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Desaparecido – The thrill of connecting a reader with a home run book

Last July I posted about Spanish translations of graphic novels and manga that I enthusiastically recommend for the classroom. Well, I have exciting news: one of the great manga series, called Desaparecido in Spanish, has been adapted to Netflix. It is called “Erased” in English.

Yes, the audio is in Japanese. Yes, there are options for Spanish as well as English subtitles. But none of that matters to me; what I am excited about is the possibility of matching a student with a home run book. Last year I was able to bond with an otherwise inscrutable heritage learner through our mutual admiration for this series. Finding this series probably was the only reason he eventually paid enough attention in class to actually pass, so I am deeply grateful that it was translated into Spanish. Now that the series is playing on Netflix I anticipate being able to interest non-Spanish speaking otaku, i.e., kids obsessed with manga, often sometimes to the detriment of their social skills (see comment thread below).

The language in the books is certainly not comprehensible for lower level learners, but this is a case in which extreme high-interest may serve as a bridge to reading. Especially if they have already seen the version on Netflix. In any case, these manga are great for book talks and, supplementing it with a few screen shots from the Netflix version, this could be a key book to interest an otherwise impenetrable student. You can find the books for sale here on Spanish Amazon (there are actually 7 or 8 books in the series, but just buy the first to see if it works in your classroom). And, in any case, you probably need something to binge watch over Winter Break. I am only two episodes in, but I am really enjoying the Netflix adaptation of the popular manga. Watch it so you can “sell” the reading to your kids!

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Alina´s Inspiring Approach to Accountability with FVR

Alina Filipescu is a teacher who radiates love for her students. She is also a teacher who commands enormous respect from them and, as a result, she is an absolute master at classroom management. I asked Alina to allow me to publish this preview of her coming blog post which will thoroughly describe her entire FVR program. I will link to it once she publishes it. In the meantime, enjoy her spot-on advice for inspiring students to read more in their second language.

Here is how Alina describes her accountability system:

This is what ACCOUNTABILITY looks like when implementing a reading program (SSR/FVR).

1. Students turn in a book they finished reading w/ a sticky note.

2. The most important item on the note is rating the book (1-5 stars) just like the critics do. Students may also write an optional comment about the book.
3. Teacher keeps track of how many books each students reads. I have a list with student names and names of books. I highlight a square on the list when a student finishes a book.
4. Remove sticky notes and either put them on the inside cover of a book for the next student to read (this is what I did last year, all year long) OR post the sticky notes by class, on a wall (this is what I’ve implemented this year).

I have already posted some of these ideas (along w/ Bryce Hedstrom), but this is my complete list on accountability. I NEVER have students do summaries or other dreaded assignments after reading a book. I also share some of their reviews before we do silent reading on Fridays, in order to inspire and motivate others. I’ve noticed that even more students are writing short comments since I’ve been doing this. It’s a simple, yet very efficient way to promote the books.

Update 1/4/2018: read Alina’s full post that expands upon this idea

Click here to read Mónica Romero´s original post that inspired Alina.

Alina Filipescu is a Spanish teacher in Southern California and a regular presenter at NTPRS. She is a contributor to the Ignite Language blog.

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How EASY it is to self-publish your CI novel

Let me walk you through the process step by step

I just self-published my fourth book, a translation of my popular novel Superhamburgers into Brazilian Portuguese (I also have translations of Superhamburgers in French & Spanish as well as a collection of essays about teaching Spanish to heritage learners). A fifth book, a graphic novel prequel to Superhamburgers, is on the way and will be published in December. Once you have written a book, formatting it, getting it printed professionally and offering it on Amazon is a pretty simple process. As I was completing this last book I took a lot of screen shots so that I could walk you through the process.

This post is not about the creative process of writing a CI novel– I will write about that in a later post. The post is simply about the technical side of getting your work published and then offering it to the world without having to market, organize inventory, shipping, returns or any of that business stuff. Being a teacher is enough hassle. Once you have written a text, all you need is a word processing program.

I print my books through a service called Createspace, which is a subsidiary of and therefore makes it very easy to offer published work online. You can set up a free account by following that link– in fact, you can do this whole process for free. I will also show you how to offer your book on Kindle, which is a good deal for both you and your readers.

Step One: Correct the Page Size

Starting from the document in Word: Change the size of the page to 9 x 6 to reflect the size of the page in your published book. Once you do this, then you will not have to worry too much about printing errors because the document on your computer will really mirror exactly what will be printed. A word document normally has a default size of a normal letter-sized piece of paper. In order to change the page size you must first click on “Page Layout”, then “Size” and finally click on the last option, “More Paper Sizes”. A new box will pop up where you can manually change the size of the paper to Width: 6 (inches) and Height: 9 (inches).

Step Two: Get an ISBN Number & create a Copyright page
Logged into the Createspace page you need to fill in the first two pages so that you can get an ISBN number, which you will then copy onto one of the first pages on your book. This is what it looked like for my latest book:

Once you have the ISBN number, you need to create the Copyright page. I usually leave the first printed page blank and then place the Copyright page on the second page of the book. Book Design Made Simple has a good explanation of exactly what you want to include on a Copyright page.

Step Three: Thank those who have reviewed your manuscript

Do not forget this part! I have a native speaker read and comment on everything that I write. Even if you are a native speaker, have someone from a different region read your manuscript. It is easy to find collaborators; just ask on one of the CI Facebook groups. It is always appreciated to send that person free copies of your book once published.

Step Four: Upload the interior manuscript

I recommend that you save your word doc as a .PDF before uploading it. Images and fonts sometimes jump around when it is uploaded as a .docx but in any case you will have the opportunity to preview your files.

Here is an screen shot of what the manuscript preview looks like. As you can see, it automatically flagged one of my images that was slightly placed outside of one of the margins. The previewer is pretty cool; you can flip through your book and get a sense of what it will really look like.

Step Five: A few things to consider adding to your manuscript

As you can see, I like to embed cartoons into my books to help scaffold the reading. Since I do not know the students who will be reading the book, I also like to provide footnotes on any vocabulary or expressions that are not high-frequency. I also like to include a word cloud of the words that appear in each chapter that teachers can use either as an aid in class discussions or to scaffold student retells.

I am also particular about the glossary. Most students are not going to use the glossary (especially if you have footnotes), but those that do use it want to quickly find the word and return to the story. For that reason I go out of my way to add EVERY word, conjugated verbs and obvious cognates included, and also include idiomatic phrases that may be hard for some students to put together. The glossary is without doubt the most annoying part of the book to put together, but if done well it will help readers enjoy the book. I always assume that a student glancing back at the glossary is a struggling reader, so I try to include as much support as possible.

Step Six: Create a cover

The front and back cover is one simple image that wraps around:

You can create the image using a program as simple as Windows Paint (which is what I do). The exact size of the binding (and therefore the image) depends upon the number of pages. Createspace has instructions so that you create the perfect sized cover.

Step Seven: Order a proof copy and approve for printing

I strongly recommend that you order a physical print copy before placing your book on Amazon. It will cost around $2.15. The Amazon page for your book will normally be created within hours of your approval.

Step Eight: Tell us that you have published a book!

I will happily advertise your book on CI-Reading, a blog for indie authors of CI novels. Just contact me with your book information. This is a free service.

I also recommend that you get a blog and post information about your book. It is most effective to post the first two chapters of your novel so that readers can preview your writing style. Here are the first two chapters of my latest novel, in Portuguese.

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La familia de Federico Rico – Super EASY read

Click on picture to go to the author´s website
Have you noticed how awesomely easy to read are the novels by Craig Klein Dexemple? I have not read this one yet, but in my mind this author is trustworthy to promote without having read. In addition, this book has over 200 illustrations and the author’s students report that it is among the easiest to read novels in his classroom library. Hey, level 3 students LOVE easy to read novels. Follow this link to take a closer look at the novel on Craig´s website.

Just to be clear: book recommendations on my site are not compensated. These are books that I think will help language teachers, that is it.

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Bryan Kandel´s new novel, Los Sobrevivientes

A new independently published novel for level 3 and above
Last year I was offered an opportunity to test out a draft of Bryan Kandel´s new novel in my level 3 classes. I presented it to my students as a choice reading option for the end of the year. Among the students who chose to read Los Sobrevivientes, they were really into it! The novel is a gripping action story based on the true story of a plane full of Uruguayan rugby players which crashed in the Andes on its way to Santiago de Chile. Presumed dead, two men decide that they must hike their way out– without mountain climbing supplies, food, or even a clear idea of where exactly they were.

This book appeals to intermediate and advanced readers who are looking for a good action story full of courageous moments, tough decisions and ultimately an inspiring message. Great reading for heritage learners as well. Click here to check out the book trailer and additional teaching resources that Bryan has posted on his website.

To be clear: I never receive compensation for recommending books. That is obvious I hope, but I just wanted to throw that out there! -Mike Peto

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New books for FRENCH & SPANISH teachers!

Scroll down to the bottom for a bargain

For French teachers: I am thrilled that a summer of collaboration with a trio of smart French teachers has finally given birth to the newest CI-friendly novel in French for our lower-level students. Superhamburgers is a novel that appeals to adolescents because it was written with one of my level 1 classes in 2013. The plot revolves around two students who are lab partners in an AP Chemistry class. Rodney had no idea that the consequences of his actions would reach so far. It started as a bad joke — never washing his hands at the restaurant where he worked after school so that he would have a quiet place to study for his AP classes. By the end of the next day, however, as he was being hunted by a ruthless drug lord, Rodney realized that it had all spiraled horribly out of control. If only he had washed his hands!

The Spanish edition has received rave reviews from teachers and students alike:

Embedded within the novel is a set of 23 illustrations. Followers of my blog have seen my growing obsession with comprehensible cartoons in the classroom. In the novel I have inserted 5 full page comics to help students visualize the developing plot of the novel. At the end of each chapter there is a 2 page word cloud designed as a crutch to help you and your students discuss the chapter in a structured, comprehensible manner. We also have a new Facebook group dedicated to sharing resources for teaching this novel. If you would like to read the first two chapters before committing, you can download them by clicking on this link.

For Spanish teachers: I have published a 2nd edition of Superburguesas with all of the new illustrations (in Spanish, of course) and even the word clouds. This is a gorgeous update and I think it really does help guide students comprehend the novel. Or rather, the illustrations often confirm that they are comprehending the novel.

For both Spanish and French teachers: The prequel to Superburgers, titled Normal hamburgers, is an entire graphic novel designed to be read in level 1, and enjoyed in levels 2, 3, and 4! The graphic novel is already well on its way and will be available this coming December.

The two new editions of Superhamburgers on Amazon, French and Spanish, are currently available for $6.49. I am no longer publishing the first edition, so any book offered at another price is a first edition used copy without the new illustrations and word clouds. However if you avoid Amazon altogether and order groups of five directly through this website you can get a 15% discount. Just click on the “Shop” link at the top of the page. This is a great option for anyone considering buying a full class set!

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Struggling to hold students accountable for reading?

Addressing the toxic culture of non-reading

I have a well-developed classroom library and I emphasize student-selected reading in my classes at all levels, from level 1 through to the heritage learner classes that I teach. I consider myself to be a “krashenista who lives in the real world“, that is, an educator who takes Krashen’s hypothesis’ seriously but also recognizes the role of the classroom teacher to massage those insights about second language acquisition so that they work in our reality. To be clear, Krashen isn’t a brainstem floating in another dimension; his ideas have already been extensively class-tested and you can follow this link to read a summary of the research-based suggestions for setting up a classroom reading program. What I am concerned with here, however, is what I think most teachers seeking to build an independent reading program are struggling with: how to transition students from a punitive compliance approach to reading that is common in many classrooms so that they embrace a pleasure-based approach advocated by Krashen in our classrooms?

A student who has learned to play the game in all of their other classes has been trained to approach reading as a task to undermine. Teachers respond by finding ways to ensure reading compliance such as quizzes, reading guides, writing assignments and random (humiliating) in-class comprehension questions. Our students are immersed in a punitive reading culture that rouses their counterwill; is it any wonder that they huddle before class discussing the reading with the one kid who actually did it, that they send text messages to students in other sections about “surprise quizzes”, that they copy answers to reading guides in the hallways during morning break and that they despise the astute teachers who manage to “play the game well”? Undermining the teacher’s attempts to enforce reading compliance is the game and, I think, one of the reasons adolescents report that they hate reading. The so-called good students may read due to an external motivator (grades, desire to impress an adult), but research on external motivators indicates that external motivators decrease internal motivation. That is to say, reading compliance assignments are unlikely to motivate compliant or non-compliant students to become lifelong readers.

By setting up a pleasure reading program, we krashenistas are attempting to step outside of this game, coaxing students to abandon what is truly a non-reading culture and nudging them to discover a home-run book… the kind of reading experience that is so satisfying that it opens a new world. How naive we must seem to those calculating students who have spent their lives perfecting the game! How silly we must seem! How easy to fool!

When I start my pleasure reading program, I very briefly describe in L1 why we are spending 5-10 minutes at the beginning of the class on independent reading (I often use the quotes from the back of my good reading book marks, a free download). I have several browsing strategies to get multiple books in their hands in the first few days before they commit to any book. Students are allowed to change books until they find one that “is not too bad”, they are always allowed to abandon a book, and they are never quizzed on their independent reading. I demand a silent room while we read, and then I sit with them and read. Afterwards we sometimes spend a brief moment talking about our books in L1 in small groups (this is both a documented way to add pleasure to the reading process as well as a browsing strategy) and I often do comprehensible L2 book talks describing a favorite scene from books in the classroom library (another browsing strategy).

Krashen states that studies have shown that very few students are merely staring into space with glazed eyes during reading period, yet for us classroom teachers it is a subject of heated discussion. Are they really reading? What can we do to make sure? That kid certainly is not reading. The handful who I know are not reading define the entire class in my mind, and it frustrates me. My heritage learners in particular, the ones who gain most from easy pleasure reading, seem to be among the best at faking it unless they think there is going to be real accountability. I need to perfect this bridge between our current reality of the game and that wonderful future when each student has discovered a home-run book. My role as a teacher is to connect students with a home-run book so that they become readers. My instincts and my training as a teacher, however, constantly intrude and push me towards reading compliance measures. I am aware of what is happening in my classroom… I am actually pretty good at the game. But winning the game is counter-productive; I need to short-circuit the logic of the game.

This is what I would like to propose here: (1) teaching a student to read is different from (2) leading a student to love reading. (1) Developing reading skills is different from (2) developing a love of reading. Educators must be very clear that (1) does not lead to (2). The first can be done through brute force such as assigning reading journals, essays, comprehension quizzes, “minimally intrusive” post-reading paragraphs, graphic organizers, rubrics designed to encourage students to reflect on either the reading or the act of reading, assigned discussions in pairs after reading or assigned book talks. The second, however, can only be accomplished through the path of pleasure. If a post-reading discussion is pleasurable, if writing a reaction to a book is pleasurable (for instance, doing so voluntarily on or reading about other students reactions to the reading is pleasurable, then the activity will contribute to the greater goal of developing love of reading. If it is not pleasurable, then it plays into the dynamic of the game.

How, then, can we successfully confront the toxic culture of non-reading which is expressed by the game? I have an idea, and this once again comes straight from a conference talk given by Krashen. At NTPRS 2015 Dr. K spoke about the process of becoming a reader and he observed that, before pleasure reading, almost all lifelong readers were read to. I am not talking about being forced to read aloud in class or having the teacher read a boring text aloud. I am talking about an essential kindergarten reading activity that is fun and should not have been dropped neither in middle school nor even in high school. That is to say, readers tend to have had parents or older siblings who read pleasure reading texts to them. Being read to is not the only step to transform a person into a reader (they will then need access to highly-compelling reading), but most readers report that they were once read to. I suspect that most of our students have not had enough experience being read to in pleasurable, read-aloud settings. Here is the key idea in this entire essay: I wonder what would happen if teachers rewired their brains so that, when we witness a non-compliant student during silent reading period, we reacted differently. Rather than reach for a reading compliance strategy, what if we were to think to ourselves, “I have got to do more read-alouds”? I am suggesting that not only would more pleasurable read-alouds move the student further down the road towards becoming a reader, but we would also short-circuit the logic of the game. In the short run I will sit next to that student, engage in a conversation about reading, try to find a better book for him, try to make a connection during a read-aloud, but what I will not do is allow my frustration to perpetuate the dynamic of the game. That is a win/win for all of my students, especially the ones that are actually finding good books and are beginning to think that maybe this class is different…

Jen Schongalla told me about one of her nephews who described the FVR program in his elementary school. He said to her:

All the free reading books were labeled with colored stickers according to the level. I would pick a book, open it at my desk and just sit and think. I’d look around to see what level everyone was on, pick books that were 1-2 levels higher and just sit there. I never read during free reading until I discovered Calvin and Hobbes. Then I was hooked and read the whole series. Around 5th grade they evaluated our reading level and I was told I was reading at a college level.

What strikes me about his recollection is what we can infer to be in the background: a patient teacher who was working hard to connect a non-compliant kid with his home run book.

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Graphic novels & Japanese manga translated into Spanish

At the end of this post is a list of books that I recommend as well as a list of books that I am still trying to figure out how to sell to my students and, lastly, the black list of books that I wish I had never bought.

Over the past two years I have been expanding the graphic novel and manga section of my classroom library. You might be surprised at how many of your “non-reading” students are otakus, secretly obsessed with Japanese anime and manga. A few copies of Naruto translated into Spanish may release a flood of nostalgia and, of course, positive memories of when reading was fun.

One big discovery I made this year was the series Orange (pictured above) by Ichigo Takano. Teach your kids that manga is read from right to left, starting from what western readers would consider to be the last page of the book. Therefore in the caption above the reader would first see the boy with tears in his eyes, then read “muchas gracias” followed by “Suwa, ¿estás llorando?”, finishing with “¡Claro que no! Es la alergia.”

A timid heritage learner of Spanish asked to keep my copy of the series Orange so that she could re-read it over the summer. That is what I call a reading home run! It tells the story of a girl who receives letters from herself written from the future, which instruct her to save one of her friends. “He will disappear if you do nothing“, warns one of the letters. In my classes this series has only gained traction among heritage learners, so if you do not have a heritage learner population you might want to hold back on buying this series.

I have written earlier about the wonderful graphic novel ¡Sonríe! by Raina Telgemeier as well as El perro enamorado de las estrellas by Takashi Murakami. Both can be read by intermediate students of Spanish with some “tolerance of noise”. That tolerance is an important point, usually students exhibit a tolerance for noise when they have a high interest in the reading material. These are not whole group novels, although I do occasionally read parts of these novels with the whole class as a browsing strategy. Some students will want to stay with TPRS novels that are closer to 100% comprehensible, but some will not perk up and enjoy reading until they come across something like a manga. Likewise I had a student, an avowed non-reader, who did nothing but fake read until he saw a copy of Art Speigelman´s Maus in the reserved book shelf behind my desk. I would have never guessed that an interest in the Holocaust would turn him onto reading in Spanish.

En la vida real is a graphic novel (ie not Japanese manga) that attracted a small, very specific following in my class. It tells the story of a young American girl who discovers self-confidence through a persona in an online multi-player game. Valued for her skill as a gamer, she disdains players who purchase the online items which she is proud to earn. Things get complicated when she and her online friends decide to attack the online personas of players who spend their game-time harvesting, only to discover that the “harvesters” are exploited children working in the 21st century version of third-world sweatshops.

Los dioses mienten is about a boy who discovers that one of his classmates is an orphan. In fact, nobody knows that her grandfather passed away soon after her father abandoned them, and she has been fending for herself ever since waiting for her father to return. I cannot remember if there were parts to white out; whenever I read a new manga I often have a black marker and a white-out pen to apply to any scene that shows underwear. I remember this manga as a sweet little tale of childhood innocence.

I am not going to pretend that the Oshinbo series does not address a specialized audience, but if you have an interest in Japanese cuisine then you should get it just for your own reading during FVR time! These books are considered “gastronomic manga”; they do have a plot (father and son gourmets who cannot stand each other due to their competing sense of aesthetics), but it is a thinly veiled excuse to be fascinated by the complexity of Japanese cuisine. Occasionally there is a show down between father and son, which does not necessarily mean that either gets into the kitchen and cooks. The competition is to see who has the best palate (sense of taste). It is absurd, entertaining and enlightening.

El Diario gatuno de Jinju Ito is one of the rare books by this author of horror manga that I can recommend for class use. Students who are familiar with the genre will recognize his style, but fortunately in this book the anxiety for which the author is known stays within bounds. It is something of a cute book about a man who hates cats. I have picture talked a page to help develop student interest in the book.

Adding manga and graphic novels to an FVR library is not the cure for all students, but if you take the time to properly develop interest in this new section it will help some of your students actually enjoy independent reading time. That is a big accomplishment because it is enjoyment of reading, not just reading, that makes students into life-long readers.

Books that I enthusiastically recommend:
Orange (books 1-5) – Ichigo Takano
¡Sonríe! – Raina Telgemeier
En la vida real – Cory Doctorow
María y yo – Miguel Gallardo
Coraline, novela gráfica – Neil Gaiman
Desaparecido (books 1-6) – Kei Sanbe
Los dioses mienten (preview?) – Kaori Ozaki
El diario gatuno de Junji Ito – Junji Ito
Oshinbo a la carte (books 1-7) – Tetsu Kariya & Akira Hanasaki Japanese cuisine with a plot
Persépolis integral – Marjane Satrapi (PREVIEW!!!)
Maus – Art Spiegelman (PREVIEW!!!)
Arrugas – Paco roca
Pyongyang – Guy Delisle
Naruto (many books… preview with white-out marker) – Masashi Kishimoto
Dragon Ball (many books… preview with white-out marker) – Akira Toriyama

Books I like that have yet to find an audience:
A Silent Voice – Yoshitoki Oima
Food Wars – Yuto Tsukuda (read with a white-out marker!)
Guía del mal padre – Guy Delisle
El Gourmet solitario – Jiro Taniguchi
Cruzando el bosque – Emily Carroll
El rastreador – Juro Taniguchi
Aventuras de la mano negra – Hans Jurgen Press
Hansel y Gretel – Donald Lemke
Jack y los frijoles mágicos – Blake Hoena
La Bella y la Bestia – Michael Dahl
Memorias de Idhun (graphic novels 1-12) – Laura Gallego García (several students enjoyed this series, but it is adapted from the novels in a confusing, disjointed manner).

Mistakes: books I have bought that never made it into my classroom library:
Los gritos del pasado (sexual violence)
Fantasmas – Raina Telgemeier (read this review)
Doble sentido – Niklas Asker (sexuality)
Futbolín (sexuality)
El guardián invisible – la novela gráfica – Dolores Redondo (sexual violence)
Traición, la torre oscura 3 – Stephen King (made it but rarely read due to tiny font)
Fútbol, la novela gráfica – Santiago García (sexuality)
Vagabond – Takehiko Inoue (sexual violence)
Voces en la oscuridad – Junji Ito (sexual violence)
Hotel – Boichi (sexuality)
Tomei O.C. – Junji Ito (sexual violence)
Mirai Nikki – Sakae Esuno (extreme violence)
Tungsteno – Marcello Quintanilha (sexuality)
Yo, asesino – Keke Altarriba (sexual violence)
V de Vendetta – Alan Moore (sexuality)

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How to add 15 new beginner level texts to your classroom library EVERY WEEK

“Recreational reading is the most powerful tool we have in language education”
-Stephen Krashen, presentation at CCFLT, February 2017

These are the readings we need most for our classes, the easy easy readings that low level readers can read independently. Almost impossible to find. This is how you do it:

Like the idea? Click here to download the template for the pamphlet cartoon stories.

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This looks like such fun, I cannot wait to add it to my FVR library!

Carlos hates Spanish class with a passion but finds the will to survive when he lays eyes on Jessica. She is the reason he “tolerates” his boring class. However, his secret crush is compromised when his teacher decides to “shake things up a bit” in class. A simple writing assignment turns out to be a lethal injection to his social life and by extension his chances with Jessica. First, his nosy teacher tries to “set him up with Jessica,” this plan immediately backfires. Then, the unthinkable happens. This turns into one of the most embarrassing moments in Carlos’ life. But all is not lost. If Carlos plays his cards right, he could have a winning hand.

Carlos invites you to come along this adventure into La clase de confesiones….todos tienen una confesión (even the teacher!) Word count 3,000, most of which are cognates in addition to vocabulary totally appropriate for Spanish level 1. Glossary included!

The author gets the most royalties if you purchase it directly through createspace.

However, you can purchase through Amazon.

Download Free Teacher’s Manual on– La clase de confesiones.

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The growing FVR cartoon library

At this point we have over 20 submissions in our collaborative, downloadable FVR cartoon library.

A few of the cartoons have been fully illustrated in color and are ready to be laminated or added to a cartoon binder for easy reading by students during their free reading part of the class.

Some of the cartoons have been illustrated with pencil so that it will not be costly to print out the cartoons. If you have your students illustrate either colored or pencil versions and they turn out well, please send us the best example so that we can offer both colored and black & white versions.

Most of the cartoons also have a non-illustrated version. These are great for substitute plans or a homework assignment where you want to lightly assess student´s reading comprehension. Instead of printing off a class set of one cartoon, please consider printing off 5 or 10 different cartoons and having students illustrate a random cartoon. Send in the best.

I like to emphasize that the act of illustrating is not an efficient use of class time; assign these as substitute plans or occasional homework to supplement the CI students are hearing in class. The real value of the cartoon library will be once we have a full reading library to cater to the needs of the lowest level readers in class so that your FVR program will be strong and effective.

If you would like to join our collaborative effort please read the instructions and submit a class-created cartoon. All languages are welcome.

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The FREE online FVR Cartoon library

In my opinion, this has lots of potential.

Lots of people continue to ask me about the free downloadable FVR start-up kit that I created back in 2014. I posted two short novels that my classes had co-written, formatted so that anyone could print and add them to their own class library. The project did not attract the collaboration that I had hoped – who has time to co-write entire novels with their classes?! I temporarily closed the website until I could create an easier collaborative project from which busy teachers could realistically benefit. Today I would like to invite you to imagine again the possibilities of this wonderful, much reduced but much more realistic project.

(A) Why FVR?

Instead of novels we are focused on two page cartoon versions of class-created stories. If you are imagining stories with your classes, come take advantage of the creativity of other classrooms around the world and stock up your FVR library!

I predict that this will be great for new teachers lacking resources. This will be great for experienced teachers who are looking for comprehensible, independent reading for their level 1 classes. This will be great for teachers of lesser taught languages who do not have many choices to stock their FVR library. When this really takes off the online FVR library will be a wormhole into classrooms that do not yet appreciate the effectiveness of storytelling methods.

Currently there are already about a dozen cartoons available. To get access to our growing collection, I merely ask that you ask an original story with your classes, write it down with them and then simplify it further to fit onto one of our blank cartoon templates that we provide. You do not even have to illustrate it (although inside the cartoon index we provide both non-illustrated and illustrated versions—the non-illustrated versions are great for substitute plans).

See the details at:


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Book review: Sonríe

sonrie This was a great purchase. It has been displayed among my new FVR books for the last week and has already developed a fan base among my Spanish 3 students, including one reluctant reader who I worried I would never reach. Glancing through their quick writes about their independent reading I was surprised to see that he has been flying through the book, and loves it. Several students were familiar with the original English version from their middle school reading experiences, but this seems to be a plus in that it aids in making the book comprehensible. Nonetheless, for level three students, this book already is comprehensible enough and even students who were unfamiliar with the English version have expressed interest. Take a look at the example page below to get a sense of whether this might be a good purchase for your classroom FVR library:

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Good Reading FVR Bookmarks

A Free Voluntary Reading program requires a lot of love…

…and one of the requirements that I have been slacking on lately is providing the continual encouragement that students need. I am not referring to banal attaboys so that students reluctantly soldier on, in fact I am not talking about extrinsic rewards at all; I am talking about developing among them a deeper ownership of the reading program. Beniko Mason has written that learners need to understand the why of the reading program if it is to truly take hold. Paul Nation suggests that language learners spend almost a quarter of their language learning time on extensive reading, using texts specifically designed to be comprehensible to their level. Now that the second bookmark-front-and-backsemester is starting (and I am pushing forward with FVR with my level one students), I need to get a little more consistent with selling the reading program to my students.

To that end I have developed a set of 35 Good Reading FVR bookmarks that I want to share with you. On one side is an attractive design; some are meant to be colored in, many refer directly to the act of reading, some reference a cool cultural product. On the other side is a good reading quote. While students may read the quote, they really are there for me to highlight at the beginning or end of the independent reading session. The reading quotes have been harvested from the writings of Stephen Krashen, Jim Trelease, Beniko Mason, Paul Nation, Frank Smith, Kató Lomb, Haruki Murakami, Bryce Hedstrom, Beverly Cleary, Norbert Schmitt, Thomas Aquinas, Paul Sweeney, Alan Maley, and Groucho Marx.

I print out the first seven pages on heavy, light-colored card stock. Flip them over and print out pages eight to fourteen (the quotes) on the reverse side. Using a paper cutter I cut 1/2 inch margins on all sides except for the top, leaving a space for students to write their names that will pop out of the top of the book. I will encourage students to decorate the book marks (on their own time) and, once they are ready, I laminate their book mark using the self-adhesive laminating sheets that I also use to protect the covers of popular paperbacks in my library. Find the free download by following this link to my TpT store.

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A lovely book: El perro enamorado de las estrellas

This book has gone viral in my FVR library!

coverI need to share this adorable book because it makes such a great connection with so many people. It is a Japanese manga translated into Spanish, but it tells a tale that touches across cultures with the help of a cute, faithful dog. It is a story of loss; in the first half of the book a man loses everything and spends his last year on earth living out of his car with his beloved dog. Believe me: my kids love it.

During second semester I am going to use this book as an occasional kindergarten reading for my level 1 kids. Each vignette is short and can become a recurring, quick reading activity. Projecting an image of the book with a doc cam, the illustrations will be easy to make comprehensible. Here is an example page that you can read full size if you click on it (click twice to get the largest most readable resolution). Japanese manga is read from right to left, so start at the top right of the right page and read across and down:

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I chat about FVR with Dr Louisa Walker

teachersthatteachDr. Louisa Walker has an interesting 10 minute podcast designed to introduce CI concepts within your commute to work. A long-time “Krashenista” who teaches Spanish in Chula Vista, California, Louisa caught me at a Carol Gaab workshop and we stepped outside to talk briefly about Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). Listen to it on her blog or follow her on iTunes.

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Where will the CI community be in 100 years?

Will we be playing a 22nd century version of online games with our students, or will we have learned to have deeper, more humane face-to-face conversations with students?

So much about my teaching has changed since I started writing this blog. When I first started TPRS I felt like my biggest weakness was a lack of resources, above all a lack of interesting stories. The blog was a place to share those lessons with other new teachers. Nowadays the Invisibles have led me to tap deeply into my students´ imaginations and I barely ever use pre-made stories. Almost everything (in beginner as well as advanced levels) is generated from what the students indicate that they want to say, so a huge portion of my blog is simply a relic of how I used to teach. It is not a bad way of teaching… it is just not where I am currently at. I have been trying to write a post about this, but it is so big that every time I get started I see that I need to grow just a little more to really describe how my teaching is changing.

Teaching in a high-poverty district, I understand the desire to impose some structure. Especially with students who appear to be dangerously lacking structure in other parts of their lives (whether it be due to poverty or absent parenting or whatever), but I am trying to move away from the impression that language class is any work at all. For me it started with FVR and Krashen pointing out that any sense of accountability will ruin the experience of pleasure reading. It took a while to fully assimilate that insight into my real classroom practices, but now I am finally at the point that my kids come to class and curl up with a novel before any talking begins and I think that is just so cool. I finally got the heritage speaker girl who always used to skip my last period class to come and I don´t want her to regret it. I want kids to bring that perspective to every part of my class, just curl up and enjoy the experience.

I have not even been pushing the self-assessments based on the interpersonal skills rubric. I abandoned it because I hated going through them and having to figure out which students are “playing the game”, which students are being honest, which students “deserve” to earn a low grade. To my thinking there are less coercive ways that take longer, because they require me to deepen my relationship with some kid who has adopted a deeply hostile posture towards schooling. I just want to suspend it all, all of the grading and monitoring, even the self-assessments, and take one of the comfy chairs myself and enjoy chatting in Spanish with them.

Teachers new to TPRS/CI often ask about testing (not to be confused with the formative assessments that we do every 20 seconds while interacting with students). “What is in your grade book?”, they ask me. Ironically if you ask the people who are conducting CI workshops around the country, many will privately admit that they do not really spend time on testing. At all. Replace all of your testing time with more comprehensible input and you will be amazed at the gains your students will achieve. That is not just the result of more time being exposed to comprehensible input; that is also the result of a more playful, less judgmental classroom.

I am not alone here either… last summer on a CI teacher Facebook group someone posed the question about what you would like to change in your class, if you could. Overwhelmingly all sorts of teachers, from those that meticulously backward plan their lessons to people like me who let it emerge without planning, nearly everyone wanted to be rid of grading. Languages are acquired naturally in a low-stress environment; most of the assessment in my class is invisible to students, it is collected non-stop and used at the moment it is collected to shape my teaching in that moment. The district-required midterm exam for my classes is a class story that we create during the exam, and nobody even gets a paper until we have verified that everyone is ready. For day to day grades, I am feeling good with the One Word Images (OWIs) and stories created based on OWIs, followed by a simple exit quiz that is so easy that it is kind of a joke. Just enough to keep their attention in class, but also a kind of wink that tells them that I really don´t care about that grading crap.

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Students need to browse

Wrapping my mind around the shift from required reading to desirable reading

Some tweaks are “good to implement if you can”. Other tweaks carry the urgency of “absolutely change how you do this right now”. This may not be maximum urgency, but if you have a pleasure reading program then creating a browsing wall with book covers facing outward will noticeably increase the circulation of your books.

When assigning a required reading to a class the main concern of the teacher will inevitably be to assure that the reading is comprehensible to all students. A pleasure reading program introduces a slightly different dynamic: the teacher becomes concerned with connecting each student to the right book, which is both comprehensible and targeted to the interests of the student. If you scoff at the idea that this is even possible in a world language classroom, you need to check out the amazing diversity of well-written, limited vocabulary fiction books now available for language learners!

I estimate that my classroom library has between 1500-2000 books written for beginning language learners all the way through to YA fiction for heritage learners. Last school year, when all of the books were contained beautifully within a few bookcases, I had a hard time getting students to browse the books. Each shelf was labeled according to the topic of the books, but students rarely explored. Despite the book talks and gentle nudging, I rarely managed to get a student to take the time to pull out books and find their dream book.

This year I created a “Books of the week” wall display from which students choose a book for independent reading in class. I rotate a portion of the books each week so that students eventually see the front covers of my entire library. Rather than merely relying on my own knowledge of each student to connect them with an interesting book I have found a way to discretely suggest new genres to all students. This really hit home when one of my stand-offish heritage learner students recently lunged to claim my Spanish edition of the graphic novel Maus. I would have never guessed that he had an interest in WWII.


On Fridays students place books that are being actively read on a cart so that I am sure to have them available the following week. I still encourage students to browse my bookshelves, but for those students who have not yet learned the pleasure of browsing this is a nice, structured way to introduce them to one of the essential skills of a real reader.

How did I create my little book ledges?

I am lucky that the interior walls of my classroom are made of a material much like a bulletin board. I managed to staple a hand-crafted ledge made of laminated paper sentence strips which you can buy in a teachers supply store. Behind each book is a velcro strip positioned exactly four inches above the ledge, and each book has the opposite side of the velcro strip (again, four inches up). Finally a student in each class has the job of “King/Queen of Books”. Students return the books to that one person who is responsible for placing them on the wall in such a way that they slightly overlap (see the photo below). That way none of the books splay outward, ruining their binding.

If you are just starting a pleasure reading library and are looking for where to find these specialized, limited vocabulary books then check out the following websites: Bryce Hedstrom, TPRS Publishing, Mira Canion, One Good Story, CI Reading, TPRS Books, Fluency Fast, Spanish Cuentos

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How I melded SSR with whole class reading to encourage independent reading with accountability

Independent reading? Whole class novels? The best of both!

I have trouble maintaining enthusiasm for a whole class novel. Even if we start well, I am quickly reminded of Donalyn Miller´s critique of the practice: a circus of lovingly-prepared scaffolding activities limits time for actual reading. Actual reading is what accounts for the incredible gains in language acquisition, not the skill-building activities surrounding the reading. Perhaps TPRS teachers who choose to teach whole class novel units (often structured by teachers guides) fear that the novel will not be comprehensible to students without their guidance. But look at it this way: in order to read a novel that is above their students reading ability, teachers are dramatically decreasing the time available to read in class. The irony is that students who are fed a diet of incredibly easy reading in level 1 can eventually take on the level 3 novels easily, on their own.

I wanted an approach to reading whole class novels that would allow my students to read at their own pace, but also provide the kind of scaffolding that is the hallmark of the whole class novel. I wanted my students who finish their class novel to be able to go on to an FVR selection so that everyone is maximizing the reading time we have available. I wanted a minimum of class time spent explaining the novel. In the past, when I taught whole class novels that students struggled with, I did not sense that my lessons teaching them how to read advanced texts does not make them into readers. Instead it prepares students to confront complex texts, each year more and more difficult. On the other hand easy pleasure reading, losing yourself in the action of a story and not having to stop to complete a written analysis… that is what hooks a student on reading.

If you want to spend less time explaining novels and more time actually reading them then it is crucial that you choose easy to read novels. Struggling through one novel is far less effective for students than breezing through ten easy ones. Choose easy easy easy novels. I just finished reading my own TPRS novel, Superburguesas, with my Spanish 1 students (second semester). Several expert TPRS teachers with whom I have consulted place my novel within the reading abilities of 2nd semester Spanish 1 to 1st semester of Spanish 2. That means that Spanish 3 students can read it too, easily. We used many of the free activities that I have posted on this blog, but not in a traditional sequence. Although this teaching sequence took 5 weeks and 3 days to complete, we dedicated only seven days of class time to explaining the novel. Here is a description of how I did it.

p24On a Wednesday I introduced chapter zero, reading and using the activities to thoroughly understand this very short chapter. We also dedicated Thursday and Friday to whole class reading of chapter 1. After those first three days reading chapters 0 and 1 together I then let students enjoy the rest of the novel on their own during SSR/FVR time. Students finished at their own pace; the fast readers were able to choose new novels once they were finished but there was no effort to hurry anyone along. I wanted the first pass through the novel to be as low-stress and self-directed as possible. In the meantime I offered a voluntary reading group once a week after school for kids that felt like they needed more structure. I had five regular participants, all kids who had transferred into our class midyear from non-TPRS schools. Together we explicitly translated and I would ask circling questions based on what was on a particular page that we were reading.

On most days we started our class session with 10 minutes of FVR. After three weeks of FVR most students had chosen a new book, so I spent the fourth week using the Superburguesas comprehension quizzes and crossword puzzles as brief warm-ups after FVR. During this fourth week some students picked up Superburguesas again during FVR because those warm-ups must have made them realize that they needed to read the book a little closer. The warm-ups were just for a few minutes a day before our normally scheduled class (we frequently PQA about students lives, we also did several story-asking sessions, quite a few random movie talks and we have been watching episode 3 of El Internado). At the end of the fourth week I gave students this chronology quiz, click here for a PDF or click here for .docx in which students have to label each sentence in the order that it happened in the book. I entered this grade into my online grade book so that all stakeholders (myself, parents and each student) would be well-aware of who needed special attention during the next week. I also attached a note to the assignment indicating that there would be a retake the following Friday and the highest of the two grades would become the permanent grade.

The next four days were dedicated largely to discussing and acting out scenes from a book that students had already read. Suspending FVR for the week, we started each class session looking at the word cloud for the chapter we were going to review. When a student pointed to a word I (1) established meaning, (2) explained how it showed up in the chapter and (3) immediately connected the word to the students world.

For example, when a student pointed at devolver I wrote on the board devolver = to return a thing, like a book. En capítulo 9, I said, señor Marzo quiere que Rodney devuelva la pintura. No quiere matarlo, solo quiere que devuelva la pintura. ¿Quién necesita devolver la pintura? Rodney, claro. ¿Y quién quiere que la devuelva? Señor Marzo. And then I asked what other things are often returned: kids called out libros, ropa, comida mala. ¿Adónde voy para devolver un libro?, I asked.

After looking at the word cloud I asked students to help create an oral summary of the chapter. I chose my favorite parts of the chapter for students to act out without having to hammer down every sentence. This was a whole class activity that led to a summary of the chapter written on the board. Students copied each chapter summary into their notebooks. We did 2-3 chapters per day and were finished by Thursday. On Friday students took this fill in the blank assessment, here in .PDF or click here to download it as a .docx. I provide the .docx so you can change it… all it takes is one google search for students to find this page!

The last four days of instruction were intensive days of review, but most of this unit was characterized by easy pleasure reading at the pace of the student. I saw kids smiling while reading, but even more so once they were allowed to choose their reading and could immerse themselves into their own interests. Yet I still had specific feedback on specific structures from the class novel, and I had time to make sure that they have been acquired. I much prefer story-asking and FVR, but if I have to do a whole class novel I think that this is a good approach.

final quiz

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A Map to Transitioning Your Class to FVR

It is not going to happen all at once

Map to FVR paradise Last summer I encouraged a lot of teachers to set up their own Free Voluntary Reading programs (FVR). Not only do kids enjoy reading books more when they get to choose their reading, but there is a mountain of research supporting FVR in the World Language classroom when done correctly. However, even the strongest proponents of pleasure reading (i.e. Krashen) recognize that FVR is a long-term strategy. You will not see the impact in a week. A month is pretty short. We are talking about benefits that emerge after months and become strikingly obvious after a year or more. Or at least, those are my experiences. Today I want to outline a map of what to expect as your program takes root, and a few ways to assess your program while observing the cardinal rule of pleasure reading: don´t assess your students.

Lack of assessment feels like landing a plane in the fog; that is all the more reason to make sure that your program is research-based. I regularly consult Janice L. Pilgreen´s The SSR Handbook because it is a research-based approach that identifies eight characteristics of highly successful FVR programs. Some of the characteristics are more or less obvious, like having appealing reading material available in the classroom. When I wonder if my program is floundering I take the opportunity to ask my heritage speakers about what I can buy next. Even though my library is fairly large, continuing to ask students about their reading preferences sets the right tone: FVR is reading that we want to do.

It is a common misunderstanding that FVR is just “sit and read for 10 minutes”. Pilgreen points out that highly successful FVR programs DO have follow-up activities, even though those activities do not qualify as assessment. There are several things I do as follow-up activities. My favorite is to spend 4-5 minutes in small groups and have every student say something about what happened in their book today. All students talk, all students ask at least one question. Since I was reading too I join one of the groups; but no notes are taken and nothing passed in. I tell my students that we are engaging in the kind of talk that real readers do; real readers talk about their books with other readers. At first the conversations are very blah, and I am sure that this is partly because in the forefront of every student´s mind is the thought, “Why try? He is not counting this as a grade”. Over time, however, these chats become a source of information as students begin to share actual tidbits that they liked about their books. By the end of the year these talks are the main source through which students decide what to read next.

Another activity that I like to do are book talks. Whenever I introduce a new book into the class library I always place it up front and talk about it before the reading period. I also like to end a reading period with a book talk (when we are not chatting in small groups). Before I even start FVR with my level 1 students (in second semester) we have done about two months of book talks so that they are already familiar with the easy readers. In my classroom I am the one who gives book talks, but if you choose to have students give book talks then keep it on a voluntary basis.

book reviewsWhen students complete an entire book I allow them to post a book review on my back wall. The reviews are quick and painless to write; the major draw is rating it. The book review sheet is only a quarter of a page and provides a space for students to fill in up to four stars, write a sentence in English about what they liked and another about what they would change. This is entirely voluntary.

Occasionally I do have students complete a reading journal. I do this when I sense that students are not respecting the reading period; in that case the grade is simply based on completion. It also helps me identify who needs help choosing a book (that is, if they are choosing a different book every day). Most of all I see these reading journals as a part of the transition; few readers voluntarily keep journals of their pleasure reading and thus I want to minimize the use of journaling after FVR. Even when some students are defying me by simply staring at a book without reading, I remind myself that writing in a reading journal threatens to kill the internalized pleasure of reading that many of my students are developing. Assign reading journals sparingly.

Finally, I want to recognize that there will be students who will try to undermine the pleasure reading period. Do not feel bad if you still have a few students sulking during FVR. It has taken my most intransigent students months to honestly engage in pleasure reading. One heritage-speaker in particular from last year´s class often visits me and always mentions how much she read. She comes in and looks at the books, points to ones that she remembers, and exudes pride. What she does not seem to recall is that she spent nearly the first half of the year staring at the wall, holding the book upside down, crossing her eyes and distracting her friends. All she remembers now is that she joined the club of readers in my class, and that identity stuck. Every year I see transformations in students and I think that is partly because many students approach class as a game, to see how they can cheat the activity. The only way to battle this attitude is to smile and remain encouraging. Currently I have about a dozen kids who are just wasting away our FVR time, and it is so painful for me to watch, but I am convinced that external motivators will only undermine the internal motivation that they need to develop in order to truly join the club of readers.

If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in my recommendations for buying a classroom library. One of the books is mine, but other than that I get absolutely nothing from making these recommendations.

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Orca Soundings: A great series for reluctant readers

A highly-compelling series for heritage speakers classes

el que diran I cannot hold this in much longer: I LOVE this 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.

This is a follow-up of a longer post I wrote last August about building an FVR library for heritage speakers. Click here to read that post.

verdad cuchillo

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Reading pleasure

Books that Spanish teachers may enjoy reading for pleasure

Teachers should be readers. During FVR sessions we should definitely be reading among our students, not completing school tasks. Diane Chamberlain has inspired me to describe a few books that I have enjoyed in the past few years.

susurroEl susurro de la mujer ballena by Alonso Cueto. A friendship gone bad… or perhaps it was never a healthy friendship. Echos of high school bullying reach into the present, twenty or thirty years later. The description of Lima really brought me back to that city. There are no heroes in this novel; my IB student had trouble with the moral ambiguity but I found a lot to enjoy here.

transportesTransportes González e Hija by María Amparo Escandón. This novel starts with a wonderful set-up. Told inside a women´s prison in Mexico by an American held for reasons not revealed until the end, we follow the tale of her upbringing while also tracking the developing relationships among the women in the prison. I was initially fascinated by the backstory of her “university professor turned trucker-fugitive” father. There were elements of this book that prevented me from getting emotionally attached to the characters (the characters are outrageous who act and develop in not quite believable ways). I really enjoyed the way American Spanish was woven into the novel. The USA has one of the biggest Spanish-speaking populations in the world; it is wonderful to see that reflected in literature.

reyrosaseverinaSeverina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa. This was a charming book about obsession. After reading the novel I was left with an aching desire to find another path into the fictional world, to spend the summer renting a room in a pensión in Guatemala City, to see what might happen.

el heroe discretoEl héroe discreto by Mario Vargas Llosa. I enjoyed this novel, but the depiction of anyone younger than fifty did make me wonder whether Vargas Llosa is aging gracefully. Ingrate children versus their sanguine, triumphant parents… if you take this theme too seriously, from either side, then don´t pick up this book. Otherwise there were plenty of moments that made me smile and a few that genuinely touched me.

americasAmericas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean by Peter Winn. Last December I came across a copy of this book in a hiking lodge in Patagonia. I spent the next day resting and reading. A fascinating introduction to the diversity of peoples in Latin America, I especially enjoyed the chapters highlighting the experiences of women, indigenous peoples and the differing ways race is understood throughout Latin America. Drawing from interviews with contemporary Latin Americans makes this book easy to read and less abstract. Great book.

turn rightTurn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams. I do not read much travel lit, but I enjoyed reading this. Do not worry too much about the groan-worthy description on the back of the book (What happens when an unadventurous adventure writer tries to re-create the original expedition to Machu Picchu?); the writer is led and informed by a highly-competent guide and the idiotic hi-jinks thankfully never really materialize. A very readable book that has inspired me to delve deeper into the subject of the Inca Empire.

el pez en el aguaEl pez en el agua by Mario Vargas Llosa. This book starts with an interesting trip into the childhood of one of the world´s most highly-regarded living authors. Chapters go back and forth between his formative years and the presidential campaign Vargas Llosa ran in the early 1990´s. While reading the behind the scenes political pieces I repeatedly had to give myself pep talks to avoid getting sucked into the author´s narrative, but it´s hard to maintain an objective distance while Vargas Llosa personally takes you under his wing. Then going back to his teenage years, I felt like I was peeling the skin back and finally understanding something about Peru. And the language, why not mention that nearly every page had something of interest.

ruidoEl ruido de las cosas al caer by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. The ambiance of this melancholy novel often appeared in my dreams at night while I was reading this book. I never know if the novel I just finished will linger in my thoughts for weeks, months or if it will quickly fade from my memory. Two months later, however, when the emotional impact of most novels have long passed, I was still occasionally looking longingly out a window, imagining the beauty of Bogota. This is a quiet novel depicting the solitary interior life of a ruined generation. There are frequent pleasures; I really enjoyed the descriptions of the Laverde family, urban life up in the mountains in Bogotá contrasted with the rural tropical areas, the beautiful geography of Colombia and inferring some of the broader changes that took place between the 1960´s through to the 1990´s. This is an enjoyable novel; however, there is something selfish about writing a book that leaves the reader feeling so alone.

diabloDiablo Guardián by Xavier Velasco. One of the most memorable trans-border novels that I have read, a modern picaresque novel. Disgusting at times. The main character, Violetta, is a character that for better or worse has stuck with me for years. A really interesting female voice, a schemer or con that negotiates between Mexican and US cultures. I found the code-switching to be a really interesting part of this novel. Here is her voice as she explains how she uses English to manipulate the innocent to help her when she first arrived to the US: ” ‘Daddy wanted to be, you know, my boyfriend’. El ‘you know’ es buenísimo, te permite decir lo que quieres pero no quieres decir y obliga a los demás a tratar de entenderte. Y así te vuelves de un sutil que bueno, you know, ¿verdad?…”.

chicanoChicano by Richard Vasquez. This is the story of a Mexican family that escapes the violence of the Mexican Revolution in the beginning of the 20th century but, as Mexican-Americans, the successive generations find their access to earning “the American dream” limited by overt and structural racism. As the title suggests, this novel was written (back in the 1970´s) with an explicit political message against the idea that Latinos can (or should) simply assimilate into Anglo-America. Putting aside the historical place of the novel, there is quite a bit that I did enjoy reading. Some complain about the melodramatic plot twists and, particularly, the ending… but it seems to me that the over the top, brown versus white characterizations actually pay homage to narrative structures in Mexican popular culture rather than fitting the plot to the demands of the Anglo reading public of the day.

carameloCaramelo by Sandra Cisneros. Simply one of the great family novels published in the last 20 years. My heritage speaking students often laugh aloud in recognition while reading the first few chapters describing a family road trip from Chicago to Mexico. I have heard criticism of the way this novel is structured. Digression upon digression reaching into the past, zooming into the present creating a quilt of memories. One reviewer called this effect “helpfully alienating to the Anglo reader”. There is something very Latino about the structure of this book. Nonetheless, Cisneros once commented that this is not about the “Mexican-American” experience, that the necessity of the hyphen speaks volumes about where our culture currently is. This is truly an American novel.

peorLos Peor by Fernando Contreras Castro. This is my vote for the Best Novel That You Most Likely Have Never Heard Of award. A marvelous, modern novel set among the lower classes of San Jose, Costa Rica that combines Greek mythology with environmental disaster and a very memorable set of characters. This is a story with a great social conscience, a rare work that is both very Costa Rican and yet universal.

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NTPRS 2015: my presentation on FVR

title page This is the power point that I presented at NTPRS 2015 in Reston, VA. If you missed my session or you could not make it to NTPRS this year then, as you open up the power point, look at the display mode called “notes page” and you will be able to read the transcript of what I said in the session.


I present an argument as to why FVR should be a part of TPRS classes for all students, not just high achievers. I also cover the essentials that you will need to create your own FVR program, some advice on how to be frugal and how to assess the effectiveness of the program. Within the presentation there are a lot of embedded links, so even if you came to the session you may want to download some of the materials mentioned. Click here to download the presentation.

Finally, on Twitter after the presentation, Steve Smith asked whether TPRS places more weight on reading than listening. While my FVR program is essential to my classes, the non-heritage speakers are only reading for 5-15 minutes while the majority of the class time is spent with story-asking and PQA.

Someone else asked if I read class novels and do FVR at the same time. I should have mentioned that I usually teach 2 class novels per year with my Spanish 3 kids in units that last no longer than 3 weeks; during that time FVR and other non-class-novel activities are suspended. With my level 1 kids I still read class novels as well (Pobre Ana can start as early as we want), but we do not start FVR until the 2nd semester.

Finally my heritage speakers read more; once they are accustomed we will spend as much as 20-30 minutes per class reading FVR… although 10 minutes is more typical for the beginning of the school year. FVR is suspended while we read whole class novels or on the days that I read a short story to them.

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Language Shyness among Heritage Speakers

Let´s talk about the widespread belief among native Spanish-speaking parents that what their heritage speaking children really need is to be corrected every time they make a mistake. This belief even shows up among some Spanish teachers!

As a non-native speaker (I did not start learning Spanish until I was in my mid-twenties), I have often felt slightly conflicted when I meet parents because of my refusal to correct the speech of my heritage speakers. It is not that I doubt my own language competence or that I am intimidated by the regional dialects of my students; whenever I have corrected heritage students in the past I have always had the feeling that I am employing a technique that “wins a minor battle while losing the war”.

If you teach heritage speakers, and especially if you have a separate class for heritage speakers, you really must read this article by Stephen Krashen on language shyness. Within the article there is great validation for FVR. This is the article that I would use to make a case for funding if I were writing a grant application to enlarge my FVR library.

photo credit: made available through a creative commons license:

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Becoming Better at Asking

Recently I have been concentrating on techniques that guide me to ask rather than tell a story.

Asking rather than telling a story seems like a basic TPRS skill, but it is a really difficult skill to master. The difference between telling and asking has nothing to do with remaining comprehensible. Although I always include lots of comprehension checks and I proceed very slowly, I am telling a story when the majority of the content comes from me. Storyasking, on the other hand, requires that the majority of content comes from students (with the exception of a story framework containing the target structures). Asking a story is often more compelling than telling (even telling a personalized story) because students have invested their own ideas into the story.

I have struggled with storyasking. Sometimes I have a dynamite story to tell, like when I tell a joke in class. A joke is a compact, beautifully told story. Even though I might spend twenty minutes preparing to tell the joke, I have a very specific plot from which I do not want to deviate. A joke is a good story to tell rather than ask. Sometimes when I want to ask a story I have very specific details that I will allow students to add and it comes out more like a mad libs activity: you can add an adjective to my story but it is still my story. Other times I give the kids too much freedom. Rather than adding details they add entire plot structures. In the middle of the lesson I find myself confused as to how to reconcile their story with the one that has the target structures I need to teach. That is not a terrible situation if students remain interested, but not so much if I end up scrapping their story altogether so that I can tell them my pre-planned story.

question words
Last week I decided to spend an entire class setting the scene before even introducing the target structures. I used the question words posted on my wall (and all in Spanish, of course, writing on the board to remain comprehensible). I announced that we are going to make a new story but we need to imagine a few details first. I started with the word “when”. At first the class was confused. When what? So I wrote on the board: When does the story take place? My students already knew the word “take” (toma) as well as “place” (lugar), but they had never seen these words placed together in this way so I wrote an English translation on the board. The first class threw out several suggestions but we ultimately voted on “20 años en el future” (20 years in the future). The next class decided on “en la edad media” (in the Middle Ages… seriously, this is the impact of FVR because I have a childrens illustrated encyclopedia in Spanish about life in the middle ages). The last class decided that it would take place in the 1920´s.

The next question is “where”… following the process the classes voted on “in space” (we later narrowed it down to Mars), “in Yemen” and the last class chose “Brooklyn”. Yemen in the Middle Ages required a quick break so that kids could do a minute of research on google to figure out what Yemen was like in the Middle Ages (this was done in English). One student discovered on Wikipedia that there was a large slave market in Yemen during the Middle Ages, so we all agreed that would be our location. Once we got to the “who” question we chose a student in class who would be the protagonist of our story, and at that point I had a student actor to verify information with.

After going through all of the question words we had spontaneously created a title for our story. All classes created a rich beginning full of possibilities. There were traces of an emerging plot, but not completely because we had concentrated on setting the scene with all of these question words. I had thoroughly circled everything and the white boards were covered with notes. During the last ten minutes students wrote a two paragraph fluency write: the first paragraph summarized the story we had created thus far while the second paragraph was about what they thought would happen in the story. Kids passed it in and I have had the weekend to read through the ideas that they generated. On Monday we are going to review their stories and then I will be able to start with the phrase, “clase, hay un problema”.

The basic story structure that I will adapt to each story is about a kid who wants to do X but is embarrassed to say it to her/his friends because s/he has a friend who makes fun of people who do X. Simple. There are two structures that I will introduce while asking the story and we will circle them like crazy: “is embarrassed” and “makes fun of”. I am still planning on storyasking the rest of the story, but I am starting from a point in which the class has generated a large amount of the content already and I can use this material to spin around the target structures that I want them to acquire.

After we build the story I am going to type the story up, have them read it again and then illustrate a specific scene from the story. Each student gets a different sentence to illustrate. This sounds like a good activity to do on the day before Spring Break (Friday). Then I will have three different, illustrated stories that all focus on the target structures “is embarrassed” and “makes fun of”. All three stories will be stapled and added to my FVR library; given that they will be comprehensible and student-created I am sure that they will be highly-compelling reading for my students. I might even scan them and add them to the online FVR starter library .

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More high-interest novels for heritage speakers

HL course pathways docI am definitely wading into deep, and potentially hot water with these latest acquisitions… but at least they are not being placed directly into my FVR library for any student to grab. Not until I have read them, at least. These are some more books that I am acquiring for our HL Spanish course, an advanced IB course which (in my school) is being offered to reasonably fluent & literate heritage speakers. Non-heritage speakers of Spanish take the standard level course, a one year Spanish 4 class that prepares them for an exam. The HL course, on the other hand, is my baby: a two year sequence which in my hands is being molded into a FVR fanatic´s dream course.

Enough about that; the reason I am posting this list is that it might be useful for teachers of heritage speakers or for teachers who are looking for easy, addictive reading to improve their own Spanish. While previous lists of books that I have posted have focused on heavy issues such as immigration and gender roles, these books only have one thing in common: they are addictive reading. Or so it appears by the Spanish-speaking fan blogs that I scour. Also, because IB insists that the two major literary works that my HL students write about were originally published in Spanish, all of these novels were published first in Spanish. Let me be clear: I am sure there will be sex and violence somewhere in these books. Test drive before releasing to adolescents. Most of these authors come from Spain; if not I explicitly note it.


Crime fiction

Trilogía del Baztán – Dolores Redondo Meira (The three books are El guardián invisible, Legado en los huesos, Ofrenda en la tormenta) I am excited to find a trilogy that is not fantasy for my students who dislike fantasy.

El lejano país de los estanques – Lorenzo Silva

La estrategia del agua – Lorenzo Silva (I am really looking forward to reading this for my own pleasure)

Abril rojo – Santiago Roncagliolo Author from Lima, Peru.

Sangre y Clorofila – Virgilio Rodriguez Macal (An older piece of action fiction, but one of the very few on any of my lists from Central America. Certain to contain outdated and sexist language and situations, probably will never make it into the hands of students).

Science fiction & fantasy

Memorias de Idhún – Laura Gallego García (This is a trilogy: La Resistencia, Tríada, Panteón) Very strong fan base.

La Estrella – Javi Araguz

La llave del tiempo – Ana Alonso (This is a large series: La torre y la isla, La esfera de medusa, La ciudad infinita, El jinete de plata are the first four books in the series). This was recommended to me by a teacher who uses this series in her upper level classes for non-native speakers of Spanish.

Young adult issues

Besos de murciélago – Silvia Hervás

Amaranta – Care Santos

Quién como Dios – Eladia González The only writer on this list from Mexico, this is historical fiction set in Mexico from a very popular contemporary writer.

El lápiz del carpintero – Manuel Rivas This was originally written in Galician (it is said to be the most widely translated work ever published in Galician literature, so sadly steer students away from writing about it for an IB external assessment. Attract student interest by pointing out that the author is the father of Martiño Rivas aka “Marcos” from El Internado.

Canciones para Paula #1 – Blue Jeans (Francisco de Paula Fernandez)

Mírame y dispara – Alessandra Neymar