listening Writing

Your heritage speaking students think you are weird

Advice for teachers new to teaching heritage speakers

Imagine being an American high school student placed in a basic literacy class. You need this class. Perhaps you are aware that your writing is full of errors. You may even recognize that this could be good for you. However, there is one major problem: your teacher is British. how brit sound to americans Nobody in your world speaks like her, not even educated adults. Sometimes you do not even understand her! A kind and progressive educator, she never corrects your dialect, but there it is every time she opens her mouth. Would you imitate her? Would you try to figure out which part of her speech to imitate and which part to discard? Or would it just be way too weird?

Unless you share the cultural background of your students, you are weird to them. Probably very weird.

It is my own voice, my own dialect, that dominates my classroom. Even when working with authentic resources, it is my voice that scaffolds materials used in class. One quick & rough way that I assess literacy on the very first day of school is simply by observing the eyes that glass over the moment I start speaking Spanish. The top third often can adjust, whereas the least literate third of my class often shut down when first confronted with a different dialect. I suspect that this is not limited to non-heritage speaking teachers; I have a Salvadorian friend who once told me that his first week on a scholarship in Spain was immersed in depression because he could not understand his professors. You could try adapting your dialect to your target population, but if you are a Spanish teacher you will quickly see how futile that can be. While most of my heritage speaking students are Mexican-Americans, this year I also have kids in my class whose families come from Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Argentina, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. Even the kids from Southern Mexico sound weird to the kids from the North! There is a reason why they hesitate to speak Spanish among themselves until they have developed solid friendships. To put it bluntly, you simply have to prepare to be the Brit teaching American English.

One way to prepare is to plan on using a lot more scaffolding than you think they need. Don´t be bullied by the top third of the class who forcefully indicate that they understand. Watch for glassy eyes and antisocial behavior. Those are signs that the student is lost, or has been lost for years. Be clear that every student is going to earn a good grade in your class. Not “can earn” a good grade; is going to earn a good grade. My experience with heritage learners of Spanish is that they bond and will eventually react positively to community goals. State that goal from the very beginning, and repeat it as you stop the lesson to make a graphic organizer to explain an authentic resource. Repeat it as you write what you just said on the board because you want everyone to observe the spelling. Repeat it whenever a student is tuning you out.

Heritage learners also need to hear a huge variety of dialects, but forcing that on them is a hard sell. Some of my heritage learners are so deeply immersed in a relatively homogeneous community that they do not differentiate between what is regional dialect and what will be widely understood universally. The idea that eventually, for example in college, they will need to be able to communicate with people from many regions is rarely a convincing approach. Too far away. Students need to be interested in hearing a different dialect now. That is why we start the year watching El Internado and not El señor de los cielos. Students need to feel that people they know, not just their teacher, speak different dialects of Spanish.

My main strategy is to explicitly and repeatedly invite them to join a larger community of Spanish speakers. Soon after they become addicted to El Internado I begin to introduce other videos and audios that expand upon the dialects (and registers) that they have been hearing. Enlarging their language community through reading and videos is the only way I manage to address the issue without communicating inappropriate value judgments about their language. As Jody Noble pointed out recently on a facebook discussion, the identities of heritage learners are often wrapped up in their language. For adolescents with few secure anchors (feeling like outcasts both here and in the country of their parents), their language will not change until they want it to change. Here are some sources I use to help expand my students´ language community:

Sources for human interest stories (videos and audios)

(1) Radio Ambulante is kind of like the NPR radio program This American Life, but in Spanish and focusing on Latin Americans. Lots of interesting episodes; my favorites include El náufrago and Instrumentos de guerra. Barbara Davis has a collection of processing worksheets on her TpT store that accompany some of the episodes. They ask students to focus on specific details while listening and are great for post-listening discussion. I do not collect these as a grade; instead we use them as a framework for listening & discussion, often followed by a quick write that I do collect and grade.

(2) AJ+ español has a small but very interesting collection of Spanish language videos supported with Spanish subtitles. I have used them in my advanced non-heritage learners classes as well; my favorites include La Cholita Luchadora de Bolivia and La Velocista Ciega.

(3) Although the language in the articles at Veinte Mundos tends to be too advanced for my students I often peruse their articles for human interest stories. They often come with a short video, or a quick google search will uncover a video related to the subject of the article. So many interesting pieces; students have enjoyed learning about Biblioburro, La Música que sale del basurero, and Ecobici.

(4) Azteca noticias has a recurring part of their broadcast called El Otro México which focuses on some aspect of the Mexican experience. Check out this one on el oficio del afilador. A simple google search for “el otro México tv azteca” will turn up lots of 5-6 minute videos. While I love watching these, I have a harder time making a graphic organizer on the fly for these. Perhaps that is a project for the future…

(5) I always get a lot of mileage from these short, pleasing videos called 6 grados de separación. Each video traces the cultural appropriations that have led to objects and practices that are considered typically Mexican, such as horchata, rebozos and La Virgen de Guadalupe. The graphic organizer is easy: print off a blank world map and have students fill it in as you watch. Since this goes fast we watch it once without writing, and then again stopping at each spot to give students time to write notes and help them find the right place on the world map. You can find a list of all of the videos here, where I blogged about using these videos with non-heritage speakers.

(6) I use RTVE sparingly because if I am going to make lesson plans around a video I want to be able to download the video to my computer and be sure that the video will be available in the future. Sometimes I can manage to download a news item from RTVE, but it is hit and miss. Nonetheless I do like to occasionally show the first ten minutes of one of their documentaries, which will often take us twenty or more minutes to actually watch because these tend to be more challenging for my students. Every thirty seconds or so I will stop it to check for understanding. If the video does not work, sometimes you can find it on youtube.

Please feel free to recommend more sources for short human interest stories in audio & video. I have just barely scratched the surface, but while I am sliding down the chute of an academic school year I rarely have time to search the internet for new sources. Having a source that routinely publishes new articles is invaluable!

What about speaking and writing?

I have written so much about reading that you might think that my classes are mostly receptive skills: reading and listening. You would be correct. Or rather, the writing they do is to verify their comprehension and work out the ideas that they are processing. I rarely comment on spelling, word choice, grammar, sentence structure or anything that is not connected to understanding the message that they are trying to communicate. I am convinced that students learn to write by reading, although there are good reasons to do some writing with your heritage learners especially if the input was challenging (read pages 30-32 of that paper closely). I also believe that they learn to speak by listening. Although there is speaking in my classes, there are even stronger reasons never to insist on it.


  1. Hey Mike have you read any of the newsela articles in Spanish? You can somewhat control the level of language I think they’re pretty useful I think we’re gonna do one current event a week. Here’s a link to the library:

    1. Hey Craig,

      That is one of those resources that I once looked into, actually liked but have never gotten around to integrating into classes. Maybe this year! Thanks for providing the information, maybe someone else reading these comments will use it because I do remember it was a pretty awesome (and FREE) resource.

    2. Thanks Craig for pointing us to the NewsELA in Spanish! This must be a new feature of theirs – articles in Spanish – because I’m pretty sure they didn’t have these, like, a year ago!

  2. Hi, Mike, thank you for devoting so much space to your heritage speakers. Today was the first day of school in Louisville, and my Spanish 3/4 class is more than half native speakers of Spanish, with the rest being Spanish 3. As I look at the year ahead, I am trying not to be discouraged, but last year (with less native speakers), it was such a challenge to know how to run class and to facilitate learning for both groups, and to try to help them work together in any way. In short, I have unit plans, but the nitty gritty of planning coherent lessons for these very different groups of students that will actually benefit them is so difficult to think about. I have a tiny class library, so I could start there if I can get funding, but in your opinion, what are the first steps toward success this year? Thank you so much.

    1. It is a very difficult assignment to teach two very different courses in one classroom. I differentiate my level 3 class (which has a similar split of heritage and non-heritage students) mostly by using my classroom library for FVR. However I also teach TPRS stories and require that everyone participate. There is no “I am an advanced student and thus I do not do this activity” in my class. In the story-asking activities my heritage speakers often take a backseat (otherwise they will push the plot forward too quickly and non-heritage speakers will not get the reps they need), but they are still responsible not only for exit quizzes but also free writes with a specified theme and readings. The novela keeps them engaged in class (we will start Gran Hotel in October), but even that has an edge: if the heritage speakers watch ahead they seem more likely to try to spoil it for the rest of the class so I have to be very clear that there are alternate essays to be written by students who watch ahead.

  3. Hey Mike thank you for this information what great resources! I had found Radioambulante but the other ones with all the documentaries wow that’s going to be fun! So when you grade papers on reading do you mark grammar errors but don’t discount points if the idea is there?

    1. I don´t mark errors at all. I might make a comment about their ideas, but often I do not even return the writing. I glance at it to see what they are thinking.

  4. Do you do the same with your non heritage speakers, as far as not really correcting spelling, word choice, grammar, etc.? I go back and forth on this.

    1. I don´t correct their writing on quick writes. Even if they were to look at the corrections, that is not a good use of your time.

      Just to be clear, TPRS teachers do correct incorrect student output: we correct the oral output of an actor during stories. For instance, when a student actor says, “yo tiene miedo” I will say, “él tiene miedo (pointing at another student), pero ¿cómo se dice I am afraid?… ¿clase? sí, correcto, yo TENGO miedo. (pointing at myself) Yo tengo miedo cuando no hay estudiantes en clase. No me gusta estar solo. (Looking at student actor) ¿Tú tienes miedo?”, and hopefully the student will respond, “sí, yo tengo miedo”. If not it would definitely be written on the board and returned to several times in the next few minutes.

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