Improve Your Spanish By Reading a Novel You Know in English

The Road to Fluency

The absolute best way to become fluent in Spanish is to live in a Spanish-speaking country and immerse yourself completely in the language. This isn't an option for most people, but if you're willing to get creative you can find other ways of getting the language exposure you really need. The opportunity to delve in gives you a chance to practice hearing, processing and responding to information in Spanish, instead of first translating it through English.

In a previous article, Increase Spanish Fluency Outside of the Classroom, we explored fluency-building exercises using Spanish language television programs. Now it's time to read a novel in Spanish.

You Can Do It!

The idea of reading an entire novel in Spanish might seem intimidating at first, but many bestselling books in English have Spanish translations. If you're already familiar with the storyline or characters, reading your favorite novel in Spanish is like exploring a gold mine of idioms, descriptors and language nuances.

You can find Spanish versions of popular books in bookstores, online, and even at the library. Ideally, you should have both the English and Spanish translations of the book, so you can flip back and forth between them if you run into a difficult passage in the Spanish version. Make sure you pick a book that interests you, because you're going to be reading through it several times.

The Plan

Now that you have your books, start by reading through the Spanish version of the novel. Look up only major words that are unfamiliar to you; make a point of stopping as little as possible. If you get the gist of a sentence or paragraph, just keep going. Your familiarity with the story line will help you know whether you're understanding the Spanish version or not. After a few chapters, you'll get into a rhythm and start to see which unfamiliar words are important enough to stop and pull out the dictionary for. Keep a journal with you and jot these words and definitions down, so you can study them later.

Problem Solving

If you get really lost pull out the English version, turn to the chapter you are on and find out what is going on.This may happen a lot during long descriptions.The conversations are usually easier to follow.

Remember, concepts don't always translate word-for-word between English and Spanish, so don't waste your time trying to look up a specific word in the English version. Instead, just read through the passage that's giving you trouble in the Spanish book. Build an image of that part of the story in your head, then go back and read the Spanish version again. You should be able to use your familiarity with the story, plus whatever context you understand from the Spanish version, to infer the meaning of the missing word or phrase.

Why It Works

Picking an exciting, interesting book is important because this exercise is most effective when you get caught up in the story instead of focusing on the unknown words. A child learning a language focuses on overall meaning and doesn’t dissect every sentence grammatically; this is your chance to recreate that environment. When you're wrapped up in what is going on, and know you're getting the general meaning of the text, you won’t even want to stop to look up a word. This is a good thing!

The words you do look up out of necessity will really stick in your mind. When you finish the book the first time, read through it again. You may be amazed by how quickly you make it through the second time. The words that you had to stop and look up the first time through will come back to you. If you can relax and enjoy the story, you'll learn a lot with this exercise.


  • Based on the authors's experience tutoring Spanish