Using Children’s Novels to Learn Spanish – or Any Other Language

spanishchildrensnovelsI 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.

3. Look up the unknown words on SpanishDict and add them to my anki deck.

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.

How do you read in your target language? Do you prefer to read intensively or extensively? Any suggestions for books that I should add to my reading pile?

Happy reading!

22 thoughts on “Using Children’s Novels to Learn Spanish – or Any Other Language

  1. Betsy Kiplinger

    Wow. This post was very helpful. I’ve been reading Spanish picture books and recently, I’ve started reading chapter books. I like how you have spelled out how to tell if a book is comprehensible that may just let me read longer books.

    1. Stephanie Post author

      Hi Betsy! Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you found this post useful. I’ve spent most of my adult life teaching grades 1 to 4, and we use the same method to determine whether a text is the right level for a child: can s/he read between 100-250 words of the text with 95%+ accuracy. I figure that if it works for kids, it’ll work for me!

      1. Betsy Kiplinger

        Well, last night, I did some word counting and found out that sadly my Spanish reading level is Junie B. Jones and that Goosebumps is too hard for me. Sigh. Then, again, less than a year ago, I wasn’t reading any Spanish.

        I was wondering if you could provide some suggestions. I obtain my Spanish books through interlibrary loan at my public library. This means that I order them sight unseen. I’ve been thinking that I could look up a “suggested reading chart by grade level”, but I’m not sure if that’s my best bet. When I started out I would look at a picture book and if it was in past tense , I would ignore it as I only knew present tense. I don’t have all of my verb tenses yet (almost there), so this makes me different from a Spanish child learning to read Spanish. Do you have any suggestions?

        1. Stephanie Post author

          Don’t think of the word-counting as a hard rule – it’s just something that I use for myself as a general guideline. If you’re already familiar with a book, you’ll probably be able to enjoy it even if it’s under 95% comprehension. Could you maybe get a copy of the same book in English and Spanish? As I mentioned in my post, Harry Potter is waaaay too hard for me right now. But when I tandem read with the English copy, I can understand it – and enjoy it – very well. As for verb tenses – I don’t worry about them too much. So long as I recognize the root verb, I consider it a known word – for example, I can “see” comer in “ha comida” – even though I absolutely can’t use that verb tense yet. I can figure it out using the root word and the context. Also, by reading verb tenses that I don’t know yet, I find myself using them in conversation. After reading “habia” multiple times, I started using it even though I hadn’t officially learned the imperfect tense yet.

  2. Fran@BCDC

    Stephanie…I am So impressed with this endeavor. I would never tackle anything like this and I don’t even know what to say. Such an undertaking. All I remember from Spanish class is “Hola, Isabel!” Better than nothing I guess. Hooray for You!

    1. Stephanie Post author

      Fran, thanks for the kind words! And as for what you remember from Spanish class – it will definitely come in handy if you ever meet a Spanish-speaking Isabel! Ha!

  3. Ola

    I really liked you post. I actually learnt a lot from reading English books years ago. And I always recommend reading and listening to audiobooks to everybody.
    A few months ago I listened to all parts of Harry Potter in Spanish, and I found it extremely helpful. And I felt it really improved my Spanish. And just started listening to “La sombra del viento”, but not sure if it won’t be too difficult for me. And “La casa de los espiritus” is waiting on a shelf. Always the same problem: too many books, too little time.
    I totally agree that it is great choosing books you really like to learn a language. I’ve got all parts of Harry Potter in Korean, but they are waiting till my Korean gets better. But I will definitely try your method then. And probably I’ll try it with Isabel Allende as well.
    It was a really great post. It’s good to know I’m not the only one that crazy about books.

    1. Stephanie Post author

      I would love to get my hands on a Spanish audiobook of Harry Potter, but I’m finding it surprisingly difficult! If I ever find a copy, I’ll listen to it, even if I’ve already finished the novel. I would also love to read Isabel Allende in Spanish. I’m really looking forward to graduating to “real” Spanish books, rather than the translations that I’m using now. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Shawn

    Good stuff. I’ve been reading the C.S Lewis Chronicle books in Spanish and English somewhat like you described. I have also got the Spanish audio-books too so I can listen in Spanish and follow the book in English or Spanish. I also tried out the first Harry Potter book too and it was much more difficult plus the spanish audiobooks are quite expensive. I’ll have to check out the Charlie & the chocolate factory.

    Also, for those who are at a much lower level they can check out the easy spanish readers from Blaine Ray (TPRS) and Karen Rowan (Fluency Fast).

    1. Stephanie Post author

      The Narnia books are actually on my list at the library. I’m hesitating though – mainly because I didn’t love those books in English. I’m not sure I want to spend the time with them. I can’t seem to get my hands on the Spanish audiobooks of Harry Potter without spending a ridiculous amount of money! I’d love to be able to listen along as I read. Thanks for sharing the easy reader suggestions!

  5. Steve Ridout

    Hi Stephanie, thanks for this. It’s very similar to the way I’m learning Spanish with Harry Potter at the moment, the difference is that I’ve created a whole website to let me (and others!) read novels and collect vocab for practising in a faster, more streamlined way. It’s called Readlang and I’d love to get your opinion on it. Of course if it’s impossible to drag you away from your paperback books I completely understand! 🙂

    1. Stephanie Post author

      Hi Steve! Thanks for your comment! Yeah, I’ll admit it…I’m kind of old-school when it comes to books. I have a kobo, and actually quite like it, but I forget that I even own it 99% of the time. Ha! I’ll take a look at your site. I’ve read the two first Harry Potter books in Spanish and am looking forward to the rest of the series!

  6. Pingback: Reading Easy Stuff (or: my Tagalog book bin) | to be fluent

  7. Laura

    I cannot find a Despereaux audio book in Spanish (I want to learn how to say the words correctly) any suggestion on how to find one in Spanish?

    1. Stephanie Post author

      Sorry Laura, but I’m not sure if there’s an audiobook for Despereaux. If you find one, let me know! I’ve actually never listened to any Spanish audiobooks, although I would love to.

      1. Laura

        Bummer ! on no audiobook. It would be a great way to make sure my pronunciation is correct. I have almost finished the pimsleur course. It is fantastice, but I need the next step. I just found your website while looking for the Despereaux audio book in Spanish. Your site looks like it will be quite helpful in my attempt to learn Spanish on my own. Gracias!

  8. Marlon

    I found the books by author Mariana Ferrer not so hard to read, specially “Amor A Primera Vista”, this is aimed at intermediate level.

  9. James

    I strongly recommend “Harry Potter e la camera dei segreti”, which preserves the liveliness of the original well; the French translation of Philosopher’s Stone turns the title into “HP a l’ecole des sorciers”, and is not nearly as lively as the original. Still a very good read though. I look forward to reading “HP y el prisionero de Azkaban”.

  10. Hayley

    Este blog es MUY útil! 🙂 Actualmente, estoy leyendo “Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate” para mejorar mi español y entiendo muchooooo! Estoy muy contenta!!!! Gracias por tu ayudar!!!


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