Dear readers, Esperanza renace is coming. After four long years, the wait for the third Musicuentos ebook guide to an authentic novel is nearly over. Within weeks – perhaps days – you’ll see the resource release *I* have been waiting and working and longing to make for four years.
As we both wait a few more days, let’s talk teaching authentic novels.
Again, I’ll beat the drum of a balanced approach. I blogged it last year: the question is not authentic or learner material, it’s when and why to use one or the other. (You’ll catch my definition of “authentic” at that post as well.)
Let’s say you’ve decided to go with an authentic book. Which one do you pick, and what do you do with it? Here is perhaps some insight that will help you from my (6?) years of teaching authentic novels.
Choosing a book
First, consider your learners’ proficiency. I don’t recommend a book-length authentic text for learners who are just recently achieving Intermediate Low interpretive performances, maybe not even Intermediate Mid.
Next, think about a book that would support an overarching theme or goal you have this year. One of my big goals for Spanish 3 was to narrate a personal story, so a memoir was a perfect choice. In AP, one of the major themes in every text and every test is protecting marginalized people and the environment, so a fantasy set in the context of protecting the Amazon and its indigenous peoples was great.
What books am I talking about? If you’re teaching Spanish 3 or higher learners who are consistently performing Intermediate Low interpretive tasks and regularly reaching into Intermediate Mid territory, they may be ready to tackle the poignant memoir by Francisco de Jiménez, Cajas de cartón. Francisco tells the story of how he and his family crossed the border illegally in the 1950’s to work the migrant agriculture circuit (the book in English is The Circuit). (In contrast, Esperanza and her mother and friends crossed the California border with papers in the 1930’s to work at a large farm that rotated its own crops by the season.) See a full description of everything available in my ebook guide for the memoir as well as find purchasing information here.
If you teach Spanish 4, AP Spanish, IB Spanish, heritage learners, or other learners who consistently perform Intermediate Mid interpretive tasks and are regularly reaching into Intermediate High territory, they may be ready to tackle La ciudad de las bestias, Isabel Allende’s adolescent-market fantasy touching heavily on challenges to preserving indigenous culture and natural resources in South America. The book is currently available in physical form only via third-party sellers on Amazon, but there’s also a Kindle version so anyone with a Kindle app can read it.
What book will fit your class and pique learner interest? What authentic novel do you think IM-IH learners are ready to tackle- and will want to? I started reading Manolito gafotas to evaluate it for this purpose, but I quickly realized the protagonist was so obnoxious I couldn’t take it. I’ve been asked to do the follow-up memoirs for Cajas de cartón but I’m not sure these will be in print long enough to make it worth my time. I’m currently reading La travesía de Enrique by Sonia Nazario and I’m really excited about this book as a strong possibility for my next ebook guide book. Should I do La casa en Mango Street? Antes de ser libres? El soñador? Share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments.
So now you’ve chosen a book. What to do with it?
In class or out of class?
In my experience, this question depends on two things: your class’s proficiency, and your class personalities. When we first started La ciudad de las bestias in AP Spanish (fourth year), I assigned students the chapters to read at home with regular due dates for comprehension questions. Then I met my Alpha class. This small class was full of type-A, headed-for-scholarships kids who stressed themselves out over every word they couldn’t understand. It was taking them painful hours to move through a chapter because of their desperate need to understand and analyze every.single.word. I couldn’t convince them to focus on my questions to guide them through the gist of the story. It became a chore, and you know the thing about language chores? They’re not acquisition-friendly. When reading a novel became as soul-sucking as filling in conjugation charts, it was time for a change.
We began doing the chapters together, on Wednesdays, and the change became an improvement for all of us. Making Wednesdays (a day we had five minutes less in class) our “novel day” made my planning easier, too. And it became the easiest day to stay in the TL. We all looked forward to our time with Alex and his trek through the jungle. One issue was that as we moved through the book together, it took us longer than when I had assigned it as an at-home reading. By the time we got to the AP exam at the beginning of May, we were barely 2/3 of the way through the book. But you know what Spanish-student seniors want to do after the AP exam is over? NOTHING. Perfect time to finish the novel.
More than just reading
Another great thing about doing a novel in class together is all of the comprehension checks, cultural exploration, and downright fun you can have. (I wish I could share a picture of Kim’s class “freeing Mimi” outside after they finished Robo en la noche. Mimi was a stuffed bird she brought from home.) Here are some ways to make reading a chapter an interactive exploration for all:
- Actor’s theater: check out Martina Bex’s ’14 post on Freeze Frame, and see how Cynthia implemented that idea.
- Learners try to write a one-sentence summary of what happened in the chapter. Sharing these reveals what everyone thought was the most important piece.
- Vocabulary (or plot) mind mapping: I blogged it last semester here.
- Explore the setting via Google Earth. This post from waaay back (cough, nine years) shows how I used Google Earth to explore songs, and now I find it an amazing tool for novels. I remember how shocked Shannon was at the Amazon River: “I thought it was more like a creek. It’s so WIDE!” Following Francisco’s journey across the border in California, learners see a stunning view of exactly why agricultural workers are so vital and plentiful in that area.
- Turn “read” into “show” with YouTube videos. In Ciudad, one of the soldiers gets taken by an anaconda. I’m not going to link to anything in particular here, but there are some crazy graphic displays of what anacondas can do available on YouTube. Talk about high-interest!
- Map out relationship trees. Comprehension is so much better when readers know who the characters are and how they relate to each other. With each new introduced character, add to the relationship tree.
Also, your tried-and-true learner novel activities work here! For example, most if not all the activities Martina suggests in her post “The Story’s Done but Class Isn’t Over” would work fantastically with a novel chapter.
Teaching an authentic novel pushes the intermediate language class beyond artificially controlled vocabulary, structures, and culture bites.
One more thing: the one mistake that will derail it all…
If it’s true that learners need to comprehend 95% of a text to understand what’s going on, and that this feat requires knowing fifteen thousand words, then it’s also true that if you and your learners jump into a chapter of an authentic book, you’re all set up for failure. This is the piece that requires the most work of me but is so worth it. You absolutely must front-load vocabulary.
Start by identifying a list of words and phrases that your students probably do not know but do need to know in order to follow the storyline or argument of the chapter. Then, before you ever work with the chapter, work with this vocabulary. They can do mind-mapping (see link above), do Google image searches of nouns (you do this first and give a list that will produce safe results – don’t just say “look up pictures of your vocabulary), and label sketches. In Esperanza renace, learners should build a labeled picture of the human body and do the same for clothing and a house. In the first few chapters there is so much vocabulary related to fires that you can actually sketch and label a fire to improve comprehension.
Beyond simple vocabulary, I include a section called Dominio where I ask them to do something with a proficiency-pushing feature that is highlighted in the chapter, such as when there’s a flurry of conditional verbs in the same paragraph. I include a section called “tools for storytelling” where I ask them to do something with a feature of the chapter that helps improve narration skills, such as when there’s a sequence of narrative word changes (said, exclaimed, shouted, replied, etc.). I highlight one or two idiomatic expressions from the chapter and ask them to come up with an imaginative way to use them.
I can’t stress this enough: If you want intermediate learners to succeed at reading an authentic novel, they’ve got to see a large chunk of the important new vocabulary before they touch the chapter.
Let’s hear from you. Share your recommendations for authentic books and the activities that get kids excited about them, and let’s dig in deep to some authentic, compelling books with our more proficient readers!
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