Reading non-fiction text in Spanish 4

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A group of 3 using the Fan-N-Pick Kagan structure to discuss an article

I have been really looking for ways to increase my Spanish 4 students’ ability to comprehend more types of text and gradually up their “authenticity levels” in their reading. They are awesome kids to work with, and I am looking at most likely having a Spanish 5 class next year for the first time! I have a blend of extremely proficient kids (advanced in both listening and reading on the AAPPL exam) all the way down to those who are still scoring in the novice high range on the AAPPL. Some kids just LIKE learning Spanish and stick with it even though their proficiency isn’t increasing as rapidly as some of their peers. And I am totally ok with that! I’d rather have them stay with me and make slow gains than quit and gain nothing. (On a related note, check out #nationofadvocates on Twitter!)

One of the things I have been working with in Spanish 4 is reading news articles. I often will take an article, simplify it, and make an activity with it. (By the way…if you teach Spanish 1 or 2 and want an AMAZING wealth of non-fiction CI amazingness, I highly recommend you check out Martina Bex’ El mundo en tus manos Spanish news stories for novice learners!) I really wanted to come up with an activity that students could use to process ANY non-fiction text. Plus, since I am left with only half my students in my Spanish 4 classes (our seniors finish 2 weeks early) I wanted to come up with some activities that felt like valuable work yet not a punishment. In many of their other junior/senior combined classes they are simply “done” for the year. They admitted to me that they are bored with so much free time and are tired of watching movies all day.

I’ve really been liking the content at, and they have a ton of Spanish articles. Students can select the lexile level they’d like to read, and I encourage them to select what feels comfortable to them. I told the students to get into groups of 3-4 with their chromebooks and choose an article that they ALL wanted to read. I allowed them to read silently or aloud, together or individually, and they could have open if they wanted. Their task was to make sure everyone in the group was able to understand the article.

I had made up a set of generic task cards with questions that could potentially apply to ANY non-fiction news story (I sell my printable task cards in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.). Each group was given the instructions AFTER they finished reading.

Task Cards for discussing non-fiction
Task Cards for discussing non-fiction

They were to use the Kagan structure “Fan-N-Pick.” Our school is a Reading Apprenticeship school and we have been using Kagan structures for many years. I highly recommend them!

The basic gist is this:

  • Students sit in a circle.
  • One student fans the cards out (like they are going to do a card trick “pick a card, any card!”)
  •  The student to the left of the fan selects a card and reads the question to the student on THEIR left.
  • That student answers the question.
  • If there is a 4th student in the circle, that student either adds to the answer or restates the answer.
  • Pass the fan of cards to the left and repeat.
  • I allowed my students to reference their article DURING the Fan-N-Pick activity if they needed to.
My Spanish 4 classes are tiny now that my seniors are done for the year!


I had my students put away their articles and task cards. Their task was to video record themselves having an informal “book club style” discussion about their article. They were well-prepared, knowledgeable, and I daresay they even had fun doing this!


Círculos de la literatura

lit circLiterature circles have been a staple in elementary classrooms forever, and they are a great way to introduce your world language students to a more independent way of reading novels in class. You can do literature circles at any level, but personally I find they work best in level 3 or 4, or in level 2 if you have students that are able to work well and read independently.

Materials needed:

Several sets of 4-6 novels each, at a variety of levels but not too far out of the reach of any student in the class. It is totally ok to have some “easy” reads in the mix.

I have made up a packet for my Spanish classes with descriptions of each job, a project checklist, rubric, cover sheet for each group, and job sheet for each individual job. If you want to make your own, there are lots of other examples online!


I like to start by giving a little “book talk” about each title (I am also a certified school media specialist, so I love incorporating tons of books and reading into my Spanish classes!). You can talk in English or in your target language, as long as it is comprehensible to students! Spend just 30 seconds or a minute on each title! This is just a quick little commercial!

Next, I invite every student to look through the titles and select the title they would like to read.

After all students have chosen a title, the kids with the same books become a group.

For each chapter, students must select a job, and they must equally share all of the jobs throughout the book. (There MUST be a discussion director for each chapter!) Allow the students themselves to manage the process of delegating jobs. I allow groups to decide if they like working together to read or if they prefer to read independently. I give time throughout the week for reading, and there are deadlines weekly for completing chapters and for having literature circle work completed. For each chapter, they must complete their job, participate in a group discussion which the group videotapes (Each teacher will have different ways of managing this process. Audio taping in another option, but I prefer video!), and then put all of their work together into a packet with a cover sheet.

Let the students know that you reserve the right to grade any or all of their work! But the trick is, you are not going to grade ALL of it. You can either tell the groups that you want “chapter 8” from every group, or you might tell each group to select what they think was their group’s BEST work and submit that.


I have several jobs that students must take turns with throughout the project.

  • El dueño del resumen
  • El viajero
  • Enriquecedor del vocabulario
  • Director de la discusión
  • Artista
  • Conector al mundo

For more ideas, just search online for “Literature circles.” Elementary teachers have tons of ideas that we can also use in secondary world language classes!

Using audio books when teaching a novel

I am a big fan of audio books and podcasts. They are a great way to pass time in a car or on a plane, especially for those who suffer from extreme motion sickness like me! I also love using them in Spanish class at all levels. TPRS Publishing now has audio books available for almost all of their Spanish novels and I am experimenting with ways to maximize these awesome resources! Here are some things that I have tried. Please comment with ideas that you may have!

1. Doodles

Have students listen to a chapter they have already read, or a chapter you are confident that they will be able to comprehend. As they listen, have them doodle little sketches of what they are hearing.

2. Talk to the Text

Talk to the text is a technique we have learned about at my school as part of our Reading Apprenticeship training. Basically, the gist is that you take a text that you are reading and mark it up, making your invisible thinking visible. Since in this case, the text is audio, student just write anything they want on a blank paper as they listen. They can doodle, write English or Spanish, make connections, etc. Any thought they have can be recorded.

3. Cold intro to a chapterillinoismap

Sometimes I have students listen to an audio recording before reading the chapter. I call this a “cold listen” if they have NO preparation at all. Normally I don’t like to do a completely cold listen, so I will have an intro conversation prior to the listening. I will often write things on the board and leave them up during the listening.

For instance, this week we prepared to listen to Chapter 3 of La Calaca Alegre by Carrie Toth. I had traced a map of Illinois on the white board and we discussed where Carlos was born (Chicago) and where he lived currently (Carlyle) and where St. Louis was located. We discussed how one would travel to Chicago from Carlyle and we also discussed the various ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago. These visuals were helpful to the kids as they listened. We then did a “cool listen” (not cold because I had them a little warmed up to the topic) and did a Talk to the text (see #2 above).

4. Post reading

I often will have students listen to a chapter the next day after we read it. Sometimes I will periodically pause the recording and ask questions while other times I will give the students an activity to complete. This is generally a really satisfying activity for them because they really understand!

5. Assessment

I like to include listening assessments on my tests. What I do is pre-select some segments of the audio CD (just mark down the track # and the time stamp where the segment begins and ends). I make up some “main ideas”


In this section of the audio book, which is the main idea:

A. A letter explaining that they have an appointment to apply for political asylum

B. Alberto is in trouble for organizing a workers’ strike

C. Aunt Tete helps Esperanza

D. Esperanza is about to cross the border at the beach

Students listen as I play the section of the audio recording and select what they believe is the main idea of that section. I usually have them listen to 5-10 segments on a test.

6. Listening for specific items

Make a list of PLAUSIBLE facts that the students may or may not hear in the audio recording. As they listen, have them mark the items that they actually hear.

7. Paper dolls

I got this idea from Cynthia Hitz and Krista Applegate. The basic idea is to use this activity when you have a chapter with a lot of movement. On a paper, make a “map” or layout of the area(s) where the movement takes place. For instance, the second half of my novel Robo en la noche really lends itself to this. For Chapters 9-10, sketch out a map of Costa Rica. Label the hacienda in Alajuela, the soda, and Curu in the Nicoya Peninsula. In Curu, make a little more detail and show the various areas where action takes place in that chapter. Copy enough of these maps for each pair of students (or for individuals if you prefer).

Now, make little stick figure “dolls” of each character. Either sketch them or trace them out of the novel. Make a little “minivan” also. Copy these figures for each pair as well.

Now, give each pair some scissors to cut out their little paper figures. As they listen to the chapter, have them move the figures around accordingly. Observe the students as they move the figures to see how well they are comprehending.

Have YOU discovered a great way to use audio books in your classes? Please share in the comments!

Getting kids to tackle tough stuff

So, my lack of blogging might be one indication that I am having a challenging year. After 15 years of being a teacher of an “elective,” my course is now required for high school graduation. I know everyone feels super sorry for me!

But really, wow, what a change this is for me! I am daily wrapping my brain around IEPs and 504 plans and lack of motivation and court-ordered attendance and general surliness. Sure, I’ve had some of “those kids” before, but this year there are a whole bunch of them! Ay, ay,ay!

One thing that has been blowing my mind is how little stamina some kids have. How little adversity they are willing to endure. Grades don’t matter to many of them, so I can’t use that old carrot anymore. I have to find ways to get these kids to just TRY!

I have discovered that if I ask them to read anything longer than a sentence or write anything down, they shut down and say “I can’t.”

Well, I came up with an idea to trick them a bit into using some reading strategies. The results weren’t perfect, but they were so much better!


What I wanted them to read were some brief descriptions of scenes from the novel we read in class. But I knew from my prior failures that I’d get a bunch of guessing or blank papers (I’d also get lots of 100% tests but those kids will be my concern another time…).

So, I forced them to break the task down into smaller chunks by drawing pictures first, then answering the questions about the passages.

Are some of you saying “Yeah, Placido, DUH!”? Well, that is fine, but for me this was a big ah-ha moment!

Level 4 Spanish Civil War / Art / Film unit

Recently my level 4 Spanish class finished up a study of the Spanish Civil War and Franco. It was a lengthy unit, which encompassed a novel study last semester, and then continued into the current semester with a film and art study. I was really pleased with the learning that took place, the increased ability of my students to discuss more advanced topics (these are 4th year students, but not pre-AP. Most of them are just interested in Spanish and not all are even college bound kids.), and what seems to be a genuine appreciation for the struggles of the Spanish people, the understanding of the concept of fascism, the understanding of left-wing versus right-wing, and the concept of film and art as a powerful political statement rather than simply entertainment or beauty.

I’d like to share an overview of what we did, much of which unfolded as a result of some really powerful collaboration with my colleague Carrie Toth (@senoraCMT). I am so grateful to know her and call her my friend!


La hija del sastre
García Lorca Biography Packet


Article on Spain’s Falsified Adoptions under Franco


La lengua de las mariposas

El espinazo del diablo

El laberinto del fauno


Guernica by Pablo Picasso in 3D

El Ambidiestro

Students kept journals, we did lots of discussion, and they also were told to look for imagery and especially what they believed might be symbolism. We kept track of the powerful images that were common across more than one of the items we viewed or read. Students practiced speaking about the imagery with an inside-outside circle activity.

Finally, after studying the painting Guernica by Picasso, students were given time to create their own art representative of what they knew about the events and consequences of the civil war for the people of Spain. Once their art was finished, we displayed it in a “gallery” (a large open unused choir room in our school!), complete with tapas (ok, popcorn, chips and oreos, but it was a nice thought!). Students were divided, each group had 10 min to circulate and talk with others, 10 minutes to stand near own art. All talking in Spanish. I circulated asking questions to help them refine their own thoughts and statements. At the end, they had to describe their art to me in Spanish (via cell phone using Google voice), and then were randomly assigned to the art of another student to describe or discuss in Spanish.

Here is a video of two of my students describing art created by their classmates.

Legends project

In Spanish 2, my students will be creating videos this week.  This is essentially going to be both a reading and listening activity.

Some background:

My students studied the legend of La Llorona, reading/viewing 2 different versions of the story.  Later in the semester, they learned the Greek myth of Athena and Arachne and we compared to the Mayan myth of how the goddess Ix Chel taught the Mayan women how to weave after she observed spiders weaving.

Now my students are going to learn 6 more myths/legends/traditional stories and create a video about ONE of them each.  First, I typed up a short and simple version of each of the stories I had chosen.

I put out a call for help on twitter as well as on the “More TPRS” Yahoo group I belong to.  As a result, I had several different native Spanish speakers volunteer to call my Google Voice number and record themselves reading one or more of the stories that I had shared via a Google Doc.

Did you know you can download Google Voice messages as mp3 files?  Oh yes!

The next steps will be:

Students will listen to all of the recordings in class and predict in writing what they think each legend is about.

Students will receive a copy of one of the legends to read individually.  They will “talk to the text” and mark it up with their thoughts, impressions, and understandings.

Students will then confer with larger groups of students who read the same legend and add to their notes.

Students will then jigsaw and share their legends with a group of students who each read different legends.

THEN, students will discover which of the six legends they have been assigned to.

Students will use the native speakers’ voice recordings as the soundtrack, and will create a video providing visual support for the soundtrack.

I will share the final video projects on youtube for all of you teachers out there to enjoy!

ACTFL Communication Standard

For most language teachers, the primary “bread and butter” of our course is Communication. This year, in my quest to be more standards-based in my instruction as well as more proficient at communicating the standards to my students and their parents, I have had several things on my mind.

First, I realize that there are now 3 modes rather than 4 skills.  How often and in how many different ways should I be assessing students in each mode?  How do you do it?

I’d really like some more ideas and to collaborate with some of you on how you assess the various modes in your classroom!

In Spanish 2, here is what my class will look like in terms of the modes:

Interpretive Listening

Song quizzes every 1 1/2 – 2 weeks.  After studying a song, students take a cloze quiz and are also asked to interpret the meaning of various words in context.

Commercials.  We will do cloze listening activities with a variety of commercials.

Myths, legends, and stories project.  Students will select from a variety of audio clips of different myths, legends, and stories.  They will use the audio as the basis of a video project in which they select or create appropriate  images for the audio.

Identifying pictures.  After learning the story of Jorge el curioso va a la fábrica de chocolate, students will view several pictures from the book, listen as I read descriptions of the pictures, and they will select the picture I am describing.

Interpretive Reading

We will read a total of 4 novels in the class.  Students will read and take quizzes recalling the information they have read.

Students will complete a “Choice board” project in which they choose from a variety of options in which they demonstrate their comprehension of the reading.

Presentational Writing

Students will write an in-class narrative based on a picture.

Presentational Speaking

Students called Google Voice and described pictures from a story we had learned in class.

Interpersonal Speaking/Listening

Students will discuss what they did over the weekend with classmates each Monday.  They will have assessments in which they use Google voice to record several of these conversations.

Students listened to a guest speaker from Perú.  They formed questions for her with a partner and asked her the questions.

Interpersonal Writing/Reading

I’d like to have my students write to our new Peruvian friend (who is an English teacher there) and ask her students some questions!




MiWLA Handouts and Links

Rejoinder List  we dicussed in Carol Gaab’s workshop on Friday

Transforming the World Language Classroom With Formative Assessment 1:00-4:30 pm University 1

Formative Assessment MiWLA 2011

Angry Birds Article

Robo en la noche Choice Board Projects

Formative Assessment Teacher Tools

Reading Comprehension Assessment

Writing Rubric

Cute “Secret Message” Activity

Formative Assessment Card Sorting Activity (if you are a coach feel free to borrow and use!)

Online Resources for Maximum Learning Impact  2:30-3:20 pm Ballroom F


Leave your impressions of these resources here!

Cognitive Coaching

Today I finished up a 2-year training seminar consisting of 8 full days with the directors of the Center for Cognitive Coaching, Jane Ellison and Carolee Hayes.  It was an intense learning process, one where you go home with your head hurting a bit at the end of the day.  The purpose of Cognitive Coaching is to have conversations with other people that mediate their thinking and push them toward new thinking.

This training was provided by the Michigan Department of Ed as part of their Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators Initiative in coordination with Measured Progress.  As a trained coach, along with seven others from my district, the goal is to be able to coach our teaching colleagues to be more reflective, efficient practitioners and problem-solvers.

Having been cognitively coached myself several times, I never fail to be amazed at the power of these techniques.  You feel as though the coach has just solved your problem when in reality they guided your thinking through paraphrasing your own words, asking questions carefully crafted to probe your states of mind, and watching carefully for the physical manifestations (facial expressions, body language, breathing, voice tone and volume, etc) of cognitive shift.

Cognitive shift is what most people refer to as an “Ah-ha” or “lightbulb moment.” We all have those from time-to-time, but with a trained cognitive coach you can reach those moments more quickly and less painfully!