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Take Your First Step into the Past with Regular Spanish

By Eric W. Vogt

If you're a Spanish teacher, this article will provide you with a time-tested structured lesson to introduce the preterite. If you're a parent, it may help you help your son or daughter. This is how the study of the preterite should be introduced.

What's It For?

Students need to know the purpose of the preterite. They also need to know why they would have to use this past tense, with all its irregular verbs (they probably look ahead in the book, or a parent or sibling scares them). Therefore, you first need to tell them that the preterite is one of two past tenses in Spanish that have a one-word form. The preterite views an action as completed. It could summarize an action that lasted a long time or a short time. As long as it views the action as completed, beginning or ending, the preterite must be used. Generally, but not always, it is the tense that should be used when in English we use a one-word past tense.

Use a Paradigm

The next bit of reassurance should be to tell them that just as with the present tense, each person and number has a unique ending. Once again, for regular verbs, they will see the theme vowel in the endings.

Draw the six-hole paradigm on the board to the students' left, labeling it as present tense. Above it, write the infinitive hablar. Next, elicit the conjugation of hablar in the present. This can be done a couple of ways. You can call out, at random and in English, short phrases like he speaks, they speak, I speak, etc., and point to someone to give you the Spanish form, filling in the paradigm as you proceed.

Next, draw another paradigm, labeling it as preterite, and writing the verb hablar above the paradigm. Just before revealing the endings, and as a last-minute review, tell them you are going to ask them the same questions but using spoke instead of speak or speaks. Since they do not know the forms in Spanish at this point, they have to say "first-person singular" if you say I spoke -- and as they do so, you write the Spanish in the appropriate box on the paradigm.

Listing Similarities

When all six forms are on the board, ask them to list as many similarities and differences between the present and the preterite as they can identify.


1. -mos still is the marker for the nosotros form and in fact is, for regular -AR verbs, identical to the nosotros form in the present tense; and

2. -n still is the marker for the third-person plural.


1. New endings, except for the nosotros form; and

2. The first-person and third-person singular forms have an accent mark on the final vowel.

Finally, before doing oral drills, point out that the accent on the third-person is very important to keep from confusing it with the first-person singular of the present. Tell them that it is the difference between saying he or she or you formal spoke and I speak. You might remind them that if they miss the accent marks on verbs, it counts more than missing them on other words. That has been my approach and when nothing else jogs their memory, points on a quiz will!

Drills should be kept random. This is a great opportunity to begin using synoptic conjugations if you have not already.