A common question I get asked is “What level is this reader for?” Another question I get asked is “Which readers do you use in level ___?” I have even recently seen a teacher create an online poll asking other teachers to VOTE for the one reader they feel is the best reader for Spanish 2. I feel like the people who ask these questions generally think they will get a really simple answer from me, and I always disappoint them with a long and complicated answer that probably leaves them wondering if I actually have any idea what I am talking about.
What IS a “level” anyway? I have LOTS of questions I would need to ask prior to helping a teacher decide what is best for his or her classroom. Sorry, but I cannot in good conscience vote on your “poll” because I need more info. I’ve never been a big fan of answering multiple-choice questions…I am much more of the “explain your answer” and “show your work” type of person!
My first line of inquiry will be “What else have your students read?” Do they even have experience reading? I know this is hard for many of us to believe, but there are classrooms where students simply do not read in levels 1 and 2. If you are having your students read page-length text for the very first time in level 3, then they are NOT ready for the same readers as a group of students who has been reading 4 whole-class readers a year for the past two years with a steady side helping of sustained silent reading!
My second round of questioning is going to be about your goals as a teacher. Are you planning to have students do most of their reading independently? Or will you guide the whole class through the reading together? What kinds of expansion do you plan to do? Are you reading just to read and acquire language, or are you planning to branch off and do some kind of cultural exploration using the reader as a jumping-off point? If you plan to have students do the reading on their own, the reader should be comprehensible enough so that the average student can understand 95-100% of the words without having to look them up! If you are reading as a whole class, the number could be slightly less, especially if you plan to do additional acquisition activities prior to reading to increase the comprehensibility of the text. If you plan to use the reader as a means of teaching and expanding on another theme or cultural element, you might find that you are much better off selecting a reader which is 100% easily comprehensible to all students. If the language is very comprehensible, it becomes much easier for students to dedicate their brainpower to learning the content you select for them to focus on.
I commonly tell teachers to select readers that are going to be a “comfortable fit” for their students. When in doubt, err on the side of too easy. I will give you a couple of examples in which I selected readers that were “too easy” for my students.
For the past several years, I’ve been teaching a Spanish 2 class for non-college bound students. Where I teach, in Michigan, all students must complete 2 years of successful world language study in order to graduate from high school. So, my class is generally filled with kids who are not voluntarily electing to study a language, and oftentimes they arrive to me not having been very successful in their first year. I decided that I wanted to begin the year in a way which would help everyone be successful as well as develop some skills which may not have been developed during their first year as middle school Spanish 1 students. After several weeks of storytelling, movie talk, and readings that I created to reinforce the highest-frequency structures they needed to communicate, we began reading Brandon Brown quiere un perro (Brandon Brown wants a dog). Even though this reader is intended for elementary students, it is a fun and engaging read for any age. The limited yet high-frequency vocabulary made it a perfect introductory reader for a group of kids that desperately needed to feel success.
My Spanish 4 class this year is honestly probably the best class I’ve ever taught. They are cohesive, curious, pleasant, and genuinely want to use their Spanish! We spent almost the entire first semester learning about the civil war in El Salvador and how it eventually led to the development of the gang MS-13, commonly known as the world’s most dangerous gang. I really wanted something completely different for second semester, and since we have already visited the Detroit Institute of Art as a class and viewed the murals of Diego Rivera, I decided to go with Frida Kahlo as our 1st whole-class reader for the semester. (Spanish 4 also spends about 30 minutes per week reading a book of their choosing during class.) Reading Frida Kahlo has been a completely easy and pleasant experience for us all. They really enjoy when I read aloud from the book, and we are also doing an informal selfie project using Snapchat. We will culminate our study of the book by painting our own self-portraits and sharing them with each other. This reader allows my students to learn new content while interacting with language they have already acquired. I enrich the language of the reader further by discussing the life and art of Frida Kahlo with the class.
I think it is time for all of us to let go of the notion that language classes need to be challenging. When we teach comprehensibly, using comprehensible materials, getting to know students and their lives, and seeking ways to pleasantly share our target cultures with our classes, language class is a breeze.
Consider these points from the book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author and psychology professor from the University of Chicago).
- There is a distinct difference between pleasure and enjoyment: pleasure is fleeting and may not require skill; whereas the process of enjoyment comes about when a person has skills and growth can take place and continue.
- Several criteria are required for enjoyment to take place: skills must line up with the task at hand, or the person just became frustrated.
- Periods of relaxation are important; if the brain is constantly in a work mode, the transition state in which the “aha” moments will occur do not happen.
So, if you are considering a whole-class reader, look for a reader that will be easy enough for acquisition to take place effortlessly; one that is interesting enough that new learning and new discussions can take place; and lastly, remember to take time to play and have fun along the way! Alfred Mercier said “What we learn with pleasure we never forget.”
NOTE: If you are weighing your options on various readers, remember that on the Fluency Matters site, you may preview the first two chapters of every reader as well as the glossary!
Kristy Placido is the editor of CI Peek. She is the author of several novels for Spanish learners and presents workshops for teachers on teaching with comprehensible input. She has been using TPRS and comprehensible input approaches in her own classroom since 1998. Check out her blog at kplacido.com and follow her on twitter and facebook!