1 Year Attending School In Spain – What We Didn’t Tell You

Learning Spanish Language at School in Spain

Well the school year is officially over!  Anya (8 yrs – 3rd grade) and Lars (11 yrs – 5th grade) both completed a full year attending school in Spain.  When we first planned this adventure, one of our top priority goals was for the kids to learn how to speak Spanish.  This was going to be accomplished by having the kids study abroad and attend a Spanish elementary school.  Of course we weren’t going to just ship them off to study, we were going as a family.  It was also a priority for Alan and I to improve our skills with the Spanish language.

In the beginning Alan and I were leaps and bounds ahead of the kids with speaking Spanish.  We could pretty much get by as “tourists” and communicate our basic needs.  The kids knew their basic colors, numbers and polite greetings in Spanish.  We knew this wasn’t going to be an easy path to follow, but we were certain that we were all up for the challenge and we all had the desire to speak Spanish!

I will tell you about our journey, but fair warning it may be a bit long.  So get comfy and come along with us through our first year of school in Spain.

School In Spain – What was it like?

Occasionally throughout the school year, we would give you updates on progress after their first trimester.  We also let you know about our comparison of schools in the USA vs Spain.  We were even thrilled that the Spanish elementary school offered a free language tutoring program.  Lars shared with us how the “paper” system worked and how they had fun homework in their tutor class.  We also shared with you our first experience as parents during “Meet the Teacher“.

I would like to take you back to their first day of school.  We were all in a state of shock as the kids were whisked away to their classrooms.  The first week or two they came home very excited.  They would talk about all of their friends and how nice everyone was.  Then the homework started rolling in.  As we stated to the kids often, we were not worried about their homework or getting good grades.  We would supplement at home with any subject we felt needed attention, by USA standards.  Fortunately or unfortunately we have two very driven children.

Personality Check

Let me first tell you a bit about Lars.  He has always been a “Rule Follower” even at the age of one.  He would touch a CD on the shelf, we would say “No” and he never touched it again.  He rarely tries to push the boundaries and loves learning, reading and being competitive.  Lars has always been at the top of his class in school and we have always supplemented his education at home with 2-3 grade levels above his age.  He loves to get things done, and done well!  He is self-driven and a “doer” and loves to take on new challenges, but he also has a very sensitive side.  He is very empathetic and likes to help others.  A breeze for us as parents of our 1st child.

Then we have Anya, our “Free-Spirited” child that loves life.  She is very social and is more concerned about what her brother thinks of her rather than her parents or teachers.  She is above average in many subjects, but is particularly talented in Reading, Math and Art and loves going to school and being with her brother and friends.  She doesn’t mind if rules are bent just a bit and she enjoys testing boundaries.  She is extremely lovable and isn’t too competitive, but does like to have good grades.  Her teachers have always been extremely complimentary about Anya, saying how helpful she is with other children and very caring.  When change is in the air, she is a “go with the flow” type of person.

What we didn’t tell you.. it wasn’t all roses!

I think the change was most difficult for Lars.  We knew going into this, the older you are the more difficult it will be.  He isn’t used to getting less than perfect scores on exams and understanding all of the work.  Each unit in school was about 3 weeks long, so it was about the 3rd or 4th week of school when the first set of exams rolled around.  This was extremely frustrating for Lars and he wanted to do well.  When it came to studying, he opted to:

  1. Translate the entire assignment from Spanish to English using Google Translate on his computer
  2. Correct the translation, where it didn’t make sense
  3. Learn the material in English
  4. Type his response to the material in English
  5. Translate that back to Spanish on the computer
  6. Then hand write the Spanish answer in his workbook.

Lars was determined to do well and followed this process for each subject, every night (yep, they were even assigned homework over the weekends).  Many times he would be working on homework for nearly 3 hours.  Alan and I would often do the typing for Lars and help him understand the material.  We tried to remind him that he doesn’t need to work so hard and sometimes we even asked him to stop doing the work.  We told him he could just focus on learning the language and then worry about the grades in a few months.  This just wasn’t in his nature and was difficult advice for him to follow.

We had a couple of evenings a week of frustration and crying.  The one saving grace was that he had many friends at school and they were all willing to help him as well as some really cool parents.  Okay, maybe we got frustrated too.  We felt so helpless and bad for him.  I have to say we were trying to be supportive, but sometimes we would get after him to just stop doing the work.  Let’s just say, that didn’t always go over well.  There was one boy in his class that could speak English and he often helped Lars as well.

After about the 6th week of school, Lars stated that he was frustrated that he wasn’t learning Spanish faster.  He felt he always picked up new topics quickly and learning a language was taking so much longer.  At that time, near the end of October, we decided to have him do a journal of his progress and thoughts on Spanish.  We would just do it once a month and then look back at previous entries, to see if there was any progress.  He didn’t feel like writing anything up for October, but would start in November.

Spanish Language Journal – Lars

General Thoughts:
 I feel like it should go by faster.  I wish I was learning more and faster.  When am I going to be fluent?

Speaking:  I can speak with people on the street and introduce myself.  I can also ask for things at the store.  I can have a fairly simple conversation with my friends at school, but sometimes it gets intense.  I have tutors, but one bailed on me.  Aitana’s mom said that I am a celebrity in their house because I am doing well with my Spanish.  I can easily translate the Synergy Spanish Lessons 1-6.  I help my sister with her homework.

Understanding:  I understand pretty much everything in class regarding Math; everything my teacher says, and the word problems too.  I understand basic questions and a few “odd” words.  I know the local lingo and I am picking up some slang.  I can read a very simple story and understand it.

Parent Notes:  We are amazed at how fast Lars is learning Spanish.  After about 6 weeks, we no longer needed to help him with the translation of his homework.  He is already beginning to correct our Spanish and occasionally translate for us.

General Thoughts:  Spanish is definitely much easier now compared to when I started.  I learned that some of the words are the same or similar to English.

Speaking:  I can have a conversation with my friends and school and They Can Understand Me! Today I had a science exam and I received a 10 (top score).  When everyone else was done with the exam, the teacher said to the entire class “You know what really surprises me?  Lars got a higher score than most of the kids in the class and he isn’t even fluent in the language”  That made me feel very proud!

Understanding:  I feel like I can understand and read a book for a 6-7 yr old. In class, I understand more than half of what the teacher says.  If I don’t understand, I will listen on and just learn new words.  In the beginning of the year I had a science and language tutor and I don’t have them anymore.  Now I can go to the regular science class with the rest of my class.  I still have a Spanish tutor, but I don’t think I will need to go there very much longer.

Parent Notes:  Wow, look how fast he is learning.  I can’t believe in just a few short months he is beginning to hold his own in Spanish.  He is now regularly correcting our Spanish and is feeling more confident.  He has been allowed to join the regular Science class in school now without special tutoring for that subject.  He is beginning to blossom.  Oh I can’t wait to see what his future holds.

These were the only two entries made in his journal.  After the Christmas break he returned to school and was a new person.  The Spanish Language light bulb was now ON!  His teachers and the principal were amazed how fast he was now learning.  He was beginning to out perform his classmates in many subjects and the “Lars” we all knew was back.  The Spanish language wasn’t going to be a barrier for him any more!

What about Anya?

I know I have discussed Lars at length here and now it is time to share a little about Anya.  Anya was moving at a pace that was comfortable for her.  She didn’t feel the need to “master” the language quickly and she had a tendency to be a bit shy about speaking Spanish.

When we attended the first meet the teacher, Carlos was full of praises about Anya.  He let us know that she was speaking Spanish in school and was doing very well.  We just didn’t see any of this effort at home.  It wasn’t until about February when she gained confidence in speaking Spanish in front of us.  She was often more worried about Lars approving of her Spanish.  We let Lars in on this little secret and he helped us praise her and get her out of her Spanish Speaking shell.  (oops what did we do?  How do you turn the talking off? LOL)

She did do her homework and we helped her along, but she didn’t have as much homework as Lars.  She didn’t seem to be as moody or appear to be as frustrated.  We did have a handful of times where we needed to comfort and talk her through the change, but not often.  Her teacher gave her a lighter load in the beginning and as the year progressed, her work increased.  Keep in mind, that Anya essentially skipped a grade here in Spain.  She was scheduled to be in 2nd grade in the USA, but because her birthday is in September, she was in 3rd grade in Spain.  She not only learned the language, but did work a grade level above where she would have been back in North Carolina.

By the middle of the 2nd trimester (February), both kids were doing all subjects just as their classmates were.  They both were now just attending school, just as anyone else did.  We rarely needed to assist with translation for homework, at least for them.  You see, when they needed help with homework from me, I still needed to translate so I would understand the subject.  They found this to be frustrating and couldn’t figure out why we weren’t learning Spanish as quickly as they were.  LO…Oh the joy!

Now they both breeze through their homework and they are amazed at how fast they learned Spanish!  It seems like forever when you are going through a change, but when it passes and you look back it seems like just a bleep in your life.  I am so thrilled the kids took on this challenge, made it through the change, learned from it and now have a desire to learn more languages.  Alan and I have those proud glances at each other when we overhear the kids playing outside with all of their friends, speaking Spanish as if they belonged here!

Show me the Grades!

So, I would now like to share with you their grades for the year.  The grading system is similar to our grading system in North Carolina.  Here’s a table which describes the grades, and the comparable numeric grade in the U.S.:

DesignationMeaningNC Equivalent
SBSobre - literally, "above", or "on top"4
NTNotable - Notable or Very Good3*
BIBien - Good3
SSufficiente - Passing2
INInsuficiente - Incomplete1


Lars Final Grade School in Spain

Anya Final Grade School in Spain

Proud Parents!

We are just beaming with joy for both of them.  We are not only amazed with their final outcome, but their about their improvement and progress with each trimester.  We have one happy Wagoner Family!  We all agree we would do this again and we would highly recommend families take the leap to study abroad, if they can.

Just click here for more info on our Education in Spain 

End of School Preschool Graduation Dances

PreSchool Grad PreSchool Grad1 PreSchool Grad2

16 thoughts on “1 Year Attending School In Spain – What We Didn’t Tell You

  1. HI, Heidi!

    I was so happy to run into your blog, as we are an Amercian family planning to move to Spain next summer!

    Would you be willing to be a type of mentor for us??

    In terms of schools, did you enroll your kids in a public school? I would love to hear about how you chose where to live and what school to send your kids to!

    Thanks so much!

    • Hey Julie, Oh we are so glad you found us! How exciting for you. Where do you plan to relocate and for how long?

      We have quite a bit of info on what we experienced with education on the blog here. Section 4 is about education. Alan wrote an ebook on Education in Spain, We also have a series of YouTube videos with kid interviews. Of course we do also offer consulting, so of course we would be available for you and that would include consulting time for kids to chat with our kids or send specific email questions to them too.

  2. This is a great post Heidi! I’m so impressed at how fast your kids picked things up. I know ours struggle here in Morocco but I think it’s a combination of having to learn in two new languages, a completely new alphabet, and very basic support for non native speakers. Way to go kids!

  3. These kids are doing great, i also spend half year in Spanish immersion school quetzaltenango guatemala and it was great there.

    • Thanks Muhammad. They love travel and culture as well as Spain.

      I spent several days in Quetzaltenango about 25 years ago, also in Zunil. Love that place.

  4. Heidi, we’re in Chapala, which we don’t love, but are completely stumped about our next move. We landed here on the recommendation of friends and only meant to stay a month or two. Then the school experiment happened, and long-story short, we’ve been here a year. We discussing relocating to Morélia, a city we like a lot, though frankly I’m dying to get back to Europe or possibly Turkey. Dd12 is doing great in Spanish but wants to move to Thailand or possibly Turkey. For the kid and me, it’s all about the food, and Mexican isn’t our favorite. Hubs is fine here and thinks the females of the family are rather high-maintenance. (What could he be thinking?!?!? 😉 )

    • That is funny because Mexican food is my all time favorite and I don’t care much for Spanish food. Hey if you all go to SEA, maybe we will see you there? I do remember Morelia being lovely and I also really liked Chiapas and Oaxaca, but who knows what it is like these day.

  5. Hi, guys. Great post, very detailed and informative. My family and I are currently in Mexico so our daughter (12) can immerse in Spanish.

    We enrolled her in school for about 6 months, hoping for an experience like yours, but didn’t have as good a result. My daughter’s teacher was a warm and wonderful person, but obviously didn’t know what to do with a gringo student, and therefore didn’t have my daughter participate in the lessons. My daughter was allowed to draw or read books in English all day! It was nuts. On the plus side, she did make friends (who spoke English) and learned stacks about Mexican culture. Fortunately afterward a lovely Mexican family moved in next door. Their kids spoke NO English, and after two months of hanging out together, my daughter is now over the hump and can chatter away in Spanish. Yay!

    Your kids sounds awesome. I’m glad they had a great school experience, and I enjoyed reading about it. Thanks! 🙂

    • Hey thanks Renee. Yes, I would say that we may not have had the “typical” experience. That said, it is the only one we know. Each person is unique and will adjust to change differently and that includes the teachers. We were at the police station this morning doing the final step for our resident renewal (finger prints) and the clerk was so impressed with the kids Spanish and was asking them to work on their parents “Ha!”. The older we are the slower we are to learn. Thanks for the comment.

      What part of Mexico are you in? I lived in Tijuana for a year, Cuernavaca for 3 months, Mexico City for 1 month and driving around for another few months back in the mid 90’s. I do have a soft spot in my heart for Mexico.

  6. Great news! I’ve taught in Spain for six years and have seen student struggle in their own language, so I’m especially proud of Lars and Anya. Adapting to a new school comes with its own set of challenges, let alone doing so in Spanish. I’m sure they’ll be able to look back and see how their experience has changed them and hopefully enabled them to do more and believe in themselves.

    Now go enjoy the beach!

    • Cat that means so much to us coming from you. i just read this to the family as we are driving to Barcelona. hopping on the ferry to Italy tomorrow. what are your summer plans?

  7. Love this post, so open and honest. Reading the Personality Check for Lars and Anya was like reading a personality profile for our twin boys. We’re hoping to get to Spain within the next 2 -3 years, and we expect to go through much of the challenges that you have documented here. It’s great to see how well Lars and Anya have progressed through the challenges. What an amazing life lesson for them. Congrats to you all!

    • Hello Mrs. Buck. We are so excited about your plans. Isn’t it funny how you can have 2 children with such different personalities! Please let us know if you have any other questions regarding school. We can answer you here or if it is a biggie, we can do a post. Thanks for the comment and we look forward to keeping in touch with you guys.

  8. Wow! The kids are doing great!

    Congratulations, Lars and Anya! 🙂

    … hmm, where’s the report card for Heidi and Alan??

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