Differentiating grammar instruction with heritage students

Over my last five years as a heritage language teacher, I have found that explicit grammar instruction has very little effect on my students.  There are several reasons for this.  One is that my heritage students are at a lot of different levels with their grammatical accuracy.  Some students make no errors with gender agreement, verb forms, or object pronouns.  Others have a high degree of fluency and can communicate about a lot of general topics with a good amount of vocabulary, but are at more of an Intermediate level with their grammatical accuracy – they produce a lot of language, but they fumble a lot with agreement and form, although they communicate most general ideas well.  I want to abandon my class-wide grammar syllabus and start giving students what they need.

Another reason that grammar teaching is difficult with heritage students is that they have a grammatical system in place already.  Changing and altering it is tricky.  They are dissimilar to our general language students in that they do not have grammatical systems under construction.  They have a structure there, but the quality and completeness of that construction vary quite a bit.  Many of them have developed strategies to compensate for their linguistic gaps and are comfortable with them.  I strongly believe, however, that our heritage classrooms can be a good place to alter, remodel, add to their current abilities, and increase their monitor to help them notice gaps in accuracy in their speech and writing.

But how do we do this?

Most teacher blog posts I find on the blogosphere contain practices and successful lessons that teachers are implementing in their classrooms.  I would like to use my post here to gather feedback for an idea I have to improve my teaching and then dialogue about it through the comment section below.

When school starts again, I would like to try creating individual learning plans for my heritage students with regards to their grammatical development.  The ideas I am fleshing out below were originally triggered on the Spanish for Heritage Learners group on ACTFL’s Special Interest Group page by a teacher named Sheryl Castro.  I’m taking a great deal of what she suggested and am developing it into a version that I can start working into the classroom.  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below and tell me if I am insane, or if this would be feasible.


  1. Evaluating individual grammar needs.  Towards the beginning of the year, but even as the year progresses, I would start to monitor students’ written and spoken work, and make notes about what each individual student needs to develop.
  2. Establish individual goals.  From there, each student is given things to focus on.  For some students, it might be gender agreement, for another group it might be preterit / imperfect.  I would probably need and want to keep the level of the concepts in mind depending on which heritage course it is (SNS I or SNS II).
  3. Document goals, recommendations, and progress.  Their focuses for development would be tracked on a spreadsheet.  In this location, I would also provide electronic resources for them to consult in order to learn about that grammatical topic and then come back and correct their errors – all in the same place.
  4. Follow-up assessment:  I’m a bit uncertain at this point how I would hold students accountable for improving in their particular areas in the rest of work for the course.  Perhaps I would include in the “Accuracy / Grammar” part of their rubrics, “See individualized plan; make sure you have checked for accuracy with those points”.  I need to ponder this a bit.

This is the nascent model I am thinking of for what students would see.  I’ve filled in a few examples to imagine what it would look like in progress.



Necesito mejorar… Gender agreement
Unos ejemplos de estas faltas In the August pre- assessment listing daily hobbies, you wrote…

“Voy en la* carro”
“Tengo un* mesa”

Pasos de seguimiento Read this lesson here, and do the “Basic quiz” & “mini-test”.  Email me a screenshot of your score.


Corrige los errores aquí, o demuestra una mejora. Incluye una explicación (en inglés si prefieres) Voy en el carro – because “carro” is masculine.
Tengo una mesa, because “mesa” is feminine.

Some of my hang-ups about embarking on this include……

  1. Will this be too much for me to manage?  
  2. Will students be able to understand explanations of more complex grammar topics through self-study / flipped classroom?
  3. How will I hold students accountable for implementing their new knowledge into continued work in the class?  And in conjunction with that…
  4. How can I fit this into my school’s plan for each teacher to show measurable student growth through an August pre-assessment and December post-assessment of the same content?

I talked with an administrator about the workload that this would entail.  I said that one of my biggest fears is having to open 25 different Google docs every time I want to note something for a student to work on.  She suggested making one Google spreadsheet for each class, with multiple tabs for each student – labeled with their ID number for student privacy.  My administrator even thought that this would be an easy way for other classmates to be involved in the process of giving input to peers.Will this be too much for me to manage?

One other advantage that I see to doing this is that this would take on a flipped classroom methodology in which students are examining concepts (grammar in this case) and learning them independently, thereby freeing up class time for communication and discussion, which should be the focus of any language classroom.  It incorporates technology, points students to resources out there that will do much better at explaining grammar than I can anyway (I foresee myself recommending lots of Senor Jordan videos), and differentiates instruction.

Have any other language teachers out there – particularly heritage teachers – attempted something similar?  How has it gone when establishing individual grammar goals?  I am eager to know if others are doing this sort of thing.  Please talk about your experiences or offer comments in your comments below!

5 thoughts on “Differentiating grammar instruction with heritage students

  1. Hi forgive my ignorance, but by heritage do you mean someone whose parents or relations are native speakers? Could you create a series of whole-class benchmark tests with a variety of questions relating to different aspects of grammar to assess the individual linguists needs and then carry these out throughout the year? Doing individualised plans is great initially however I would be concerned with the long term management of that, even in a flipped classroom you as the teacher are going to have an incredible amount of management to do as you can’t rely on your students to be able to provide useful feedback.


    1. Good thoughts, Teachers in Training! I may indeed be able to develop something like this. Although I will also say that as I am identifying needs for each student in setting up objectives for them, I am starting to realize that students are falling into one of a handful of categories with regards to their levels and specific needs. This year, it might take a lot of work figuring it out, but I have a feeling that I’m going to begin to understand the nuances of each general student profile as time rolls on – especially having just completed OPI training now. But your suggestion about doing some work at the beginning in order to classify them from the beginning is a really good one. Good thoughts to ponder! Thanks for the input.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh – one more thing. Yes, heritage student classes are indeed classes that are for students that are already of Latin American background and thus they already speak Spanish.


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