Before getting my certification to teach Spanish as a foreign language, I taught the little ones.
You know, the ones who didn’t know the difference between an A or a B. The ones who were starting their reading journey and for whom I had to lay the foundation.
The students I taught at the secondary level had already started their journey, but I did learn that what I knew about reading would benefit all ages and grades, not just prekindergarten through second grade students.
How? As it turns out, the same fundamental reading strategies would be just as beneficial for these learners. Knowing exactly what reading comprehension is (and isn’t) helped me devise strategies to target and improve Spanish reading skills for learners of different ages and skill levels.
I know it will help you, too!
Let’s start by comprehending comprehension.
The 5 Components of Spanish Reading Comprehension
Here’s a quick overview of the components of reading and how comprehension fits in with the rest.
1. Phonological Awareness
Phonological awareness is the ability to perceive spoken words as a series of sounds. If a student has good phonological awareness, they’re able to accurately discriminate sounds.
Teachers typically develop this skill with activities such as rhyming or phoneme blending—where students are given the sounds that make up a word and asked to put it all together. For example, they’re given a/z/u/l and they put it all together to say “azul” (blue).
In teaching Spanish, this skill is particularly handy when it comes to getting students to hear such differences as habló (he/she spoke) and hablo (I speak) or como (like) and cómo (how).
While phonological awareness is all about sound discrimination, you aren’t actually connecting sounds to letters. The old adage is that you can do phonological awareness activities with your eyes closed. English is considered to be an opaque orthography, while Spanish is transparent and predictable. This means that once students understand the basic sounds for the symbols, they can easily decode.
Phonics is connecting sounds to print: discussing the sound each letter makes, and learning the differences between open and closed syllables. Due to the syllabic nature of Spanish, the most important difference between beginning to read in Spanish and in English is that students begin to read in syllables.
Reading fluently means reading naturally and accurately, at a smooth pace and rhythm. This is usually achieved by rereading a story various times, reading with a fluent speaker or hearing a fluent Spanish speaker read daily.
While fluency ties into comprehension, like the other components of reading noted here, it isn’t exactly comprehension.
Vocabulary is knowing the necessary words to be able to communicate. It means knowing what a word means and how to pronounce it.
When it comes to learning a second language, we develop basic vocabulary first—hola (hello), hace frío (it’s cold), tengo hambre (I’m hungry), etc.—before we move into more advanced language.
Comprehension is being able to understand and communicate what was read. The information was either understood explicitly or implicitly.
Explicit means something has been stated outright, there’s no question. The student read “the sky is blue” and understands that the sky is blue.
Implicit means it’s not stated, but the reader can infer meaning and gain understanding by looking at textual clues.
The other four components tie into reading comprehension, but comprehension is the most important for students to achieve.
Now that we know what comprehension is, what should we expect students to comprehend at each level?
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Spanish Reading Comprehension Expectations by Level
The following descriptions are based on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines for reading comprehension when learning Spanish as a foreign language. These guidelines describe, more or less, texts a student at each level can understand.
- Readers at this level are very limited in their understanding. As they move past the pre-production stage, students benefit greatly from the use of Spanish/English cognates.
- Their vocabulary is limited, so you should expect to use highly contextual, highly predictable text and lots of pre-teaching activities.
- These readers will rely on their own background knowledge and “clues” such as pictures, cognates or text formatting to help them gain understanding.
- Highly predictable pattern books, grocery lists, restaurant bills and simplified infographics are examples of texts that are appropriate for this level.
- These readers are more successful when they can anticipate the information in the text, so the text should feature repetition and simple, high-frequency vocabulary.
- These readers are most successful with a text that’s simple, predictable and loosely connected in simple sentences, paragraphs and pages.
- They understand messages found in very familiar, everyday contexts. It’s still difficult for them to understand very detailed Spanish texts or those with advanced language structures.
- It’s important to ensure that the text isn’t overly complex, and that the pattern of presentation is somewhat predictable.
- They should be exposed to texts with plenty of high-frequency vocabulary.
- They still rely on context clues and it’s best if the information is presented in a familiar format, like a school announcement, brochure or weather report.
- Students at this level understand longer narratives and descriptive texts, and should be able to identify both the main idea and supporting details of these texts.
- When they’re familiar with the subject matter, they should be able to recognize the main argument in an argumentative text.
- They can understand sequencing, time frames and chronology, but it’s important to avoid texts that are too abstract, since they’re still in the process of building up their Spanish vocabulary and grammar knowledge.
- It’s best if the topic of a chosen text is of general interest to them, but they’re also able to read new subject matter and compensate for limitations by using context clues.
5 Activities to Improve Spanish Reading Comprehension
1. Read-alouds for Daily Exposure to Fluent Reading
If you think read-alouds are only for elementary students, think again. They’re a perfect complement to any lesson, and it’s becoming more and more popular to add them to foreign language curricula.
Perhaps you’re not opposed to reading out loud, but maybe you’re not sure how much students are going to be able to understand. A novice student has a very limited vocabulary and they’re still learning basic sentence structures. How will this help their reading comprehension?
- It exposes students to new vocabulary, which will improve their overall comprehension.
- Hearing the patterns of language from a fluent reader help students imitate those patterns when they read, increasing their comprehension of texts read independently.
- We want to scaffold students to the next level, and only reading books that they can read independently won’t help accelerate them. Exposing them to new sentence structures and themes will give them the tools they need to tackle different texts by themselves.
How to adjust for each skill level
Obviously, age and grade appropriateness are essential when choosing a book. How much of “Cien años of soledad” can a novice understand?
For novice and intermediate students, using picture books that contain rich language and new vocabulary will support any lesson unit. The pictures serve as a visual aid to increase student comprehension. So, you’ll want to start finding materials for these levels by looking to children’s books.
Here are just a few great Spanish-language children’s books that offer interesting topics and a glimpse of culture:
- “Cuadros de Familia” by Carmen Lomas Garza
- “Chimoc en Machu Picchu” by Andrea and Claudia Paz
- “Frida” by Jonah Winter
- “Juegos Tradicionales” by María Angélica Ovalle
- “Cali y Mona” by Pepe Valle
For upper-intermediate and advanced students, go beyond children’s books.
Not that you won’t expose students to picture books at this level, but you want them to enjoy and discover what reading they can do on their own. Try Spanish graphic novels to motivate and excite students to read on their own at these levels. Same principle, more complex language. You might even find adapted classic Spanish literature like “Don Quijote” as a graphic novel.
Read a portion out loud and then have the graphic novel available for students to peruse or take home.
2. Book Talks
Have you ever walked into a book store or library and been completely overwhelmed? I have, which is why I need a site like Goodreads to help me narrow down my selection. Students benefit from the same idea.
First, everyone in class needs to be reading a book, and not everyone can be reading the same book—there needs to be a little variety for this activity to work. Here are some ways to get your students reading different things:
- Print off a book list and have every student choose one title from it.
- Have every student find their very own Spanish-language book to read.
- Select a handful of good books, and assign a group or pair of students to read each one.
To conduct a book talk, allow two or three students to give a brief description of a text they’re reading to the class. This isn’t a summary of the book, but more of a commercial. Why would others want to read it? What is it about the book that made it impossible to put down?
After the book talks, students need to choose their next book to read from the other student presentations.
You might already see the many reasons why this is a good activity for getting students to read. Students comprehend more when they’re interested in the topic, and giving peer recommendations is one of the best ways to increase student motivation.
How to adjust for each skill level
Make sure novice and intermediate students have access to texts they can easily read. The materials for these sessions doesn’t always have to be just books, it can be newspaper articles, magazines and blogs. When novice students present their book talk, they can share a description in English and read one or two lines from the book in Spanish. Intermediate students should be encouraged to deliver their descriptions in Spanish.
Although we want our advanced students to eventually delve into classic Spanish novels like “Don Quijote,” let’s start them off with good YA (Young Adult) books that are sure to spark their interest. Go for something exciting and gripping that gets them hooked on reading fluently.
The most important component of a successful book talk is having these texts available for students. Your classroom should drip with literature. Have children’s books and magazines available for perusal and for students to take home.
Keep your personal classroom library stocked with chapter books and YA novels. Let students know about the selection of Spanish-language books available in the school or public library.
3. Read and Answer
Reading out loud is so beneficial, but can be so frightening for language learners.
We all know that because we’ve all been there! You looked at a text and thought, “How many new words are there and how do I pronounce them?” Or worse, “How badly is everyone going to laugh when I butcher this sentence?”
This activity asks students to read out loud, but takes the pressure off. Students have a chance to listen to a fluent speaker first (you) before they read out loud as a group. Then they’ll answer some questions pertaining to the text.
This is an activity adapted from one found in The Curly Classroom and takes the place of boring reading passages with multiple-choice questions. Instead, teachers take 10 to 20 sentences from authentic literature (think YA books) and write 4 to 5 open-ended questions.
This activity boosts comprehension by:
- Having students reread the passage and go deeper into the text.
- Confirming student comprehension by asking questions.
- Asking students to actively participate by reading out loud and responding to the text by answering questions.
- Exposing students to new vocabulary in context and reading aloud to get its correct pronunciation.
Steps to set up the activity
1. Choose 10 to 20 sentences from a text and type them up as a Word document. These lines can be from a song, poem or book. Try to use authentic materials as often as you can, and if there’s an audio version of the text, even better! Make sure the passage is interesting and from which you can draw your 4 to 5 questions.
I make sure that if I do this activity a lot, I take the opportunity to expose students to all kinds of texts. By the end of the year, students will have been exposed to songs, poems, biographies, news articles, realistic fiction, fantasy and so on.
2. After typing the text, create 4 to 5 open-ended questions. The questions should increase in difficulty as you proceed through them.
The first question might be a general comprehension question like, “What is the setting and how do you know?” or “What does ____ mean in line 8 and what clues helped you figure it out?”
Then questions 4 and 5 might be something like, “Why does the speaker feel that way?” or “If this were you, would you respond in the same way? Why or why not?”
Make sure that the questions aren’t Yes/No questions, and leave plenty of room on the document for students to answer.
Steps to complete the activity
The text will be read out loud four different times. This allows for students to get a deeper understanding of the text, practice fluency and get an opportunity to hear and pronounce words correctly.
1. Teacher reads text aloud and asks students to absorb the message.
2. Teacher and class read text out loud, then students answer the first question. Briefly discuss responses to ensure comprehension.
3. Vary reading. Boys read out loud and girls follow along, or left side of the classroom reads while other side listens. Answer the second question, then allow students to discuss in groups and check for understanding. These discussions should be brief.
4. The students that didn’t read in the last step now get a turn. Answer the third question.
5. Students then read silently and answer the remaining questions. Discuss and check for comprehension.
How to adjust for each skill level
Novice and intermediate students will need texts with less complex vocabulary and sentence structures. Poems and songs are perfect at this level because they tend to be short, simple and more repetitive.
Provide students with sentence starters to answer the questions. For example, let’s say that this is your question:
“¿Quién es el personaje principal del cuento y cómo sabes?” (Who is the main character and how do you know?)
Help your students by giving them the sentence stem to answer:
“El personaje principal es ____. Yo lo sé porque ____.” (The main character is ____. I know because ____.)
Advanced students will still benefit from sentence stems, but the text you use for them should have a wider variety of sentence structures.
You can also kick the difficulty of the questions up a notch. You might have a question for them that allows them to create a “product.” They could write another stanza of the poem, or write a line or two from a different perspective.
As their ability to manipulate the language increases, the number of activities they can do grows. These questions require a little bit of creativity and sometimes students get stuck. That’s all to be expected—don’t be afraid to challenge them, but do make sure you’re prepared to support them in class.
I’ll let them tackle the question for a few minutes, and then I’ll interrupt the class when I find a student who’s doing a great job. I’ll say something like, “Disculpa las molestias, pero me gustaría compartir lo que hizo ____.” (Pardon the interruption, but I would like to share what ____ did.)
Normally, that will give the other students an idea of how to proceed if they’re stuck. Then you can continue to circle around the class, respond to raised hands and give guidance to everyone who needs it.
4. Read What You Know
Good readers tend to make sense of what they learn by calling upon what they know.
Here’s how invoking prior knowledge pertaining to a text will increase comprehension:
- When students learn to make connections from their own experience, they have a foundation upon which they can place new facts, ideas and concepts. This makes the whole reading experience more memorable.
- When they’re already in the mindset of working with what they know, students will be able to think critically and make predictions about what they’re going to read. Confirming or rejecting those predictions when they finish reading the text helps them gain a deeper understanding of the text.
Activities that invoke prior knowledge
These activities can all be done before reading a text. Select the text ahead of time, and then create one of the following activities as a warm-up before reading in class or at home. You’ll activate their prior knowledge and get them in the right mindset to approach the text with their own experiences.
Cloze — Create sentences that contain about ten of the key vocabulary words students will need in reference to the text’s topic. Remove the key vocabulary words, so that you have blank spaces. Students need to fill in the blank by consulting a word bank at the bottom of the page.
This activity is usually done on a half-sheet of paper with the fill-in-the-blank sentences at the top and the vocabulary words at the bottom, but it can also be set up on a PowerPoint so the class can work together. I observe students as they write, and that lets me know what students already know and what I need to be sure to cover.
Word Splash — Give students key words related to the text and have them write a few sentences that capture these words based on their background knowledge.
Alphabet Game — Help students remember what they already know about a topic with this game. Tell students the topic, then divide the letters of the alphabet among the class. Students must think of facts, descriptors and names—or anything else they can think of—that’s related to the topic and that corresponds with the letters they were given.
Knowledge Grid — Create a table with four columns titled Palabra (Word), Nivel de conocimiento (Knowledge Level), Ejemplo (Example) and Significado (Definition).
Underneath the Palabra column, choose five to ten key vocabulary words. Students will then rate how well they know the word from one to three, with one being “I’ve never heard this word before,” two being “I’ve heard and/or seen this word, but I’m not sure what it means” and three being “I’ve heard this word and I can use it in a sentence.”
If they chose a three, they write a sentence using the word in the Ejemplo column and they write the definition in the Significado column.
We return to this page at some point during the lesson—usually after reading the chosen text—so that all words have a three, an example and a definition.
Semantic Map — Teacher writes a concept on the board. As a class or in groups, students brainstorm words that go along with that concept. The class then categorizes words, and once the categories are named, a class map is created. As students read texts and proceed through the lessons on the topic, words are added as well as categories.
How to adjust for each skill level
When completing a Cloze activity with novice students, make sure the sentence structures are simple and use cognates whenever possible.
The Word Splash activity will be difficult for novice learners, so either do it as a class or have them represent their understanding in a non-linguistic way by drawing pictures that represent what they already know about a topic and labeling it when possible.
During the Alphabet Game, allow novice and intermediate students to utilize words from their environment by having a print-rich classroom with word walls, labels, anchor charts, poems, songs, etc.
For the Knowledge Grid, I let my advanced students work individually or with partners, but no research is allowed. For novice and intermediate levels I might assign a word to a student and they’ll need to do some research and share the word, example and definition with the class by the end of the lesson. The words will vary depending on the level, but the activity is conducted in the same way.
While doing the Semantic Map, all levels will benefit from sentence stems like:
La palabra ____ va en la categoría ____ porque ____.
Las palabras ____ y ____ van juntas porque ____.
This is a fun and effective before and after reading activity that lets students respond to the text in a less threatening way. Students are asked True/False questions about a text before and after reading it. This helps to stimulate interest and asks students to start thinking critically.
How it helps with reading comprehension:
- It activates prior knowledge and helps students connect the new information to their own experience.
- It exposes them to vocabulary in context.
- The students take an active role in the text, formulating opinions and responding.
- It helps creates curiosity about a topic.
Steps to set up and complete the activity
1. Create a table with three columns: Oración (Statement), Estoy de acuerdo (I agree) and No estoy de acuerdo (I disagree).
2. Write five to ten true or false statements that are related to the topic of the text.
3. Before the class reads, the teacher will read the statements and the students will check whether they agree or disagree.
4. As the text is being read or after you’ve finished reading, the students return to the table, reevaluate their responses and then talk about why they did or didn’t change their mind.
5. If students change their answers, they must explain why.
How to adjust for each skill level
Have fewer statements for the novice learners and ensure that they’re simple. It will also be beneficial for them to have sentence starters ready for discussion like:
“Yo no estoy de acuerdo porque ____.” (I don’t agree because ____.)
“Me cambié de opinión porque ____.” (I changed my mind because ____.)
Keep these ideas in mind when you’re planning your next reading assignment.
If you’re determined to boost reading comprehension fast, quite a few of these can be mixed and matched within the same class periods.
And no matter how you use them, they’re sure to take reading comprehension to the next level in your classroom.
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