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by Erica Fischer on Sep 15, 2012

Supporting Heritage Learners in the World Language Classroom

Last week our participants shared their thoughts on how to support heritage speakers in the world language classroom. Participants began by defining the term “heritage speaker” or “heritage learner” as someone who speaks the target language at home, but who does not necessarily know how to read and write, especially in a more formal, academic context. For a heritage speaker, L1 is not English; alternatively, heritage speakers’ L1 might be English along with another language.

As @DiegoOjeda66 reminded us, oral proficiency is not language proficiency. A truly proficient heritage speaker should be competent in listening, speaking, reading and writing (LSRW), beyond just basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS).

Participants went on to discuss the merits of offering special classes exclusively for heritage learners, and how to best serve the needs of heritage learners in a regular world language classroom when separate classes are not offered.

Why Should Heritage Learners Take a Language Class at All?

Certain heritage speakers often feel that they do not need to take a class to learn the language that they already speak. Moderator @DiegoOjeda66 provided a great list of reasons, addressed to prospective heritage speaker students, for why they should take a world language class to fully master their L1.

  • Learning grammar terminology will help you understand not just your own language but almost any other language.
  • Acquiring new vocabulary will help you communicate better with heritage speakers from other countries. For example, a heritage Spanish-speaker of Mexican origin will be able to better communicate with heritage Spanish-speakers from other Latin American countries and with those from Spain.
  • For heritage speakers who are still learning English, learning more Spanish will help you learn more English, as English and Spanish share many common words, cognates, and etymologies.
  • Taking a world language class will give you reading and writing experience. A world language teacher should make sure to offer reading materials and to assign writing topics that are relevant and of interest to students’ age group and individual preferences.
  • Mastering the target language will help you learn to fully express yourself, so that you can communicate your true feelings, not just answer the question, “How was your day?” with a list of things that happened.
  • You will learn how to write in different styles for different contexts, not just put to paper the spoken word.
  • You will develop a more intimate connection with your heritage and learn more about your own culture, developing a sense of pride.
  • You will be able to better pass on your language to your future children, which will give them more opportunities for success.

The Case for Separate Heritage Learner Classes

Several participants made a strong case for offering classes specifically for heritage learners. Heritage learners may already have strong oral skills, although their vocabulary may be limited to that of daily life and family activities. Learning pronunciation is usually not an issue. But many, if not most, heritage learners do not know how to read and write in the target language (their L1).

Separate classes for heritage learners are most often offered in parts of the country where there is a high concentration of non-native English speakers. In the case of Spanish speakers, this most often means the West and Southwest. @dr_dmd in California shared that his school offers heritage learner classes in levels 1-4, to prepare students to eventually take AP Spanish Language and/or Literature with non-heritage students. While he does not want to reject heritage learners from the regular world language classroom, he believes that teachers can better serve heritage learners with heritage learner-specific classes. He shared that it can take a long time to help administrators and counselors realize the value of offering heritage learner classes; he adviser teachers to keep advocating. Sometimes, even a heritage learner program does not meet the needs of all heritage learners; for example, @CalicoTeach shared that the high school heritage learner classes in her district are sometimes too difficult for students who didn’t enroll in heritage learner classes in middle school.

Heritage Learners in the Regular World Language Classroom

Separate classes for heritage speakers are not always available – especially in the Midwestern United States and areas where there is not as large of an immigrant population. This means that world language teachers will have to be especially sensitive and supportive of heritage learners who choose to enroll in world language classes to improve their skills. As @dr_dmd put it, teachers must adapt our classes in order to offer our heritage learner students meaningful learning – they have the right to learn, too!

All too often, heritage learners in regular world language classes don’t feel like they are getting anything out of their class. This can lead to behavioral problems. @Sra_Hildinger said that heritage learners in regular language classes need to know right away that the class has something to offer.

Some teachers might see the presence of a heritage learner in a regular world language classroom as an inconvenience: heritage learners have different needs and goals from students who are learning L2 from scratch. Bored heritage learners may become frustrated and cause disruptions, distracting other students. However, our participants were firm in their belief that in cases where heritage learners cannot have separate classes, they can prove to be an asset to both the teacher and their peers in the regular world language classroom.

  • @dr_dmd suggested that teachers elicit the help of the heritage speakers to assist other students, giving them a privileged status, or a place of honored engagement.
  • @dr_dmd also suggested offering heritage learners supplemental and interest-based readings so that they can challenge themselves to keep progressing.
  • @dr_dmd like using project-based learning (PBL) as a means of offering engagement to all students, giving each the opportunity to take their learning as far as they can.
  • @cadamsf1 recommends pairing heritage learners with a stronger regular language student, or with a student who is highly motivated to challenge him/herself. This type of pairing only works well with students who have low affective filters.
  • @CalicoTeach reminded us that while heritage speakers might have larger vocabularies than their classmates, they often struggle with spelling if they have never had to write their L1 before. @lovemysummer suggested grouping students so that the heritage learners can serve as vocab “experts” and the L2 learners can serve as spelling “experts.”
  • On the other hand, heritage learners can also benefit from learning synonyms for the words they already know. Even heritage speakers can enhance their vocabulary!

In addition to their vocabulary knowledge and oral proficiency, heritage speakers can be a valuable source of cultural information. Engaging their expertise in this area boosts their confidence and makes them feel like they do belong in the class. @MmeCaspari described the World Language Day at her school, where all heritage learners, English-language learners, and exchange students give presentations about their cultures. They receive positive attention from the whole school. Teachers help students prepare their presentations to ensure that the presentations are valuable for everyone.

For more thoughts on school diversity and multi-cultural enrichment, @dr_dmd strongly recommends the work of Jim Cummins, particularly his book Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society.

A well-taught world language class – whether heritage learner-specific, or a regular world language class – can be a life-changing experience for a heritage speakers. @cadamsf1 shared that her students were fascinated by what they learned about their own language and culture, and angry that they hadn’t been taught it before. As @dr_dmd pointed out, heritage learners sometimes do not know how much they have to be proud of!

As a final thought, @DiegoOjeda66 reminded us that if we allow heritage speakers to leave our classes with the same skills and knowledge they had when they began, we are doing them a disservice.

Thank you to all our participants who shared their perspectives! And a special thanks to our moderators, @dr_dmd and @DiegoOjeda66 for their direction!

Join us this coming Thursday, September 20th at 8pm EST / 5pm PST for our next #LangChat!

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.


  • Maria Isabel Aguilar

    I am in need of all the resources I can be provided, I am struggling with my heritage learners, and heritage speakers, I know exactly what you are talking about I have three leves of students right now! Pleas help!

  • Ana

    One great activity is having them journal and share with the class. This allows you to work with the writing level of each individual. They really enjoy sharing as it is very impressive to the other kids even if they don’t understand.

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