So here are some discoveries I have made in my own exploration of their exploration so far.
Do I let them read the same book every time?
This is awesome for two reasons: one, it will encourage them to rush to class to get "their" book before anyone else, and two, they can really absorb and digest the book, almost without trying! They think they're getting off easy, but repeated exposure, even to a simple, bilingual picture book still means increasing comprehensible input, as more becomes comprehensible!
Is it cheating to provide bilingual books too?
Well, yeah, kinda. But once again, we can use it to our own evil ends without the students even suspecting! Sure, I've seen a few go through Cool Salsa and just read the English poems, but then they start to get curious. Even the vocabulary books are awesome, too. It may be what one colleague has called "flashcard Spanish," but I find from students' comments that they feel a sense of pride in absorbing some new words. Will they be able to use those words next week? Maybe. But they are experiencing a positive feeling and connecting it to language learning, so ye olde affective filter starts creeping down before they even realize it.
What genres will interest them?
Familiar things and food have got to be the most popular. They like looking at the tasty dishes in cookbooks like Cocina Mexicana and thumbing through to find the songs from Willy Wonka in Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate or their favorite parts from Harry Potter. Picture books are often popular, as it's easy to spot a subject that interests you, like animals or shapes or general silliness. Some of those local circulars you can pick up free at the local tiendas and restaurantes? Those come in handy too for those who are anxious without a lot of familiar context.
But seriously, what are they even getting out of just 5 minutes two times a week?
Let me let them answer for you:
[on Agú, agú, agú] "I didn't know what the words said, but I could gess by pictures.
[on Capitán Calzoncillos] "The picture helps you understand what's going on even though you can't read it."
[on Amigos de los animales] "It was easy to follow even though I didn't know what was being said."
[on Qué pasa (a local circular)] "About news and it had a lot of pictures so I could tell what it was about."Did you hear that? I heard "I figured out on my own how to use context clues to make sense of what I am looking at! I use schema and predictions to inform my interpretation! And Sra. Sexton never made us take notes on reading techniques or anything!"
So how do I track their progress?
I'm not as comfortable as my innovative colleague with a footloose and fancy-free SSR. Of course it should be something more or less for fun, and monitoring of the whole process should be minimally invasive. So I sat down and thought. And tweeted. And thought again. What do I really want to know about what they just did? Do I need a list of new words they're going to use daily? Do I need a summary of what they learned? Do I need their opinion?
I decided what I needed was basically what they explored, how willing they were to pick that text up again, and why. So I whipped up a little form that they whip out for each SSR session (hence the quotes above!) This helps me see how I can build my library to suit their preferences better and also get a quick insight into what frustrates them and what they're picking up on.
All in all, I feel this is a very natural, a very holistic way for students to be immersed in a language, and I think everyone should try it!