms, 197,000+ definitions
  • 96,000+ examples
  • 146,000+ quotes
  • 66,000+ images

I’ve included a bunch of screenshots here to give you a feel for how the app works, using a couple of words I’ve been looking at lately, bruise and handle.

 lookup bruise  bruise cont       bruise 3


The basic function on the app is buscar.  Search for any word, English or Spanish.  Information that may be part of the entry includes:

  • the word
  • its pronunciation (I love this! I mean, love love love it!)
  • variations of the word
  • its part of speech and other categorization
  • translations, which you can simply tap to go to the entry for those words (love this too!)
  • same-language definitions, examples, and citations - which you can also hear.

options for phrases handle

When you look up a word, it comes up, but so do a bunch of phrases it’s a part of.  So, Word Magic has taken care of something that’s pretty difficult on WordReference – finding ways to translate expressions and phrases.

One of the words I fight with a lot is handle.  It’s such a simple word in English and refers to so many things.  I can never remember the words for it in Spanish.  What’s the handle on the toilet called? A doorknob? What about the handle on a grocery bag? A hammer? A desk drawer? So frustrating.  If you look up handle in Spanish, sure enough you get a whole bunch of translations.

Like I mentioned before, you can tap on any of these words to take you to their definition and translation.  And this brings me to another one of my favorite features of this app – often there’s a picture to accompany the other information.  When I’m looking up something as nuanced as handle, no words are worth as much to me as a simple picture of what’s being referred to!

lookup handle           handle picture edit

Also, simply tap the star in the upper right corner to make the word a favorite, which essentially creates a flashcard set of words that you want to remember/work on (by tapping “favorites” on the bottom menu).


Any word you can look up automatically gets filed into your historial, which you can access anytime by tapping that category at the bottom of the screen.  Also, you can go back to where you were, or forward to where you came from, at any point by tapping the arrows on either side of a definition screen.  I love this feature too – simple but makes it so easy to navigate, especially when you’re checking the nuances of several “synonyms,” like I do.

As another option, if you just want to learn a new word, shake your device to receive a random word!




dictionary settings 2More great features: Use the ajustes section to change many settings, such as what you see and don’t see in an entry.  Choose (check this!) what voice you hear when you want to hear a pronunciation.  American man? Got that. Latin American woman? Two of her. Spanish man? Got him.  You can even change the speed of the voice or set the Spanish phonetics to regions like Rioplatense or Caribe or even Andalucía!  Word Magic is even culturally sensitive.  You can change the flag that appears to show you a word is English to Great Britain, Australia, or Canada, for Spanish to Mexico or Argentina.  Don’t like the type? Change to one of more than two dozen fonts. Want to see more on a screen or having trouble reading the type?  Make the size smaller or larger (five options here!)  You can even select from a variety of color schemes.

One last thing about this app – you can connect your Dropbox account to it.

On to the synonyms app, a much less expensive and simpler app but very similar in appearance and use.  Again, with the examples machucar and agarradera:


synonym agarrederasynonym machucar

Here’s what I love about this, and why every Spanish teacher and student (especially advanced ones) should have it – there’s no translationIf you’ve read me very long, you know I am not a fan of translation because it creates the wrong kind of connections in the brain between concepts and words, namely slow connections that have to route through the English to get to the Spanish.  I love monolingual dictionaries and other target-language explanations of words because they make the student use the target language to figure out the meaning of an unknown word.  And that’s what this does.  Also, as we push our students to use deeper vocabulary, this app gives more options for them to find words that are exactly that.

So, ready to win an app? There are a few ways to win:

  • Comment below with your name and email and let me and Word Magic know why you’d like to own these apps.
  • Like Musicuentos on Facebook and like the entry showing this blog post.
  • Follow me on Twitter and tweet this giveaway post (be sure to mention @Musicuentos in your tweet).

Depending on the popularity of this giveaway, twenty winners will be randomly selected to receive both of these apps.

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August 9, 2013 15 Comments