Using novels in the classroom

As I wind down my 5th year of teaching, I am entering my 3rd year of teaching novels. I originally wrote a grant to get enough money to purchase 1 class set of books, 1 for each level that I teach. I hadn’t yet heard of TPRS Publishing, so I ended up getting all of mine from Blaine Ray. Over the years, I have changed the way I teach novels and how I use them in the classroom.

Year one

Let’s be clear here: I had NO idea what I was doing. Even though I received CI training during my undergrad, my little novice teacher brain just wasn’t ready for it. So my first two years of teaching, I was strict by-the-book with a few extras thrown in. Any CI was purely incidental. But I knew reading novels was good, so I asked for the money and received it thanks to the wonderful people in my school’s foundation. We read Pobre Ana when I was in high school, so I figured that was a good place to start. I ordered my texts and figured I would start reading them in 4th quarter because then the students would have learned all the things they need to know!

So technically the first year was a success because we made it through the books. In many ways, it was not a success.

-I didn’t differentiate techniques for different levels because I didn’t really have any idea how to structure questioning (in English or Spanish – remember, I’d been trained on how to teach vocabulary, grammar, and culture separately, not all three at once!)

-I tested the fun right out of the kids. Pre-test, post-test, vocab and comprehension quizzes every other day.

-I tested over WAY, WAY, WAY too much vocabulary. My thought was, ‘if we haven’t used it before, it must appear on the vocab sheet’.

-Everyone had the same final product (a vocabulary/comprehension behemoth test) regardless of proficiency level or interest.

-I had every class read more or less at the same time, and because we weren’t very good readers, I had to read the chapter aloud. For 7 periods of the day. I didn’t want to use just a recording because I wanted to be able to stop and ask questions when necessary. This was a terrible choice.

-I did the novels all at once. Quite frankly, 7 periods of doing nothing but novels for 2 weeks at the end of the year was nothing short of torture for both me and the kids.

-I had the teacher’s guides, but hadn’t had TPRS training so I had no idea what a parallel story was, why some of the questions asked about things that clearly were not mentioned in the story, and so on, so I didn’t utilize them very effectively.

Year two

Last year, I taught novels again, but I made some adjustments. Last year went much better, but there were still some problems to resolve.

-My students were better prepared to read, but we still struggled a lot, especially in the classes that were reading in past tense.

-I had found out about TPRS Publishing and realized that the Blaine Ray stories are pretty rote (there is a person/they go to a Spanish speaking country/something related to the title happens/they go home and are a better person). I think part of the problem was lack of interest, but it was too late to order new titles. I feel that the other publishers do a better job of writing more creative stories, especially for novices.

-I did order teacher sample packs of various books to browse over the summer and to use as potential free reading in my classroom.

-I changed my study guide. I cut the vocabulary down to a few key terms per chapter, and also refocused the questions in it to just be about the story. I asked personal questions during class.

-I allowed my upper level classes to choose to read on their own or as a group.

-I still was very stupid and had ALL my students read ALL at the same time ALL at the end of the year. Again, it was a terrible idea and I regretted it as soon as I realized I had planned my unit that way, but I was out of time.

-My biggest and best change was adding choice to their final projects. I ended up getting some really amazing stuff, including a trivia game about the book, many cartoons using Powtoon or Moovly, a fantastic BitStrip, and even a student who loves computers who coded his own multiple-choice quiz in BASIC.

Year three

So this year, I have 2 years of using novels under my belt. I also added free reading to my Spanish 3 and 4 classes this year, as well as primarily using storytelling in levels 1 and 2. This means this year’s students are way more prepared to read than any students I have had, and it shows. I’ll have a separate post on my FVR program (it’s extraordinarily simple) but for this one, suffice to say: it has been working for me.

This year, I am also working on a grant to add more novels to my classroom. I plan to add Brandon Brown quiere un perro to my Spanish 1s, La tumba for Spanish 2, Spanish 3 is when students start FVR and I’d rather have them have maximum time for choice reading, and in AP Spanish I intend to add La guerra sucia as part of a unit on the Dirty War. I also asked for money to add to my FVR library, although I think after this year I’ll be set up enough to use my regular discretionary funds to maintain it.

In any case, I am just now starting my novels for the year, and here’s the changes I’ve made.

-I plan to read aloud with my two classes that have the most difficulty with reading (mostly due to learning disabilities), but the other classes get to pick. The best part is, I can be confident that the students who read alone have the ability because we have been practicing all year long.

-No more study guides except as an optional guide to help them for their final project. In the classes where read together, we stop and talk every paragraph or so (in English or Spanish, depending on the purpose of my questioning) so everyone understands. For those who read alone, I have them fill out my FVR log. The point is for them to get the main idea of the story, not every single word.

-No more vocab. I don’t need to, because we have practiced es/está/tiene/quiere/puede/etc. so much during the rest of the year that they are much better equipped to use context clues and identify cognates as they read. I can help them with the occasional ‘out of bounds’ word or phrase. I also pre-teach new vocabulary I want them to acquire (not just comprehend momentarily for the sake of the story).

-The best change is that each class is reading throughout the 4th quarter, and each level reads on a different day. This keeps the reading from becoming tedious (for them and me) and also helps me be more flexible in my planning, since so many of my students are gone for school activities in the spring. It also leaves plenty of time for them to complete their final project, rather than having to rush it because we’ve only got 1 day of school left.

In the future

If my grant is approved, that leaves me with 2 class novels per year in each level besides Spanish 3, plus FVR in Spanish 3 and AP Spanish. I think that’s a pretty healthy number. I have samples of all of the novels from Blaine Ray, TPRS Publishing, and Mira Canion, but there are always more series starting to crop up on Amazon and other places. Even if you don’t use the other parts of TPRS, I think that attending a workshop is beneficial to learning to teach a novel because in my workshop, we explicitly discussed it, and even if yours doesn’t, learning how to question through a book makes it so much easier to teach. Maybe someday, I’ll even do literature circles… but I only get 185 contact days with the students, so I have to pick and choose.

Do you have any other novel recommendations? I also hope this post provides some guidance to newer teachers who are just starting to teach novels for the first time. Like anything else, it’s a bit of a mess the first time around but it gets easier from there!


3 thoughts on “Using novels in the classroom

  1. Hi. I have to say that of all the MANY posts I’ve read concerning novels, this has been the most informative. I’m a 3rd yr teacher, but native speaking, with no TPRS training aside from what I’ve learned on my own. This is my first time trying to incorporate novels into my classes. So I have a few questions and I’m hoping you could help. Would you be able to email me at

  2. I’m really curious to know what options you give your students for a final project and if you have a final project for each novel you read. In addition to FVR, do your Spanish 3 students also read 2 novels together? Which ones? Thank you!

    • Here’s the link to my final project guidelines. As you can see, they’re pretty open.

      In Spanish 3, we only do one novel in 4th quarter – they do FVR the rest of the year. I currently teach Mi Propio Auto by Blaine Ray, but I purchased them before I discovered TPRS Publishing. Now, I think I’d do something else. Problemas en Paraíso has been pretty popular with my Spanish 3s this year for a more intermediate-level book.

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