The SmorgasBoard

The SmorgasBoard is a system for quickly practicing and charting the uses and conjugations of nearly all the common Spanish verb tenses, in a comprehensive but digestible format.

The SmorgasBoard provides:

A readily referenced overall map of the spectrum of verb tenses

A shorthand way to arrive at the tense you need in any communicative situation

A readily repeated, time-effective, cost-effective practice method for verb conjugations

Conscious grammar practice of this sort would seem to go against what I’ve talked about elsewhere – how Spanish teachers should relax a bit about homework, testing, grammar policing, and let the learning happen through exploration and meaningful use of the language. And I do believe in such an approach: if you just keep at it, the Spanish sinks in, and correct tense usage will be an inevitable and, mostly, unconscious side effect of paying attention and remaining interested. Expose the kids to it, talk about it, and they’ll learn the grammar, whether you test them on it or not, whether you make them jump through grade-based hoops or not. I’ve seen it happen again and again.

But no matter how you learn, it can be hard to consciously visualize the many tenses and their uses, or to keep track of what they’re for, over the long haul. Lots of students effectively decide not to use several of them and get by on a foreshortened version of the verb tense spectrum. I’d actually argue that the majority of Spanish students, even accomplished ones, never become fully competent with the whole spectrum of tenses. They cobble together the few they need all the time, combined with a working knowledge of the ones currently popping up in the testing regime, and hope for the best.

This follows a consequence of the usual, textbook approach to the problem: take it one tense at a time, spreading the pain out over the course of a year or two of study. The hope is that, once students have a tense down, they can move on to another without losing track of the first. They’re proving they can decide correctly between the imperfect from the preterite, for example, by the end of chapter 5; we move on to another chapter, another tense. Our superstars do fine with it, we reason, so the method must be sound.

But before long, our non-exceptional students – the bulk of the people we’re trying to teach – begin to demonstrate the limits of what they can commit to long-term, conscious memory, and much of what we’ve taught them fades away. By spending so much conscious attention on new tenses, we’ve let the previous ones slip into disuse.

The SmorgasBoard is a way to keep them all in perspective all the time – to see the Tense Usage Forest for the conjugation trees, while keeping all tenses and their conjugations in fresh practice rotation.

It’s also very easy to grade, and makes for an easy-to-analyze student performance tracker over time.

How It Works

As students walk into the room, they pass a box containing half-sheets of 8 1/2 x 11″ scrap paper. They take one and head to their desks, knowing that class will begin with the SmorgasBoard.

Once the bell rings, I have a student determine the day’s subject pronoun by throwing a suction-cup ball at a whiteboard, where I’ve quickly drawn a target. Here’s what that looks like:


Inside the “O” in “YO”, I’ve written “No hay”. If they hit the “O”, we don’t do the quiz that day. But, just to make it interesting, I’ve split the “YO” section in two. If the students miss the “O”, but hit the “YO” section, then the subject is still “yo” – but now, the verb is either reflexive, or includes another object pronoun, depending on which side of the section they hit.

(The “O” in this picture is particularly big. There may have been some grumbling that day about my drawing the “O” too small; I may have re-drawn the O, and then subsequently taken the picture to commemorate the fact that I drew it huge, and they missed anyway.)

Once the subject pronoun is determined, I do a finger-stab at a book we’re working on, the script from the movie we’ve been watching – anything will do, but I prefer to have it be something we’re currently exploring. Whichever is the verb my finger first touches, that’s the verb we’ll be doing. I write the infinitive on the board, and the students start writing.

Here’s what I expect them to do:

Split the page into three columns representing the past, the present, and the future, and then split those columns horizontally in two. The portion above is for reality, or things that actually happened / happen / will happen; the bottom is for fantasy and conjecture – what could have happened (but did not); what would have happened (if things had been different); what I want to happen (but has not).

The left-most of the two vertical lines is also split by a circle, once above the line and once below. These circles will contain the present perfect and the present perfect subjunctive – tenses that talk about the past, but do so using the present tense (of “haber“). Here’s the way a completed SmorgasBoard test looks:


Once students have all turned these quizzes in to me – they’re usually done in under three minutes – I say “Pónganmelo“, and the students head to the whiteboard. If it’s a big class, I have them work in two groups; small classes, just one. Their job is to collaborate with each other to put the version of the verb on the board that they all, as a group, think is correct. While they do this, I usually play a song over the sound system in the room. It is remarkable how often they need exactly one song to finish up the verb. When they’ve finished, they return to their seats.

I then go over their attempts with them, inform them of any errors. Then I throw out some English sentences for them to translate, using the verb in question. For example, if the verb they’ve done is the “yo” form of “bañarse“, I might say, “Mom wants me to bathe.” And they’d all look at the board and someone – as it happens, usually pretty much everyone – says it slowly: “Mamá quiere que yo me bañe.” “I used to bathe before school; now I bathe after school.” “Yo me bañaba antes de la escuela; ahora me baño después de la escuela.”

From there, we move on to whatever else the day has in store. Total elapsed time: About seven minutes.

Scoring, Grading (or not), and Analysis

There are 14 tenses as I’ve laid them out here. There are, of course, some that I’ve left out – “yo lo habré hecho”, for example, or “si lo hubiese hecho”, and all of the various sorts of       “-ando”. But these 14 enable them to say just about anything they can think of.

Students get a score of X/14 on each test; I keep track of all the scores in an Excel spreadsheet.

As far as correcting them, I tend to let them pile up for a week or two and then binge-correct them all, and hand students back a stapled packet of SmorgasBoard quizzes. On the front of each packet, I write what the student’s average is for this packet, as well as their average score over the course of the entire year. I also keep track of what the average score is for each verb on any given day, as well as a cumulative average of all the students’ cumulative averages, and for different sorts of verbs – regular vs irregular, -ar vs -er/ir, with or without object pronouns, etc.

When a student gets them all right on any given verb, I write, in the center of their sheet, “14/14” – and the circle I draw around their score turns into a spiral that covers the entire page.

That spiral is their only reward.

That is to say: I don’t make these quizzes count as part of students’ overall grade. The average is kept track of and reported back to the student; upping the average over time, or being the overall champ in the room, might motivate some kids. But the letter grade at the end of the quarter? The SmorgasBoard doesn’t figure into it.

It’s not that I don’t care. If a student is clearly making no effort to get better at SmorgasBoard quizzes, isn’t taking them seriously, I will pull the student aside and we will have a little talk, during which I remind them that, while the scores do not directly affect their overall grade, my opinion of their participation? Which is very much informed by their progress, or lack thereof, on SmorgasBoard quizzes…? That will indeed have a very direct and deleterious effect on their grade.


When do they learn all these conjugations in the first place?

In my school, I consider “advanced Spanish” to be Spanish 4 and up. That encompasses sophomores, juniors, and seniors. And we start doing the SmorgasBoard in sophomore year.

There is a lengthy training period at the beginning of the year, which I talk about in detail elsewhere on the site. During this time, I coach the students, largely in English, about the article presentations we have to do, as well as on the basic mechanics of the class. Chief among these is the functioning of the SmorgasBoard.

I typically start with “hablar” and “comer“, and do a large-scale version on the white board, with conjugations for every subject pronoun in every tense; students are expected to copy these into their notebooks. I also do “The Big Five”, and likewise expect that the students will copy these down.

As this happens over the first few days (or weeks), every tense gets a brief explanation as to what it’s used for. Again, this should take a good long while, especially since it shouldn’t dominate the entire class period – just the first fifteen minutes or so. It’s a heavy lift, so take your time with it. And use your judgement: When they start seeming overwhelmed, say “That’s enough for today, we’ll pick it up from here tomorrow”, and go on to the rest of your class – ideally explorations of texts or films, done in the target language. A little time on grammar explanation and the rest in target-language exploration is my idea of a perfect class.

Once you get the tenses all out there and conjugated, with only the briefest of explanations at first on each tense, you begin practicing: finding a random verb, then sending all of the students together up to the board, collaborating to get it out in SmorgasBoard format (just one subject pronoun at a time). When they think they’re done, you give it a score, throw out some theoretical uses of the tenses (“So how would we say, ‘They would whisper’? Well, let’s talk it through: Present, past or future? Right: Present. Real or theoretical? Theoretical. So we’re in the middle column, lower half. Three possibilities. Which ending meant ‘would’ again…?” When you’ve done all that, you erase the verb, and move on to the rest of the class.

By the way: The first time they get the spirals on a 14/14, watch how they grin. There’s just something about those spirals.

Isn’t this too much to throw at them at once?

It would definitely be too much to high-stakes grade them on all at once, or to expect them to master all at once. But too much to throw at them? No, I don’t think so. Because the SmorgasBoard lays all the verb-tense cards on the table, I find that students actually feel comforted by it. Verbs are no longer potentially infinite and mysterious to them. Once our very first SmorgasBoard is on the wall, and we’re all admiring it, I’ll echo and concur with what they’re probably thinking:

“That’s a lot,” I say. “Fourteen tenses, times five subject pronouns – that’s 70 possibilities, per verb. And there are thousands of verbs.” I let that sink in for a bit. “On the other hand: That’s the whole enchilada. That’s everything you’ll ever need to do with a verb – there are no more secrets after you get this.

“Also: Nobody on Earth ever memorized all the conjugations for all the verbs. It doesn’t work that way. You get a feel for how the system works, and then you can handle any verb that comes your way. This is about acquiring that skill, the ability to improvise your way through finding the right tense and conjugating it correctly. It’s not about memorized information.

“And we’ll take as much time as we need to master this skill. I don’t expect you to get it all at once – I just expect you to get better at it as we go along.”

What if they don’t know the meaning of the verb in question?

I see this as a positive, not a negative. This will happen to them a lot in real life – they’ll stumble onto an unknown verb and have to determine, just from what it sounds /  looks like, (a) that it is a verb, (b) which tense it’s in, and (c) what the heck it likely means. Exposing them to such mystery verbs every day, or at least very regularly, reduces the intimidation factor of new verbs – and when students wonder to themselves, as they conjugate this mystery verb, what it might mean, they build an ability to deduce meaning from unfamiliar words. This is a vital skill for language learners – I use it myself, in every language I speak, every day.

How can they tell if a new verb is irregular?

They often can’t. But you’d be surprised – after a while, students really get a feel for which new verbs are likely to be irregular, and in what ways. We teachers, accomplished speakers of a second language, learned to do this a long ago, after all. Students get good at it quickly.

Isn’t it unfair to assess them on verbs that they didn’t know would be irregular?

On the one hand: Absolutely. Which is why I don’t count their cumulative averages as part of their overall grade.

But, on the other hand: Life is unfair. And life will be unfair to them until the day they die – and Spanish will fire unknown verbs at them until they day they stop speaking it. (Hopefully, those two days are one and the same.)

I have a catch phrase for such situations. When they’ve all decided what they think the verb should be, and they have the regular version on the board, and they’re waiting for me to tell them whether they’re right, I often begin by saying, “Cómo es la vida…?” And they’ll groan, and respond: “La vida es cruel, y fría, e injusta…” And then I show them just how this verb betrayed them by being irregular, and what clues they might have been able to use to predict that it would betray them. I’ve wound up discovering a few things I hadn’t noticed by doing this exercise – for example, “e” and “o” tend to be sounds that are susceptible to irregularities in verbs; “a” and “u” and “i”, much less so. Long verbs are less irregular than short ones, probably because they’re used less (which is why they’ve remained long – if they were every-day words, we’d have shortened them by now)…It’s fun when you yourself don’t have all the answers. And students find that comforting, too.

Irregular verbs provide much of the fun in this exercise. And the fun is kept fun by not putting their scores on their permanent records.


I have run into a few head-scratchers over the years. Here are a few:

The “Big Five”

There are five verbs that I think of as “The Big 5”, because they are (a) ridiculously common / necessary, and (b) insanely irregular. They are: Ser, estar, tener, ir, and hacer. And unless I make a specific effort to mix them into regular SmorgasBoard rotation with a frequency out of proportion to how often they occur in nature, the students don’t keep up a very good level of proficiency with them. In fact, in all my classes, I keep a separate track of cumulative class averages of these 5 verbs, and students tend to perform significantly less well  on “The Big 5” than on verbs overall.

So on Mondays, on my five-part target for determining the subject pronoun, I write, in each of the five sections, one of “The Big 5”. No matter which pronoun they hit, one of “The Big 5” will be the verb we do.

And inside the “O” in “Yo“, where I usually write “No hay“…? I write “Hay“. On Mondays, there’s no getting around it.

(FYI: They still try to hit the “O”.)

Slower students

Sometimes, one or two students take quite a bit longer than others to finish the quiz. What to do…? Honestly, so far, I haven’t had to take any extraordinary steps. In the classes where those students reside, the exercise takes a little longer than in others. It’s a small price to pay to make life more comfortable for those students. These are the students I’m often the proudest of in the end, who arrive at a level of confidence and competence in Spanish that surprises them – something they may never have been able to do if I hadn’t accommodated them in this, and other, small ways. (Like not grading the bejeezus out of every little thing they do. But I digress.)

There are lots of potential solutions. Like having slower students alternate halves, doing the top of the quiz Mondays, the bottom Tuesdays, etc. No one but you and the student in question need ever be aware of it – grade them out of 7 rather than out of 14, and double the points when you figure them into the averages for the whole group. Be generous when you can. I think this is a place where we can easily be very generous.

Translating Theory into Practice

Imagine my frustration when, after days and days, weeks and weeks, asking students: “Cómo se dice ‘Mom wants me to ____'”, one of my top-tier juniors, a great student, giving a semi-extemporaneous presentation on a news article, pops out with “El gobierno quiere el pueblo pagar más impuestos”.

It’s a puzzler: Theoretically, they know just how to express influence like that using the subjunctive. But in practice, this student is still translating in his head – word, word, word – and preserving the syntax of English.

The SmorgasBoard doesn’t solve every problem, in the end. But nothing does – textbooks or SmorgasBoard, sometimes, will miss. That same student I talked about above, when he’s writing, regularly nails opportunities to use the subjunctive.

I’m open and honest with my students about these head-scratcher moments. My best explanation, and my best advice to them, is this:

To get the tough aspects of a language, you have to want it. You have to constantly be on the watch for opportunities to unleash the subjunctive – or any black-belt tense – on an unsuspecting listener, and blow them away with your grammatical awesomeness. If you aren’t always on the watch for opportunities to uncork great grammar skills, you won’t see them see them coming. And you’ll miss your chance to amaze.

You can watch a video of The SmorgasBoard in action here.


Clever Hans

What is the best way to teach? Or does the method matter less than the teacher, who’s free to choose among many methods?

Teachers – and people in general – tend to keep doing things the way we have always done them, especially if it appears to be working. “I learned Spanish using the tried-and-true, textbook method,” we say. “And look at me! I’m the teacher now! Not too shabby, eh? Señora Franklin must have been doing something right. I’m the living proof!”

In this way, successful language teachers are very like Wilhelm von Osten. Von Osten was a German mathematics teacher and amateur horse trainer in the early 20th century, who was convinced that he had managed to teach his horse, Hans, to do math problems. Von Osten amazed crowds by asking Hans complicated questions, such as, “If Thursday’s date is the 8th, what is the date of the following Wednesday?” Hans would then dutifully provide the correct answer by stamping with one hoof the requisite number of times: 14. Thunderous applause would ensue, and much was written and speculated about the intelligence, not only of Hans, but of animals in general.

But careful examination by the psychologist Carl Strumpf showed that Hans was doing no mathematics at all. Rather, he was reading the body language of the person asking him the question, responding to subtle cues that the stamp he had just given, which Hans himself was incapable of counting, was the correct one. When he got this cue, he stopped stamping. Hans could get the questions right 89% percent of the time – provided the person asking the question, be it von Osten or anyone else, knew the answer, and would thus unconsciously give cues to stop at the appropriate time. When the person asking the question did not know the correct answer, Hans could only provide it 6% of the time, helplessly stamping away, watching for a signal that could never come.

Von Osten, meanwhile, was completely unaware that he was giving Hans any cues; he truly believed that he had taught a horse to understand the German language, calendars, subtraction, addition, and fractions. Indeed, even after seeing the evidence Dr. Strumpf provided, von Osten never believed that Hans’ genius had been debunked. He continued to exhibit the horse around Germany, to the applause of admiring thousands – wilfully unaware that his complicated questions were superfluous to the entire exercise, in strict denial of the fact that Hans could have “answered,” even had he been “asked” in Chinese. 

If we clear away all the nonsense that von Osten was doing, we realize that he had simply taught Hans to stop stamping when his trainer showed him that it was time to do so. An accomplishment, to be sure – but one not nearly as complicated as von Osten believed it to be.

Might we be doing the same in language instruction? Might teachers also be continuing to insist on unnecessarily complicated methods and techniques, filled with noise and useless busywork, while, in truth, something far simpler, under the surface, is actually causing our students to speak and to understand? I propose that we too could abandon much of the nonsense we’ve been doing, if we could only recognize that our students are learning something far simpler than we’re making it out to be, using cues and tools that teachers often don’t even know they’re employing.


Teachers are successfully teaching students to speak second languages; we are doing something right. But how do we determine which parts of what we are doing are the ones that truly count? This is a difficult exercise, due to all the sound and fury that has filled up most classrooms over the years. But a thought experiment might be helpful: What if we asked ourselves which are the basic things that all successful language teachers have in common? 

It is a difficult task to discover what binds any such diverse group together; nearly everything about good teaching applies to many, but not to all. Languages themselves, for example, in their spectacular diversity, can only be said to have the most basic elements in common – knowing the tendencies of three, four, even ten languages will not entirely prepare you for novel structures in the eleventh. We must first eliminate the many sorts of superficial things that are not common to all languages before trying to root out the mysterious commonalities. 

Similarly, we can attempt, in our thought experiment, to rule out the things that are not universal in successful teaching, and then consider what is left. It would be much the same as the process for weighing smoke: Let the smoke, the object of our search, escape, but examine the residue, and measure that which we are not looking for. If we subtract the weight of the ashes, from the weight of the original cigar, we find the difference between the two: The weight of the smoke.

Our ash heap of language instruction would contain nearly every specific method, curriculum, and trick of the trade we can think of, because not everyone who has abundant success teaching or learning second languages can possibly have them in common. Flash cards, workbooks, verb charts, and ball-tossing conjugation games are not universal. Nor are weekly or daily quizzes, tests in general, compositions, choral repetition, recordings of native speakers, dictation exercises, TPR, TPRS, internet-based conjugation exercises, rhyming mnemonic devices, target-language films, extensive grammar explanation in the students’ first language, a steadfast refusal ever to explain the grammar – No single strategy or tool can possibly be ubiquitous. No matter which handy trick we consider, someone, somewhere has gotten by perfectly well without it, and would dismiss it with a wave of the hand.

But imagine taking a poll of a huge group of successful language students – those who were so successful, they became language teachers themselves. We would not ask them what they remember going on in their classrooms; this is a fool’s errand, since eventually, all such specificities will turn to ash. Rather, we would ask: What do they remember about their teachers, about their experience in the classroom? How would they categorize them?

At the most basic level, we would likely find that successful students think of their language classes, and the teachers they had, as having been very “good”. But for these students to have made it as far as they did, to have had the success that they did, we would also find them using much more revealing words. Words such as “fascinating”, “intriguing”, “challenging”, “interesting”, “inspiring”. “I was always learning something new”; “I always felt pulled in and interested”; “Things were always happening.” 

“It was fun. We always seemed to have fun.” 

Some teachers quizzed weekly; others quizzed daily, while others never quizzed. Some made their students do extensive pair work nearly all the time, while others never did, not once. Some spoke exclusively in the target language, while others didn’t; some leaned heavily on film, others on music, others on grammar and linguistics. Some used the same text book for thirty years; others changed constantly; others never used one. But all of them, over the years, brought many students to proficiency and passion in the things their teachers showed them. Not every day, and not with every student – but their success, judging by their having inspired our selected group of language teachers, is inarguable.

In those key moments that this incredibly varied group of their most successful students can best recall, I am certain that those teachers were each teaching what they loved. And, perhaps more importantly: They taught it in the way they loved to teach it. 

Here, surely, is the smoke we are looking for. This love of the language and the discipline survived the journey from teacher to student, and kindled the same passion there. Left behind, we can scan over a vast and varied heap of ashes, consisting of a thousand methodologies and approaches. None of them matter any more than any other – they are tools that some artists picked up, and others spurned. They aren’t what matters. What matters is the passion and the fire that those great teachers communicated.

Why on Earth should we do anything but focus on kindling this fire in our students, as it was kindled in us, producing the all-important smoke? Why should we bother to worry about, or argue over, which pile of ash was the “best”?