Subliminal Grammar

Beginning in level 1, I recycle the verb structure “ir + a + infinitive” to allow my students to acquire the three major times by the time they finish level 4. In level 1, our stories are told in the present tense and I do PQA using the present tense of all of our new structures. In the past, I would not have dreamed that I could introduce the past and future tenses along side the present tense but to my students, it is all just a “chunk”. As we retell stories and make predictions throughout level 1, I am planting seeds of the past and future. We use Ben Slavic’s idea of Circling with Balls to get to know one another and lay a foundation of our present tense verbs.

In level 2, we really dig into stories in the past tense. We still do a lot of dialogue about the story in the present tense so we don’t completely lose what we’ve acquired there… but now I present my structures in the past tense. I don’t focus on words like preterite and imperfect because, to be honest, they don’t care. I have never had them get fired up about a lesson on those grammatical structures. Instead, we set the scene for a ton of stories and learn imperfect in context. We discuss all the bumps in the road for the characters of our novels and learn the preterite in context. We have all year! I don’t need to rush. As Scott Benedict says: Teach for June! In a twist on Circling with Balls, we talk about what we did over the summer. It is a great way to get the preterite in their minds as we prepare for a year of creating a LOT of past tense stories!

In level 3, I add the future tense endings to replace our use of “ir + a + infinitive.” If they never use this again, it is ok. On the AP, the AAPPL, the STAMP, they can use either and still reach the high intermediate and advanced low scores. In level 3, we set 2-3 goals for the current school year and start our year by talking about everyone’s plans! This is such a great way to start the year! First, we build a sense of class community as we find out which goals people have in common and which are unique. Second, my students have to write on the AAPPL every year about their goals and plans!

I do have a level 3 student who is very interested in the rules so I made this poster and am going to have my husband print it on the school poster printer so she can look whenever she wants to impress me! future-poster_32078816 (1)


In level 4, I introduce some super common subjunctive structures. Please know that they have been seeing subjunctive constructions in their reading since level 1 and we continually pop up “why does this ending look different?” “Because his mom wants him to but he might not!”

I used to drill subjunctive to death. I used to go into every possible use of the subjunctive under the sun. I used to do chants to memorize subjunctive endings. I used to make them memorize the trigger words for subjunctive. I also used to have small upper level classes. I used to have students who still wrote “yo hablar” in level 4… and these were the superstars who stuck it out in spite of how hard it was!

Now we start the year making this “if…then” statement: “If I were (partner’s name), I would ___.” They just draw themselves doing the activity and I tell the stories with them. Some hits this year: If I were Savannah, I would give Steven all my money. (Steven was the partner.) If I were Sally, I would be fabulous.  If I were Alyssa, I would cheer everywhere. (even in the school bathrooms it turns out)

Now I teach the most common subjunctive constructions so they have useable chunks and I actually see them pop up in their writing! Correctly! Even in kids who may not be the superstar Spanish student.

I’m going to make them a poster too! I have a guy in Spanish 4 who also loves to know all of the whys!

I know that many believe that CI/TPRS teachers don’t teach grammar. And while it is true that we don’t drill grammar, I probably expose them to more grammar that they can use and understand than I ever did before! When I taught it from the textbook, it was just a few pages of the chapter and we would leave each grammar piece behind as we moved on to the next. Now, I carry these concepts through all levels, spiraling in new and more complex ways to say things. It feels painless because they feel what sounds right as they get to the upper level classes! It’s a hallmark of intermediate language to self-correct! If you see it, praise it. That means it is being acquired!

Don’t be afraid of the word grammar! It is part of every language. Be afraid of making grammar inaccessible to all students. Offer the chart-minded posters, quick explanations, a link to but for the others, provide the chunks they need to communicate. You’ll love the results you see if you are patient with the process!

Subliminal Grammar


  1. I love the idea of subliminal grammar! How do you decide which subjunctive phrases are the most common? Which noun clauses? Querer que for sure… but there are so many to choose from! Help…

    • I teach querer que, recomendar que, es necesario que, es importante que, ojalá… and I teach them a couple of things like “que tengas un buen día” “que lo pases bien esta noche” “que tu fin de semana sea increíble” as passwords!

  2. Hola, Carrie,
    As is always the case, thank you for being so generous with your ideas and materials! I am so thankful for the gifted and committed teachers who have embraced CI for the benefits of the next generations!
    This post went straight to my heart. I love grammar and always have and yet I truly believe that CI is the right context to introduce students to these concepts without overwhelming them. I needed to ‘hear’ that in due time, CI works and that we are on the right track! For the majority of my students, it is enough, but for those who enjoy “grammar bytes,” posters like the one you provided are a great source of satisfaction. In that spirit, let me know if you have other posters to share. I would be happy to purchase them through your store!
    In the meantime, God bless you and the other teachers who are paving the way for us!

    • I plan to make other posters (time is scarce this time of year!) and come back and add them here! 🙂 We’ll see!!!

      THANK YOU for your comment!

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