Using Authentic Literature in Beginning Levels of Language Learning

•March 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

At that ever-important moment when students begin their foreign language education, how do we, the designers of their learning experiences, greet them? Are we providing them with a realistic and genuine portrayal of language? Or are we creating a structure of compartmentalization that does not lead to substantial communication? Does our ongoing pursuit of the most solid foundation in grammar and vocabulary ignore our students’ hunger for genuine cultural assimilation and intellectual depth?

Because it takes considerable time to master, amongst many others, the use of the subjunctive in subordinated clauses and the precise combination of the preterit, imperfect, pluperfect and conditional in narration, teachers may feel overwhelmed by the weight of grammar and vocabulary. For it is difficult to envision knowing a foreign language, much else communicate with clarity and precision, without going through a process of study of the many elements that compose that system. Yet, I believe that an individual can and should enjoy the intellectual pleasures derived from applying the language in an authentic way- reading literature and encountering different registers of language- as soon as possible. And by engaging in these experiences, students internalize language more deeply and find the intrinsic motivation to continue to develop their knowledge of the foreign language.

Why can’t Spanish I students connect with the plight of the love-struck prisoner of the ancient ballad “Romance del prisionero”? After all, they will not only (after careful study and rich conversation with peers) manage to feel his distress, but they will also have a clearer idea of lyrical expression, of Spanish syntax and the effects of hyperbaton, and most importantly, of the enslaving potential of love. In that process, they will speak and write (both analytically and creatively) about the aforementioned and if so desired by the teacher, provide proof of knowledge of parts of speech, conjugations, and vocabulary.

The differences in maturity and development of our students require that each level’s curriculum be age appropriate, nevertheless students of all levels practice the same skills and develop the same habits of mind, although at different levels of complexity. Imagine them ascending a spiral staircase.  We know that it takes a substantial amount of time for a student to attain competence in order to then seek mastery. Consequently, students cannot but benefit from reading and analyzing literary texts, daily writing, and receiving frequent teacher feedback from the beginning. The idea is to plan curricula based on the essential understandings and habits of mind that our students will have internalized by the time that they graduate from our schools.

Teachers that have the good fortune to “bookend” their school’s foreign language curriculum (teach both beginning and advanced levels) acquire a better understanding of what their students benefit from doing from the start. If a student completes a four-year program in Spanish, that student will leave knowing how to approach the reading of a literary text and to how write and speak about it in order to engage in scholarly exchange in and out of the classroom. To educate 21st century leaders and decent human beings, teachers will empower their students not only with the knowledge of grammatical structures but also with ideas through which they will understand the constants of the human condition, face the challenges of an ever-metamorphosing world, and maybe contribute a gift of worth to future generations. Lofty goals for some, idealistic musings for many, and an inspiring set of guidelines for me.

The literary text can be the tool that best guides a “communities of learners” in the pursuit of linguistic and cultural proficiency. In fact, the literary text can give a curriculum weight and substance. Students learn early on that language is an instrument to be used in important activities as what they do in el aula is at the same intellectual level as what they do in other classrooms. That they have not studied the imperfect subjunctive does not impede them from appreciating the everlasting truths that they discover when they read across the ages. For reading provides the cheapest form of travel and the only proven way to do it through time. How else will current mindsets connect with those that are no longer and think about the differences and similarities? Finally, since no literary text should be read only once in an individual’s lifetime, students realize that a favorite literary morsel is a gift that keeps on giving as they continue to develop intellectually and linguistically. As such, learning as discovery is an ongoing process.

This type of teaching and learning is hard work. It does not come nicely pre-packaged. It requires patience and determination and a sincere belief in the potential of young minds. Our students do not come to us empty. They enter our classrooms with a good body of knowledge. It is our charge to build on those truths (as wells as to clarify the fallacies) in order to enrich their high school experience and prepare them for the rigors of college. It calls for thorough knowledge and appreciation of the literature that will be taught, and the conviction that if they can understand the not-so-simple-but-truly-universal truths distilled from the reading of several stanzas from Versos sencillos by José Martí, they will be better equipped to be engaged citizens in a complex and challenging world.


•March 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The study and learning of Spanish in the beginning levels emphasizes grammatical accuracy, vocabulary acquisition, and precision of communication as a means of attaining the close reading, analysis and appreciation of literary texts. Levels I through III lay such foundation in order to promote the students’ successful experience in the advanced literature classes. Students enjoy the study of literature for the simple reason that they like the intellectual stimulus. They welcome the challenge of reading a text in the target language and derive great satisfaction from being able to use, deploy, and synthesize the grammar and vocabulary that they have been studying. It is rewarding and satisfying for them, particularly to do so in the context of philosophical, political, and historical ideas and diverse cultural perspectives.

Therefore, the program’s main goal for levels I-III is to help the students become close readers who can:

•            Extract the essence of the ideas in a text upon a first reading

•            Read a text and understand its content through grammatical analysis

•            Learn to use text-specific glossaries meaningfully

•            Create personal glossaries to support comprehension and enhance appreciation of a text

•            Feel confident with the skill of reading, no matter the level of difficulty of the text

•            Develop an awareness of personally successful reading strategies

•            Enjoy the learning process for its own sake

•            Appreciate the subtlety of the aesthetic effect created by word choice

How to Integrate Literature in a Beginning Level?

•March 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Teachers begin by communicating the excitement of doing something important with Spanish. “Today, this week, during this cycle, we are going to read literature and speak and write about it.” That enthusiasm is conveyed for the texts themselves as the real reason for reading them is the enjoyment that one derives from the intellectual activity. Text selection is critical and will appeal to the students’ wish (conscious or unconscious) to engage in an exploration of universal ideas as well as of cultural values that create difference in the perception of life.  Level I is a perfect moment to present themes that will recur in other levels in other texts. It may also be their first encounter with a text that they will read as twelve grade students. For example, students read selected stanzas from Versos sencillos in Spanish I and those who study the language for four years reread them in Advanced Placement Spanish Literature. Both readings are careful and detailed but when it is done three years later, the students read the poem with not only an richer and more solid grammatical and literary foundation, but also with a more mature perspective.

Note:  Spanish I students are introduced to grammar and vocabulary via the study of dialogs from Spanish Now! Level I published by Barron’s. These are supplemented with written grammar explanations and drills as well as with weekly in-class written translations (English into Spanish) following guidelines for simplification and application of grammatical structures and integration of targeted vocabulary. After two months, the students have the basic tools to read, write, and speak when analyzing a literary text.

Approach #1 Assigning Text After Studying a Glossary

•March 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Approach #1

1. Presentation of glossary. These are the words that are necessary for the understanding of the text. The teacher may also present the glossary during a class session using TPR technique and cognates (or vocabulary with which the students are already familiar). Because the glossary presents verbs in the infinitive, it is possible for the students to decode the meaning of a conjugation that they have not yet studied. The students memorize the glossary as homework.


El niño al que se le murió el amigo de Ana María Matute (España)


1. la valla / la cerca – the fence

2. el quicio de la puerta – the doorjamb

3. los codos y las rodillas – the elbows and the knees

4. las canicas – the marbles

5. el camión – the truck

6. la pistola de hojalata – the toy gun made of tin

7. el polvo – the dust

8. el pozo – the well

9. estirar los brazos – to stretch one’s arms

10. la estrella – the star

Da el infinitivo de los siguientes verbos:

1. estaba

2. se sentó

3. estuviesen

4. fue

5. quería

6. estiró

7. ha crecido

8. llevaba

9. venía

10. volverá

2. The next day, this glossary and the knowledge of it become the center of the class’ activities: the students explain the terms in Spanish in their own words, write and/or read and analyze sentences that incorporate a combination of words from the list (determined by the teacher or other students), or write a short narrative using a picture sequence using this vocabulary. The teacher uses this production to give the students feedback. The teacher, too, may give the students a graded exercise to assess their knowledge of the glossary.

3. After the students have had ample time to study and apply the glossary, the text makes it entrance. Depending on the length and complexity, the text or one of its sections will be assigned for independent reading prior to the next class session.  This example, a micro short story, is assigned wholly to Spanish I students.

El niño al que se le murió el amigo de Ana María Matute (España)

Una mañana se levantó y se fue a buscar al amigo, al otro lado de la valla. Pero el amigo no estaba, y, cuando volvió, le dijo la madre: “El amigo se murió. Niño, no pienses más en él y busca otros para jugar”. El niño se sentó en el quicio de la puerta, con la cara entre las manos y los codos en las rodillas. “Él volverá” , pensó. Porque no podía ser que allí estuviesen las canicas, el camión y las pistola de hojalata, y el reloj aquel que ya no andaba, y el amigo no viniese a buscarlos. Vino la noche, con una estrella muy grande, y el niño no quería entrar a cenar. “Entra niño, que llega el frío” , dijo la madre. Pero, en lugar de entrar, el niño se levantó del quicio y se fue en busca del amigo, con las canicas, el camión, la pistola de hojalata y el reloj aquel que ya no andaba. Al llegar a la cerca, la voz del amigo no le llamó, ni le oyó en el árbol, ni en el pozo. Pasó buscándole toda la noche. Y fue una larga noche casi blanca, que le llenó de polvo el traje y los zapatos. Cuando llegó el sol, el niño, que tenía sueño y sed, estiró los brazos, y pensó: “;Qué tontos y pequeños son esos juguetes. Y ese reloj que no anda, no sirve para nada”. Lo tiró todo en el pozo, y volvió a la casa, con mucha hambre. La madre le abrió la puerta, y dijo: “Cuánto ha crecido este niño, Dios mío, cuánto ha crecido”. Y le compró un traje de hombre, porque el que llevaba le venía muy corto.

4. The next day the teacher assesses the class’ reading comprehension via writing or participation in the whole group analysis of the text. I begin class by asking them what they think of the story or simply what they understood and what they did not understand. Lists of these may be written on the board. The text also may be reread in class to provide another opportunity to understand and appreciate it. The teacher may use this reading to strengthen the students’ pronunciation by modeling and correcting it. Remaining class time is devoted to the analysis of the text. The teacher provides quality questions or in student-propelled situations, the students themselves provide the stimuli to uncover and expand their understanding of the text. The teacher observes as students participate and contribute, reminding them that their responsibility is to listen carefully in order to elaborate on or challenge ideas. Explaining to the students how to participate and contribute is important. Contributions come in the form of insights but also as questions that result from the students’ self-directed assessment of their understanding. If a student has not understood a passage, a line, a metaphor, asking his/her classmates to analyze it together can generate excellent response and a rich exploration of language. The focus is always on language (literal and figurative), content and thinking skills. During the analysis, the teacher emphasizes that any and all interpretations are supported with the text and asks that the students read from the text out loud to provide evidence. The same applies to written analysis. At different points during a class session, the students write and then read what they have understood from reading and analyzing a specific passage in the text. The teacher again uses this writing to assess individual understanding.

5. For subsequent class sessions, students reread and write about the text using questions or a prompt provided by the teacher. These may be questions already discussed in class but for which the students have not written responses. Or the questions may be the basis for the next sessions’ discussion.

Examples of reading comprehension questions:

1. ¿Adónde fue a buscar el niño a su amigo?

2. ¿Qué le dijo la madre a su niño cuando éste regresó?

3. ¿Qué hizo entonces el niño? ¿Cómo reaccionó?

4. ¿Qué pensó el niño al ver los juguetes?

5. ¿Qué hizo el niño en lugar de entrar a su casa para comer?

6. Explica lo que pasó por la noche.

7. ¿Qué sucedió al otro día? ¿Qué pensó el niño entonces?

8. ¿Cómo reaccionó la madre al verlo llegar?

Examples of questions for deeper analysis:

9. Explica el final del cuento.

10. ¿Qué representan para tí los siguientes?

a) el polvo                        b) el hambre y la sed                        c) los juguetes

d) el traje pequeño            e) el reloj que no anda                        f) la larga noche casi blanc

11. ¿Por qué no quiso (querer) el niño aceptar lo que su madre le dijo sobre su amigo?

12. ¿Qué evidencia tiene para creer lo que cree?

13. ¿Cuál es la relación entre el reconocimiento de la muerte de un amigo y el acto de tirar los juguetes?

14.Describe la noche que el protagonista pasa y lo que significa.

6. Depending on the length and complexity of the text and the students’ grasp of it, the analysis continues until the text is fully understood. The goal is to attain depth.

7. The students gain maximum benefit if they write an analytical essay in class as it provides another opportunity to bond with text and to spend quality time synthesizing ideas and internalizing understandings and language.


El niño al que se le murió el amigo de Ana María Matute (España)

Ensayo analítico

Topic 1:

Analiza el fin del cuento y comenta sobre el uso del lenguaje figurado en el siguiente pasaje:

“Cuánto ha crecido este niño, Dios mío, cuánto ha crecido. Y le compró un traje de hombre, porque el que llevaba le venía muy corto.”

Topic 2:

¿Cómo aparece el tema de la lucha entre realidad e ilusión en “El niño al que se le murió el amigo”?

This in-class writing is scheduled on the long-block day (70 minutes) to allow students time to understand the topic, think and organize ideas, and then write. I allow the use Word Reference as well as the on-line dictionary of Real Academia Española. Writing in class reduces the stress and complications of undertaking it at home where the students may suffer interference from other tasks. It also provides the teacher with a faithful portrait of each individual student. Students receive feedback on their precision of usage and also on the thoroughness with which they elaborate and illustrate the stimulus statement.

Approach #2 Assigning Text with Glossary

•March 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Approach #2

Assign the text to be read before the next class session and ask the students to come prepared to discuss it.

In this case, the glossary is provided as a list below the poem.

“Romance del prisionero”

Que por mayo era, por mayo,

cuando hace la calor,

cuando los trigos encañan

y están los campos en flor,

cuando canta la calandria

y responde el ruiseñor,

cuando los enamorados

van a servir al amor;

sino yo, triste, cuitado,

que vivo en esta prisión,

que ni sé cuándo es de día

ni cuándo las noches son,

sino por una avecilla

que me cantaba al albor;

matómela un ballestero:

¡déle Dios mal galardón!


la calandria – the lark

el ruiseñor – the nightingale

cuitado  – dejected, in despair

encañar- to grow

el trigo – the wheat

sino por una avecilla – if it weren’t for a little bird

al albor  – at dawn

un ballestero – soldado que lleva ballesta

déle Dios – may God give him

el galardón  – the reward

1. Lee con cuidado y comprende.

2. Estudia la sintaxis (el orden de las palabras) y determina si es diferente a la de otros ejemplos que has estudiado o aprendido.

3. Da el infinitivo de todos los verbos conjugados.

4. Haz una lista de palabras con connotación positiva y otra de palabras con connotación negativa.

5. ¿Cuántas sílabas tiene cada verso?

¿Qué rima hay: asonante o consonante?

6. ¿Cuál es el dilema del hablante lírico?

7. ¿Cuál es el tema del poema?

The rest of the analysis process is the same as in Approach #1.