“This is What We’ve Been Training For:” Using Novels in My Spanish Classroom

Starting a novel

One of my goals for 2019 was to start a novel with one grade and see how it goes. I have been teaching a novel in my 6th grade classes for the last 3 weeks (2 days a week) and I am loving it! We are currently reading Brandon Brown Quiere Un Perro by Carol Gaab. The kids are engaged and interested in what’s going on and they are able to understand everything with very minimal pre-teaching of vocabulary.

In the time before the novel

Before reading the novel, I was using embedded readings, news articles, and stories created by other students/classes (from my own classes and from Revista Literal) as my main reading material. The stories are almost always based on the Super 7 and/or Sweet 16 Verbs and they have similar plots: a character wants something but doesn’t have it so the character goes to other places and meets new people to find it. It is the standard TPRS story framework from the Look, I Can Talk series and embedded readings book.

This format has proved to be an amazing scaffold on which to hang new vocabulary and grammar structures. Since the stories are predictable, the students have an idea of what is going to happen, so they are able to focus more on the language used than following the twists and turns of the story. For my younger students (3rd, 4th, and 5th grade), this is essential for them to be able to understand what is going on and to really acquire the vocabulary that is common in each story.

If you asked my older students, they’d probably tell you that they are sick of the story script, but I think they secretly still love it. They complain, “It’s always that someone wants something and goes to get it and then gets it…It’s boring…We already know this!” But deep down, they are getting the language in a comprehensible way that has become easy for them. When they get reading material that strays from the structure they’re used to, they seem to have a moment of being puzzled and not realizing what they can do until they start. Then, once they start and they use our reading strategies that we discuss each time we read, they can work their way through it. I find this moment to be the best part because they are being challenged and (most of the time) they are able to live up to the challenge. It’s like they’re taking off their training wheels.

(Side note: When they read a story and make fun of what’s going on or the details of the story, I always make sure to tell them something like, “I know you think it’s boring, but you just understood enough of it to be sarcastic about it, so wouldn’t you say you’re doing pretty well with understanding Spanish?”)

Where do I start?

Once I decided that I wanted to try to use a novel, the first thing I had to figure out was, “What novel should I use?” I read several of the Fluency Matters novels (that I picked up at ACTFL 2018 back in November) and felt that there were a lot that talked about heavier themes than my students are ready for. I teach younger kids with very active and involved parents, so I didn’t want to start with something that would ruffle any feathers. Once I have the kids and parents on board with using novels in class, I can move on to novels with more heavy themes.

Ultimately, I thought that the themes of responsibility and telling the truth that I found in Brandon Brown were perfect for the age groups I teach.

Also, the dog.

The kids love the dog.

The second thing to think about was the age group. I had to think of which group was both linguistically ready for the book and also ready from the standpoint of management and maturity. I didn’t want to start the book with a group that it would be too easy for (like 8th grade, for example) because I didn’t think that they would respond well to it – Basically, I didn’t want the reaction of, “This is a little kid book.” That is why I settled on 6th grade (which is also my smallest middle school class with 25 students in each class instead of 30 or 31, so that was also a big factor). They are in the transition period between being elementary schoolers and middle schoolers. My thought was that if I could catch their interest in novels now, while they’re still interested, they will continue to be interested in the future with other novels.

The right choices

So far, I am very happy with the choices I made with the book and the student group. At first, some students were intimidated by the idea of reading an entire novel in Spanish like they do in their English classes, but after jumping into the book head first and getting down to the business of reading together, the students are engaged and reading along. They are enthusiastic about the story and about reading together in class.

I will leave you with this God’s-honest-truth for-real exchange that happened between two students on the first day I handed out the novels:

One student looked at the book when I first handed it out and upon realizing it is written in Spanish, said,

“Wait, this is in Spanish?!? We’ll never be able to read this!”

Without even a second of a pause, another student blurted out,

“We’ve been reading stories since 2nd grade. This is what we’ve been training for!”

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