Recently, one of my kids decided to learn Spanish as a high school language. We test drove several programs that were not a good fit. I am lucky he chose a language I sort of speak. I took Spanish in high school and remember enough that I feel I can teach it with a good manual. My son isn’t a typical learner and the typical programs just didn’t work well for him.
After asking around what everyone else uses, we decided to try Duolingo. I was skeptical that an app could work where everything else failed, but decided to give it a try.
Setting Up Our Classroom
My son is loving it and it is working really well. What I didn’t know is that Duolingo has a website where you can sign up as a teacher for free! And with this teacher access, you can not only monitor your student’s progress, but you can also see the material that is covered by each lesson, and give assignments. This means I really can use Duolingo to help us create a real Spanish course. You can access the teacher program at schools.duolingo.com.
Setting up the Classroom and assigning my kid to it had some additional benefits I wasn’t expecting. This also removed all ads and gave the students unlimited hearts, which means they can make as many mistakes as they need to make. It has greatly enhanced our enjoyment of the program. Because of this program, a second child decided to give Spanish a try, and I added that one to the class as well.
Duolingo does a great job turning learning a foreign language into a game. And learning through games is a proven method for learning. Plus, as a free resource, I can also do the lessons at my own pace so I can help my child.
Duolingo appears to offer almost any language your student might want to learn, including not only French, German and Russian, but also Japanese, Korean, and many others. They have also added Latin for English speakers, which is great to see. Finding Latin resources has been tricky for us in the past. So, if we switch languages, we can still use the same method. I can also use it for multiple kids learning different languages. As a teacher, I like that I can add more classes to my teacher portal and watch what each child is doing in their language.
The biggest negative I see for Duolingo is that it is an immersion program. It drops the student into lessons with no preparation. It basically starts quizzing you right away. This means that if you have had no exposure to a language, it can be overwhelming right out of the gate. In our case, I’ve been exposing my kids to Spanish since they were babies. Not enough to be fluent, but they can count to ten and name the colors, and know a few simple phrases. I also think that the fact we had experimented with learning Spanish with other programs the last few years, really helped my child start this program without being overwhelmed. The game will let you play and teach anyway, but it depends on your student how they will respond.
If your student is neurodiverse, you may want to introduce them to their chosen language with an easier app or another program before starting Duolingo. Those designed for younger students may allow them to gain confidence and learn enough to make starting the app less overwhelming. Learning a new language doesn’t come naturally to all students, so be patient and experiment with what works.
Another drawback is that a regular language course has a few things that Duolingo lacks. Because it is just an app, we will need to add hands-on, real-life activities. Now that I have teacher access, I can work on adding those things to my son’s curriculum while also reinforcing the vocabulary he has learned. In addition to that, I’m doing Spanish myself on my own device with Duolingo to reinforce my own skills. This will help me when it comes time to try practicing the language together. It also lets me see what additional activities in the program are like, such as the “stories” that you can listen to for immersion learning.
What we will add
A typical foreign language course includes learning about culture, art, and food. You don’t really have to speak a language to try a new restaurant, which is my favorite way to learn pretty much anything. However, it is also fun to try new recipes, listen to music, and learn about art and history. I will be working to find ways to add all of this to our lessons. Because I can check on my child’s progress and read what each lesson has taught, I can see if he knows words to practice ordering in Spanish. But even if we don’t learn new words, we can make plantain chips, tacos, and lots of other yummy foods.
Also importantly, we will try to speak to each other in Spanish. Taking the learning out of the app can be tricky. This is another place the teacher access will help. I can check to see what words he is working on and refresh myself on those. We can work on short conversations based on what he knows as he progresses.
I will add writing assignments. Fun Spanish 1 assignments can include making a booklet of colors, foods, or family members all labeled in Spanish. Posters, flashcards, and short videos with Spanish words are also great for reinforcement. Those can all be done early in the program. As a student progresses it is important to add longer writing assignments. We will also have a Spanish-to-English dictionary on hand and do some translations.
To deal with the fact that Duolingo doesn’t explain verb conjugation or grammar, I’m going to supplement that. Duolingo submerges you in the language and assumes you will pick up the grammar. I have purchased the book English Grammar for Students of Spanish by Emily Spinelli as an easy-to-read grammar explanation. This book explains conjugating verbs and adding adjectives to sentences in a plain way that students can understand. It will fill in the gap of understanding why word order in Spanish is different and what verb tenses to use when.
Lastly, I plan to add reading and translating books in Spanish. For Spanish 1, easy readers or books meant for small children work well. As he progresses, the books can get harder. But I think it is fun to get started reading things other than the app that are doable. This brings the learning out of the app and creates real-world applications for it.
Giving High School Credit
According to Duolingo “Learners who complete through Unit 5 on Duolingo achieve similar reading and listening proficiency as university students after studying for four semesters! And after 7 units, Duolingo learners look similar to university students after five semesters.” So, to reverse engineer this, I feel confident I can give at least a semester of high school credit per unit that my student completes.
I will plan to do a few non-app-based activities every semester from the list above. I know that students in years 3 and 4 of foreign language study are expected to read and write long passages in the language, so we’ll worry about that when we get there. That might be something we pull from traditional textbooks, as you can purchase used ones at a reasonable price. However, we may also just purchase some books in the chosen language and try reading those.
We can also try watching TV and movies in Spanish to really cement understanding and usage. Of course, finding other Spanish speakers to talk to would be ideal, but we’ll see what we can do when we get there.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.