El Internado: teaching tips

update: click here to read a new essay on precisely how I teach with telenovelas

Why El Internado?

I started teaching El Internado in 2009 and experienced immediate success. The series is so compelling that my students were giving me 100% of their attention, eager to understand. It quickly became obvious, however, that the time we spend watching El Internadorun could be much more effective if I limited the incomprehensible noise and made this series as comprehensible as possible. Over the years I have applied techniques that I learned through many mentors and have adopted an approach that is engaging and highly effective. My students not only understand the show, they also quickly develop a micro-fluency so that they can discuss the show with impressive grammatical accuracy. By November my Spanish 1 students are effortlessly comprehending subjunctive phrases, past perfect, irregular preterit tenses and other grammatical features that, some years ago, I would have barely introduced to fourth year students. Their written and spoken production is much simpler, but even here they are impressive. I blogged about teaching El Internado to level 1 students here. Take a look at an average student´s quick write (timed 10 minutes, no resources available to consult… they just write off the top of their head). This was written by an average-ability non-heritage speaker after three months of instruction:

(insert quick write here)

In this blog post I would like to share exactly how I teach El Internado. If you have been reading my blog for some years (or even months) then circleyou may recognize parts of this post; it is a compilation of many things that I have written before. However there
are also new parts (such as the videos of me teaching), and other techniques are explained more explicitly. You can take what you like, or leave it, and of course you are always free to use the resources that I have developed regardless of your teaching approach. Most TPRS teachers will recognize exactly what I am doing, but since my resources are gaining the attention of many non-TPRS teachers I will take the time to carefully explain why I do what I do. The techniques I demonstrate can be learned at any beginners TPRS workshop. While the series is so compelling that your students are likely to profit regardless of the methods you use, they will understand much more and ultimately enjoy the show more in a 100% comprehensible classroom.

Is it suitable for high school?

Maybe not. There are quite a few swears and some adult scenes. For this reason I have developed a resource called the teacher warning list, which lists the time stamp of every swear and questionable scene in each episode. You can find this resource on my Internado resources page; this is not worth losing your job. Another option would be to choose another show, such as Gran Hotel. There are far fewer questionable scenes and swears in Gran Hotel, and both shows are currently available on Netflix. I would recommend buying the DVDs, however, because Netflix content comes and goes. Finally, I am posting resources for both shows because I use El Internado in level 1 and Gran Hotel in my level 3 classes.

If I could communicate one thing about my approach, it would be…
Go slower than students want to go, focusing on one piece of language at a time (most TPRS teachers call them target structures) and usingprocess the video to help you teach that phrase. Do not feel tied to explaining precisely what happens in each scene: the video lures them in, but your goal is to have students process a target structure so many times that they go from processing it slowly to becoming extremely fast-processors. Little by little, while discussing something of highly compelling interest to students, these target structures form the backbone of fluency. If the teacher truly focuses on improving processing speed, then students will eventually use these target structures effortlessly, without any pause. It takes a lot of listening and reading first, though.

The other main elements to my approach
My goal over the next few weeks is to upload videos of myself teaching parallelEl Internado using key TPRS skills such as limiting vocabulary, circling questions and choral response, actors and parallel characters, low priority on speaking and writing with high emphasis on listening and reading comprehension, focus on increasing the processing speed of students by teaching target structures rather than the memorization of vocabulary, teacher writing on board to summarize, and well-designed follow-up readings that lead to deep acquisition of the key language structures.

Can I really make it 100% comprehensible?
The video, no. The teacher´s speech, yes. If you can maintain comprehensible teacher talk, then El Internado can be taught at any level. I teach the series to my level 1 students because I am careful to make my speech comprehensible. You will see that I do not shelter grammar; my level 1 students get past tenses just as well as any other student who has heard a lot of past tenses.

What is wrong with playing 10 minutes and discussing?

Your students will get a lot out of the discussion if you make sure that the discussion is 100% comprehensible, but the video itself is not comprehensible input. Have you ever been trapped on a plane and watched the film that someone nearby was playing, without being able to hear the audio. I would bet that you could follow the plot. Same with El Internado: students will understand the gist (especially through images), but a lot will slip past. And neither on a plane nor in class will simply watching images help anyone acquire a language; it is the comprehensible discussion that leads to language acquisition. Watching one minute gives just as much to discuss as watching 10 minutes, plus gives you the focus necessary to use the language structure in an effectively repetitive manner. Do not get swept up in the show; although your students will want to press ahead and get to the end of the episode, the goal of the teacher should be to take advantage of every single possibility to recycle the target structure that you want your students to acquire.



    • I do not plan the structures, partly because I am more likely to teach in a non-targeted manner nowadays and partly because the students all come with different backgrounds so I feel like it is best to feel out what they can do and proceed from there. Nonetheless I do have some general targeting instincts, for example I will use the subjunctive and make sure it is comprehended in any level, but I am more likely to park on a subjunctive target structure in level 3. Also the former AP teacher in me sometimes screams for transitional phrases, which may or may not be useful…

  1. Where can I find your teacher warning list? I have watched some episodes on my own and was planning to create my own version of this, but I would rather save some time and use yours 🙂

  2. I’m a little nervous about teaching this series although I hear rave reviews. How long does it take the students to get “locked in?” I read a review that at times the episodes are a little slow. Secondly, I do not teach “vosotros” and have no intentions on doing so. For that reason do you feel it is best to choose a different series? Do you teach the “vosotros” form? Thank you in advance. I must say I am very impressed with the progress of your students. For about a week now I have been reading the material and watching your amazing videos!

    • Personally I do not teach vosotros either… if I were to teach a regional form like that I would be more likely to take on the Costa Rican voseo since, by a far margin, more Americans visit Costa Rica than Spain. But that is the beautiful thing about Movie Talk: the kids get the comprehensible input from the teacher, not the series. Not one student has ever asked why vosotros commands end with a d or made any indication that they heard the vosotros in any episode. I, on the other hand, make sure they understand me when we are acting out a scene and I, in the role of one of the characters, say “…ustedes no saben…” or “¡Déjenme en paz!”. The key is NOT to parrot what is being said on screen, but rather to simplify it into a form that is appropriate to your students level. I like to think that one of my main goals is not to broaden their vocabulary, but get my students to become fast-processors (like native speed) of the very high-frequency vocabulary that is the heart of the language.

      As for the slow speed of some episodes, don´t feel obligated to show everything. Explain just what they need to know, do a reading (or create one together on the board), and then skip ahead to the good part. The first year might be choppy, but then you´ll develop your own sense of the scenes that you want to show. Personally, I don´t think it drags at all in the first season, just a little bit in the 2nd season, and then quite a bit more in the third season… but if you are teaching scene by scene you probably will not get too much further than the first season. Many years I am midway through episode 6 in the last week of school.

  3. Do you go slowly with every minute of every episode? Or do you vary the speed to focus on certain aspects. I could see watching for ten minutes of side story to get to the next set of phrases that zi really want to nail down. There is a German series that I am thinking about working with and am trying to figure out potential pacing. Also – do you work with Internado every day, most days, one day per week? I could see some burn out happening.

    • Great question! Some people feel that they have to explain everything and get bogged down. I do not commit to explaining every detail of the show. I skip scenes. When I explain things, I simplify the plot as well as the language. The show is a tool, and I drop it if either I or students are getting burnt-out. When I have a specific target structure I am using lots of strategies to give many comprehensible repetitions, but when the discussion is not targeted towards a specific structure then the key is to go slow enough that everyone understands 100% of what I say (not 100% of what the characters say in the scene, just what I say). The reason to use the show is that it is fascinating for students; when it ceases to be fascinating then it is time to find something else to do.

      As for pacing, I only think about it one scene at a time. There is no reason to plan out when we are going to finish the episode. Instead I find time in my plans to watch a scene on one day, certainly not everyday. Sometimes we might spend half the class watching two scenes, but we probably would not watch the following day. If I still wrote out lesson plans I would literally just write “next scene of telenovela” and, if admin were reading my lesson plans, I would outline the strategies I use to make the show comprehensible.

    • My Spanish 1 classes go extremely slowly. We started in late October and now are midway through episode 5 (season 1). Back when I taught this with my Spanish 3 classes we went marginally faster and finished a season each semester, but I think I spent more time asking what if questions and really delving into the plot details. As you look through my posts about teaching with El Internado I think you´ll see that I am not really concerned with teaching an episode at a time, but rather a scene. Preview the scene with a few sentences to prepare students for what they are going to see, watch the scene (sometimes discussing while watching), read the summary and/or write our own summary, discuss in greater detail with kids… and I don´t move on until I feel like we are all 100% comfortable. Even with my level 1 kids, from whom I don´t require too much talking, I still require that they can thoroughly demonstrate comprehension quickly and confidently.

  4. Great approach to watching shows in Spanish! It leads to self study as well, as the students know how (from the classroom experience) to get the most out of a FL series, movie, etc. that they may decide to watch in the future. Your note about taking a lot of reading and listening at the beginning is well stated. It seems you are delivering quality effective SLA instruction. Nice job!

  5. Where did you get your copy of el Internado? I know it’s on netflix, but everywhere else I find it, it keeps saying the DVD format won’t play in the US. Thanks for your help!

    • You´ll need a multi-region DVD player if you insist on using DVD´s. Even though I have the DVD´s, I just use Netflix in class because it is easier to find where we left off.

    • I purchased my DVDs years ago at Corte Inglés in Madrid, but I doubt they sell them anymore. You can often find them on ebay (check ebay.es), or settle with Netflix (which I do nowadays even though I have the DVDs, because Netflix remembers where we left off).

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