arianne as frida

Arianne Dowd makes novels come alive in her Spanish classes!

Have you ever read Pernille Ripp’s blog  “Blogging in the Fourth Dimension”?  She is an excellent blogger who is very passionate about “helping students fall in love with literacy again”.  She describes how to create a passion for literacy in our classrooms. Pernille explains that it can look effortless to the outside eye but in reality it takes hard work and planning.  However she states in her post “We Have Already Grown” that most importantly you need great books, community, trust and respect. This sentiment is precisely what I would like to share with you today. I have been a language teacher since 2000, however I began a new exciting journey approximately three years ago. This journey has completely transformed my teaching. What I teach, how I teach and even how I design my classroom are completely different from what they were three years ago, heck even last year! Every year I learn and grow and my classroom is a reflection of this process. Today I want to share the key ingredient to my transformation. It is TPRS (aka Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and more specifically, TPRS novels.   They are the perfect reflection of compelling books that build a community of trust, respect and fun in your classroom!

Rewind back to three years ago. At this time I began to embrace Twitter. I was very lucky to have found @SenoraCMT (Carrie Toth) there. I loved reading her tweets. They were full of fun and joy that is evidently a staple of her classroom. I remember thinking to myself, “How is she able to inject so much fun into her class? Doesn’t she have to give irregular verb quizzes and review ALL of the irregular preterites? Where does she find the time?” I noticed that she often referenced novels that her classes were reading and great activities that were hooks to get the class interested, or fun retells of a novel, such as her post on the Yellow Brick Road. She most definitely had already adopted Carol Gaab’s philosophy of the brain craving novelty. I only had the luxury of attending a Carol Gaab workshop last October. After a year of studying TPRS, Comprehensible Input, High Frequency Structures, attending a workshop and more, I convinced my supervisor to invest in some novels! I was so excited to try teaching with them and introduce my classroom to the excitement that Carrie and Carol had so successfully done. Last year was my first year teaching with novels. Every class that read them absolutely LOVED it! Each novel has a compelling cultural theme embedded in the plot that allows for language acquisition, culture and fun! These novels allow your classes to be the perfect introduction to what a World Language classroom should be! (Which in my opinion should be a language teacher’s opportunity to cure monolingualism and a way to create a #Nationofadvocates as Grant Boulanger expresses beautifully.) We should not be boring them to death with verb charts, but instead opening their minds to different cultural perspectives, giving opportunities to communicate in L2 and encouraging a love for reading! These novels are the perfect way to do this. This year I have incorporated a novel into each unit I teach and so far it has been wonderful! Actually when I asked my class what the best novel was that they read in 2016 they said “Frida”!

The list below narrows down the top 10 reasons I LOVE to teach with novels!

  1. High Frequency Structures

All novels are based on High Frequency Structures which helps take the guesswork of your figuring out on your own what structures are imperative to teach. Mark Davies’ Frequency Dictionary  gives a list of the 500 most frequently used words in Spanish.  Did you know that It is estimated that if someone knows the 500 high frequency structures of a language, they can understand about 60% percent of written or spoken language? Pretty amazing! If you are interested, you can find more information here.  Novels in my opinion are powerful curriculum resources because they include the critical high frequency structures which have been identified as the  “Super 7” and the “Sweet 16. Terry Waltz coined the term of “Super 7”.  This is a link to the 7 terms that Terry says are imperative for beginner language learners.   After Terry established the top 7 words crucial to communication and circumlocution, Mike Peto added the “Sweet 16” in order to establish a curriculum for level one language learners that includes high priority structures instead of a traditional textbook curriculum that often sacrifices these structures in order to provide a thematic unit.  

  1. All topics are cultural and fit AP themes.

If you are teaching with the goal of articulating to an AP program, the novels fit these themes beautifully. For example the novel “Bianca Nieves y los siete toritos” cleverly weaves together compelling cultural content and at least four AP themes into the novel while being comprehensible and engaging for readers.

Contemporary life:  

៙Holiday & Celebrations

៙Leisure & Sports

Personal & Public Identity:

៙Beliefs & Values

៙Nationalism & Patriotism

Family & Community:  

៙Childhood & Adolescence

៙Family Structures

Beauty and Aesthetics:  

៙Performing Arts

៙Contributions to World Artistic Heritage


  1. Novels provide comprehensible input.

In all language classrooms students get input when listening to the teacher speak the target language, but is it comprehensible? If it isn’t, it is useless. Students need to be able to understand the messages you are communicating and comprehensible novels make this a very easy task to accomplish. These novels are written with a limited number of vocabulary but at the same time include natural native-like grammatical patterns that students can acquire in order to obtain proficiency.  For example the novel “Frida” encompasses Frida’s complicated life but it is done masterfully with comprehensible language so that my  sophomores could read it easily, enjoy what they were reading and finally have a sense of accomplishment that they were able to read an entire novel in the target language!

  1. Novels provide the perfect opportunity to go beyond the text.

The topics of the novels always have culture embedded into the plot. Therefore it makes it easy to weave in cultural music, documentaries, film, current events, history, fundraisers and more!  For example with the novel “Esperanza” my students were able to watch the films “El norte”, “La misma luna”, watch pieces of documentaries such as “La Bestia”,  “Reparando” or “La camioneta” which teaches about the history of Chicken Buses.  Music from Ricardo Arjona or Gaby Moreno accompany the novel themes beautifully.  Sharon Birch posted some wonderful ideas here  My students also participated in the fundraiser with the Yuda Bands organization to raise money for a Guatemalan student to finish their education.  This project truly embodies the message of the novel and gives students access to an authentic resource since they can Skype the student they choose to help.  Students even prepared a presentation in Spanish and we visited other classes and teachers to explain the cause.  It somehow brings the hardships we read about on paper to life.  

  1. Teacher Guides are AMAZING!

I thought the original TG for “Esperanza” in comparison to a traditional textbook was excellent but you should see how blinged out the new one is. I know that Carrie Toth puts endless hours into these gems! They are worth their weight in gold. They include Can Dos, AP Alley, Pinterest ideas, Shake it Up (ways to get the class up and moving), graphic organizers and MUCH MUCH MORE! I loved them so much I purchased a few with my own money….Shh, don’t tell my husband. 😉

arianne student work

  1. Research suggests that reading is the key to language acquisition.

For example Dr. Krashen says, “There is overwhelming research showing that recreational reading in a second language is a powerful means of improving grammar, vocabulary, spelling and writing ability — and it is far more efficient and far more pleasant than traditional instruction.” and “Picking up word meanings by reading is 10 times faster than intensive vocabulary instruction.” I have found this to be very true. I even polled my students and asked for their input and the majority said that they learned much more vocabulary from reading the novel than they do with a traditional vocabulary list.

arianne student writing

Student writing sample from Arianne’s class


  1. The novels are not only comprehensible but also compelling, therefore appealing to students!

Carol Gaab is the queen of compelling input and I don’t think she would let a novel be published if it did not have a compelling story line. Here are some quotes from my students about why they find novels enjoyable:

“I am really glad we get to read the novel “Frida”; not only is the book beneficial, in terms of grammar and sentence structure, but it also captivates the audience with the main character’s intriguing life. In fact, some of Frida Kahlo’s childhood stories were so surprising and fascinating that I didn’t think they were true! Additionally, because we often read the book as a class, we are able to learn new vocabulary and figure out difficult passages together. The skits and strange voices from the class that go along with reading the novel out loud make it even more enjoyable.”

“I enjoy reading the novel “Frida” because this method of learning about Frida keeps me engaged and interested to learn about her and read more. Also, the reenactment during class helps a lot in visualizing the events and situations Frida faced. If we learned with packets or movies, it would not have been as efficient as reading the book. “Frida” is well-paced, and is broken down into short chapters which allows me to understand and retain at the right times before reading too much and forgetting.This book has definitely improved my vocabulary and reading skills in spanish because the book provides practice. The interactive notebook assignments and reading comprehension assignments also enforce the events. In regards to the plot, this book is very interesting, relatable, and funny. The book is interesting because it offers a glimpse into Frida’s world with a different culture and living conditions and it immerses you into their situation. It is a little relatable at times with the funny aspects such as accidents where other kids messed with others (in relation to when Frida urinated in her pants). Lastly, it is very funny becuase of little events like Frida’s accident and when classmates try to act it out. Overall, the experience is all positive because it helps in my reading skills, vocab, and keeps me interested to keep reading about her life.”

“I enjoy reading this novel about Frida because I find Frida’s life an extremely interesting and action packed retelling. I feel as if every single major event in Frida’s life is like straight out a dramatic movie, except all of these things have actually happened to her. Additionally, I feel as if every event in Frida’s life is so interesting and unique to Frida’s character and behavior. The book is not only interesting, but it a great tool to learn both about Spanish in terms of vocabulary and grammar as well as Spanish culture and famous Latin American figures. Honestly, at the beginning of the school year the thought of reading a book was kind of intimidating and quite frankly a bit far-fetched, but I think I have and will continue to enjoy the prospect of learning Spanish and Frida at the same time. “

  1. Teaching with novels allows students to acquire language versus learn language

This has been super evident to me recently. My students just read “Frida” and their writing was incredible. Many were emerging with excellent use of the preterite and imperfect when they had not had one formal lesson from me all year. The focus is on what students CAN DO with language and ultimately proficiency! Read more about the difference between language acquisition and language learning here. In my opinion students will always opt for acquisition versus learning because it is natural way to interact with language.



  1. Novels allow you to teach grammar in context.

Instead of those boring verb charts that few students enjoyed, now you can teach grammar as it comes up. Do you want to say what you would do if you were the character? Take a moment to show how to form the conditional tense and let students work with it and have fun (as long as it is PG ;). Make predictions about what will happen next. Then read student predictions so that they can get more input of what will happen. Or students can retell the chapter to practice using the preterite and imperfect. Novels are also a wonderful way to get more input of the preterite and imperfect. Some excellent titles that come to mind are “Frida” and “Robo en la noche”.   Many titles come in both the past and present tenses under the same cover.  

  1. Novels build community in your classroom and provide the opportunity for multiple connections!

While reading a novel as a class you build a sense of community. Each student will shine. Some are excellent narrators, others are wonderful actors, some can create amazing art work and others offer incredible insight into what they read. Overall, you will have lots of fun and get to know each other, building relationships that will last, especially if you inject PQA (Personalized Question and Answer).  Ben Slavic says that PQA “invites students to authentically participate in class” which is building interpersonal skills as well as class community since students feel their opinions are valued. Not to mention, you will make tons of other connections such as with your local community or global community with human #authres or fundraisers. You can connect with the author through Skype, email or Twitter.  You can connect with other Spanish classes reading the same novel!  The possibilities are endless!

Extra bonuses!

Novels allow for differentiation. Kristy Placido taught me that you can differentiate how the class reads. Some can read alone silently. Others can read with a partner and you can also simultaneously have a reading group with the teacher for students who need more guidance.

Allow students to participate in kindergarten day where they sit in a circle and are read to. Novels also provide a wonderful opportunity to bring in ELA and highlight cross curricular connections!  Finally if you incorporate FVR or SSR into your classroom, students will continuously have choice about what they are reading!

Arianne Dowd is a Spanish Teacher at South Brunswick High School. She is committed to lifelong learning. She holds dual BAs in Spanish and Psychology with a minor in International Studies from Montclair State University. She has two Master’s degrees, an MA in Spanish Literature from Montclair State University and a MAT in Italian from Rutgers University. She is passionate about making the switch in her classroom to using TPRS and Comprehensible Input in order to engage all learners. Collaborating with colleagues through social media to create compelling and comprehensible units comprised of cultural knowledge is her favorite hobby. She has begun documenting these activities on her blog.  

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