3.4 Communication strategies

Whilst it is useful for students to concentrate on a core of key language for any given topic, it is impossible to predict all the linguistic elements they might meet when reading and listening to authentic Spanish, or which they themselves might need to use. For this reason, the student will need to develop communication strategies as part of the teaching and learning process, which will greatly increase their ability to cope successfully with unknown words.

There are two main types of strategy: those that relate to understanding (reading and listening) and those that relate to production (speaking and writing).

Strategies for understanding

Ignoring words which are not needed

Many tasks contain words which are not essential for an understanding of the main points of the text. What is important in the text is often presented more than once, in different ways: the student may not understand a point in one form of words and understand it fully in another.

Using the visual and verbal context

The skilled reader can find many clues about the purpose and content of a text from a study of the layout, the title, the length, the typeface and any related pictures.

When reading and listening, students can learn to infer the meaning of new words from the verbal context. For example, someone who did not know the word camioneta might be able, after some appropriate practice, to deduce from the following context that it is some sort of vehicle: La camioneta salió de la carretera y chocó con un árbol.

Making use of grammatical markers and categories

Students will be helped to master all these strategies if, when reading and listening, they learn to use such clues as the plural forms of nouns and verbs, the way verbs change to form tenses, word order and other such features to help them recognise to which category (verb, noun, adjective etc) an unknown word belongs. This can be a considerable help in making intelligent guesses about the meaning of the word.

Making use of the social and cultural context

Another aid to the drawing of correct inferences is for students to bear in mind that there are regularities in the real world which make it possible to anticipate what people may say or write about it. The ability to predict occurrences in the real world makes it possible to anticipate words, and their meaning, in a given context. This is one reason why it is important for a Spanish course to develop awareness and understanding of countries and communities where Spanish is spoken.

For example, the student who knows that the Día de Reyes is the 6 January will be able to deduce from día 5 de enero, víspera de Reyes that víspera means 'the eve of' or 'the day before'.

Using common patterns within Spanish

Knowledge of the following patterns of word formation in Spanish can help to understand a text.

  • -ito/-ita and -illo/-illa endings used to form diminutives (eg casa – casita, perro – perrito, mesa – mesilla)
  • -ón/ona suffix used to form augmentatives (eg cuchara – cucharón, mujer – mujerona)
  • -mente suffix used to form adverbs (eg rápido – rápidamente, total – totalmente)
  • re- prefix (eg leer – releer, crear – recrear)
  • -ero/-era endings and ería ending (eg reloj – relojero, fruta – frutero – frutería)
  • des- and in- im- prefixes (eg hacer – deshacer, conocido – desconocido, correcto – incorrecto, posible – imposible)
  • -able ending applied to verbs (eg imaginar – imaginable, admirar – admirable)
  • -ión and -ción endings applied to verbs (eg producir – producción, animar – animación)
  • -oso/-osa ending applied to nouns (eg montaña – montañoso, ruido – ruidoso, lluvia – lluvioso)
  • -dor/-dora ending applied to verbs to form nouns and adjectives (eg hablar – hablador, trabajar – trabajador)
  • -eza, -dad and -ura endings applied to adjectives (eg limpio – limpieza, pobre – pobreza, sucio – suciedad, honesto – honestidad, hermoso – hermosura, loco – locura)
  • Compound words (eg abrelatas, abrebotellas)
  • -ante and -iente endings applied to verbs (eg protestar – protestante, corresponder – correspondiente).

Using cognates and near-cognates

A few 'false friends' (eg largo, sensible, actual) make it necessary to use this strategy with care and in collaboration with the strategy of using the visual and verbal context above. However, for each 'false friend' there are very many 'good friends' of which anglophone learners of Spanish can make good use. These fall into two main categories: cognates and near-cognates.


There are very many words which have exactly the same form, and essentially the same meaning, in Spanish and in English (eg animal, horrible, central, principal). When such words occur in context, students can be expected to understand them in English and Spanish.


Students will also be expected to understand words which meet the above criteria but which differ slightly in their written form in Spanish, usually by the addition of one or more accents and/or the omission of a letter (eg confusión, explosión, oficial).

Using common patterns between Spanish and English

There are thousands of words in Spanish which, although not having exactly the same form as the English word, can easily be understood with the application of a few, simple rules. When words which can be understood using the rules below occur in context, students will be expected to understand them.

The Spanish word adds an -o (and sometimes an accent) or changes a final '-e' in English to an -oaspecto, automático, económico, activo, decisivo
The Spanish word adds an -a (and sometimes an accent)lista, idiota
Words ending in '-ist' in English often end in -ista in Spanishpianista, comunista,
Spanish changes a final '-e' to an -amedicina
The Spanish word adds an -e aire, arte
Words which end in -ía or -ia in Spanish and '-y' in Englishbiología, economía, tragedia
Words which end in -or in Spanish and '-our' in English honor, vigor, labor
Verbs which add -ar, -er or -ir in the infinitive in Spanish or change a final '-e' in English to one of these endingsadmirar, confirmar, reservar, servir
Verbs which end with -ar in the infinitive in Spanish and with '-ate' in English decorar, cultivar, activar
Words which, in addition to the points above, have minor spelling changes between English and Spanish to accord with the Spanish phonetic system of spellingfilosofía, psicología, gráfico, fotografía, cuestión
Words in which t in Spanish corresponds to 'th' in English teatro, catedral, auténtico, autor
Spanish adverbs ending in -mente which end with '-ly' in Englishcompletamente, especialmente, generalmente
Words which end in -oso/-osa in Spanish and '-ous' in Englishfabuloso, religioso, furioso
Words where '-tion' in English is replaced by -ción in Spanishacción, inspección, integración
Words ending in -ante or -iente in Spanish corresponding to English '-ant' and '-ent'protestante, correspondiente, deficiente
Words where '-nce' in English becomes -ncia in Spanish evidencia, vigilancia, inteligencia, ocurrencia
Adjectives where '-ical' in English becomes ico/ica in Spanish físico, óptico, fanático
Words where 'oun' in English is replaced by -un in Spanish anunciar, pronunciar
Words where des- in Spanish is replaced by 'dis-' in Englishdesconectar, desconcertar, desembarcar
Words which end in -dad or -tad in Spanish and '-ty' in Englishcapacidad, sociedad, solemnidad, hospitalidad, libertad
Adjectives ending in -ense which compare with English equivalents ending in '-an' or indicating a place of origincanadiense, londinense
Words where an intervocalic -d- in Spanish is replaced by '-t-' in English senador, ecuador, operador, maduro
The English word adds an extra letter or letterscine, clima, militar, avance
The Spanish word adds an epenthetic e- before words beginning with 's' + consonant esnob, especial, estéreo
Words where a single vowel in English is replaced by a diphthong in Spanish sentimiento, compartimiento, puerto

Strategies such as those outlined above will generally be more easily applied in reading than in listening, as reading offers more opportunities to slow down, look at unknown items at some leisure and study the context. However, the general strategies for understanding listed above can be used successfully in listening to Spanish.

In order to hear accurately, students should have the relationship between the spoken and written language brought to their attention. Words which look the same in Spanish and English may sound different and conversely, words with similar sounds may be written very differently in the two languages. For example, the Spanish word circuito looks very similar to its English counterpart but is pronounced quite differently while rosbif sounds very like the English phrase from which it is derived but looks very different when written down.

Strategies for production

Research and experience show that people who communicate effectively in a foreign language tend to make good use of systematic efficient verbal and non-verbal strategies to get meaning across, in spite of their imperfect command of the language.

Individual students may fail to learn – or forget – language items required by some tests, or they may wish to attempt to go beyond the demands of the specification in completing the task set. In these circumstances, the following strategies can prove useful. They fall into two main categories: non-verbal and verbal.

Non-verbal strategies

Pointing and demonstration

This may be accompanied by some appropriate language (eg "Así...""¿Qué es?" "Me duele aquí").

Expression and gesture

This may be accompanied, where appropriate, with sounds (eg "¡Ay!" which, with appropriate intonation, facial expression and gestures, can convey such attitudes and functions as pain, surprise, anger, fear, pleasure and admiration).


This can be accompanied by appropriate sounds and language and can sometimes help communication to be maintained when it might otherwise break down (eg "¿Le puedo ayudar?" with a suitable mime if one has forgotten the words for the relevant action). This strategy has obvious limitations in a speaking test which is recorded and assessed on the basis of the recording.


This can be an efficient strategy with some tasks (especially written) and can convey both attitude and information (eg a diagram showing how to get from one point, such as a station, to another, for instance a home).

Verbal strategies

Using a word which refers to a similar item

Using a word which refers to a similar item to the one the speaker/writer wishes to refer to, but for which he/she has forgotten the word (eg cuarto for dormitorio, flor for rosa, taza for vaso). This is not always effective and its use would be assessed according to its effectiveness in a particular context.

Description of physical properties

This can be used to refer to something when the name has been forgotten (eg "Es de cuero... La fruta amarilla... Esa cosa que está en la mesa..."). The physical properties refer to colour, size, material, position and shape. The use of this strategy in an exam would be assessed according to its communicative effectiveness.

Requests for help

These may include requests for rewording (eg "¿Cómo se dice ......... en español?" "¿Qué quiere decir eso en inglés?") and questions; which make no reference to English (eg "¿Cómo se llama esto en español?" "¿Cómo se escribe?") as well as requests which may improve the student's chances of understanding (eg "¿Quiere repetir?" "Quiere hablar más despacio?"). It is clearly preferable to use such requests for help than for communication to collapse and their use will be assessed according to the context. When requests for help with specific problems occur, the teacher should maintain the role of a sympathetic native speaker and help accordingly. The teacher should avoid taking over from the student and carrying out the tasks set.


This is when a student avoids the use of a form of which he/she is unsure (eg "Es necesario que me vaya") by using a form he/she finds simpler (eg "Tengo que irme"). When such simple forms are used correctly and appropriately they will be rewarded accordingly. Correct and appropriate use of more complex forms will also be rewarded.

A systematic use of simplified forms may reduce error, facilitate communication and increase fluency but, if overused, this strategy may result in learners failing to make full use of their capabilities.


This is where the student uses words and messages in acceptable Spanish, avoiding the use of words which he/she has forgotten (eg "No está casada" for "Es soltera", "es el padre de mi madre" for "es mi abuelo"). When used well, this strategy communicates the message effectively to a sympathetic native speaker and such use in an exam would be assessed accordingly.

Reference to specific features

Reference to specific features (eg "El animal con las orejas largas..." "El hombre que lleva el uniforme marrón...") is often quite effective and its use would be assessed accordingly in an exam.

Reference to the function of an object

Reference to the function of an object and the actions that can be performed with it (eg "La cosa que se utiliza para abrir una botella..." "Sirve para secar las manos") is a commonly used strategy which is usually effective in communicative terms.

Word coinage

Another strategy sometimes used by language learners is word coinage, the creation of words based either on English or Spanish words. This strategy usually produces words which do not exist in Spanish or which, if they do exist, have a different meaning from the one intended. The use of this strategy is rarely effective in promoting communication and students would be well advised to use it only if all other strategies fail.

Topic avoidance

Another commonly used strategy is topic avoidance, when the student avoids or abandons a topic because of inability to deal with it. Use of this strategy in the exam will not allow the student to be given full credit. Use of it in a learning situation will reduce opportunities for the development or expansion of the student's repertoire. It is a strategy which should be discouraged. A basic condition for communication strategies to have a potential learning effect is that they are governed by achievement, rather than avoidance behaviour.

Evidence suggests that the availability of a range of strategies such as those outlined above, and flexibility in their use, represent an important advantage in overall communicative effectiveness. It also appears that the most effective strategies demand some linguistic proficiency and that the more proficient speakers are also better at using communication strategies effectively.

The development of such strategies cannot be seen as encouragement not to develop linguistic knowledge. Strategic competence is not a substitute for vocabulary learning, but a useful supplement. All language users make use of communication strategies, even in their first language, and really successful strategies usually pass unnoticed. They are an important part of the teaching and learning process.