AP Reading

Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes


Introduce students to Gabriel García Márquez´s iconic short story

1. Embedded reading

gabrielgarciamarquezThe purpose of an embedded reading, to my thinking, is to make the reading experience much more enjoyable. We could start straight with the original text and slowly plow through it, but most students experience that as a “difficult” process. The difficulty they experience clouds those moments of exhilaration when a text actually says something novel and interesting. So I think an embedded reading, however simple it may be, should have some kernel of wonderfulness that draws us into why the story is worth reading in the first place.

We teachers know that this story is worth reading for the wonderful language; upper level students should be exposed to Garcia Marquez in the same way that they still read Shakespeare in English class. For most adolescents, however, the entryway into high literature is not language use. My embedded reading succinctly presents themes from the story (hypocrisy, materialism) that interest adolescents. Let´s have those interesting conversations at the beginning of the unit rather than waiting until we have finished reading the text! Later, when we read the final text, it will be fun to point out how these themes are developed and our conversations will easily shift from low-level questions about vocabulary to higher-order thinking requiring analysis of the text. Click here to download a copy of the embedded reading that I created .

I like to spend an entire class period on this first embedded reading and actually have students translate it word for word to make sure that there is absolutely no misunderstandings. There is usually enough time to show them the first ten minutes of Birri´s film (below), but this is also a good time to talk frankly about how religious values in our society are often expressed… or not. I let the kids take the lead on this discussion; you know your district better than I do. Nonetheless this is a topic that many students want to discuss earnestly, if it is presented in a respectful manner.

2. Link to movie for first 10 minutes

10 GabrielI have a copy of the 1988 film adaptation by Fernando Birri, but I only play the first 10 minutes. The film is… how do I say this? It is hard to stomach at times. However the first ten minutes are entirely appropriate for high school and will help students picture the socioeconomic circumstances of the family. Many students, when they hear “beach in the Caribbean”, may not imagine an impoverished shack on a muddy stretch of coastline. Also, be sure to mention that these crabs breathe air and do not live underwater… during the rainy season they really do invade local houses looking for a place that is not inundated. I have recently seen a copy of the film on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvB7LmFgBAY

3. Lightly-abridged, highly-structured version

Click here to download a copy of the story that I read with my students. I usually photocopy only one page (double-sided) per class period so that we read no more than that in a single class period. If you do it this way then you will have to plan for a minimum of five class periods for reading (including the embedded reading on the first day). This is a story that I read slowly along with students. There are plenty of processing activities built into the text to help them, and I spend the additional time in class with vocabulary reinforcement activities. By the way, if you want to compare my lightly abridged version with the original you can read that by following this link.

4. Teaching vocabulary in context

At the time that I created much of these materials I believed in heavy pre-teaching of vocabulary. I still believe that some strategic pre-teaching of vocabulary can lead to a much more enjoyable reading experience, but I now rely on embedded readings so that the general plot is clear before we read the final version. That is, rather than assigning 30 words to learn before even looking at the text, I have written an embedded reading with only a handful of new words that make sense in context (or that we define as we read it). The new word un estorbo is central to any retelling of this story, so I place it in the first embedded reading. Concrete nouns such as cangrejos, el gallinero and alas are acquired so thoroughly in the first embedded reading that they become the “familiar words” that help students process the final text.

While reading the second version there is a lot of hand-holding. I only read two pages per day because this is a story that we literally read as a whole class experience. Most reading in my class does not happen like this. In general I like even my upper level students to be comfortable enough with any reading to be able to do it on their own. I guess this story is one of the exceptions.

5. Retelling the story with purposegames

Click on image to go straight to the purposegames website
Click on image to go straight to the purposegames website

As a pre-learning strategy, this a waste of time (and in fact I have done action research with my classes and demonstrated that these games are terrible at developing vocabulary… I think the key is that they are words completely out of context without even an audio cue). Almost anything you do in class will lead to better gains in acquisition than bringing kids to a computer lab and having them race the clock trying to match the vocabulary words with the pictures.

Click on image to go straight to the purposegames website
Click on image to go straight to the purposegames website

So why do I include these? I like to project them against the screen in class and use them to prompt retells of parts of the story. Plain and simple, even my own retells will not include so much advanced vocabulary unless I am explicitly reminded to use it.

If you do have a student race the clock, then make sure you choose a superstar and help him/her by describing the pictures. When ANEGADO appears, start talking about all of the water in the street. Some kids really love these games and, as long as they are volunteering rather than obligated to do it, these games can develop strong positive affect in the last five minutes of class. If you are quick and manage to describe the pictures and use the new vocabulary then it might provide good CI for the whole class, but otherwise it is a nice moment for your more competitive students to shine.

6. Crossword puzzles

I used to assign these crossword puzzles as homework (wow what a drag!), but now I use these for the week after reading the story. Students are familiar with the vocabulary and so there is a lot more enjoyment as they delight in refreshing their memories. Come to think of it, that is the appeal of crossword puzzles in real life… not to learn new words but the delight one feels in placing a word that one does not use often. Click here to download a group of three different puzzles … good for crossword races done in pairs as a bell-ringer assignment. I have little llama magnets that I will be giving to the first few pairs to correctly complete the puzzle.

7. Student movie

Can´t get enough of this story? Here is a student film version that my heritage speakers made a few years ago with homemade sock puppets and crayon illustrations. They edited the text to streamline the story, I edited the video and added partial subtitles (with a few mistakes); the entire film lasts less than ten minutes. I like that it is narrated by adolescent native speakers of Spanish.

senor 3

8. Some final assessments

Finally here are two assessments that I have given in the past. This first is a true/false quiz that asks students to replace the incorrect part (if there is one) with a factually correct phrase. The second quiz requires some short answers and has a writing prompt as well.


  1. ¡Muchísimas gracias por compartir tanto trabajo con nosotros! My students and I have enjoyed using what you have created for “Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes”. I am wondering if you would be willing to share the answer keys for the vocabulary crossword puzzles? ¡Gracias!

    1. The way that I have been using these in class is that I give the crosswords to students to complete quickly as a warm-up, and after 5-10 minutes I will place a copy under a doc cam and students come up voluntarily, one at a time, and fill in one of the blanks until we have the entire answer sheet. For that reason I do not have an answer key. Most of the words are recycled in the purposegames (picture games) activities.

    1. I have used it in a fourth year high school class that had mostly seniors in it, as well in an upper-level heritage speakers class. Nowadays I only use it with heritage speakers. I originally designed it for a fifth year course, back when I worked in district that started their language program in middle school.

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