On the differentiated instruction journey with heritage learners based on proficiency levels

Towards the beginning of the school year, I informally classified my heritage students into three proficiency groups:  an Intermediate-Low-ish group, an Intermediate-High-ish group, and an Advanced-Low-ish group.  Based on some knowledge I acquired at the OPI workshop, I decided that I didn’t need to view all of my students as being at different levels – as I originally thought I’d do.  Instead, I grouped them into the three categories above – very informally, but this classification turned out to help me develop tasks more at their levels.

What I have been doing is offering a lot of follow-up activities (especially homework) based on those levels the students are at.  Here are a couple examples below.

Example #1:

As a follow-up to our reading of the legend “Quetzal No Muere Nunca”, all students had to do comprehension questions.  But then the following additional tasks were distributed to students, with their names pre-written onto them:

Intermediate-Low Intermediate-High Advanced-Low
Busca 6 palabras de la leyenda que leímos hoy que quieres comenzar a usar en tu español. Utiliza la hoja de que dice “SNS – Palabras de Vocabulario”. Escribe la palabra, dónde la encontraste, y el significado. Para saber más del folclor maya, leerás un extracto de “Popol Vuh” y escribirás un resumen y una reacción para lo que has leído.

Intermediate students had to look for new words to add to a vocab list to add to their repertoire, with the goal of adding to their ability to tell narrations and thus get them into the Advanced level.  Students who I deem to already be in the Advanced category I gave them an extract from the Mayan account of creation and had them do comparison/contrast work and interact with it more.  Comparison / contrast is an advanced level task, but having them interact with more advanced literature and history also starts to push them towards Superior level work and thinking.

Here is another example in conjunction with a reading of the legend “Los Novios”, a legend about two volcanoes in Mexico involving love, war, and death.  As a class, we read the legend together, talked about its meaning, viewed artwork and listened to a song in conjunction with it.  Below was the differentiated element:

Intermediate-Low Intermediate-Mid Advanced-Low
(with worksheet):  Below are the most frequently used 100 words in Spanish.  Throughout this semester, you will make flashcards with them in order to spell them correctly.  You will know the meanings – let´s see if you can get the spelling down.


Haz las preguntas de la sección B de “Los Novios”


Toma una hoja de papel y contesta las siguientes preguntas a base de la leyenda “Los Novios”.

1)       A base de lo que leemos en esta leyenda, ¿qué tan importante era el papel de la guerra en la cultura azteca?

2)       A base de lo que leemos en esta leyenda, ¿cuáles eran las características importantes que necesitaban los hombres para conquistar el amor de una mujer (y su familia)?  Comenta sobre esto.

For the IL group, their task was just to read and understand the legend, and spend time building some basic blocks of written Spanish.  The IH group needed to answer questions that included comprehension and also had them reflect on cultural and historical content.  The Advanced group had to write a bit more extensively on the general principles of culture and society based on their reading.  Being able to talk about principles and values in the abstract is definitely a function of the Superior range.

Example #2:

We’re now in our unit reading the humorous novel “La Casa Embrujada” and learning about Mexico.  There was one unit in which a detective is falling in love with a lady they are helping, and another detective was pushed off of the cliff La Quebrada in Acapulco where world-renowned divers dive off of the steep rocks.  Again, all students had to answer some comprehension questions for one of the chapters, but then I also created Intermediate and Advanced distinctions in the assignments given:

Intermediate-Low Intermediate-High Advanced-Low
Pepino está enamorado de Sandy.  Escribe una carta de parte de Pepino en donde Pepino le explica a Sandy sus sentimientos.


¿Qué piensas del clavadismo en los peñascos?  ¿Es demasiado peligroso, o es un deporte como cualquier otro?  ¿Participarías en el clavadismo?  ¿Por qué o por qué no?  ¿Qué le dirías a una persona que contestaría de una forma diferente?

Contesta estas preguntas en el orden que tú deseas con un mínimo de ocho frases abajo.

The Intermediate-level students worked on the level of explaining feelings and describing (Intermediate to Advanced level work), whereas the Advanced level students were given a Superior-level probe to push them to weigh the up’s and down’s to dangerous sports and deal with the topic of risk.

So here are some things I’ve learned, and some lingering questions about what I’m doing:

  • Start small with differentiation, not big.  It gets messy.  Example #1 above was earlier in the school year.  I continued to differentiate like this during our legends unit.  Although I feel it was a pedagogically sound decision to do this, what I found was that it was hard to give all students the help and guidance that they needed.  There was a week in which we lost the sense of being *a class*.  Sometimes some students were having to make flashcards, others were getting additional material to read, and it got to be a bit messy.  Example #2 is more what I’m working with now:  Let’s read something together, and then I give you a similar type of assignment (written response) pitched at different levels.  That’s been working better.
  •  Differentiated grammar?  Not sure.  Some of you may remember my post (here) in which I thought that I would be having everyone work on different grammar structures they to improve, on an individual basis.  After actually meeting my students this year, and after seeing that I can’t necessarily give students different work all the time, I’ve decided to hold back on this.  It may not be feasible.  A lot of my students are proving to have difficulty keeping track of a personalized vocabulary list as I’m rotating around the class assisting different groups of students doing different things; how would they ever be able to work on por/para individually?  Besides, grammar instruction with heritage students is a topic that’s up in the air anyway… icky.  
  • Right or wrong?  I’m not 100% convinced that I’m going about differentiation based on proficiency levels in exactly the right way.  I surely haven’t divided my students up with a formal assessment of their proficiency.  During the legends unit, I didn’t have the Advanced students share some of their findings with the Intermediate-level students – we had to keep moving on.  I’m still working on this.
  • Assessment?  My differentiation hasn’t made its way into the assessment category yet, but I’m looking forward to getting there.  I’ll need a summer to chip away at this – not go to an OPI workshop from July 31-Aug 3, and then have it figured out by the first day of class on Aug 14.

More reflections and sharing to come later.  Please share with me what’s working for you in your heritage classroom!


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