TL Culture in a CI Class

Introducing Las Maravillas: small doses of target language culture for a student-centered classroom

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Today I am finally releasing something that teachers who attend my workshops have been raving about: Las maravillas. A maravilla in Spanish is “a marvelous thing”; these activities present fascinating people, places and cultural customs in a truly comprehensible format. I think that it is so important that I have added below a short excerpt from my new book about reading (in publication by Teacher’s Discovery, to be released at ACTFL in November 2018) that describes exactly how to make your own maravillas. I also offer access to my library of 37 pre-made maravillas.

An example of a Maravilla

A maravilla consists of four parts which I embed into a power point. The most difficult part of creating a maravilla is the initial research. This is not always easy, but one reliable source is a company called Great Big Story which publishes short videos on YouTube. They have a Spanish channel called Great Big Historias: This example maravilla will use a video created by Great Big Historias called “Sumérgete en este museo debajo de las olas”, which you can view by following this link on the internet:

First I take a screen shot of one frame from the video so that I can talk about the subject in the target language before actually playing the video. This technique is called a “Picture Talk”. It is an important previewing technique because, unlike a video, we move at the pace of the students. Students develop confidence that they understand the subject. Without the Picture Talk students tend to feel overwhelmed and shut down when faced with an authentic video. I also add a caption to the photo so that I can introduce a crucial word or two that students will need in order to understand our discussion that follows. In this case I take a screenshot 4 seconds into the video of the sculpture that is submerged underwater. When presenting the photo, I ask questions and make observations in simple, comprehensible language. In Spanish I say, “look, there is a man. Is that a man? No, that is not a man, that is a sculpture of a man, not a real man. But look, it is really blue. Very, very blue. Is it a beautiful day, perhaps? Perhaps, but that color blue is not the air. It is water. The sculpture is under the water. This sculpture is part of a museum. The museum is all under water. The museum is in Mexico, under water near Cancun. People go (now pointing at the caption) to Cancun in order to scuba dive and see the underwater museum. Amazing!” The caption written in Spanish below the photo is in bold so that students can see the words that are new to them. That introduction is meant to be very comprehensible. In fact that would be entirely accessible to my level 1 students with the exception of only a few words, which I write on the board.

Second, after the Picture Talk, I play the video (which is much less comprehensible). To be honest, the videos on their own are often quite incomprehensible. In my own classes I add captions using a video processing software such as Movie Maker, a free download from Microsoft. However you really should not expect your students to understand the video. Playing the video has another purpose. We know that struggling readers often do not create vivid images in their minds while reading. The purpose of both the video and the picture talk is to prompt students to form pictures in their minds that will help them comprehend the whole class reading that follows. I have used this strategy (displaying a vivid image, discussing it and then taking it away, followed by a reading that evokes that image) as a way to teach struggling readers to employ this particular reading strategy. For that reason I try not to choose a video that lasts longer than three or four minutes; it is like watching a movie over the shoulder of someone sitting near you with headphones. We have all experienced being trapped in a plane and following a movie while not hearing the dialogue. Yet clearly when language is absent (or so incomprehensible that it is just a blur), that does not helping us acquire more language. The images are simply preparation so that students will be primed to understand the reading that follows.

The third part, then, is a simplified reading summarizing the video and written slightly above the independent reading abilities of the students. What follows is an example of a simplified reading that I might have written for one of my classes. The complexity of the text, of course, depends upon what I have determined to be just slightly above the abilities of my students. If I make a mistake and provide a text that is too difficult, I translate difficult parts and use that language in comprehension questions so that students quickly become familiarized with it:

Hay más de quinientos esculturas sumergidas en las aguas de la costa de Cancún, México. La zona disfruta de más de 800,000 visitantes cada año, así que el impacto del ser humano es enorme. El parque marino es una de las atracciones de buceo más populares del mundo. Por eso hacen las esculturas para que protejan la vida marina. Quieren que haya más arrecifes de coral en el futuro, lo que atraería aún más turistas.

For my students this text may be a stretch without context and teacher support. I would comfortably include it in an activity for my level three students, but I might simplify it further before presenting the activity if I were to plan this for my level 1 students:

Hay muchas esculturas en el océano cerca de Cancún, México. También hay muchos turistas que visitan a Cancún. A los turistas les gusta nadar entre las esculturas debajo del agua. Los artistas mexicanos hacen las esculturas para que protejan los animales del océano. Quieren que haya más animales en el futuro… y más turistas también.

The reading should feel easy to students, but we know that had it been assigned entirely devoid of context it might feel much more difficult to students. Contextualized first by the Picture Talk and then by the video, this reading appears quite simple. I read the text aloud, slowly to the class, and then pause for questions about specific words. After addressing student questions, students then chorally respond to a variety of comprehension questions that I ask based on the reading. Finally we do a choral translation of the same reading, students translating each word as I point at it. Leading an effective choral translation is a worthy skill to hone. The teacher must demand that students say each word in unison, without skipping ahead to read the whole phrase and thus create a loud, unintelligible rumble. This is important because the translation is not for the purpose of assessment, not even informal assessment. The purpose of a choral translation is to allow timid students to entirely understand the reading. The students themselves must be able to hear every word.

The fourth part of a maravilla consists of a Write & Discuss activity used to elicit a student summary of the text after we have reviewed it. I pull up a blank screen and start with the phrase “hay” (there is) in the target language. I ask students to add a word, either in English or Spanish (clearly I prefer Spanish), and together we build a summary. I add transition words so that the sentences are not short and choppy, and I correct grammar, but I do not suggest content. Through this class summary, I understand what students truly took away from the activity.

After completing the summary (and not before, to encourage student engagement) students copy the text of the Write & Discuss and there is an announced content quiz at the end of the week. Students are allowed to reread their notes right before the quiz. The content of the quiz is based ONLY on the W & D. Sometimes there are 2-3 maravillas covered on that one quiz. The reason I do this is twofold: first, to encourage students to COME TO CLASS. If they just get notes from a classmate, the information does not sink in the same way as it does when they live the experience. Second, students who otherwise complain that “we do nothing” in class feel like the maravillas add rigor to the class because it is content that they “have to know”. Therefore this assessment helps build a class culture of coming to class and engaging. Everyone who does that gets a fine grade.

The entire four step sequence is completed within fifteen to twenty minutes. I want to impress students with some aspect of the target language culture, and then quickly retreat back into an imaginative, student-centered curriculum. These short, interesting texts are the main vehicle through which I introduce students to new grammar, complex sentence structure and readings that stretch their language abilities. The majority of their reading in class, however, is spent on easier reading that will develop rapid fluency. For a high school teacher who sees students every day for 55 minute sessions, I think that presenting one or two per week is sufficient.

While you can use these instructions to create your own maravillas, I also offer access to my library of 37 pre-made maravillas.

— text excerpted from “Pleasure Reading in the World Language Classroom: Build a Successful Program and Strike a Balance Between Whole-Class Texts and Free Choice Reading” by Mike Peto, soon to be distributed by Teacher’s Discovery.


  1. Question – buying access to the library, is it a one-time purchase, or would it just be a yearly subscription?

  2. Thanks so much for sharing how you do these. Would you say your 25 Maravillas library is geared for level 1 Spanish or could you see it used in higher levels (specifically wondering if they could be used in level 4).

    1. I use them in all levels by adjusting the way I speak and the discussions that we have. A lower level will be limited, while with upper levels we fully explore the ideas presented.

  3. Yes and I love the write and discuss collaborative writing at the end. Can you describe what kinds of questions you put on the culture quiz?

    1. I make it easy, looking for concrete answers and thinking about what we focused on during class. For instance, with the example that I outline in the blog post, I might have asked the class if anyone had ever been to Cancun and. if so, we would have spent some time talking about Cancun. Since that detail was a focus of our conversation, I might ask a question like ¿Cuál ciudad mexicana está cerca del museo debajo del agua?

      I often have one open-ended question for which I would accept answers that were not mentioned in the video, or a question that requires some interpretation. ¿Cómo es bueno el museo debajo del agua? This is not a history class in which a correct answer might be clear cut… I tend to mark their answer correct if they are clearly engaging with the text. I don’t tell them that; instead I tell them to try to impress me. If a level 3 student with good listening and writing skills responds with a brief “es muy bonito”, then I feel fine giving no credit. On the other hand, if it is a level 3 student who just transferred into my district from a textbook school and has novice listening skills, writing “es muy bonito” might represent decent engagement!

  4. I love it! I’ve been experimenting with writing my own non-fiction texts and this is a great complement to what I’ve been thinking about. Thx for the ideas on activity progression!

  5. Your explanation of what you do is very detailed, thank you! This solidified for me that the kids probably won’t understand the video and that’s ok. I like your explanation that the video helps provide students with a visual and I can provide the comprehensible part.

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