Novel Time!

It’s mid-November, which means my students are reading, reading, reading!

Reading with my classes is one of my favorite things that I get to do as a teacher. I love to read and I love passing on that love to others. Add to that that we’re reading in another language and the students are understanding most, if not all, of what we’re reading and it is extra delightful.

I never had an experience with reading novel-length texts in Spanish during my elementary, middle- or high-school Spanish education. It wasn’t until AP classes that I saw a Spanish-language novel in a Spanish class. The prevailing thought in my schools’ language programs seemed to be (and continues to be in a lot of programs) that students can’t read extended-length texts in the TL until the AP level and then, when they do, the texts are authentic novels or poems or short stories that would be hard for students to understand in any language. Add to that that they are presented one after the other to prepare the students for AP test. The kids are not given the time to be with a text and get lost in it, which, at least for me, is the best part of reading in any language. In other words, fun reading (and reading for acquisition) weren’t a thing in Florida elementary, middle, or high school (and in a lot of college) language courses.

And in the past, that may have been the case because there weren’t any novel-length texts written for novice and intermediate language learners. The idea of Comprehensible Input Readers was in its infancy (or not even born yet, depending on how old you think I am). But nowadays, there’s no excuse to put off reading until the end of the course of study. Reading should be happening from very early on in the students’ experience with the language. I get started with it in my youngest grades.

I have written about how I use novels before. In 5th – 8th grade, the students have their own copies of the books and they read along with me. I love to throw in student voices as actors who play characters, but I never force students to read aloud. It is important that they feel comfortable to do it themselves, especially if we are to build their confidence. There is nothing more crushing for a student than being asked to do something that they are not ready to do in front of the whole class. It breeds resentment for the content, the teacher, and maybe even the other students who laugh at or show frustration with the students for note reading confidently.

In 4th, we are reading together Kindergarten style. We are reading La Perezosa Impaciente at the pace of one chapter a week (I only see the students twice a week, so this takes a bit of time). The kids sit on the floor and we discuss what’s going on as we read. There is no assessment, no evaluation. We simply read a fun story for the sake of reading a fun story in Spanish. It is comprehensible, it is compelling, and it is input in the TL. And on top of that, it is quickly becoming one of the students’ (and one of my) favorite books.

This is the only book that is new for my students this year. The other classes I teach are reading the same things I read with them last year:

  • 6th Grade reads Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro
  • 7th Grade reads Leyendas Impactantes
  • 8th Grade reads Mata la Piñata

But even though there haven’t been any changes to the novels that the students are reading each year, there are several new things to report.

As I have written about before, I have been focusing a lot on pre-teaching important vocabulary from each text. Basically, I went through the books and picked out themes and vocabulary that would show up in each book. I then tried to incorporate those things into our discussions we had and lessons before we started reading.

This year, I used lots of methods to pre-teach vocabulary and one that the students have really enjoyed is Mike Peto’s Maravilla activity. I have used these several times with several different grades since I learned about them from his blog and his book Pleasure Reading in the World Language Classroom. This year, I have been building my own library of maravillas on topics related to our class novels. Two of these are this one about piñatas, which I did with my 8th grade students in the leadup to reading Mata la piñata, and this one about Dia de la Raza, which I did with 7th graders in the leadup to talking about pre-Columbian cultures (because we read Leyendas Impactantes in that grade and start with an Aztec legend).

This year has also been the year of using Write and Discuss at the end of class every day. In this activity, we simply discuss and summarize what we talked about in class, whether we created a story, discussed students’ schedules (upcoming games, tests, etc), did a in independent or guided reading activity, or anything else.

I spent the first two months of school having students work with me to summarize what we did in class each day. It’s a bit like pre-teaching vocabulary: I know that the kids are going to need to know how to do this activity so that they can have solid and effective summaries of each chapter so that they can know what is going on in the story. This has been super helpful, especially when I see the kids 2 times a week with 6 days in-between with no class. The kids always have the opportunity to go back and remind themselves what happened in the story up to this point and I am confident that they have all the important content and vocabulary that they need to be able to move forward in the story.

The newest technique that I have found and started to implement is the use of Smash Doodles. This is not a new technique, by any means, but it’s new to me and, like Write and Discuss, it can help students to synthesize the important information from each chapter. I am thankful to the many teachers who have written about their techniques for using them because they have provided the content template for me to use and eventually expand upon.

Content in my students’ smash doodles includes:

  • Title of the chapter/legend (depending on which book they are reading)
  • Important vocabulary from the chapter/legend (written in L2 and L1 and with a picture)
  • Copy the most important sentences in the story (a sneaky way to have students deeply re-read a story)
  • Two opinions about the chapter/legend. I provided them with some sentence starters to get them primed for writing down their opinions (things like me gusta que…; no me gusta que…; me sorprendió que…; es interesante que…; etc). By using these sorts of prompts, the students can express themselves using very simple text from the story (a novice level writing task, which is well within their abilities in 6th – 8th grade).
  • And pictures to go with everything!

The biggest change I have made to other teachers’ smash doodle assignments has been to formalize the formatting. For the students’ first time using a smash doodle, I have been very specific in how they are to write the information on the page–the more specific I can be with my middle schoolers the better, especially for their first time completing an activity. So rather than have them format the page in any way they see fit, I had them fold their papers into 4 sections and do a specific task in each one. It is possible that I will relax the formatting rules as we move ahead, especially now that the students have been able to do a practice example, but for now, I am happy with the results. The students know exactly what they need to do and what they need to include.

Because I only recently discovered this activity, I am using smash doodles in slightly different ways in different classes:

  • For my 8th graders reading Mata la piñata, I am using Smash Doodles as an end-of-book review assignment (partly to experiment to see if it works as an end-of-book activity and partly because I didn’t learn about them until we were almost finished with the book!). Students are each assigned a chapter and create a smash doodle with very specific instructions and formatting. The smash doodle pages will be compiled into books for the class (and future classes) to benefit from in my FVR library. Here are some completed examples:
  • For my 7th graders, who are reading Leyendas Impactantes, I am assigning a smash doodle for each legend that we read (in past years I have read 4 with them, this year we may read more). These will be compiled together into a scrapbook of the book that the students will all be able to keep (and hopefully one or two or more will donate theirs to be put into the FVR library). Here are some examples of their work:
  • Finally, for my 6th graders, the smash doodle is being used more like the assignment for 8th grade, but instead of doodling each chapter of the book after we have finished the whole thing, I am assigning doodles for the first and second halves of the book. The students will be put in groups of 5 and will each get one chapter. Then, I will compile those chapters and make copies to hand out to each of the group members so they can have it. (I don’t have any examples of their work yet.)

You may notice that the assignments I have posted have grammar and spelling errors. It’s not a case of “I got too wrapped up in writing this blog post to get my work done” but rather a a case of “perfection in grammar and spelling at the novice level is an unrealistic expectation.” I have no plans to correct the errors in the students’ writing in these assignments or to assess and grade these for that kind of accuracy. The main question is: Is it comprehensible? If so, then it works for me.

I love student work that looks like this because it so clearly comes from their own minds. Sure, I give them prompts and get them started, but like when teaching a kid to swim, you can only hold your hand underneath them for so long until you have to let go and let them do it on their own. Will the kid sink the first few times? Most likely, but we’re here to catch them and get them back on track. Will the kid swim like Michael Phelps instantly? Definitely not, but there’s no expectation that they should.

It is a beautiful thing to see the students show what they are able to do. All of these students were proud of the writing they did on these assignments and so am I.


…This post kinda took a turn…

I plan to talk a lot more in-depth about this topic in an upcoming post, but suffice it to say that by letting output come naturally from each individual student at their own individual level, the amount of joy, fun, and comfort with the language are much higher than in any class in which I’ve taken time to focus on accuracy in output.

Back to the matter at hand: Novels and the new (to me) activities that my students are doing in order to comprehend and remember them better.

The takeaway today is that I am constantly learning about new things to do with old material. There are so many things that we can do with our students to help them get input and encourage natural output that is at their own individual level. And that’s the beauty of a curriculum based around input rather than a book or plan of instruction: I can tailor what I teach to achieve what I need my students to achieve.

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