Keys to incorporating novels into an existing curriculum

I received an email from a teacher who is interested in incorporating novels in his classroom and his questions were great! I think anyone who is in the same situation might wonder the same things! In case you were afraid to ask, I will share his questions and my answers. If you disagree or have something to add to my answers, please don’t hesitate!

– I see that you incorporate novels. How do you present the vocab for a novel like ‘La Guerra Sucia’? I looked at the preview of the teacher’s guide and there are many words.
There ARE many words. The thing about the TPRS Publishing novels is that we write them having read the other novels so there is a LOT of overlap… If kids are reading the lower level novels, they’re acquiring a lot of the same structures that they’ll see in the upper level novels… Once they have those basic structures, there is a relatively manageable amt of new vocabulary specific to each novel… As a backward planner, I try to look at vocabulary like this:


The yellow circle are the things from the novel, (textbook unit if its required), authentic resource that I think kids will need to know to be fluent speakers in the future… To have, to need, to go, to come, to want, to like, to be able to, etc… Those are my focus points for our study. I would choose those to be the structures everyone is responsible for knowing. Next circle is the important to know and do circle. If my weakest students can’t remember these things, I’m fine with that. They’ll still be able to say what they need, want, have, etc. But my faster processors will be able to say it with more flair because they’ll know these words. The last circle is the green- worth being familiar with. This would be impress me vocabulary. Stuff that my superstars will remember and use in their presentations, discussion but that I don’t think is important to know for life. An example- the verb destapar comes up in guerra sucia. My superstars were using destapar like crazy as they discussed secrets that governments hide from their citizens but my slowest processors just stuck to revelar… The chuck-it bucket should be big. Words that students will probably never need to know. For example in the novel, one of the characters is tortured and they talk about some of the tactics. I would throw those in the bucket. Kids may well remember them but providing a quick translation in English is sufficient to move on through the text. I would never ask them to know what submarinas (dunking ppl underwater as torture) were… but they actually are morbidly fascinated with it…

How do you typically present grammar lessons? I know that this is a requirement in most dual-credit programs.
Our dual credit program gives students 8 semester hours credit or the equivalent of 101-102.. All I am required to do is teach present and past tenses. I do grammar popups in both present and past from level 1-4 and so it is easy for me to prove that those have been covered. We are far beyond what they learn in level 102 but I like not having to jump through all the hoops.

More specifically, do you have a special way of teaching the upper level grammar like conditional, subjunctive and past subjunctive?
Ok, here is where I may lose you. They don’t need to know that. Period. They should be exposed to them. They are definitely in that outer circle- worth knowing about… but they are not attainable for many of our students. In growing a flourishing program, one that focuses on proficiency, we have to realistically look at all of those tenses and ask how much can they honestly acquire in a short time without leaving so many behind that we are only teaching to the top 10 students? (I am not saying you do this, I am just not sure if you’ve heard anyone speak such heresy before.) Just to put it all in perspective, students move through the novice level relatively quickly. When they are successfully creating with language (however messy), they are pretty much intermediate… BUT intermediate is LONG! It takes forever to move from intermediate to advanced low… Check with local universities and find out what their OPI requirement is for their language teachers. Here in IL it advanced low. That’s after graduating from college… and you know what? Our language education majors who don’t study abroad have a hard time getting past intermediate high. In order to get an advanced low, they have to consistently speak in 3 times… present, past, and future. Not use subjunctive, conditional, etc, just those 3 main time frames… and college grads who haven’t studied abroad struggle to do it! So our focus becomes clearer… If we want our students to get great OPI scores we just need to hit those tenses hard and prepare them to use language in a lot of situations!! Not that we don’t show them all the others! Mine (through popups) recognize them in reading and can tell you what they mean and some of the best can even create with them but I don’t make them a focus.

Since my Spanish 4 guys will be coming from a strictly grammar based, mostly in English setting, do you think it would be wise to start them off with the Felipe Alou novel and then go into Guerra Sucia or would that be too big of a jump? If they’re coming from that setting, you may have some initial pushback! The problem with CI based methods is that we expect engagement and many students come to school and disengage! They also may not have read novels before! I would say starting with Felipe would be a GREAT idea! It is intimidating to read a novel, no matter how easy, if you’ve never done it! It is a LONG jump from that to Guerra… do you have time to add one more? Maybe Robo en la noche (Costa Rica/conservation) or La Calaca Alegre (Chicano culture/Identity)? Not impossible to jump but they might build another bit of confidence with one in the middle…

One more…

– We have a general curriculum for Spanish II already in place. How would I incorporate a novel into that curriculum seeing that there would be a difference in vocab, etc. Or could I just base my instruction on the novels?
A lot of my curriculum is based around novels, but you don’t have to do it that way… If you’re tied to a general curriculum and want to try out a novel, I would try to find a place that you could skip or skim a chapter and throw the novel in instead. For example if they’re doing a chapter on dining out at a restaurant and you want to throw in Robo en la noche, you can try to really hit on that chapter vocabulary when the family is dining at the Costa Rican soda and not do the chapter as written in the textbook??? I don’t teach level 2 so I don’t have a curriculum of my own but I am sure my colleague would share hers. She is entering her third year teaching and I know she made a lot of changes last year and probably will again this year but was relatively happy with the units she had developed! My stuff (as I think you may know) is all on my blog! Happy to share anything new I create… watch the blog, I’ve got a big rain forest/biodiversity unit in the works and Kristy Placido (you need to visit her too if you haven’t has a Frida Kahlo coming!! And my new book (coming soon) is going to be the center of a level 1/2 bullfighting unit… so much excitement…


  1. Sracmt,
    How does one learn how to teach the TPRS way? I’ve taught for many years but I really feel like the whole CI makes sense: I use the TL a lot but I’m not sure that’s the same as CI – not for all kids.

    • Two ways: first and best option is to attend a workshop! Second option is to find a CI teacher nearby to observe and then read read read books like TPRS in a year by Ben Slavic!!!

  2. When you say present and past tenses, are you including the present perfect and past perfect? How many levels is this in high school?

    • On the OPI they have to sustain a past dialogue (understandable to a native speaker but not necessarily perfect), a future dialogue (ok to use ir + a), and present time… ACTFL has great videos on their site that show what each prof level sounds like!

  3. […] This, I think, is one of the basic paradigm shifts that a beginning TPRS teacher must face. As a legacy methods teacher I would tell myself, gosh, my students won´t remember vocabulary from two or three units ago. As a TPRS teacher, the target structures should be burned permanently onto the hard-disk of student´s memory. If target structures are not so useful to bring back frequently in class, maybe they should not be target structures. Carrie Toth recently published a blog post about backward planning with a more nuanced presentation of planning for enduring understanding…  it is worth checking out! […]

  4. […] First, I looked at the story and sorted vocabulary into three categories: (1) words that my students already know/cognates that they can identify without difficulty, (2) words that my students will need to learn in order to understand the reading, and (3) words that are footnoted/can be footnoted because they are not high frequency/super essential to the overall comprehension of the story and will not likely be used in subsequent units, so I don’t care if students learn them. Carrie Toth has a great post about vocab sorting that I recommend reading HERE. […]

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