The most important thing to improve your heritage students’ proficiency

Teaching heritage language classes is becoming more and more common in the U.S., particularly in school districts with high Latino populations.  Talk to any World Language teacher you find, and chances are they will tell you that their school is “starting a heritage track”, or has done so “within the last few years”.  And we all get emails on our listserv with those teachers who write something along the lines of “I’m going to be starting a heritage class next year at my school!  I’m really excited, but nervous.  I’d love some help and some collaboration, so hit me up with your ideas!” 

I’d like to help by offering what I believe is the most important element for that teacher and that classroom.  The answer?  A teacher who is committed to improving his or her own proficiency in the target language.  

Let’s bring ACTFL proficiency levels into the conversation here.  

*A teacher with Advanced-Low proficiency cannot provide most heritage students with the level of input they need to progress in their proficiency.*

In the state that I live, the ACTFL proficiency level required to work as a K-12 World Language educator is Advanced-Low.  Here are a few select descriptors from the Advanced-Low proficiency list from ACTFL:  

  • participate in most informal and some formal conversations on topics related to school, home, and leisure activities
  •  narrate and describe in the major time frames of past, present, and future in paragraph-length discourse with some control of aspect
  • Responses produced by Advanced Low speakers are typically not longer than a single paragraph
  • dominant language may be evident in the use of false cognates, literal translations, or the oral paragraph structure of that language
  •  irregular flow, and containing noticeable self-correction
  • vocabulary of Advanced Low speakers often lacks specificity

Does this sound like the type of input that will move forward a heritage speaker?  Will heritage speakers be helped by “false cognates”, “irregular flow”, and  “literal translations” – basically, more of what they already produce?  

How can a speaker (a teacher) that can produce “typically not longer than a single paragraph” lead a discussion about the value or offensive nature of Confederate statues?  How beneficial will a conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of independence for Catalonia be if lead with only “some control of aspect”?  

 

Slide1

Most of my heritage students are well into the Intermediate range with their use of language, with a few who may already be into the Advanced range.  Their listening ability, without doubt, will be at or above the Advanced level – and therefore they need to be listening and using language beyond that, which in OPI parlance is called “probing” – and “i + 1″ in SLA studies.  

The Advanced-Low Spanish teacher can handle his 5th hour Spanish 3 class just fine.  Those students are in the process of comprehending Intermediate-level input in the target language.  The level of language that is used in that class – both the content studied, and general classroom commands and discourse –  will most often be below Advanced-Low.  It will be hard for that same teacher, however, to move a group of heritage students forward.  

Slide2One of the philosophical pieces of my heritage language teaching, as opposed to my general language classrooms, is that my heritage students are already receiving a great deal of Intermediate- and Advanced-level input outside of the classroom.  What they need most linguistically is written and spoken input above those levels, and then a setting in which they are pushed to produce output at a level just above where they are at.  Therefore it follows that an effective heritage classroom teacher will need to be comfortable at the Advanced level, and possess the capacity to produce some language at the Superior level in order to conduct academic discussions and provide rich input.

 

For that reason, heritage teachers should be north of that minimum Advanced-Low requirement.  I recommend a minimum of Advanced-Mid proficiency for any teacher of a heritage classroom.  The higher, the better.  So start moving higher!  

The better your Spanish proficiency, the more trust you will gain from your heritage students.  

According to The Atlantic, over 81% of teachers in the U.S. are White.  It is highly likely that a teacher standing in front of a group of Latino heritage speakers will not be a native/heritage speaker themselves.  The power dynamic of a White teacher standing in front of a group of Latino/Hispanic students with the job of “teaching them Spanish” can be a delicate one.Slide3

I believe that improving one’s Spanish proficiency can help overcome uncertainty or mistrust that may exist.  Sure, being knowledgeable about their culture, their interests, and starting class with “Wasn’t that case on Caso Cerrado last night crazy?” are all fundamental for establishing a relationship with your students.  Hearing their teacher speak highly proficient Spanish will also make them more receptive and build up their belief that they will learn from you.

A few months ago, I saw an entry from a teacher in the ACTFL community forum who stated that she felt like she didn’t have a lot to offer her heritage students (who were mixed into the general language classroom) in terms of fluency and proficiency building, so they get that through reading.  I asked myself if fluency building happens primarily through the resources students read and listen to, or through the conversation and dialog that is had about the resources we give them?  My gut feeling is that it’s the discussion, the back-and-forth dialog about the content under study, 

Slide4
Class discussion about Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, pardoned by Obama in January 2017

that builds the fluency of heritage students.  It’s requiring output from them, and pushing them to negotiate meaning and deal with topics from the Advanced and Superior levels that puts hair on their chest (as my dad says).  We as teachers have to be ready to interact with them at that level.

 

The road to superior

So what to do?  I am of the opinion that every heritage teacher should take steps to push themselves to the ‘Superior’ level of the ACTFL proficiency scale.  What does that look like, though?  

Check out some of my recommendations (and my journey) in this sequel post here!  

Other references mentioned:  

 

The Atlantic article https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/01/a-root-cause-of-the-teacher-diversity-problem/551234/

ACTFL Community forum, Spanish for Heritage Learners SIG, June 3, 2017.

ACTFL’s proficiency descriptors:  https://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/actfl-proficiency-guidelines-2012/english/speaking#superior

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