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How should I use novels in class?

June 21, 2016

If you've seen some of the amazing novels written for language learners that are available but have yet to purchase any, you may be wondering: how do I use these novels in class?

When teachers begin to study language acquisition and learn more about Comprehension-based teaching, it quickly becomes apparent that reading has a profound and unparalleled impact on language acquisition. Novels that are written for language learners - texts belonging to a genre called Language Learner Literature - are a great way for you to provide your students with texts that they can understand and that will propel them forward on their language learning journey. But with a lack of training in L2 reading instruction, many teachers find themselves wondering.... how?

How can I use novels in language classes?

There is no wrong way for your students to read a target language novel that is comprehensible to them. If the text is interesting to your students and they understand it, their language skills will improve. The three kinds of reading that I will talk about in this post are Kindergarten Day (essentially, reading aloud to your students--maybe as they sit on pillows on the floor!), FVR (Free Voluntary Reading, most likely in the form of Sustained Silent Reading), and teaching novels as units.

I went on a shopping spree last week and purchased a slew of novels that I didn't yet own and/or haven't yet read. I am so enjoying my "nightly reading"! We are at an exciting moment of breakthrough in the TCI world. The demand for leveled readers is increasing rapidly, and independent authors and publishing companies are cranking out new titles faster than ever before! With so many fantastic novels to choose from, it's very difficult for us, the teachers, to know which novel(s) to purchase for our classes unless we have read all of them ourselves. In this post, I'm going to offer some suggestions for what to look for when selecting novels for each kind of reading, and I will even throw out a few examples of novels that I think would work well. Please keep in mind that I am a reader just as much as I am a teacher, and so my opinion on these things is heavily influenced by my own preferences as a reader! I love mysteries, adventure, and historical fiction that is light on the history and heavy on the fiction. I taught a unique group of students in a unique setting, and so my choices are also informed by what I know would appeal to them. You are different, you are in a different situation, and so please do not order a book just because I say that I like using it with my own students. Please do order a single copy of the novels that I recommend so that you can make that decision for yourself.

Teaching novels as a unit

If you are going to teach a novel as a unit, you must purchase a class set of the novel. When I say "must", I don't mean, "OMG you totally have to!" as a strong suggestion, I mean "You are legally obligated to". This means that you are going to make a sizable investment in any novel that you wish to teach as a standalone unit. If you have 35 students in your biggest class, you need 36 copies of the novel (so that you have one, too!). If a Teacher's Guide is available for the novel, you will most likely want to purchase that as well since it will make teaching the novel so much easier, and that is an additional investment. Furthermore, I'd recommend purchasing the audio version of the novel if it is available. Between those three things (class set of novels, Teacher's Guide, audio novel), you are looking at an investment of $200-300! Even if you are so fortunate as to have department funds to invest, you want to make sure that you are buying a novel that is going to provide comprehensible, compelling input for your students. You need to make sure that it is at the appropriate level for your students so that you can move through it quickly and easily without teaching too many new words before each chapter. You need to make sure that the content is appropriate for your students (for example, some Christian schools have problems with novels that have supernatural content). And you need to do your darnedest to make sure that the novel is well written and appealing to the majority of your students! For ideas on how to go about transforming a novel into a unit of instruction, check out my daily lesson plans for Esperanza and El Nuevo Houdini.

Some of my favorite simple novels

Here are a few Level 1-early Level 2 novels that I have read that are very well written and that in my opinion would make great standalone units. Again, remember that this is me speaking for myself and my students! If you are able, it would be ideal to visit, and to order single copies of each of the novels that are available for your level of instruction. so that you can check them out for yourself. The investment will not be a waste even if you choose to not buy a class set of any of the novels, because you can add all of the single copies to your free reading library. Anyway, here are some of my picks for Level 1:

  1. Anything in the Brandon Brown series from TPRS Publishing (Brandon Brown dice la verdad (coming this summer), Brandon Brown quiere un perro, Brandon Brown versus Yucatán, El Nuevo Houdini - these novels are available in many other languages, as well! ). As an author, Carol Gaab has an incredible talent for character development, pacing, and creating suspense. Each chapter ends in such a way that I want to keep reading to find out what happens in the next chapter. Carol also has an amazing way of working in many repetitions of the new structures that are used in each chapter without making you feel like you are reading the same sentence over and over and over. Even though 3/4 of these novels are set in the US, the Teacher's Guides that are available for these novels are filled with slideshows, readings, and other cultural information that connects Brandon's adventures to Spanish speaking cultures.
  2. Agentes secretos y el mural de Picasso by Mira Canion. Of the many excellent books that Mira has written, Agentes secretos is my very favorite! It is an easy read for students in their first year of Spanish, and I just love the characters that Mira has created for this novel and the way that she has woven culture and history into the plot. I ordered a class set right before I left full-time teaching, and I never had a chance to use it! But boy oh boy, will I ever once I get back to the classroom!
  3. Isabela captura un congo by Karen Rowan. The second book in the Isabela series, I love this one for the plot, the culture, and the illustrations! Each chapter is very short, which would allow you to squeeze in a 2-3 week unit centered on this novel just about anywhere! The vocabulary is a little more broad than that used in the Brandon Brown series or in Agentes Secretos, so based on the structures that I teach and when I teach them, I would save this one for the beginning of Spanish 2. Many classes would be ready for this novel sooner than that!
  4. Esperanza by Carol Gaab. For me, this is the quintessential class novel. It is so rich in culture, it is incredibly well written, and the language is easy even though the themes (immigration, unionization, etc.) are complex. The chapters are longer than those of Isabela captura un congo and because the themes are so complex, it is worth hollowing out 5+ weeks to spend on this novel. You can read my daily lesson plans in this tag archive.

Reading novels aloud to students

Don't you just love being read aloud to? My mom read to my four siblings and me at bedtime until after school activities and sports split our common bedtime. Mostly, she read through series of books with us--like The Boxcar Children and The Hardy Boys and the Mandie books. I loved that because she always did voices for the characters, and I still hear my mom's voices for  those characters in my head when I think of those books. I have the most fond memories of my sixth grade ILA class with my favorite teacher ever, Mrs. Denise Micek. We had a double period of ILA every other day, and on those days, Mrs. Micek would read aloud to us. The two novels that I remember most clearly were Z for Zachariah [an abridged version of] The Odyssey. Some days, we sat on the carpet in the front of the room. Others, we sat at our desks. I loved it. And you know what? I am not alone! As Dr. Krashen concluded from examining multiple studies on the impact of reading aloud, nearly all children enjoy being read to (The Power of Reading, p 79). Not only is it enjoyable, but it is impactful. Reading aloud to students positively impacts their literacy development and their reading habits!

Many TCI teachers do read-alouds with their students, often in the form of Kindergarten Day, which you can read about here. Often, children's books or "Big Books" are go-to choices for Kindergarten Day, but there are many readers that work well for this purpose, too. When doing a read-aloud, you can get away with choosing books that have larger vocabularies than those that you would use as class novels. Since you are only reading them and not doing activities with the content of each chapter, it's okay if students hear new words and let them go 'in one ear and out the other'. It's okay if students forget words, even important words, after the act of reading is complete. When you are teaching a novel as a unit, it's important that students retain the words so that they can participate in discussion and story-based activities. For that reason, novels with super limited vocabularies that ensure comprehensibility to all students at all times are best for units. As the teacher doing the read aloud, you can pause while you read and clarify meaning (in the target language, preferably), or you could even substitute or skip words as you are reading the book to students.

One somewhat recently published novel that I am just dying to read aloud to students is El Silbón de Venezuela, by Craig Klein Dexemple of Spanish Cuentos. I LOVE this book. Love, love, love, love! It is in my "Top 2", along with La Calaca Alegre by Carrie TothThe pacing is fantastic, the plot is intriguing, and I felt genuinely scared at times and literally laughed out loud at others. It is AWESOME! The main content of the novel is very comprehensible, although there are quite a few colloquial and/or 'extraneous' terms and expressions that would make it challenging for me to teach as a unit in my Level 1 or 2 classes. However, they are all 'high frequency structures' in Craig's classes due to the word choices that he makes as a native speaker and elementary school teacher. Again...every teacher and situation is unique, so this is just one example demonstrating why it is important for you to check out the novels for yourself! When Craig reads it with his students (in their second year of Spanish), he reads it aloud while they follow along in their own copies of the book. Whether or not your students have their own copies, your students will LOVE listening to you read this book aloud! Read a chapter every day or every other day until you are done, and I am confident that your students will remember that time just as fondly as I remember the readalouds by my mom and Mrs. Micek! (I would connect this novel to my instruction by reading it aloud to students after we learn about El Cucuy and El Silbón.)

Free Voluntary Reading

If you are looking for a summer project, this is it. Aside from developing your "essential skills" (circling, personalizing, checking for comprehension, etc.), I think that building a class library and developing a free reading program for your students is the most impactful thing that you can do for their language acquisition. In The Power of Reading, Dr. Stephen Krashen describes FVR as

"Free voluntary reading [...] means reading because you want to: no book reports, no questions at the end of the chapter. In FVR, you don't have to finish the book if you don't like it. FVR is the kind of reading most of us do obsessively all the time." (The Power of Reading, p 1)

In an FVR program, your students would read texts of their choosing independently for 5-15 minutes. This could be done once a week, twice a week...even every day. The more time that your students can spend reading self-selected texts with no strings attached, the better. Dr. Krashen provides compelling evidence for the impact of free reading in the first chapter of The Power of Reading (which I strongly recommend purchasing and reading; some free, online resources from Dr. Krashen that you can access on the subject are this video lecture and this article). The benefits are far-reaching, positively affecting the areas of vocabulary development, grammatical performance, writing, speaking, and listening. You will see exponentially greater benefits the longer that your FVR program lasts: in a dream world, your students would begin free reading in year 1 of their language program, and they would continue to have time set aside in their language classes for free reading until they graduate. Research clearly proves that free reading is at least as effective as traditional reading instruction; in most studies, more effective. The thing that stood out to me most from the first chapter of this book, however, is Dr. Krashen's insight into the 'happy' factor of FVR. Creating and sustaining a quality FVR program--in which students are always able to find something that they want to read and can understand--will not only make the development of reading comprehension more enjoyable, but it will increase student motivation and create lifelong readers! When reluctant students successfully read and understand things that they enjoy, they become eager readers (p.6-7)! Say whaaaaaaaaaaat?!

Bryce Hedstrom provides resources for teachers looking to start or troubleshoot FVR programs, and Allison Wienhold has written several posts about her classroom library that will be helpful to you! You can also visit this database to find texts that are written for language learner.

As I said earlier in the post, I recommend purchasing one of each novel from Fluency Matters, TPRS Books, and Mira Canion so that you can decide which ones to teach as units in your classes. There are many other teacher-authors and publishers that have written one or two novels for language learners, so get those, too! Once you've read them, add all of those individual copies of books to your class library, and purchase additional copies of each of them as you are able. These novels will create a strong base for your class library, because they are written to be comprehensible for language learners. Beyond those novels, the possibilities are endless: children's books, magazines, comic books, authentic novels, printed versions of class stories, news articles (maybe a binder filled with past and current issues of El Mundo en tus manos).

Speaking of comic books, Andrews McMeel Publishing reached out to me awhile ago to tell me about their comic book collections. They sent me a few copies of Garfield: Niego todo to give away to my readers, and I must say...I love them! This would make an awesome addition to your FVR library. Dr. Krashen actually dedicated an entire chapter of The Power of Reading to the history of comic books and the research supporting light reading in the form of comic books as effective for improving language proficiency and, most notably, for sparking a love for reading that leads kids to heavy reading. Even with my toddlers, I can see how important it is to have comic books around the house! My four year old describes bad things as "vile" and his desire to be alone as wanting "solitude" thanks to children's versions of Batman comic books. And, if you can believe it, the favorite book of Ellis (4) and Leland (3) is....GARFIELD: NIEGO TODO. I am not even joking! No matter where I hide the three copies that AMP sent me, the boys find them! They can't read, but clearly that doesn't matter. They curl up with the books on their beds, on the couch, in their pillow pit...everywhere just looking at the pictures. Comic books like this are awesome for FVR programs because students can skip around in the book and read a page here, a page there based on what they are able to understand. Some comics are difficult to comprehend, but many are quite easy:

Click here to enter to win a copy of Garfield: Niego todo for your class library! Entries must be received by Friday, June 24 at midnight AKDT. Two winners will be selected and notified via email.

Funding for novels

For many teachers, using novels in class and filling class libraries is a question of funding. Not everyone is so fortunate as to have departmental funds at their disposal! Sometimes, the funds are there if you work for them: write a letter to your administrator sharing the research for the importance of reading in a language program. Other times, there's nothing you can do--there's just no money. In that situation, teachers have successfully obtained monies for books for their classes are through crowdfunding sites like or by sending a letter home with students asking for $5.00 donations from their parents. If you have 175 students and even 35 of their parents choose to donate, you will  have enough money to purchase one class set of novels. It is so frustrating to be in the position of having mentally committed to reading with your students and not have the funds to make it happen. It might take awhile, and you won't be able to get everything you want at one time, but you will get the funds eventually if you are determined!

More on using novels

For more information and suggestions for using novels in your classes, follow the CI Peek blog and join Fluency Matters Comprehension-based readers group!

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