Read any good Spanish children’s books or short stories lately?
Any particularly colorful picture books with rhyming sentences written in giant font?
Yes, you read that right. That’s a serious question.
Every language learner should spend solid time with these colorful books, with huge fonts and arresting images. You should be spending quite a lot of time with these types of materials, actually.
Because if you think children’s stories are really just for kids, then you’re missing out on one of the most important and most effective tools that could be in your language learning arsenal.
How Reading Short Stories Sharpens Your Spanish
They Build Your Vocabulary
What better way to learn the Spanish names of animals than by reading a short story about farm animals planning a surprise birthday party for mother cow? Or will you ever forget that perro is the Spanish word for dog once you’ve read “Perro grande…Perro pequeño” (“Big dog…Small dog”) by P.D. Eastman cover to cover?
Short stories provide rich contextual cues for new words. They scaffold the memory via an engaging plot, a funny situation or an interesting conversation. Stories provide mental anchors so your brain can efficiently store, and therefore recall, the words.
Try memorizing a dry list of farm animals where one column gives the English names and the other contains the translations. Everything you need might be contained in a single page, but it won’t help one tiny bit to integrate that vocabulary into your long-term memory.
Now try reading 3 or 4 books that contain the names of the same animals in the list. This time, you’ve got a lot more going for you—contextual cues that will drill the Spanish into your head. You have the story’s title, for one. Then you’ve got an engaging plot, as another. Still more, you’ve got pictures and colors in the page—all working to help make you remember vocabulary.
Short stories are actually vocabulary factories.
But, shhhhhh. That will be our own little secret.
They Make Grammar Come Alive
Short stories provide space for grammar rules to shine. They’re often structured so that the same grammatical structures and rules are repeated over and over again in the same book.
In adult literature, writers purposely change sentence styles, even word order, to avoid boring the readers with repetition. But with children’s stories, repetition is the name of the game! The conversations are circular, with only very minor differences. If, on the first page, the main character says he loves to eat oranges, you can bet that on the second page, he’ll still be saying he loves to eat…maybe mangoes this time.
Not only are sentences so basic you can figure out the grammar rules, practically the same sentence structure is used all throughout.
So for example, you’ll find similarly structured sentences like:
The grass is green.
The ball is round.
The sun is hot.
In the story “Perro grande… Perro pequeño” by P.D. Eastman, for example, the sentence structures in the title are repeated throughout the story for each new item of discussion: Once for perro grande, and a second time for perro pequeño.
In “¿Eres Mi Mamá?” (Are You My Mother?), a story about a little bird looking for his mother, that titular question gets repeated throughout the story time and time again. Children’s lit is naturally built this way, thus making it a worthwhile companion for the smart language learner.
Repetition for its own sake might be boring, but because repetition is interwoven to a thickening plot, it maintains the interest of readers young and old. With short stories, repetition works in the Spanish beginner’s favor. Grammar rules come alive, over and over.
Now, if only we know how to mine for those grammar lessons.
Well, why don’t we talk about that next?
How to Mine the Stories for Spanish Lessons
Always Start with the English Version of the Story
Whenever available, start with the English version.
Well, it just makes everything else that much easier. It’ll give you the big picture and inform you what the story is all about. It simply removes the guessing game. Skipping this part means you’ll be simultaneously learning the story as you’re learning the Spanish translations—which means your focus will be divided. (And a little birdie tells me that’s no good.)
Highlight Spanish Words That You Don’t Know
Once you get to that part where you juxtapose the English text with the Spanish text, highlight the words (as in grab a highlighter and mark the words) that are new to you. Pay attention to where they’re located in the sentence and what their English translations are.
The highlighted words will give you visual and mental focus so that every time you read through those sentences, you’ll take careful note of each word and its English translation.
When we meet unknown words in the text and we don’t highlight them, what usually happens is that it’ll only be a matter of seconds before we meet another new word and lose our focus. We turn our sights onto another and, as a result, nothing’s ever stored long-term.
And when we review the text without highlights, we’re bombarded with so many new words we can’t really integrate them all into memory.
Highlighting may be deceptively simple, but it’s really a powerful way to grow your vocabulary. I strongly encourage you to do it so you can experience for yourself the visual effect this has on your reading sessions. (If you can use a line to connect the Spanish word with its English translation, so much the better.)
Besides, highlighting a word is a firm declaration. You’re saying: I don’t know this. I need to learn this.
Whereas rereading a page devoid of marks, you’re greeted with words that are only somewhat familiar, but lost to your memory. You think to yourself, “I kinda know this” or, “I think I’ve seen this one before.” (Of course!) So you come to the wrong conclusion that you already know those words. Then two weeks later…
Lift Sample Lines and Figure Them Out
Assuming that what you’ve got in your hands is a first-rate translation, one way of efficiently mining a dual-language book is by engaging in grammar analysis of a single line. The shorter the sentence, the easier it is to distill the embedded grammar rules. Juxtapose the English and Spanish sentences and look for:
1. word form
2. word relationships
3. word sequence
When you’re able to explain why the translator used this or that specific word (in relation to the other words and lines), then you know that you’ve got the grammar down. For example, still using the story “Perro grande…pero pequeño” as our example, the sentence “Ted played the tuba” is translated as “Ted tocaba la tuba.”
Do you know why the translator used those exact words? There’s so much insight to be gained from this single innocent sentence. Here are some of the lessons that you can draw from it:
1. Spanish, like English, generally follows the SVO sentence structure (subject-verb-object). That’s why the word sequence came out that way.
2. Tocaba comes from the infinitive verb tocar (to play).
3. Tocaba is conjugated in the third person singular form of the imperfect tense.
4. La is added before tuba because Spanish nouns have genders and tuba is feminine.
If you’re able to give at least one of these reasons, then you’re headed in the right direction. So, pick your own line and try to explain why the translator rendered the line that way. Dig in deep and really analyze what’s going on with the various words in the sentence. See how much you know, and jot down anything you can’t explain as well—you can always look that up later
Try to Translate the Lines Yourself
After going through the bilingual story several times, try translating the lines yourself. Cover the Spanish translations with your hand and, in your own words, render the English lines into Spanish. Get a piece of paper and get it in writing. Man, this mental workout will be one of the most productive things you’ll have ever done.
Compare what you’ve written with the actual translation. Notice your missteps? Where did you go wrong? Or was your translation perfectly correct, but still a bit different? Your mistakes will reveal so much about what you think you know, what you actually know and what you can learn.
By working actively with the text, you’ll learn more than vocabulary. You’ll get into connectives, conjunctions, pronouns and prepositions—all of which you need to hone in order to compound your learning.
So, are you ready to dive into some books that’ll be your secret weapons of instruction? Well, why don’t we take a look into each one of them and see how they bring more fun and color to your Spanish sessions.
7 Colorful, Creative and Cultural Spanish Short Stories for Beginners and Beyond
1. “En mi familia” by Carmen Garza
In Carmen Garza, you get a brilliant illustrator and an inventive author rolled into one—and a Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Children’s Book Award Winner at that!
This little treasure is much more than a Spanish learning book. If you want to understand what Mexican heritage is all about, this book lets you in on their most cherished traditions and celebrations.
“En mi familia” is drawn from the writer’s own childhood experiences. It’s about a little girl’s memories of growing up in Kingsville, Texas.
The book is a visual-cultural delight, with vividly detailed pictures that can only be expected from the painter and writer Garza. You can almost smell the food and feel the celebration, you’ll be tempted to jump into the page just to be part of the scene.
From the pages of “En mi familia,” you get to feel family as it should be. That is, of course, on top of all the Spanish vocabulary that’ll be deeply embedded in your memory.
2. “La velita de los cuentos” by Lucía González
Historical fiction, anyone?
“La velita de los cuentos” or “The Storyteller’s Candle” is an homage to the indomitable Pura Belpré—New York City’s first Puerto Rican and Latina librarian who welcomed immigrants and celebrated their heritage through outreaches and civic activities.
The story is about cousins Hildamar and Santiago, who just a few months ago, came to New York City from the sunshiny island of Puerto Rico. It’s the winter of 1929, and Three Kings’ Day is around the corner. The atmosphere’s a little bleak and it seems the home country is too far for a real, authentic celebration.
One day, the cousins happened by the New York Public Library and came to admire its beauty, but they were told by their family not to go in because nobody inside speaks Spanish anyway. There are no Spanish books either.
Then one day, a lady named Pura Belpré visited their school and regaled the kids with stories both in English and Spanish. She invited everyone to the library and said that it’s open to everybody, even to Spanish-speaking kids like Hildamar and Santiago.
This inspirational bilingual book at times crosses language demarcations, featuring some Spanish words interspersed with the English side of the page, which it does to great effect. A glossary rounds up your Spanish session and ensures you’re getting more than just a magnanimous piece historical fiction, but a thorough language lesson as well.
3. “I Love Saturdays y domingos” by Alma Flor Ada and Elivia Savadier
Remember when I said earlier that short stories provide mental anchors for your memory? “I Love Saturdays y domingos” is one such book. It’s an affectionate story of a little girl who straddles two cultural heritages—that of Grandpa and Grandma (Saturdays) and that of Abuelito y Abuelita (Sundays).
This little girl takes you through your Spanish lessons by describing her awesome weekend experiences and excursions with both sets of grandparents. So, eat your scrambled eggs (Saturdays) or huevos rancheros (Sundays) and get ready to go to the circus, fly kites and listen to stories from the distant past.
The author has seamlessly integrated two different cultures in one book (which is really harder than it looks) and even squeaks out a wonderful ending.
Read “I Love Saturdays y domingos” and learn loads of authentic Spanish expressions. In addition, you’ll get to practice your contextualizing skills.
4. “Qué cosas dice mi abuela” by Ana Galán
Ready to take it another notch?
“Qué cosas dice mi abuela” (“The Things Grandmother Says”) is all in Spanish. It’s a poignant and heartwarming story of a grandmother bequeathing timeless wisdom and insights to the next generation. Here, you’ll come across sayings like “con el tiempo y la paciencia se adquiere la ciencia” (patience, time and money accommodate all things).
Your Spanish friends will recognize the sayings and would swear that their grandmothers used to say the exact same things to them.
One of the great ways of appreciating and learning a language is through its sayings and proverbs. So in addition to learning manners, the sayings give you a great inside look into the rich Spanish cultural and literary heritage.
This book tenderly incorporates Spanish sayings in its pages and would serve as a great workbook. Since the English translation isn’t given, you’d have to do a little work yourself. Use the tips I gave above on “mining” this short story and by the end of the book, you’ll have found countless Spanish lessons that are worth their weight in gold.
5. “¿Qué Puedes Hacer con una Paleta?” by Carmen Tafolla and Magaly Morales
If American neighborhoods have their ice cream trucks, Latino barrios have their wagons of paleta. A “paleta” is a frozen treat-on-a-stick that come in various flavors and in all colors of the rainbow. It’s a popsicle, only better.
¿Qué Puedes Hacer con una Paleta? (What can you do with a paleta?) You can lick it, slurp it, munch it and gobble it all down. You can paint your tongue, draw a mustache and have fun while cooling down.
The text in both English and Spanish is tight and lyrical. Plus, you’ll get to meet vocabulary-expanding sentences replete with nouns, verbs and adjectives. As a Spanish learner, this book is as delicious a treat as the famous paletas.
To even sweeten the pot, the book’s artwork is superb—like all the other titles in this collection. The visuals reflect an ideal, dreamy, folksy charm that can only be the hallmarks of a classic Mexican barrio.
So what can you do with this book? Well, it’s perfectly up to you. (Just don’t lick it, slurp it munch it and gobble it all down!)
6. “Perro grande… Perro pequeño” by P.D. Eastman
This one’s another classic from P.D. Eastman—the man who brought us favorites like “¿Eres mi mamá?” (Are you my mother?) and “Ve, perro. ¡Ve!” (Go, dog. Go!)
This beloved children’s story features the harmony between opposites. You get to explore differences between Ted and Fred, the best friends in our story who are opposites in every conceivable way: In favorite color, in size and even in the speed of driving their automobiles. One gets wet, the other stays dry, but in the end, they remain best friends.
The text is presented in basic sentence formats, and the Spanish translation isn’t only spot on, it also preserves much of the cadence and spirit of the original text.
This one’s a great book for beginners who want practice with mining texts. Since the Spanish and English sentences are placed next to the other, beginners can easily figure out not only the translation of each word, but also the grammar rules observed.
7. “La Gallinita Roja” by Carol Ottolenghi
“La Gallinita Roja” (“The Little Red Hen”) rounds up the list—not only for its excellent prose, but for the moral lesson it contains that will be of inspiration to the beginning Spanish learner.
The wise little red hen lived on a farm with a pig, a cow and a dog. One day, she finds some grains of wheat. She begged her animal friends to help her plant the grains for a future harvest, but none came to help. She begged several times, but none was interested. They were too lazy to do the hard work.
To cut the long story short, when the time came for eating, guess who reaped the benefits of her labor. Our little red hen!
Much in the same way, working through the Spanish text might seem like hard work, but I encourage you to press on. Work with the text, make your mistakes and learn from them. In time, your vocabulary and grammar insights will compound and soon, you’ll be whistling your way to a bountiful Spanish language harvest.
Let these seven stories be your guide as you weave through the rudiments of a beautiful language. You’ll be glad you did carve some time out of your schedule for these innocent yet informative children’s stories.
With all these great resources available to you, I bet you’re eager to get started.
I’ll leave you to it!