I don’t know about you, but this is one of my favorite times of year. A fresh start to the school year and the fun of fall on the horizon (in some countries). Of course, the start of something new always brings unique challenges, but it also brings the opportunity to reflect. One of the things I try to examine each year is vocabulary and teaching word variants. This is especially true of back-to-school Spanish vocabulary since this may be students’ first introduction to “false friends.”

For many teachers and homeschool instructors, that first year is about survivial. You’re learning on the fly, trying to sleep when you can, and begging, borrowing, or creating as many materials as you can. But, as time passes and we begin to see patterns in our learners’ journeys, we can take steps to avoid the pitfalls of teaching vocabulary while simultaneously picking terms that will best serve learners in the future.

That’s what the false cognate colegio did for me. Hearing and seeing it used incorrectly over and over made me realize that I wasn’t introducing enough context into lessons.

So, welcome to part two of the long-term ¿cómo se dice? series where we examine some of the most common words with variants across the Spanish-speaking world. This edition? Back-to-school vocabulary. Which, of course, includes a false cognate or two. So, hop on the guagua, and let’s head to the prepe.

Controlled Controversy and Word Variants

One of my favorite ways to get learners, whether a full classroom or just one student, thinking about word variants is to ask them what they call objects with English variants. Even within one English-speaking country, variants abound. Soda, anyone? That thing you push around the grocery store? How about that thing you wear that you can only put on one leg at a time?

With back-to-school vocabulary, some English words you might want to target for controlled learning controversy are backpacks, school buses, chalkboards, writing boards, and even face tissue. If you’re unsure of the dynamics of your class, you can ask students to write them down, work in groups, hold up their answers on scrap paper, etc.

To speed planning up, here’s a quick list of some of the above terms and their variants:

  • Backpacks: knapsacks, school bags, rucksacks, satchels
  • School buses: the bus, coach, yellow limo, school shuttle
  • Chalkboards/Writing boards: chalkboard, blackboards, slates, the board, whiteboards, dry-erase boards
  • Face tissues: Kleenex™, face tissue, facial tissue, Puffs™, tissues, hankies, kerchiefs
Back-to-School Spanish Variants

Back-to-School Spanish Vocabulary Variants


So, kids are headed off to school, but which one? The Spanish names for schools, as in English, mostly vary by level. However, in many Spanish classes, learners may not encounter or need to study the variant words and the “levels” of school until later. In other circumstances, the materials you use, as in particular textbooks or comprehensible input stories, will provide context and repetition for other terms.

Yet, as we reflect on teaching and what to study, there is always one word that trips learners up, a false cognate so dubious that I honestly wish I could avoid it: el colegio. Depending upon your learning situation and the materials you use, it might be worth pointing this word out to students as a verbal pothole of sorts. Or, you might play a game of ¿qué significa? where you verbally walk students through the target answer or even the different meanings in context. Colegio can mean “school,” “elementary school,” “group,” “association,” etc. It all depends upon the situation.

My personal preference is to teach la escuela and then work in other terms later. This is an especially useful tactic in comprehensible input high-school classes, where students are most likely to talk about the other levels of school as they “age-up” and prepare to graduate. I also recommend introducing one term, like la escuela, to young learners, too, with the possible addition of any level-specific terms like “Bienvenidos a kínder.”

(If you have a preschool or early-elementary learner, you might enjoy this free back-to-school tracing and finish-the-picture pack.)


While I’m loathe to generalize, the most useful word for backpack is mochila. However, when studying countries, traveling, or tourist sites, learners might also benefit from learning the term bulto, as it is used extensively in Puerto Rico and also countries like Bolivia and the Dominican Republic (among others). Note, however, that bulto is a slang term in some places, so again, context is key.


Confession here. I love the word guagua for bus. It’s just so fun to say! But, if I’m being honest, it’s not the most useful word for many students to learn. You can see just a small number of the common word variants in the picture. However, as bus and autobús are almost universally understood, if not always used, I target them and then add more as we branch out.

In addition, I try to highlight the difference between a community bus and a school bus. Sometimes there isn’t one. Then, I try to focus on the vocabulary that will work for most students and provide examples–as many visual examples as possible–that “busing” kids to school is not the norm in many locations. To do this, I have to know that students might catch un furgón escolar (small school van) in Chile or a regular community bus in Paraguay. In still other countries, parents might pay for private, fleet vans, or students may walk, etc.

Here’s a short YouTube video on a unique way to travel to school in Colombia. Your learners will probably be stunned (with the added bonus of some listening and reading practice)! And, as discussed above, here the word colegio is presented in context with a visually memorable story, which improves the odds that students will remember it as a false cognate.

Of course, advanced students will need to know how to navigate that verb when they want to catch the bus. But, that’s a talk for another time.

Writing Boards

I usually anticipate that learners will pick up the words for chalkboard and whiteboard from repetition and use, but of course, that may not be the case in individual or homeschool learning situations. So, what word should you choose?

Keeping in mind that language is living and that no generalization is 100% true all the time, for chalkboard, emphasize pizarrón when working with Latin-American Spanish and pizarra if focused on Spain. (Encerado is an extremely low-frequency word for chalkboard but is still used in some locations.)

For whiteboard, add blanco or blanca to the aforementioned terms, which yields el pizarrón blanco or la pizarra blanca. Although, this can be cumbersome to say over and over, day after day, so some teachers and speakers prefer the term tablero, which is used for whiteboard in countries like Panama and Colombia and is much easier to say. However, when used out of context, tablero can be easily confused with a plethora of other items, like game boards, wood boards, bulletin boards, etc.

Next-Level Learning

Adivina dónde . . . is a fantastic game to play with advanced students. Where do people say guagua? How about chiva? Are chivas always buses? Or, you can send students on a webquest to learn where each term is used or examples of each. (The free download at the bottom of this page is an example.) Still other ideas are: Can they find a song with a variant? (For example, Celia Cruz’s or Juan Luis Guerrera’s “La GuaGua.”) A school with one of the terms in Uruguay?

Or, how about a group project where students create charts or presentations explaining the “levels” of learning? Perhaps an imaginary student’s life story, which of course involves schools and excellent movement through multiple verb tenses.

For younger learners, working in craft opportunities, such as working with Spanish shapes to create an autobús, and singing songs in Spanish, such as the “Wheels on the Bus,” can create both fun and recycled learning opportunities.

Keeping Perspective

It’s impossible to get every word correct in every location all of the time, so teaching or maintaining a growth mindset and the ability to circumlocate pays dividends into the future. When it comes to teaching and learning vocabulary, in particular, examining utility, context, and how Spanish will be used is important.

So, when a student accidentally tells me she’s headed off to “el colegio (sic) next fall, I can ask her about zip-lining. And then let context do the vocabulary work.

Have some great ideas? Use a term that isn’t listed above? We can’t wait to hear from you in the comments below!

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