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Teaching Indirect Object Pronouns in Spanish

By Eric W. Vogt

After learning or being exposed to direct object pronouns, most students are soon exposed to indirect object pronouns. Their first difficulty is distinguishing the function of one from the other. This lesson gives step-by-step instructions to help students get it right from the beginning.

What's The Difference Between Direct Objects and Indirect Objects?

Subjects act, direct objects are acted upon and indirect objects receive. If students understand this sentence, which describes the grammatical function of the essential subject, object(s) and verb relationships, they will be well on their way to mastering the language.

But when they have so recently been exposed to direct objects, they are likely struggling with the difference between subject and object forms -- as well as functions. The most common sign of either a conceptual or morphological confusion (or both) is the use of nos instead of nosotros.

First, a quick quiz should be administered, graded or checked on the spot. There are two ways to go about this which should be used together. One is by writing some sentences in English and having them identify the subjects and direct objects. On the same quiz, similar sentences (but not translations of the English ones) should be included and the students asked to make the same identifications. Lastly, to test the extent to which they have grasped the concepts of subject and object at a more abstract level, present them with a grid displaying at random subject and objects -- randomly in English and Spanish as well -- and have them supply the corresponding translation (you can also have them indicate whether the form is a subject or an object). This three-part quiz will enable you to diagnose any residual or persisting confusions about the forms and what they are for.

The indirect object pronouns should only be presented once the quiz has been gone over and the confusions at least addressed.

Next, on the board to the extreme left, label one paradigm as subject pronouns and write them in the six-hole paradigm as is described in many articles in this channel (singulars to the left, plurals to the right, in two columns in which the three grammatical persons are listed top to bottom).

Being careful to keep the first- and second-persons singular and plural on the same lines horizontally, write the direct object pronouns to the right and then write a blank paradigm to the right of that. Next, remind them that the direct objects receive the action directly, as in I see it (yo lo/la veo) or she loves him (ella lo ama). Tell them that unlike direct objects, indirect objects are the receiver of things, real (like a present or a ball) or abstract (such as permission or a phone call).

Next, write these English sentences on the board, under the blank paradigm: They give me a present and We threw her the ball. Ask them progressive questions to eventually isolate and elicit the indirect object: Ask "Who gave me a present?" When they say "they" write an S under They and tell them this word is the subject and shows who does the action. Point out the subject pronoun ellos on the chart to the far left. Continue with the question for eliciting the direct object by asking what they give me, and label it with D.O. Point out the lo/la on the direct object chart. Lastly, ask "To whom do they give the present?" When they say "to me" write I.O. under the word me and tell them that indirect objects show the person or persons who receive something.

Also point out that the form of the direct and indirect object for the first-person (indeed all but the third-persons) is the same, so the good news is that there are not many forms, but they must know the functions of the words or they'll get confused later. If, when you ask to whom they give the present, anyone says "to you" -- you probably need to do some mopping up -- to remind them that they need to focus on the sentence as it is written, not a judgment of it. Fill out the chart to reveal the indirect object pronouns in Spanish (le and les are the only differences -- replacing lo/la and los/las respectively in the third persons.

Finally, write a few simple sentences on the board in English using verbs like give, call, offer, lend, bring and so on. Do not use direct object pronouns with them --that comes in the next lesson about double object pronouns. Have them identify the subjects, verbs, direct object nouns and the indirect object pronouns. Next, have them identify which Spanish indirect objects are the right ones to use in each sentence. Lastly have them translate them into Spanish, pointing out again that the object pronouns precede the conjugated verb. Be careful not to use auxiliary verbs at this point. That will come after the first lesson in the use of double object pronouns.