Building a class library for heritage speakers of Spanish

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During NTPRS I was impressed with how many teachers of heritage speakers follow my blog and, more to the point, how little there is out there to support those teachers. Today I am going to focus on the needs of the heritage-speaking student of Spanish. Or perhaps heritage-aware because, as Krashen reminds us, speaking may not be the dominant characteristic of these classes.

The most important and perhaps surprising recommendation that I have for teachers of heritage speakers: start your class library with a large variety of TPRS readers made for non-heritage language learners. You do not have to be a TPRS teacher to take advantage of these highly readable novels; they can fit into any curriculum that values reading.

Why have I found that starting with these basic novels is better than authentic literature written for native speakers? On one hand, heritage students in my lowest level classes range from readinghert1 on a first grade level all the way up to college level. To be able to get students with low-level reading skills to buy into the class you will need very simple books with content designed for adolescents, not pre-schoolers. Within a year those students will improve, but some will not jump to the level needed to read “authentic” age appropriate literature. Therefore those students reading at the lowest levels will need to rely on the TPRS novels for their independent reading all year long. That is not to say that they will only be reading TPRS readers. During whole class reading I read a lot of Quiroga, Márquez, Matute, and stories collected in a bilingual collection called Stories that must not die by Juan Sauvageau, but independent reading must be easy.

On the other hand, many of my heritage students come to class reading on a middle school level: hert2those students will tire eventually of the TPRS readers, but at first they will need to experience a high degree of SUCCESS in order to really get hooked on reading. I encourage them to read TPRS novels until they decide to opt out for more authentic texts because I want them to feel the pleasure of reading, and ‘difficult’ reading for people who are not yet readers will never feel like pleasure reading. If you are worried that they are not developing their vocabulary (a valid concern), keep in mind that a year of easy reading from these TPRS books virtually solves all of the most common spelling errors (accents, v and b, h, and common errors like “a ser” in place of hacer). Despite the many activities that I have designed to get students to correct common errors, the only thing that has actually WORKED is lots of really easy pleasure reading.

easy to readIf I were building my class library from scratch and could buy 70 books I would make sure that at least 40 were easy TPRS readers. Those books can be ordered largely at TPRS Publishing and Blaine Ray Workshops. I have my own novel available here; readers who have bought my book have described it as a “a real page turner” and “a fun read”. If you are doing FVR then I would say get at least one copy of them all (between Blaine Ray, TPRS Publishing and the few independent authors like me you will easily be able to find over 40 different titles). Another independently authored book that you´ll want to add is Sueños de la isla, a book that has great appeal to boys (click here to look at samples of this book).

The backbone of my library is made up of the TPRS novels. Books that will be HIGHLY appealing to heritage speakers include the recently published Todo lo que brilla (available at Blaine Ray´s website), Esperanza (especially if you have kids from Central America), Vida y muerte en la Mara Salvatrucha, La llorona de Mazatlán, Fiesta fatal, Bianca nieves, Felipe Alou, Robo en la noche and La hija del sastre. Consider getting several copies of these novels so that kids can read them together… they will enjoy discussing them!

Once you have a solid collection of easy to read novels, here are my latest recommendations to diversify the library to cater to specific interests as well as advanced readers. One major warning: if there is a spectrum of censorship that teachers engage in to make sure that books are school appropriate, I fall way on the radical/permissive end of that spectrum. I do not think my choices would be controversial if I were an English teacher, but Spanish teachers do not usually have class libraries with real teen issues and swearing. When it comes to authentic literature, I do have such books. That, by the way, is another advantage of the TPRS novels; you know they will all be school-appropriate. You know your district, so use your discretion.

#1 choice when buying for boys: Biographies of soccer players, especially the encyclopedia type hert3books cataloging things like the “best 100 players of all time” (that way you do not have to worry about supplying books for fans of one particular team).

#1 choice when buying for girls: Anything written by “Blue Jeans”, which is the pseudonym of Francisco de Paula Fernández. Start your collection with Canciones para Paula… but buy anything written by him. ¡OJO! This series will turn some kids on to reading, but is likely questionable for some schools.

el que diran I LOVE the Orca Soundings in Spanish series! Originally created for reluctant readers in English, this series has been beautifully translated to Spanish with a limited vocabulary that nicely bridges between TPRS readers and so-called “authentic” literature. I originally was skeptical because there is nothing particularly latino about these books. Whatever fears I may have had have long been thrown out the window; the themes in these books are so universal to adolescents that they are extremely relevant to my own students. The stories move quickly and the teen problems are realistic. Thus far I have read three of these books and they have all been gripping in their own ways. If you have heritage speakers in your classes who are engaged in an FVR program, include some of these books. I suspect that, like me, you will be back to buy the entire series.
You can find the whole series at the website of Orca Book Publishers.

Coraline (novela grafica) by Neil Gaiman. Translated from English, but a popular book in my library… the most stolen book in fact. Highly recommended!

Amaranta by Care Santos

Esperanza renace by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Recently I ordered a series of graphic novels based on the fantasy series Memorias de Idhún by Laura Gallego Garcia. I cannot wait to find the right kid to connect with these beautiful books.

Las dos caras de Sofia and La decisión de Camila by Cecilia Curbelo (teen issues set in Uruguay)

I have books from the lowest 4 collections of leveled readers in the Leer en Español series by Santanilla Press. They have surprisingly good adaptations of novels originally written by classic Spanish authors such as Bécquer and Pérez Galdós… last year I had a native speaker completely engrossed with their adaptation of Marianela:

I also love the Explora tu mundo series by Scholastic, a wonderful way to bring readable science books into the Spanish classroom.

Finally some books that were originally bought as “reach” books for my non-heritage speakers but resonate well with some heritage speakers:

Several different books in the Diario de Greg and Diario de Nikki series

Books from the Judy Moody series

Here are some pictures of my class library for heritage speakers. Starting with an overview of the three bookcases that I currently have available for students to browse, you will see that it is organized (for the most part) by theme, not reading level (click to get a larger version that is easier to read):

wholebookHere is a close-up of the shelf for Sports (click on the photo to get a large version that will be easier to read):


Here is a close-up of the Animals section (click on the photo for a larger version, click again for an even larger one):


And here is the fantasy section (click on the photo for a larger version, click again for an even larger one):


Many of the books in my Mexico section are, by student request, about narcos. However I really love Huesos de lagartija by Federico Navarrete, which tells the tale of the conquest of Mexico through the eyes of a young indigenous priest-in-training. (click on the photo for a larger version, click again for an even larger one)


I have a small section of biographies. The most popular are the biographies of Chespirito, Jenni Rivera, Selena and the book Dulce Amargo, a set of poems by Dulce María written during her adolescence. (click on the photo for a larger version, click again for an even larger one)


I love my children´s encyclopedias, which are fascinating, loaded with cognates and surprisingly easy to read because they are designed to be browsed rather than read “linearly” (click on the photo for a larger version, click again for an even larger one):


The “Juvenil” section includes things like the Dairy of a Wimpy Boy series, Captain Underpants and other books that appeal to some reluctant readers searching for something familiar (click on the photo for a larger version, click again for an even larger one):


I also have a “libros infantiles” section, many of which have been donated to my classroom. This is the shelf that I pull from for my non-heritage speakers classes on days when I am tired and I just want to read a book together with the kids. I will often project each page against the white screen using a document camera and, rather than read, we describe what we see using the vocabulary that we know. That is a very enjoyable, high-impact but zero-prep activity.


Finally I have a bottom shelf of books reserved for my high level IB students. There are several books in the hands of students right now that are not pictured; those are El susurro de la mujer ballena by Alonso Cueto and Transportes González e hija by María Amparo Escandón. (click on the photo for a larger version, click again for an even larger one)



  1. I just came across your blog last night where you wrote about fighting the grammar syllabus, I shared it with a colleague who is just beginning her TPRS journey…mine started several years ago but I have had a lot of stumbles along the way. I, imperfectly, use TPRS with my junior high students, but when I share high school level classes, I revert back to the typical units and grammar syllabus with my colleagues…and then when I have the seniors, we are frantically preparing for the HL IB test. Reading your blog reminds me of the kind of teacher I really want to be. I am also SO EXCITED to see what you have for Heritage Speakers. We started a heritage speaker class three years ago, and I have not yet found a great mix. Reading this particular blog post is helping me to see where I need to go. Thank you so much for the suggestions for your classroom library…I have some books, but not enough. The titles you shared will be very helpful.

    1. Early in the summer I plan on writing a blog post about how the heritage speakers class evolved this year beyond independent reading. FVR is still a significant part of the class, but this year I spent more time trying to develop students language community. I started to address that topic in a recent blog post called “Your Heritage Speakers Think You Are Weird”. I find that writing these blog posts help me work out what I am seeing in class; often times I have an ah-ha moment as I am working on the writing and I manage to put my finger on something.

      I hope you continue to push TPRS into your high school classes… the IB tests are a breeze with TPRS trained students, and we only have a four year program! I can´t imagine trying to tackle HL without a lot of TPRS and FVR 🙂

  2. This is great. Do you have a format that you follow when you have your heritage/ native speakers discuss a book? Or do you just ask them questions? Or do they discuss it alone? I have classes that are very diverse w/ native speakers and low level non natives in the same class. I am trying to see how this would work…

    1. Sounds like my heritage speakers classes… very diverse. Nothing is 100% successful, but I am content with self-selected small groups for five minutes of talking. I do not provide questions, the idea is that they share something about their book that might interest someone else to read it when they are finished. Some students are not going to talk about the books, but I do what I can to make sure to communicate that the time is to talk about books. The fact that some students DO share among their friends & friendly classmates (the groups are self-selected), and I see some books being passed among peer groups, that is a step towards being independent readers. I try to sit with kids who might not otherwise talk about books, but this is one of those activities that I do not want to over-scaffold.

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