I went to a SWCOLT session recently about teaching Spanish as a heritage language, and there was quite a bit of lively discussion about what should be taught and how in order to meet the learners’ unique needs. I started teaching Spanish as a heritage language three years ago, and I’ll share what I’ve learned so far.
When I first started teaching at my school, the courses I taught were called Native Spanish. I prefer the term heritage speaker to native speaker, however, because I discovered that the majority of my students were born in the United States, and may have never visited a Spanish-speaking country.
At my school, there is a foreign language requirement, and since our school is so small, we only offer Spanish. Over 90% of our students are Latino, and most speak Spanish to some extent. Because the students have to double up on English classes in 9th and 10th grades, I only get two years at the most with them. I decided to offer two courses for the heritage Spanish speakers: pre-AP and AP Spanish Language and Culture. Depending on their level of language skills, they take both courses, or they only take the AP course. All students who speak Spanish as a heritage language will take the AP exam at my school.
Because the new AP Spanish Language and Culture exam that was first administered in May 2014 is easier to pass with a 3, 4 or 5 than the previous version of the exam, I decided that I needed to offer a more challenging course in addition to what we already have, so I plan to offer AP Spanish Literature and Culture starting in the 2016-17 school year.
I have not yet perfected the way that I determine whether each student needs to be placed in the non-native, pre-AP o AP classes, but for the moment I am using the listening and reading comprehension parts from the diagnostic exam from Glencoe McGraw Hill and a writing prompt that I obtained from a high school in Denver. So far it seems to be fairly accurate. The trouble is with the students at the lower end of the spectrum. Sometimes students fail the diagnostic exam, but are able to get along in the pre-AP classes, while others who fail are not able to pass the pre-AP class. The only other alternatives at my school are Spanish I and II non-native, so I plan to experiment with putting students on the bubble in Spanish II the first year and pre-AP Spanish the second year. I think a level III non-native would be ideal rather than level II for those students, but we just do not have enough students to support that many classes.
During the SWCOLT session, there was debate about the role of direct grammar instruction in heritage/native language courses. I have not incorporated grammar into my lessons unless a specific grammar issue pops up in the students’ speaking or writing. I have been thinking that “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” However, I have been mulling over the thought of more systemic grammar instruction; perhaps in the form of a workbook that students do as homework and I incorporate the homework concepts some way in class. The first workbook that comes to mind is “Schaum’s Outlines of Spanish Grammar” but there are a number of grammar workbooks on the market.
The main struggle for my heritage speakers seems to be literacy, particularly reading. I have observed, upon reviewing the data of my students who are labeled ELL, that as a general rule, if the students have a low score on the ELL assessment, they struggle in my class also. In short, it is not an English or Spanish issue, but rather a literacy issue. I think that the most high-impact activity that I can do with my students is vocabulary building. I am working to find ways to successfully teach vocabulary as well as reading strategies. My goal is to strengthen my students language skills through the teaching of content, particularly cultural content.
Another topic of discussion at the SWCOLT session was the lack of materials for teaching heritage language courses. I have found that the AP curriculum works well for me with my students, particularly the themes. I also use authentic target language sources with my students, as well as didactic materials made for native speakers for topics like literature, spelling and accents. I also find European sources for ELE (español como lengua extranjera) to be useful. I look for levels B2, C1, C2. I think that materials for International Baccalaureate Spanish B, both Standard and High Level, would be suitable. Finally, I have purchased a copy of different advanced level Spanish textbooks from used book sites like Better World Books or Amazon.
Here are some other resources:
Spanish Native Language Arts Curriculum Guide from New York
Planning and Pacing Guides from Denver Public Schools
Heritage Languages in America
National Heritage Language Resource Center
Kim Potowski; includes a list of textbooks for teaching heritage language
Public Schools of North Carolina