School days: The Spanish vocab parents need to face 'la vuelta al cole'

The Local Spain
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School days: The Spanish vocab parents need to face 'la vuelta al cole'
Photos: AFP

The start of the school year is here but are you ready to be hit by concepts and words particular to Spanish school life? Lisa Sadlier provides the survival guide for parents with kids in school in Spain.


This year the "vuelta al cole" (back to school in Spain) will be very different, as precautionary measures are being put in place in a bid to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.

Some children will be obliged to wear a face mask (la mascarilla): inside the classroom (el aula), in common areas (zonas comunes) and in the playground (el patio).

Hand gel (gel de manos) will be used frequently as well as soap and water (jabón y agua) for regular hand washing (lavarse las manos con frecuencia).

There will be arrows (flechas) on the floor to guide children around the school and in an attempt to maintain social distancing (mantener la distancia social).

Older pupils will work in bubbles (burbujas) to reduce the number of people they have contact with.

If all goes to plan, students will continue to attend classes (educación presencial), in some cases there will be a mixture of physical and online classes (una combinación de educación presencial y a distancia).

The Spanish school system can seem complicated if you do not understand the language.

It doesn’t need to be. In this article Lisa Sadlier, mother of two and a relocation expert based in southern Spain, provides a simple guide to the Spanish education system and provides all the essential vocabulary you need.

READ ALSO:  Back to school in Spain: When do classes resume in the different regions?

An Introduction to the Spanish State School System

State Schools in Spain: The Spanish Education System – (for ages 3 to 16) 

Every village and town in Spain, of any size, will have a primary school. The schools may vary considerably in size and sophistication, but they are known to provide a caring and friendly environment for small children. Most will take children in the year that they turn three.

Some state schools in certain areas of Spain only teach in the official language of the given region, as opposed to in Spanish. So, in Catalonia, Galicia, Valencia or the Basque country subjects are taught in respectively Catalan, Gallego, Valencian or Basque.

This is not always the case but is something to investigate carefully, as it will mean that your child will be taught in the regional dialect before learning Spanish. That said, most children master both the local language and Castellano (Spanish) as part of their general schooling.

Exposing children to several languages at an early age can be very beneficial.

The initial State School system is split into:

• Pre-school (Educación Infantil) for ages 3 to 6 years

• Primary School (Colegio): First Cycle for ages 6 to 8 years, and Second Cycle for ages 8 to 10 years.

Pre-school in Spain (Educación Infantil)

This is a non compulsory option available for children aged 3 to 6 years. Children enter pre-school in the autumn of the year in which they turn 3 years old, hence why pre-school classes are often referred to as the class of: 3 años, 4 años and 5 años.

Although not obligatory, pre-school is considered an integral part of a child ́s education. Even though there are no rigid targets, the children are introduced to subject matters that they go on to study in more detail in Primary School, they learn to interact with others and learn to adapt to routines. This is also the age at which children subconsciously absorb new language.

Primary School (Colegio) - ages 6 to 12 years

In the calendar year a child turns six, the obligatory educational phase begins.

The children study subjects such as Spanish language (Lengua), mathematics (mates), nature and environment (conocimiento del medio), religion (based on your choice), English language (inglés), music (música) and physical education(educación física). 

There are tests (controles) every few months. Failure to pass these tests throughout the year may result in your child having to repeat the year.

The following items are usually required at the start of each school year in state run  primary schools. The school will provide you with a list. If you have a local stationary shop, it is a good idea to hand the list over to them and they will prepare all the materials for you. But if you fancy touring the shops, these words will help you ...

Backpack - la mochila 

Pencil case - el portalápiz / el estuche

Diary - la agenda

Pen - el bolígrafo (boli)


Pencil - el lapíz

Pencil sharpener - el sacapuntas

Felt tip pens - los rotuladores

Crayons - las ceras

Paper - el papel 

Sheet of A4 - hoja A4

Notebook - el cuaderno

Text Book - el libro

Reading book - el libro de lectura

Ruler - la regla

Rubber - la goma

Scissors - las tijeras

Glue - el pegamento 

Tape - la cinta adhesiva 

Card - la cartulina 

Tissues - pañuelos

Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (ESO) : State secondary schools (ages 12 to 16 years) Bachillerato (ages 16 to 19 years)

This secondary stage of education is compulsory and also free.

It comprises of 4 courses divided into 2 cycles of 2 years each. The first cycle is for pupils from 12 to 14 years and the second from 14 to 16 years.

On successfully completing this education stage, pupils are awarded the certificate of Secondary Education Graduate giving access to Bachillerato and medium-grade training cycles in Spanish schools.

All towns and cities have secondary schools which are generally known as Institutos.

Like primary schools, some secondary schools teach subjects in the regional dialect rather than in Spanish.

Entry to a secondary school also depends upon the catchment area in which you live.

(Not all schools depend on a catchment area, living in the same municipality as the school gives you more points on the points system they use to award places, but they also take into account if you work in the same town as the school. So you can still apply to a school in another area.)

At the age of 16 a child should attain a Certificate of Completion of Secondary Education (Título de Graduado en Educación Secundaria) if they have successfully passed their examinations (examen or control). If they have not been successful then they will leave school with a Certificado de Escolarización. 

If a child has achieved their Titulo de Graduado en Educación Secundaria then they can decide to:

• Leave school

• Continue their education by studying for the Bachillerato (essential for university)

• Continue to attend their school by taking a vocational course (Ciclo Formativo)

Here are some useful words to make the “vuelta al cole 2020” ( back to school 2020) more understandable:


School - la escuela / el colegio / el instituto (secondary)

Classroom - el aula

Dining hall - el comedor

Library - la biblioteca

The playground - el patio

Sports hall - el gimnasio

Teacher - el profesor/ la profesora, or el profe (masculin) la seño (feminine)

Teaching assistant - el ayudante

Student - el alumno / la alumna

Headmaster - el director / la directora


Parents meeting - reunion de padres

PTA ( parent - teacher association) - el AMP (asociación de madres y padres de alumnos) 


Desk - la mesa

Chair - la silla 

Blackboard - la pizarra


Lesson - la clase

Support lessons- los clases de apoyo/refuerzo

Morning club - el aula matinal

After school activities - las actividades extraescolares

Homework - los deberes

Essay - la redacción

Story - el cuento

Test - el control

Exam - el examen


School subject - la asignatura

Spanish - el castellano or Lenga Castellana y Literatura

History - la historia

Mathematics - las matemáticas / el mates

Science - la ciencia

Biology - la biología

Chemistry - la química

Physics - la física

Computer science - la informática

Art - el arte

Religion - la religión


At the end of the term you will receive the grades “las notas” for each subject (asignatura):


Excellent - Sobresaliente (SB)

Very Good - Notable (N)

Satisfactory - Aprobado (A)

Fail - Suspenso (S)


Lisa Sadleir is a mum to 2 bilingual children. She works as a relocation consultant and property finder in southern Spain.  For more information about moving to Spain, the school system in Spain and how to plan your relocation, visit her website HERE. 

For a fun way to learn Spanish with your children, check out her family language project 



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