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My approach to Teaching a Heritage Speaker Class

Sneak peek: Everything you should know about my approach to teaching a heritage speaker class. 


My story begins in 2017 when I inherited the heritage Spanish class at my school with no clear scope & sequence to go on. That first year was a whirlwind! With little to no time for planning, I had to try all sorts of things on the fly. Textbooks and grammar packets came and went, until I finally stumbled upon what would work for me and my students.

Spanish classroom

We were bored out of our minds with traditional methods, so I decided to completely shift gears and instead teach using content-based instruction. I thought to myself- my students already have so much language, why don’t we use that language to read, discuss, and speak about topics that are interesting and relate to where my students are in life right now.

¿A andar se aprende andando, no?

So, to the drawing boards it was! I began to develop thematic units that centered on a specific topic and revolved around tasks that required direct involvement and participation from students for them to build on the language they already have. I placed an emphasis on varying the activities in order to hold their interest and to take into account different learning styles.

station activity heritage class

The first unit I ever created was my identity unit. A lot of times, we as teachers must teach towards a standardized test, and due to time constraints, feel boxed in and unable to teach the topics we would prefer. We spend a lot of time teaching our student’s minds, but leave out the rest of their being. This niche does not have a standardized test, so I wanted to take the opportunity to teach to the whole student. The identity unit struck a chord with my classes, and many students bloomed out from it in ways I hadn’t seen before! After that, I was hooked and I never looked back.

CURRICULUM CYCLE

Over the next three years, I created thematic units, one after another on nights, weekends, and during summer break. I needed to create three entire years of curriculum because at my school the heritage course is 9th-12th graders mixed together. This means that many students will take the course for three years in a row. By senior year, I assumed some students would then take a different elective or be doing PSEO (a dual college-credit option in Minnesota). In all reality, I actually had some students for four years because a few seniors decided to repeat the course again, so I will likely end up developing a fourth year to the cycle so they don’t have to repeat topics if they decide to take the course their senior year.

heritage speaker class seniors


Read more about my curriculum cycles here: 

YEAR ONE

YEAR TWO

YEAR THREE

DIFFERENTIATION

The curriculum I created lasts for three years, but it is not sequential, meaning it does not get more difficult as the years go on. It can’t progress in difficulty because every year I get a new set of ninth graders added to the class that each possess a different background and level of Spanish. Every student’s language journey is unique based on where/how much Spanish input they experience. Because I have both heritage speakers and native speakers in my class at the same time, I teach them what it means to have a growth mindset. Basically, why they shouldn’t compare their skills with one another, and instead focus on growing their own abilities. We actually do an activity called my Mi mapa de input lingüístico so that students understand why everyone in the class is at a different place in their language learning journey.

Every year I have a few new-to-country students as well as several students who have never left the USA. In order to accommodate for all these different levels in my class, I write all my units at a medium difficulty level. From there, I can decide who would benefit from having a harder vs. easier version of the test or from answering fewer vs. more questions on an assignment. The main way I differentiate for different reading levels is through FVR (free voluntary reading). 

fvr in heritage speaker class

So yes, you are understanding that correctly.

You can mix and match my units and bundles in any order you prefer, they are not sequential! 

If you prefer the topics included in the Year Three Bundle you can start there, instead. You can start wherever you’d like!

FREE VOLUNTARY READING

heritage speaker fvr

Free voluntary reading has become a pillar of our classroom routine. Every day we start class with ten minutes of silent, sustained reading. The magic of FVR is that each student is able to choose a book that fits both their unique reading level and interests. It is amazing how much learning students are doing when they are reading a book in Spanish that is at their level. Vocabulary and grammar are organically reinforced via the repetitive exposures gained from reading in ways students wouldn’t retain through explicit instruction or lecture.

classroom library of books in Spanish for heritage speakers

I was able to earn around $7,000 of grant money to purchase books for an extensive classroom library. It took me a couple of years to build this library, but my students will benefit from all that hard work for years to come!

If you’re interested to learn more about how to procure a similar classroom library for your students, check out this post and this post.

CORE COMPONENTS

culture community reading writing

The core components of my curriculum are: reading, writing, culture, & community. These components are included in each thematic unit I write.

Heritage Spanish class is a newer commodity in the world of language education. There aren’t classes that directly compare to it. I take the liberty of viewing it as a fusion of Language Arts & History, but there’s still more to it than that, as there is also an emphasis on Latinx issues, culture and identity work.

identity terms worksheets for heritage speakers

This is a chance for students to connect with other Latinx students on shared experiences, discover how they wish to identify, and learn more about the culture of their country of origin, and the other cultures of the Spanish-speaking world they may not be as familiar with. Heritage Spanish is a chance to teach history through a Latinx lens, a lens which is often left missing from the history curriculum at schools in the U.S. I love that this course empowers students to feel confident in who they are and more educated about the issues facing the Latinx community both historically and in the present-day.

Soy latino pero no soy criminal. Yo soy trabajador.

Additionally, when teaching a heritage course in the United States at the middle school or high school level, it can’t be as difficult as a Language Arts class in Spanish would be in a Spanish-speaking country. We are still helping students build the foundation of their reading and writing skills in a heritage class, so this course is not exactly a Language A (first-language) course but it isn’t a Language B (second-language) course either. For this reason, it can be challenging to find the right set of standards to align.

DELIVERY METHODS

core components implemented with content-based instruction and project-based instruction

The two main methods of delivery are content-based instruction and project-based instruction. My aim is to engage and empower heritage speakers, and I have found these methods to be best.

Content-based instruction is teaching about a topic in the target language. The more interesting the topic, the better! The hook of the topic gets students using the target language in reading, writing, and speaking without even realizing that they are practicing output and receiving loads of input. This concept of teaching with content-based instruction to heritage speakers, in my opinion, is the equivalent of what teaching with comprehensible input is for L2 learners.

la sociedad y yo in heritage spanish class

In the United States, we have a very high Spanish-speaking population and in order to meet the needs of those students, we must offer heritage courses as traditional language classes planned out for L2 learners are simply too easy for heritage speakers. 

Heritage speakers need comprehensible input, just like L2 learners need comprehensible input. The key difference is that Heritage speakers are at a much more advanced level and they actually need their educational diet geared more towards written input over spoken input, in order to improve their language skills.

happiness lesson in heritage spanish class

True heritage speakers have native-esque speaking accents, but limited vocabulary and experience in using their language skills in an educational setting. Many heritage speakers struggle with low self-esteem about their Spanish because they lack when it comes to reading and writing in Spanish. Bearing in mind, most of their schooling has been imparted in English. Additionally, much of their language has been acquired at home with family. In that way, they are perfectly able to navigate those settings with their oral language skills, but other settings can prove to be challenging.

They have GREAT comprehension skills when it comes to aural comprehension. Thus, the comprehensible input model doesn’t work for them. Heritage speakers need to read a variety of articles, novels, and short stories from authentic resources that were written for native speakers.

group projects in heritage spanish class

Project-based instruction shows up in my curriculum in the form of self-paced task lists, vision boards and group projects. Engagement is SO crucial because without it, we aren’t learning! I think hands-on projects are helpful for engagement because it gives students a clear goal to reach for and actively involves them in the learning process. To learn more about something, we need to do something. Students need to be an active participant. When I think of engaging lessons I think of:

  • Hands-on projects
  • Relevant to their life
  • Student-centered
  • Allow student choice
  • Allow student self-expression
  • Building community
  • Self-paced/student agency
  • Switching things up
  • Movement

MINDSET

vision boards for heritage spanish class

We create vision boards in one of my favorite units- my happiness unit! While the task of creating a vision board may seem like it wouldn’t help students improve their Spanish, some lessons have more of an emphasis on their development as humans and real-life application. When taking a closer look, the project instructions and rubric are all in Spanish which provides valuable input, and then students practice output by explaining their vision board to a partner and to the teacher, which helps foster community. Students love doing this activity, because who doesn’t love dreaming up your ideal future?! I love having them do this activity because it teaches them to plan out their life and gets them dreaming about their best-self.

happiness motto for heritage speaker class

My mindset and focus when I create units is on the whole-child because our students are humans, first. My curriculum includes identity exploration, and popular psych topics like self-love and happiness, as these themes are relevant and extremely helpful for mental health. In that way, this curriculum strives to improve their Spanish while also equipping them with practical life-skills to help them navigate life’s twists and turns.

GRAMMAR

I often get asked about how I include grammar into my course. The truth is, you won’t find explicit grammar instruction in any of my resources and materials. This is not something that has proved to be beneficial for my heritage students. Memorizing grammar concepts has not stuck with them, but using the language for tasks like writing essays has boosted their confidence and given them practical skills that can transfer to their English Language Arts class.

análisis literario packet for heritage speakers

Even though I don’t do traditional grammar instruction, I will sometimes include correcting written sentences as a class, mentor sentences, and/or pop-up instructions as I see fit. For example, if I notice many students are making the same mistake in their writing assignment, I might spend five minutes teaching students about why it should be “he comido” instead of “ha comido.” I think pop-up grammar is more effective because it comes up organically in context. I definitely think it can be good to point out grammar concepts to students in context, but I don’t include it in my materials so that is something you would need to be able to add in for your class as you see fit.

heritage spanish class writing

When it comes to grammar for heritage students, it’s important to take a look at the bigger picture. If preparing them for the IB test or the AP test is the goal, then explicit grammar instruction is not necessary. Reading, writing, listening, and speaking are the main categories on those tests, not identifying verb tense and parts of speech. At this stage in a student’s life, engagement in topics that relate to self-esteem, happiness, and Latinx issues is so much more useful for where my students are headed in general.

heritage spanish class students

The majority of them will not be Spanish teachers someday, and those that do decide to take that career path will have to take courses in college that will teach them explicit grammar. When I tried to teach nitty-gritty grammar concepts, they were not engaged at all. When I lost my student’s attention, I also lost the opportunity to teach them anything else that day. This led me to content-based instruction. After much trial and error, using their Spanish skills in tasks like authentic writing and free voluntary reading is a much better use of our time. The soft skills they develop in my class like collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity are transferable skills that apply to every workplace.

notebooks for secret pen pals in heritage spanish class


Still not convinced? Take a look at what Stephen Krashen has to say about teaching grammar.

CORE BELIEFS BEHIND THE CURRICULUM

Fiesta in Spanish class for heritage speakers

– Our best learning takes place when we are engaged.

– Engagement takes place when we are an active participant in the learning. 

– Heritage speakers deserve quality materials that meet their needs.

– Every voice matters- my students’ identities and experiences are valid. 

– First and foremost, we are humans – teach the whole-child. 

– Shared experiences build community.

– The right book at the right level can ignite a love for reading.  – School should be fun, so parties are a must!

– You can learn something from everyone.

Spanish teacher with classroom library for FVR

If you feel similarly, but don’t know how or where to get started, you are in the right place. Heritage Spanish is my favorite class to teach, I get excited for it every morning as I’m heading in to work! It is my goal to help heritage teachers, new and experienced alike, to feel prepared for their day, week and/or year. I am thrilled that I can play a part in helping other teachers feel more prepared and have the ability to be fully present with their families during nights, weekends, and summer breaks. I always love hearing back from teachers that, because of my resources, their time in school can be spent forming meaningful relationships with their students.

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