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.

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. Have you ever felt it would be better to organize by reading level rather than theme? I currently have a small FVR library (first year that I’m teaching with CI) and am hoping to better organize it for the fall. I was planning on doing so by level, but now I’m tempted to follow in your thematic footsteps. I don’t have nearly as many books as you do. Thoughts? I will be teaching a variety of levels ranging from Spanish 1 to Spanish 3-4ish, to high school students with a variety of learning differences.

    1. I have a section of easiest to read books that are in the most accessible part of the room. Some kids just grab from there, but that does not really please me. The big shift in perspective from the teachers point of view is that, with FVR, we are not trying to get them to simply read; we are trying to develop the skills of real readers so that students continue to read outside of class. “In the wild” real readers often read well below their reading level, but what they never fail to do is choose their own books. I organize by theme to lead kids to browse and find a book “that is not too painful” in the hopes that they stumble upon a home run book that turns them into readers forever.

      1. Hola, Mike,

        Me encanta tu estrategia descrita aquí. Eres un hombre y maestro bien sabio y de juicio profundo. Brian

        Sent from my iPad


      2. Thanks – that’s helpful clarification. I do like the idea of themes rather than ability levels, and may try that technique of organization. My kids aren’t great about finding a book that’s ‘painless’ yet, but I’m tempted to go in this direction and see how it works next year.

  2. Thank you for this list. I am building my library and have no idea what to get them! This is my first year teaching and I have all Heritage classes! I went to Sueños de la Isla and looked at the samples….there was a mistake on the first page, so those need to be edited better (la radio?). Thanks again!

      1. Well you learn something everyday! Growing up in a Cuban household we used el radio for the apparatus, and la for the transmission radiodifusión (which was never used).

      2. Interesting… I have heard that before but always assumed that people were listening to the transmission that flows through the apparatus, and so I have assumed that la is more common. After a little more research I am coming to see that el radio is more common than I previously guessed. I wonder if la radio stuck with me due to the Castilian bias present in textbooks from when I was first learning Spanish…

  3. Mike, what a valuable article. I’ve been retired for 15 years now and still marvel at the growth of heritage language classes. Thanks for all the recommendations and the extremely important observation that heritage speakers/heritage-aware students who read at a low grade level can benefit greatly from the Spanish novels for students in non-heritage classes.

    I’m especially happy to see your use of Stories That Must Not Die by Juan Sauvageau. It’s a wonderful collection of stories and can supply lots of cultural and Southwestern regional information.

    I enjoy reading about your classroom and your teaching.

    Brian Barabé

    1. I believe that you may have been the person who originally gave me the advice to find Sauvageau´s book… it took me awhile but I eventually found it and it has been a wonderful read aloud book. Thanks 🙂

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