YAYYYY! No more ¿cómo se dice?

I am finally to my favorite part of the year!

We have removed the phrase “¿cómo se dice??” (how do you say?) from ALL of my classes!

In my opinion, the most valuable skill I teach my students, is that of circumlocution. It is my favorite word. ALL of my students know the word in both English and Spanish and they can define it for you too! When I taught elementary, even my youngest learners knew the word and what it meant. The ability to use whatever language you know to make meaning and communicate about what you don’t know is such an important skill!

If you look in the TOP right of this photo you can see my circumlocution posters… I am on vacation in Chicago (hence having time to write a blog) so I don’t have access to a better photo for y’all!

I start introducing circumlocution early in the year. When a student asks me ” ¿cómo se dice _________ en español? for a word that I know we can communicate about in another way, I stop and explain circumlocution in English. I grab one of my small unicorns (yes, even in high school) and I stick him/her/they in my pocket.

I say:

“You guys, as much as I want to, I won’t be able to travel with you to all of the amazing countries you are going to visit to use your Spanish, nor will I be with you when you run into a Spanish speaker in a store who needs help  and they don’t speak ANY English at all. Unfortunately, nobody has invented a shrinking machine yet so I can’t just become mini-maestra and fit in your pocket [remove the unicorn from my dress pocket]. You won’t be able to pull me out and say [model whispering in my unicorn’s ear] “hey, Maestra ¿cómo se dice ‘I want one of those red chickens’ en español?” So instead, let’s figure out a way using the language WE KNOW to say that sentence! (a child was talking about my toy red chicken once in class so this is a real example).

The first part is easy, how do you say I want in Spanish? (Then I count to three to give ALL of my students processing time to think about the question I just asked)

They say “YO QUIERO” (some say yo quiere and that is TOTALLY fine because they are making meaning and communicating!!!!)

Then I say “YAYYYYYY! Sí, YO QUIERO! (modeling it correctly again, giving more input) Now, close your eyes! NO PEEKING! (don’t forget to use the white lie about teachers taking a “peeking” course in college). Now, using the language you KNOW, how can we say a red chicken?, think think think, and when you have an idea, keep your eyes closed and raise your hand QUIETLY so the person next to you can’t hear.” Slowly, one by one, my student’s raise their hands. The first few times it is only half the class but after the 3rd time of modeling circumlocution I can get about 90% of the class with their hands up! The QUIET hands is intentional! I don’t want students to feel bad if they hear hands going up all around them. I don’t want them focused on that but rather trying to think of their OWN way to circumlocute.

Then I have students open their eyes and I call on one of my mid-range kids (not high achieving and not a barometer student) to tell me how THEY would say red chicken. They say “un animal rojo y pequeño”. I give them TONS of praise and a high-five. Then I call on a high- achieving student and I ask them how they would say it, they say “un animal rojo que dice cluck cluck”. Tons of praise follows and a high five! Finally, I call on one of my lower students who had their hand up (usually one of my confident and silly class clowns) who naturally proceeds to stand up and walk around their seat clucking and flapping their arms like a chicken and then they point to the color red. I give the same awesome praise and high-five as their peers roar with laughter.

Finally, I give them lots of points for their awesome team work in circumlocuting and I write the word “gallina” (chicken) up on the board. I tell them that ALL of those were perfect ways to make meaning and communicate about words they DON’T  know using words that they DO! I explain that THAT is the definition of circumlocution.

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How fun are “selfie Brain Breaks” on Halloween!?!?

In mid-October, for my newest classes, I take away my ¿cómo se dice?  poster. I am the only person allowed to use that phrase anymore (for comprehension checks and formative assessments). I still allow 2-3 “out of bounds” vocabulary words per class and those get written on our board, but I don’t allow kids to ask me that question anymore. Instead, when they have that urge, I ask them to ask the class for help and together we circumlocute. My advanced classes have amazing circumlocution skills. This ability to negotiate meaning and communicate gives them so much confidence and allows them to more comfortably use Spanish outside of my class with people other than just me or their peers inside the comfort of our class. It is remarkable and inspiring! They impress me and make me laugh every single day!

One of my favorites of all time was when a student was trying to say taste and she confidently said, in Spanish, “its when you eat and you smell with your tongue and you think it is delicious”. Precious! Posters like this are great to have in your room. There are lots out there. I don’t have a picture of mine that I made, but I will try and post it here later when I get home. Sentence starters like “it is the thing that you need for __________” or “it is the place where you do  _________” or “the person who makes ____________” or “it is made of ___________” (obviously in the Target Language) are good to have on a poster to train students HOW to circumlocute! 🙂

I hope that each of you experiment with circumlocution in your own classes!!! You’ll be amazed at what your students can do!

Until next time,



La Maestra Loca

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My cute little family on Halloween!


  1. I took your suggestion and today when the kids said they didn’t know how to say it in Spanish, I asked if any classmates could help act it out. It led to laughter and great communication and a ton of points on the board. They were so excited. I haven’t had a chance to catch up with Facebook, so maybe you’ve done it already…but when you have time could you please post a photo of your hints you give the kids on how to circumlocute? Muchas gracias!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. YES! My adults are more resistant to it but once they give in they are really skilled because they understand the concept and probably have had to do it many times before in English!

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