Strategies for using authentic Spanish literature
Using authentic (i.e. untranslated) Spanish texts can be daunting, especially if the author comes from a country or culture other than your own. You might be afraid of making a mistake or misrepresenting a culture that’s not yours. You might feel uncomfortable with a dialect, vocabulary and language structures that are different from yours. Maybe the book seems like it’s meant for kids in a specific country, and you wonder if your kids will like it or understand it. Don’t let your discomfort stop you. Those challenges are both real and totally worth facing! Spanish-speakers are an incredibly diverse group of people; their dialects, historical contexts, and cultures vary greatly from one region to the next. Exposing our young bilingual readers to this diversity through literature will benefit them greatly and we as teachers need to step up to the challenge by doing it well!
Here are some of our favorite strategies for making the most of an authentic Spanish text with U.S. bilingual students.
Remember that even within a single Latin American country there may be regional differences in the vocabulary, grammar and language structures that people use -- and that’s OK!
I still remember when I first arrived at my host family’s house in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where I would be spending the next year of my life as a Rotary exchange student. I overheard my little host sister calling to her brother by yelling vení instead of ven, which is what I had learned in school back in the U.S. I had been a dutiful, rule-following student, and though it makes me laugh now, I literally CRIED thinking that I was about to spend a year in a place where they spoke the wrong kind of Spanish. Thankfully I came to see that there is no single, correct version of Spanish; language is dynamic and it’s tied up with culture. I came to love the very particular way of speaking Spanish in Santa Cruz and to embrace it wholeheartedly.
Have conversations with your students about where a book's author is from. Find that country on a map. See if anyone in your class is from that country or knows someone from that country. Return to this idea throughout the book when you meet words, phrases, sayings or structures that don’t match your own dialect. If you can spend some time researching some key words or phrases that are unfamiliar, great! If not, then it’s a perfect opportunity to model how you infer meaning when you come to a word you don’t know.
The way a story or a book unfolds is not the same in every culture.
The first time I read the children’s book Pancha la Chancha to my daughter, I was thrown off. It’s about this little girl who loves being dirty. She hates bathing, hates brushing her teeth -- her neighbors all pinch their noses when she passes. Then one day along comes a sweet little girl named Rosa who is clean and fresh. Everyone loves Rosa and stops paying attention to Pancha. Happy to be out of the spotlight, Pancha escapes to be a slob in peace, and becomes a pig (literally). The End. I was so baffled! I was raised on bedtime stories with a clear beginning, middle and end. I was trained in school to introduce a character, present a problem, have that problem build to a climax, then bring the story to a close with a resolution. Many Latin American stories, on the other hand, are more circular. They may not have a peak and a resolution. What was this business about the girl becoming a pig and never learning any lesson about personal hygiene??! As I've become more familiar with books from Latin America, I'm now aware of my own discomfort with the way they sometimes unfold. I can name it and push past it. Get ready to get uncomfortable -- there are as many stories as there are ways to tell them, and there’s no right or wrong way for a story to go!
What you might consider appropriate is relative. Know your school and your community context and consider in advance whether to skip or address complex themes.
I’ve been reading the gorgeous poems in the book Nacer, in which the author highlights different creatures and writes about how they’re born and how their parents care for them. The very last poem, which focuses on humans, mentions the words “sperm” and “egg.” The word “sex” isn’t even mentioned, and while I feel totally fine reading that page with my five year old daughter, I know I'd be absolutely uncomfortable reading the same page with a classroom full of kindergarteners. The themes and concepts that are age-appropriate for a certain grade in your own community, culture, or district might not coincide with what’s considered age-appropriate in another culture. A book that matches the reading comprehension level of your students might have some content that you consider too advanced or complex for them, calling for you to make some choices about how to proceed.
Take time to read over the text before sharing it with your students so that you know in advance whether to skip a certain section and just avoid something that your kids aren’t ready for, or whether to address a complex or tricky topic. Use your best judgment. You know your students, your school culture, and the district expectations best. Keep in mind that just because a topic is complex or mature does not necessarily mean you need to shy away from it, but it will be important to think ahead about how you want to approach it, and be prepared to justify your plans with adults who may want to know more about what you’re teaching and why.
Vocabulary can have different connotations in different regions. Stay on your toes and make adjustments as necessary!
I still remember when I was a first-year teacher and I came across the word estúpido in a book I was reading aloud to my third graders. It was a translated Roald Dahl book, but the collective gasp that whooshed through the roomful of eight-year-olds was enough to alert me that estúpido was NOT truly equivalent to “stupid.” Of course the word “stupid” is not a nice word, but estúpido held a different kind of cultural weight, at least for the Mexican-American students in my class at that time. This was a book that had been translated in Spain, where perhaps that word is an appropriate Spanish equivalent for "stupid," but my classroom was different. I soon learned to be nimble at quickly substituting problem words on the spot when I was reading aloud to kids.
Take the opportunity to explore texts with a critical lens.
There is no such thing as a truly neutral text (Gibbons, 2009, p. 83). Every text is part of a social, historical and cultural context. Reading a book from another country and culture provides an opportunity to practice looking at literature through a critical lens. Help foster discussions with your students about where the author is from and how their own cultural experiences shaped their goals. Who were they writing for? What were they hoping you’d walk away with? How might that story be different if it came from a different voice? Look for authentic books that counter dominant narratives about life, people, history or how things are supposed to be, and make explicit the comparison of the alternative narrative and dominant narrative.
Schema and sociocultural context matter.
I consider myself nearly fluent in Spanish, but when I try to follow the heated dinner table conversations when we visit my husband’s family in Chile, I inevitably get lost. It’s never just about the Spanish words. The talk is laden with cultural and political references, shared memories and experiences that I’m clueless about: iconic soccer moves from specific games played over 30 years ago, life under a dictatorship, politicians’ faux pas, funny videos on YouTube that went viral.
When we try to read something, we’ll be most successful if we’re armed with memories, experiences and prior knowledge that support our understanding of that text. Teachers understand that knowing how to read is so much more than just decoding. Good readers make connections, predict, infer, and go back and reread things that don’t make sense. As they read, they make meaning, and the whole time they’re drawing on schema: all the information we carry with us and bring to the table when we open a book. (Gibbons, 2009).
Knowing how important the schema and cultural context are will be a powerful tool when reading authentic texts. Help set kids up for success by drawing out what they already know, documenting their prior knowledge on a graphic organizer, and then filling in any gaps by front-loading them with information that will further support their comprehension. This might be as simple as a book walk, or as involved as an entire lesson to introduce new concepts and vocabulary before reading.
Consider ways you can help students connect their own experiences to a book that was written by someone in another context.
One of my favorite picture books from Books del Sur is called De aquí y de allá. It celebrates the different people that make up the fabric of Chile, including immigrants from all over the world and multiple indigenous groups like the Mapuche, Aymara and Diaguita. At first glance, a teacher in the U.S. might think this book doesn’t apply to their classroom because the indigenous groups are unfamiliar. Kids are flexible thinkers, though, and they need to practice making connections between their own lives and the books they’re reading. This book could be a perfect jumping off point for a discussion about the many different indigenous groups all over the Americas as well as which tribes or indigenous groups are native to your own region. Children can be invited to share their own personal immigration stories, or the immigration stories of their loved ones. There's value in kids seeing themselves represented in books, and there's also real value in kids seeing experiences and perspectives that are foreign.
Next time you reach for an authentic Spanish text, don’t let your discomfort hold you back. Crack it open, do the work, and then dive in - you won’t regret it!
Gibbons, P. (2009). English Learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking: Learning in the Challenge Zone. Heinemann.
Caitlin worked as a bilingual third grade teacher in Madison, WI and now lives in Mexico.