I love to read.
I was that kid who hid a book in her desk while pretending to listen to the teacher. My seventh grade teacher never called me on it – probably because he was just glad that I wasn’t talking for once.
Not much has changed. If I don’t have a book on the go – and another in the wings waiting – then I feel a little bit lost.
So it makes sense that novels would be an important part of my language learning.
I spend anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes reading in Spanish every day. My Spanish level is such that I’m not yet ready to tackle adult novels. I’ll save Gabriel García Márquez for some time in the distant future. For now, I’ll stick to children’s novels – not difficult to do, since I love children’s literature in English and French as well.
Why children’s novels?
- they’re generally accessible, written in simpler language
- high-quality children’s books are full of rich vocabulary
- they’re shorter – and a bit less daunting – than novels written for adults
- they come in a huge range of difficulty levels, meaning that you’ll likely find one that works for you
- they’re fun
I use children’s novels in three different ways:
Extensive reading – or reading for pleasure
Extensive reading for me means reading lots, without stopping to look up words. The purpose of extensive reading is to read for pleasure, absorbing vocabulary and grammar almost accidentally. If I get lost in a story, then I know that I’ve chosen the right book. The first book that I chose to read in Spanish was Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate by Roald Dahl.
When reading extensively, I guess the meaning of unknown words based on context. The only time that I look up a word is if it keeps popping up over and over again, and it’s leading to frustration or a breakdown in comprehension.
The characters in Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate were always “gritando” something or other. While it wasn’t keeping me from understanding the story, it was a bit annoying. Eventually I looked that word up and found out that “gritar” means “to yell”. That was the only word that I had to look up in that book – and I will never, ever forget it now.
A few tips for extensive reading:
- At least at first, it helps to read a book that you’re already familiar with in your own language. This will help you to understand the context and guess the meaning of unknown words more easily.
- Choose a book that you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy reading it, then look for something else. Life is too short to waste time on books that you don’t like.
- Extensive reading is a habit. I think that it’s better to do it for 15 minutes every day than for an hour twice a week.
- It’s better to read something slightly too easy than something slightly too hard.
I aim for 95% (or better) comprehension for extensive reading. Anything less than 95%, and a book is probably better suited for intensive rather than extensive reading. To figure out if a book is the right level for you, choose a random page. Count the number of lines on the page, and the number of words on one line. Multiply the number of words on one line by the number of lines on the page, and then multiply that number by 0.05.
Using a page of Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate as an example:
- 29 lines on the page
- 10 words in a line
- 29 x 10 = 290
- 290 x 0.05 = 14.5
So if there are any more than 14 unknown words on that page, then it’s not at a 95% comprehension level. Read the page, counting the words that you don’t know. If there are fewer than 14 – then you’re good to go. Any more than 14, and you might find the frustration level too high to really enjoy the experience of reading for pleasure.
Intensive reading – or reading to practice skills
I absolutely love the book Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. I think that it’s beautiful and sad and poetic. I read it out loud in French to my students three years in a row, so I know the story really well. While the vocabulary in Despereaux is rich, it was easy for me to guess the meaning of new words based on context. It was the perfect book to read extensively – starting at the beginning and reading right through to the end.
When I finished Despereaux, I felt a bit lost. I had nothing else to read, and the idea of restarting Charlie didn’t appeal to me. So I started reading Despereaux again, this time focusing on just one chapter at a time and reading it very intensively.
My method for intensive reading:
1. Read the chapter once from beginning to end, just enjoying the music and the rhythm of the language.
2. Read the chapter a second time, this time looking for unknown words that I jot in my notebook. (While I’m quite happy dog-earing my books, I simply cannot write in them.) I write down completely unknown words and words that I’ve guessed from context but am not quite sure of. If there’s an entire sentence or paragraph that puzzles me, I’ll turn to my French copy of the book to get the gist of it.
4. Read the chapter a third time, this time out loud, recording myself using my cellphone.
5. Read the chapter a fourth time, listening to my recording and reading along. If I notice that I stumble somewhere in the recording, I make a mental note of it.
6. Read the words or sentences that I struggled with a few more times, to practice pronunciation.
The chapters in Despereaux are short – usually between two and five pages – so doing all of this generally takes me between 20 and 30 minutes. I don’t do it every single day, but I try to intensively read a chapter of Despereaux a few times a week. I’m not sure if I’ll make it through the entire book – as with anything related to learning Spanish, I’ll move on if it stops being enjoyable.
While it might sound a bit dull to read the same thing multiple times, it’s not! (I know, I’m surprised too.) I just fell naturally into this pattern of reading multiple times for various purposes, and I’m amazed at how much vocabulary and sentence structure I’m learning. I also feel that my reading speed has increased and my pronunciation is improving.
A few tips for intensive reading:
- You have to really love a book to be willing to spend so much time with it. My approach to language learning is “If I don’t like it, then I’m not doing it“. That applies to intensive reading as well.
- It’s impossible to get lost in a story if you’re continuously stopping to look up words or reading the same text over and over again. Even if you’ve chosen to read a book intensively, I think that it’s worth reading it extensively as well, simply to appreciate the story. I chose to read this one extensively first, but I think that you could also do the opposite: work your way slowly through an entire book, and then re-read it for pleasure when you’re finished. This, of course, makes it even more important to really love the book!
- Figure out a method that works for you. I just fell naturally into this pattern of reading. But you might find that something else works best for you – listening to an audiobook while reading along, making note of grammar points or verb conjugations, writing short summaries after each chapter. Really, intensive reading is about reading a text slowly and deeply, but the only “right” way is the one that works for you.
Tandem reading – or reading two copies of the same book at once
When I got my hands on Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal, I expected it to be my next pleasure read.
Until I read an entire page and realized that I didn’t understand anything.
I felt frustrated and disappointed, and my first thought was to tuck it away for later – but I didn’t have anything else to read. Instead, I went to the library and picked up a copy of Harry Potter in English. I’m now reading the novels in tandem: first I quickly read a page in English, and then I read the same passage more slowly in Spanish. This makes it much easier for me to understand the story and all of its very specific vocabulary.
It’s not exactly extensive reading, since I can’t just curl up and read for pleasure. It’s fun, but it’s definitely more work than Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate or my first run through of Despereaux.
And it’s not exactly intensive reading, because I’m not digging deep to figure out vocabulary and sentence structure. My goal is simply to enjoy the story – which, at this point, means reading the same thing in two languages.
Tandem reading falls somewhere in the middle for me. My hope is that – as I get used to the rhythm and my overall skills improve – I’ll be able to read the other books in the series extensively, without relying so heavily on the English versions.