My experiences teaching Spanish as a heritage language

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

Cherice Montgomery

Public Schools of North Carolina

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6 Responses to My experiences teaching Spanish as a heritage language

  1. mpeto says:

    If you do choose to do more grammar in class I respectfully propose that you conduct a little experiment and teach grammar to one section while simply reading with the other section. Independent reading, kindergarten reading, reading in pairs… anything but grammar. We have interacted enough that I think you know I am a free reading addict, but the other side of the coin is that (in my experience) all the time I used to spend teaching grammar had little or no noticeable impact on their actual writing and speaking (although some did learn to take grammar tests). The biggest impact was student frustration and a sense that the course was “hard”, which earned me some respect in a way but not much satisfaction. Those are just my thoughts.

    • senorab72 says:

      I agree; I would rather not meddle with direct grammar instruction since they have no major patterns of error. I think I am letting myself be guilted into thinking that I am doing the students some type of disservice by not teaching it.

  2. Michelle says:

    Quick question: Do your heritage language students demonstrate mastery of all verb conjugation tenses like the subjunctive? Can they construct complex sentences? The reason why I ask is that I grew up speaking Spanish at home, but I often make grammatical mistakes in terms of verb conjugation and complex sentence structure. Apart from grammar rules required for basic conversational Spanish, how do your students fare in expressing themselves using more complicated language structures? When I finally took a Spanish course in college, I was placed in Spanish III due to my excellent listening and reading comprehension skills. I often verbally participated in class discussions with ease but bombed the exams due to my inability to write grammatically correct sentences since I had skipped Spanish I and II (classes which teach those basic rules). I don’t think my experiences as a first-generation Latino-American are an isolated case.

    • senorab72 says:

      Hi, for the most part my students are able to form grammatically correct sentences, including compound and some complex sentences. Those with lower skills tend not have mastery of the present subjunctive, and even fewer students show control over the imperfect subjunctive. They also exhibit grammar mistakes due to the interference of English, such as use of gerunds and the verb gustar. I don’t give explicit grammar exams; I just evaluate their written and spoken work for content and work with the most common errors. We do talk explicitly about the subjunctive in hopes that they will use those higher-level structures on the AP exam.

      • Michelle says:

        That cross-language interference is what hampered my efforts to improve my Spanish for years. I needed explicit grammar instruction because I could not intuit grammar rules for the life of me, despite growing up immersed in a Spanish-speaking household and neighborhood. I grew up watching (and perfectly understanding) telenovelas, noticieros, Primer Impacto and Chesperito. However, this lack of grammar mastery has always set me apart, preventing me from being fully bilingual.

        People expect me to speak Spanish perfectly given my background and appearance so it’s embarrassing not to be able to do so. It’s even more personally humiliating for me to meet young Mormon missionaries speak Spanish so fluently without an accent after returning from just a two-year mission trip abroad.

        I can engage in simple conversational Spanish without making egregious grammatical mistakes, but when I want to express my thoughts and opinions in greater detail, I feel so limited. I don’t feel this way, partly due to the fact that I attended Catholic school which provided two years of systematic phonics instruction in first and second grades and three years of explicit grammar instruction in middle school (actual hardcover English grammar textbooks that we would take home to do homework exercises). Therefore, I feel rather confident in my ability to express myself in English – with tremendous thanks to my mother who worked two jobs to pay for our Catholic school tuition.

        For me, and undoubtedly other first-generation Latinos, lack of explicit grammar instruction has impeded my efforts to acquire academic Spanish. I’ve always thought of grammar as scales – one cannot learn how to play Beethoven on the piano simply by immersing oneself in marathon listening sessions of the Fifth Symphony. If you don’t learn and practice the basics first, how can you hope to approximate any degree of mastery on the piano?

  3. Michelle says:

    Corrections: 1) “I don’t feel this way about English…” 2) “..of the piano?”

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