MADRID — By day, Theresa Marrama is a high school French teacher at Madrid-Waddington Central School.
By night, she has become “a renowned author of several French education books,” Principal Joe Binion said.
“Her books are being used throughout the U.S. and Europe, with some being translated into other languages,” he said.
Ms. Marrama said she was inspired to teach French by one of her teachers.
“I had an amazing French teacher when I was in high school, Francoise Goodrow. She was basically my mentor/the teacher I’ve always wanted to be,” she said.
She began teaching high school and middle school French in 2007. And along the way, she realized there was an easier way to teach the students other than just reviewing a vocabulary list.
“About three to four years ago I stopped teaching with the textbook,” Ms. Marrama said.
Instead, she and Madrid-Waddington’s Spanish teacher switched to “comprehensive input teaching” — teaching through stories using foreign language readers.
“So rather than giving students a list of vocabulary, we teach students through books. We create stories together as a class,” she said.
What separates them from other methods of teaching a second language is the way they’re written.
“They’re written in a way that the language is very repetitive. The same words are used throughout. There’s a specific total word count and then there’s a specific word count so that when second language readers are reading, they’re not reading 10,000 different words. They’re reading a book that might consist of 1,000 words, but there’s only 150 unique words that are repeated throughout,” Ms. Marrama said.
But there weren’t many foreign language readers available, so she stepped up to the plate and started writing them.
“My ultimate goal was to have more French readers for my students in my classroom because at the time there wasn’t a whole bunch to choose from. These comprehensible readers are written specifically for students who are learning the language. There’s an entire glossary in the back of every book, so if a kid doesn’t know a word, they can go to the back of the book and look it up. So they’re guided really for the entire story,” she said.
The books are written at different levels.
“You have your super-basic low word count at level one. Then you have your level two, which are not your beginner students, but your intermediate students,” she said.
But they’re still simple readers for kids who aren’t native speakers of the language.
A publishing company asked for her first novel, and that got the ball rolling.
“From there, I started writing more and using them with my classes. My students were engaged, they were compelled, they actually seemed to enjoy being in a class and not bored with the vocabulary list that we were doing before,” she said.
Ms. Marrama kept writing and reached out to some people.
“Some people reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we really like these stories. Do you think we could put them in Spanish or how about German?’ So now I have like 12 or 13 different stories in French, German and Spanish and I just started having one translated into English for ESL (English as a Second Language) learners,” she said.
She set up a website called “The Compelling Language Corner” at https://www.compellinglanguagecorner.com/, and Ms. Marrama said it draws visitors from around the world who want to purchase her books.
“I send books to China, I send books to Europe, I send books to Canada,” she said.
A separate website has been set up at www.digilangua.co for digital versions of her books, as well as another author, Jennifer Degenhardt.
“We created this once the pandemic hit so teachers and students could still access our readers,” she said.
Word of mouth brings many of them to her website.
“There’s a small world of independent authors who write stories in the same manner that I write in, the comprehensible repetitive format. I started doing some presentations for other language teachers at conferences. We bring our books to those conferences and we sell them while we’re there. People from all over the U.S. go to some of these conferences. Then they go to language teacher conferences in Europe and they bring some books there. I know that’s how people in France learned about my novels,” Ms. Marrama said.
She said it takes anywhere from a couple of weeks to three months to write a book and then the publishing process begins.
“I write the story and then I send it off to be edited. Then I have another person look at the second version to be edited. So the whole process takes a while,” she said.
Some of her ideas come from past experiences. Others might come from something she’s read.
“I’m an avid reader myself, so sometimes I’ll read parts of a book and I think, ‘Oh, them stuck in the forest would be a great way to start one of my novels.’ It’s a great way to open a book and have kids keep turning the pages,” Ms. Marrama said.
Her current book-to-be is about a female graffiti artist in Africa. They’ve been using email and social media apps to correspond along the way.
“She told me her whole story of how she became part of a community that is really very male-oriented and how she was treated as a woman and how she now uses her graffiti to basically spread positive messages for women and young girls in Africa. My students and female students around the world need to read those inspiring stories of hope, that you can do anything you want to do,” she said.
The writing allows Ms. Marrama to create visions for students in another language, “and if kids get hooked on reading through one of the simple comprehensible readers in a second language, I’ve done my job.”