Who doesn’t love a good story?
As novelist Ken Kesey famously proclaimed, “To hell with facts! We need stories!”
To quote Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”
Essential Reading: 7 Exciting Children’s Stories in Spanish
The best story books not only teach us something about life, they also draw us in with beautiful illustrations and poetic language.
The same is true for Spanish translations of classic children’s books. Children’s stories in Spanish are great resources for introducing the language to learners for two reasons:
- Because the books are geared toward young readers, the vocabulary is simple and unintimidating.
- The illustrations provide contextual clues that help language learners make out what’s happening even when faced with new and unfamiliar words.
As a result, children’s stories are great for beginner students of all ages because they teach Spanish in a way that’s simple and easy to understand.
Furthermore, reading an actual book in the language they’re studying gives students a sense of accomplishment that all the worksheets and textbook exercises in the world can’t provide. Through children’s stories in Spanish, language learners are able to engage with the new language in a meaningful, personal way.
And an added bonus is that some students will already be familiar with the books in their own language and can build familiarity with the new language on their existing Spanish knowledge.
How to Use Children’s Books in the Spanish Classroom
Teachers can use children’s books in two different ways. They can either read the books aloud in class or students study the books on their own, alone or in groups.
One effective step to using children’s books in the classroom is to share the original English version first, if you’re teaching students who speak English as a first language. This establishes prior knowledge and prepares language learners for new vocabulary and concepts.
If you’re teaching a classroom full of students from different backgrounds and languages, make sure to give as much context as you can in Spanish before jumping into the book.
It’s also a good idea to hold students accountable, especially with free-form activities like independent reading. Vocabulary logs, reader response journals, and other assignments that help them interact with the text can keep students on track and make them accountable for their time.
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Which Books to Use?
Of course, there are almost as many Spanish translations as there are children’s books in English. The following books merely provide a small sample of the many wonderful choices available.
1. “Buenas noches, luna” (“Goodnight Moon”) by Margaret Wise Brown
This book makes a great starting point because it has a simple, repetitive text and illustrations (by famed illustrator Clement Hurd) that demonstrate exactly what the text describes. It also features several cognate words, such as teléfono, mitones and lamparita.
“Buenas noches, luna” would make an excellent resource for introducing diminutives, as the three little bears of the original become tres ositos, the two little kittens are dos gatitos, the old lady becomes la viejecita…calladita. The chairs the bears sit in become tres sillitas. Even the cow jumping over the moon is rendered una vaquita!
2. “¿Tu mama es una llama?” (“Is Your Mama a Llama?”) by Deborah Guarino
This book would be a perfect introduction to animal vocabulary, as no fewer than six different animals are named and described in the text. Steven Kellogg’s bright, colorful illustrations highlight descriptions like:
- “Se cuelga cabeza abajo y vive en una cueva”
- “Tiene cuello largo y blancas plumas y alas”
As an extension, students could draw the animals mentioned in the book and copy the descriptions underneath. Or, they could play a game in which they describe a new animal in Spanish and other students try to guess from their description which animal it is.
3. “Donde viven los monstruos” (“Where the Wild Things Are”) by Maurice Sendak
Author/illustrator Maurice Sendak’s droll tale and accompanying illustrations of Max’s adventures among the wild things are guaranteed to delight readers of this classic, no matter what age. Caldecott Medal winner, “Donde viven los monstruos” is also told in the past tense, making it an excellent choice when reviewing verb tenses. Verbs include regular constructions such as comenzó, miraron, and navegó, as well as irregular verbs like dijo and se puso.
4. “Madeline” by Ludwig Bemelmans
The whimsical story of a little French girl named Madeline growing up in a boarding school with a clever nun named Miss Clavel also contains a plethora of past tense verbs, many of them in the imperfect tense (avanzaba, giraba, decía).
Because the story rhymes, it makes a perfect choice for reading aloud. And although the setting is Paris, it also offers an opportunity for cultural tie-ins like Catholicism, traditionally the predominant religion in Spanish-speaking countries.
5. “El ratoncito, la fresa roja y madura y el gran oso hambriento” (“The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear”) by Don and Audrey Wood
This charming and innovative book, addressed in second person to the protagonist (a mouse who wishes to hide a delicious strawberry from a hungry bear), really piles on the adjectives—as the title shows! The book includes examples of onomatopoeia (¡BUM, BUM, BUM!), future tense (retumbarán, encontrará), and the subjunctive (No importa dónde esté escondida). It also provides a valuable opportunity for a discussion of the differences between the informal tú (the register the narrator uses to address the mouse) and the formal usted.
A fun tie-in would be to have students bring in food with adjective-filled descriptions of the dishes they prepared. Just be sure to have students include ingredient lists in case of allergies or food sensitivities among the class.
6. “Un día de nieve” (“The Snowy Day”) by Ezra Jack Keats
In this Caldecott-winning classic, the reader follows an enthusiastic little boy named Peter as he enjoys a snow day. Not only was the book important for introducing an African-American protagonist, but Keats’ innovative illustrations, cut from scraps of paper and cloth, make the book a visual treat as well. Students will be exposed to the past perfect tense in constructions like Había caído nieve, el sol había derretido toda la nieve, and su sueño había desaparecido. Examples of onomatopoeia include crac, crac, crac and plaf.
The book would work well during a unit on weather-related vocabulary or seasons of the year, and students could complete tie-in projects like a weather log or an art collage in Keats’ style.
7. “Las mágicas y misteriosas aventuras de una bulldog llamada Noelle” (“The Magically Mysterious Adventures of Noelle the Bulldog”) by Gloria Estefa
Who can resist the adorable bulldog Noelle as she worries about fitting in with the more beautiful and glamorous animals in her new home? This book, simultaneously released in both English and Spanish and gorgeously illustrated by Michael Garland, is appropriate for more advanced Spanish learners. It includes higher-level vocabulary (arroyuelos, luciérnaga, astucia) and several verb tenses, including present, preterite, imperfect, subjunctive and future.
Students at this level may also be interested in reading other children’s books, including those originally in Spanish and without an English equivalent. I recommend the wonderful books of Argentinian poet Jorge Luján.
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Create Your Own Spanish Stories
Once students become accustomed to using Spanish-language children’s books in the classroom, you might take it a step further and have them write their own children’s book using the vocabulary they’ve studied in class.
To make the project more meaningful, students could share their books with other students, either fellow Spanish language learners or younger native Spanish speakers. The latter would provide students with a valuable connection to real users of the target language, promoting diversity and tolerance.
Students might also work together in teams or pairs to write and illustrate their books, promoting interpersonal skills like cooperation and joint decision-making.
Other Classroom Activities
One way to progress from reading and writing about the book into the realm of speaking and listening would be to have students construct a role-play based on the story, using specific vocabulary from the book. They could act out these scenarios in pairs or groups.
Students might also highlight vocabulary from the text and use the words in original sentences, which they could share with fellow students. A final extension activity might be a word wall, posted in a prominent place in the classroom, for each Spanish children’s story the class studies.
The Value of Children’s Books in the Classroom
While there are many skills-based advantages associated with using children’s books in the Spanish-language classroom, perhaps the most important benefit of all is that we instill a love of literature and language in our students.
The books included here, and many others in the children’s literature genre, teach values and promote cultural literacy and foster creativity, but, most of all, they offer up beautiful servings of poetic language that leave students wanting more. And isn’t that, as teachers of a foreign language, exactly what we strive for?
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