“But they already speak Spanish” – In defense of heritage language programs

Are heritage language classes worthwhile?  Don’t “those students already speak the language”?

I had a colleague tell me yesterday that some of her grad school classmates feel that their heritage language tracks are being threatened, because administrators are questioning whether or not they are learning anything by taking a language class in a language that they already speak.  We also commented how thankful we feel to not be in that place, and that we have a supportive administration.  Our program has shown growth over the last few years.

It’s a valid question.  So, what makes a heritage program worthwhile?  And what qualities should a good heritage program contain?

Before I answer that question directly, let me give you one tool that you can use in your response.  What does your school do with, let’s say, incoming freshmen who enter high school with an 11th grade reading level?  Do they eliminate the requirement to take the first two years of English or language arts?  They rarely do; they can still reap benefits and advance their language skills in their freshmen honors English class.  Likewise, heritage students who come through our doors may have proficiency in a certain language, but that doesn’t mean that we scratch their world language requirement, because there is always growth to be had on my fronts!

So, growth on many fronts.  Let’s answer the question now.

In two points, I believe that a heritage program is worthwhile if……

It is moving the students up the proficiency pyramid.

General (L2) world language programs start at the Novice level and (hopefully) produce Intermediate speakers.  Heritage programs will receive students somewhere in the Intermediate range and push them into the Advanced range, and probe them at the Superior level.  All high school students have gains to be had in proficiency in a non-English language, whether heritage or non-heritage students.  Sure, heritage students “already speak the language”, but I guarantee that 99.999% of them aren’t Advanced-High or Superior speakers.  There is always progress to be had, always floors to be added to the house, and always language skills to be acquired.

If you’re a Spanish teacher, look at a recent writing sample of a student of mine here at the beginning of the year.

SNS writing sample

There are gender errors, spelling errors, and a general lack of breadth of response that I would not attribute to lack of interest (great student here!), but lack of confidence in fleshing out thoughts in Spanish.  Why would we pass up an opportunity to leave the Spanish of our students at this level and not build it and enrich it?

It is expanding the breadth of cultural knowledge of your students.

I dislike the idea of “testing out of a language” if the possibility of participation in (or creation of) a heritage program exists.  Language classes are – or at least should be – about much more than learning words and grammatical structures.  Those things are a means to an end- and we can actually accomplish that “end” in heritage classes!  A heritage program should expand the width and breadth of knowledge of culture, society, history, literature, current events, and arts of your heritage students.  

Take José, a heritage student in 9th grade whose parents are from Mexico.

  • Does José know anything about why the population of Argentina is primarily white European?
  • Has José ever had a pen pal or Skype conversation with teenagers in Spain?
  • Does José know much about the Mayans, Aztecs, or Incas?
  • Does José know who Rafael Trujillo was?  
  • Does José know why there are so many words from Arabic in Spanish?
  • Has José ever listened to Natalia Lafourcade, Ruben Blades, and songs like “Latinoamérica”?

The answer to all the above is mostly “no”.  Heritage students could be pushed to take French or Mandarin to fulfill a language requirement – and that’s fantastic.  But let’s not believe that there isn’t plenty of room for expanding cultural, historical, social, and artistic horizons for our heritage students in their home language!  Let’s not scratch the language requirements for them.

I understand that school districts have to apportion their funds wisely and be careful to build sustainable programs.  But if you have a good number of heritage students who are interested in improving their language skills and expanding their cultural knowledge in their own home language, don’t add sections of Spanish 2 and 3.  Create separate classes for them to progress linguistically and culturally.

If you think this post was helpful, give it a like below!  I’d like honest feedback.

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”?  



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, 

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

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!


Pinpointing everything: Reflections on teaching after OPI training

My summer consisted of getting acquainted with pyramids:  Teotihuacán, Monte Albán, and Cholula in Mexico in June, and the ACTFL proficiency pyramid at an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) workshop in August.  Want to know more about the Mexican pyramids?  Google them and visit them.  Want to know more about OPI?  Don’t Google that, because you will get all sorts of results about some kind of make-up and pedicure technique that I have no expertise in.  You need to read all about it on ACTFL’s website or go to an OPI workshop yourself – and let me tell you why you should do so in my post below.

Table of contents.  Pick and choose what catches your attention.  The first two are the meat of the post, #3 will interest heritage teachers, and I’d love to hear answers regarding #4.

  1. Biggest takeaways:  Language tasks, curricular decisions
  2. Assessment
  3. In the heritage classroom
  4. Lingering question
  5. Other random thoughts
  6. Next steps

1.  Biggest takeaways:  Language tasks, curricular decisions

The biggest takeaway I got from the OPI workshop is being able to place virtually any linguistic task along the proficiency scale.

  • What can a novice do, and how well can they do it?  I can tell you.
  • What proficiency level is required to tell a story about how you got lost in a city and found your way back?  That’s Advanced.
  • What level is required to give a string of sentences to generally describe your city?  That’s Intermediate level.
  • How about making a list of favorite foods?  That would be a Novice task.
  • Debating the consequences of dismantling Confederate statues?  Superior.

I feel very empowered now to look at my own curriculum and that of my colleagues and determine whether or not the tasks and functions we are expecting of students at different levels are realistic, or if they are sailing too high.

Through the workshop, I have already come across some examples of things I am doing that may be too high for my students – and that may explain why they freak out so much and resort to online translators.  For instance, I am wondering if in Spanish 2 and early Spanish 3, I am having students do some Advanced level tasks that I should really modify if I want them to be able to perform them spontaneously –

  • Sitting and writing about an outdoors camping experience
  • Explaining the recipe for making a food
  • Filming and narrating a trip to the beach (in past tense)
  • Writing a letter to a politician demanding environmental change

All of the above, with the exception of the last one, would be Advanced level tasks – if performed spontaneously.  The last one would qualify as Superior or Distinguished (yikes), namely a well-educated native speaker that can adjust register for formal and informal situations.  But notice that I’m saying “spontaneously”.  See my “Lingering question” section about this down below.

I have now seen the light, for the most part, about why textbook series often get it wrong when it comes to laying out units and curriculum.  I am starting to see that a scope and sequence should progressively follow functions and contexts more than grammar structures.  

It is becoming clearer that most curriculum is laid out in the following manner:  “OK, let’s plan our third year language course. Well, by year three, students should be learning subjunctive, so they’ll need to study that.  So, what could we have them do to practice subjunctive and use it?  Ah, got it!  The environment!  Discussions about the environment lend themselves to a lot of subjunctive use – yeah!”

And then what does that same curricular planner do?  WEIRDO acronym (this here), and accompanying tasks to teach all contexts of usage for subjunctive.  When you teach subjunctive, you have to teach all the contexts in which it is used, right?  So then the planning process goes on to look for other ways within that unit, and subsequent units, that requests, impersonal expressions, doubt, and ojalá can all have a seat at the table.

See how imposing this is?  I am starting to see it.  How about we look at where a generation of our third year students are at on the proficiency scale across a range of modes (IPA preassessments), and then use the functions and contexts that are next up on ACTFL’s proficiency pyramid – or Can-Do statements, incorporate those, and then teach whatever grammar they need to do those things?  Maybe we only need to teach them subjunctive use in the context of recommendations, or recommendations and wishes, or whatever.  Or not at all!  Thinking regular-track vs. Honors distinction…

The point is, less is more.  Think in terms of what is needed for effective, comprehensible communication.  The time that we don’t spend teaching the entire universe of all past, present, future, and progressive perfect tenses and aspects we can spend talking and communicating with our classmates and the teacher.

2.  Assessment

What does the assessment front look like in the classroom with an understanding of proficiency?  One thing that I have included in my rubrics now for awhile (hopefully most folks do-?) that was reaffirmed through OPI was “comprehensibility despite errors” in my “Language use” section of my rubrics.  I do also have target grammar structures for the unit included in the “Language Use” section, and I think that for now I will keep it there, but I want to sleep on that more.

One thing that came to the forefront in reading my OPI materials later is that language learners can be at different proficiency levels for different modes of communication. Where are students generally weakest?  Speaking.  Students tend to be so freaked out about speaking assessments for this reason, and so what do most language teachers do?  Give the questions ahead of time, have them practice them, allow them to use notes, etc.  But deep down, we really want to assess for that more spontaneous communicative event.  That’s what I understand the “movement towards proficiency” to be about – right?

So how about we adjust the requirements of the speaking task down, but keep higher standards for other skills?

As an example, for a unit about describing your city in a Novice/Novice-Mid level class, perhaps a speaking assessment could include a prompt like “What kinds of places do you visit in your city every week?” and would only require students to name off and list places for successful completion – no grammatical accuracy requirements attached, just comprehensibility.  However, a written task could be “Talk about what places there are in our city to your online pen pal” and require students to use some short sentences, and partially use gender agreement accurately.  Something along those lines.

If you are a religious TPRS fundamentalist who was hoping to read this post to discover that a fellow language teacher left OPI training convinced of the need to throw grammar out the window, sorry.  ACTFL posits that grammatical knowledge runs on a scale that starts with conceptual understanding, then moves to partial control, and then ends up at complete control.

Conceptual control Partial control Complete control
“Ok, so in English, the past tense of ‘go’ is went.  Will try to remember that.”

Lots of failed attempts to use ‘went’.

Lots of “I goed”

I went to the store yesterday.  My mother goed last week. I went to the store yesterday.  My mother went last week.

OPI training does not discuss how that understanding gets into your brain in the first place, other than saying that conceptual knowledge starts the process of grammatical control, but it does seem to advocate for the value of explicit knowledge.  You move along this continuum as you move up the proficiency pyramid.  What is proposed is that we assess for those degrees of control for certain language functions at certain proficiency levels that we deem our students should be at.

Better to show than to tell.  See below for a small sample.

OPI grammar assessment at each level all mistakes are not created equal

(notes provided courtesy of Jennifer Hayes)

I finished OPI training a month ago and am already three weeks into my school year.  I haven’t had the time yet to wrap my brain around how to shift my world of assessment around based on this new understanding of conceptual–>partial–>full, but there are some powerful principles there to unpack and apply eventually.  It does seem to dovetail with some reflections I expressed in February about the explicit grammatical teaching in this post here, and so now I have more good guidance to work with.

3.  In the heritage classroom


This new ability to be able to identify the proficiency level of given tasks will enable me to be a much more effective teacher of my heritage language classes (Spanish for Native Speakers, I & II).  I feel that for the last five years, I have attempted to do a few things without having much of an eye for the proficiency level my students find themselves at.  My goal is for students to preserve and improve their Spanish through reading and discussion, but I haven’t had a measured approach to determine how advanced the readings or discussion topics are.  I can now.  I have been having them interact with authentic news, magazine articles, poetry, and short novels, revolving around topics that I think will interest them or that I think they need.  However, I haven’t been intentional enough about what proficiency level that content presumes, and as a result, some of our discussions have been over or under their level.

And measuring improvement, for heritage speakers?  I feel it’s been impossible.  Not anymore!  I will now be able to do two important things that good heritage language teachers should be able to do:  accurately assess what type of proficiency level my students are at, and then define what things they will need to do in order to reach the next level.

During the OPI workshop, I was thinking about a lot of my heritage class students – and I came to the stark realization that they are all over the board.  I mean, I have sort of known that, but now I know it with much more specificity.  They are more scattered along the proficiency spectrum than my general language classes.  I am no longer concerned about it though.  I no longer need to vaguely know that “Jose speaks Spanish more fluently than Guillermo”.  I will now be able to determine that “Jose’s level of Spanish is Advanced-Low, but Guillermo’s is Intermediate-Mid, and so he cannot narrate in all time frames and describe things in paragraph format – all of which Guillermo can do.  Guillermo will need to work on describing things and telling stories, but José needs to be pushed towards perfecting his usage of preterit and imperfect, and then work on answering higher-order prompts that challenge him to think of our topics in the abstract and apply them to society at large.”  Something like that.

Here is a post which shows how I am already planning to implement some major differentiation in my heritage classroom this year (spoiler alert:  major differentiated instruction / individual goal setting).  I haven’t gotten to this element yet in the school year.  However, when I showed the idea to my SNS 2 students who sat under me for SNS 1 last year and know what it’s like for all 25 of them to examine the same grammar topics at the same time, it got some cheers.

4.  Lingering question

The OPI is all about what speakers can do spontaneously.  Language proficiency is measured by what speakers can do on the spot when asked, or when quickly thrown into a role play scene:  You’re looking for a new apartment, and you’ve come to ask me about it – ready, set, go.  But what is often the nature of learning in our classes?  We emphasize preparation.  “Here is your assignment – you have 30 minutes of class time to prepare, but you will need to work on it more at home.”  “Those of you students who spend time outside of class preparing will be the most successful.  So work hard at this!”

I am now in a bit of a quagmire about teaching for and assessing for proficiency – by that definition.  In theory, for students to demonstrate their proficiency to me, I should not be informing them ahead of time of what I’m going to “ask” them.  Perhaps the answer is that within the context of a given unit, if there have been clear topics that have been focused on, and students have performed communicative tasks with those topics, then any production prompt given to them – whether written or spoken – would not be a surprise.  But still, most teachers, including myself, feel inclined to give students some lead on what and how they will be assessed – and students in turn feel compelled to go prepare.  But if we are focused on communication in the classroom, they would be prepared.

Am I answering my own question?

5.  Other random thoughts:



6.  Further steps

I signed up for Full OPI certification a couple weeks ago.  I should be hearing from OPI any day now about further steps.  In the mean time, I have listened to all sorts of sample OPI’s on their training site, and have done three practice interviews just for the heck of it – and even that has had a positive effect on my proficiency understandings as a teacher (oh, this is what Intermediate-Low speakers sound like).  But 2200+ words is enough for now, so I’ll have to save that for a later post.

Make sure to fit an OPI workshop into your professional development at some point as a language teacher.  I was able to pay for the $850 workshop and the $350 certification fee through a grant from FundforTeachers.  But before you attend the workshop, get your nails done using the OPI ProSpa Pedicure Massage technique.

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!