On a whim I registered for two modules of Spanish at the Open University (the UK’s distance learning university) last year. In August a postman arrived at the front door with a box full of study guides, CDs and other goodies and I’ve been diligently ploughing my way through them and submitting assignments every 6 weeks or so.

It’s a lot of work and it’s taking up a fair bit of my time, yet I don’t feel as though I’m getting any better at speaking Spanish. Every time I open my mouth I make all the same mistakes and I get stuck in all the same places. This is very un-motivating!

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this issue and trying to work out why all my studying doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference. I’m not quite sure how it happened that I started to think about sports training, but I did. Maybe it’s because I spent most of my childhood on either an athletics track or a hockey field or a netball court.

I started thinking about how one trains for sport. There’s a lot of variety in a training programme and the more variety one builds into it, the quicker the improvement and the better the results.

Let’s take hockey as an example. We spent very little of our training time actually playing hockey. Instead, we did lots of fitness training, dexterity and accuracy training and the practicing of defensive / offensive manoeuvres. I remember ‘drill days’ when we used to do short, very intensive sets of exercises designed to improve a specific skill like taking short corners or penalties.

I specifically remember the days of Fartlek training and how they nearly killed us. We would be having a very normal training day and about 10 minutes from the end we’d hear ‘right everybody, line up for Fartlek!’ Oh no! We would spend those 10 minutes doing laps around the hockey field and every 10 to 20 seconds, at the sound of the whistle we would sprint, slow down, sprint, slow down. Try doing that for 10 minutes and see how quickly you lose the will to live. However, those exercises made us so fit that running up and down a hockey pitch during the Saturday morning game was a breeze to us. Those 10 minutes a week were an incredible benefit.

One last sports example. Futsal is the five-a-side, mostly indoor version of football. Because the court is so much smaller, the players don’t have the luxury of receiving the ball, dribbling along with it a bit, having a look round to see where his mates are, passing it. No, futsal is intense and a player has opponents on top of him all the time. He has to be quick and nimble he has to have mad skills or lose the ball. Some of today’s most famous footballers, like Lionel Messi and Ronaldo all credit their success to the fact that they started their careers by playing futsal as kids.

Lovely stories, but what do they have to do with learning Spanish? I’ve not been learning Spanish like an athlete trains for sport. I’ve had no variety, no skill training, no stamina work-outs, no strength training. No short, intense drills that improve one aspect of my Spanish ability. No, I’ve just been slogging my way, day after day, through 1017 pages worth of study guides (yes, I counted them). Hour after hour of doing the same thing – I’ve been knitting a jersey, not training my brain like an athlete trains her body.

So I’ve decided to do less coursework and more drills and now I’m doing one or two 15-minute exercises a day and I’m feeling encouraged by the results. Adding these exercises to my daily routine have definitely taught me useful new skills in a short period of time and it’s been a tremendous boost to my confidence.

At the bottom of this post is a list of the drills I’ve been using this past week.

I’ll be finding more of these exercises and I wonder if I may ask for a show of hands to see if any of you would be interested in me sharing them with you. If you want me to share more drills in future then please let me know by simply liking this post or by leaving a comment.  If you’re reading this post as an e-mail then you can click here to be taken to the online version and like or comment on there.

I haven’t finished working on this study method and in days to come this post may well become Part 1 of a two or three part series and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I’ll enjoy writing it!




Listening exercises

http://www.spanishlistening.org/ This site offers a wealth of free Spanish listening exercises using native speakers from all parts of the Spanish speaking world. You can pick your level of difficulty, topic and even a specific speaker or accent. Each video is short and has a transcript of the audio as well as a quiz you can take.

I first watch the video a few times to try and understand as much as possible and only then do I go to the transcript and work through it until I understand everything. If you want to make it more challenging, close your eyes while you listen, it’s much more difficult when you can’t see the speaker.

Reading exercises

I’m reading my first ‘proper’ novel in Spanish. Finally! It’s a Patricia Cornwell crime novel and it’s slightly too advanced for me. Now, there’s two ways in which I could read it: I could read it in such a way that I get the gist of what’s going on or I could dissect it, sentence by sentence, until I understand every last word, phrase and expression on the page. In order to turn the reading of this book into a drill exercise I need to do the latter. I take one page and work on it until I know exactly what everything means. This takes about 15-30 minutes, depending on the page. A page that just describes what is happening takes about 15 minutes, but a page with forensic detail takes much longer.

Find something you like to read (book, newspaper, magazine or online article) and dissect a small portion of it in minute detail. The trick here is not to use Google Translate, but to work at the translation by using only a dictionary and your verb conjugation book, if you have one. The latter helps me to come to grips with all the past and future tense conjugations.

The link below is a good place to start if you don’t have any Spanish reading material to hand.


Writing exercises

This is a tough one, because if we don’t have access to a Spanish speaker who can mark our work, then how do we know if we’re improving? Fear not, we are. The object with writing drills is not to produce perfect work, but to practise our Spanish writing skill. I’ve been writing in a Spanish diary since August and every few days I write a bit. When I look back on the work I produced in August versus the work I produce now I can most definitely see substantial improvement. Try it, you’ll be surprised how much you learn.

Some prompts to get you going:



Grammar exercises

I loved these quizzes! Grammar wise this link has given me the most bang for my buck than any grammar exercises I think I’ve ever done. They’re great.


Speaking exercises

At first glance the obvious answer to this exercise seems to be that we should join a conversation class or find a language partner, but remember that we’re talking about quick and intensive drills, not two hours of chatting in class.

I’ve been reading pages from my Patricia Cornwell book out loud. I’m just reading them to myself, a couple of pages every morning. I choose pages that I’ve already read as part of my reading drills so I already know the meaning of what I’m reading and I can simply concentrate on pronunciation, intonation, words with stress accent etc.


Have you ordered your copy of The Cooking Pot – Spanish / English Reader yet?  It’s a brilliant book!

Go to spanishbooksandcourses.com for more information.