Heritage Learner Program Challenges

I write this reflection of my high school’s current struggles to offer a Heritage Learner Program in hopes that it might help others learn our lessons and better advocate for their own Heritage Learners’ needs at their own schools.

First off, this post is NOT to explain Heritage Learner classes or justify them. If that’s what you need, I highly encourage you to buy the compilation of essays Mike Peto edited titled Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish: Essays by Classroom Teachers. It is excellent and will help clarify your thinking about HLs.


I’m writing this blog post because we need a Heritage Learner class and have faced challenges getting the course to be offered consistently. The Heritage Language Program at my school has been intermittent over the last decade. To be clear, we’ve always had enough HLs for a section. However, we get enough students to sign up for a year or two, then the course gets cut, and the cycle repeats again. The biggest challenge is in identifying and ensuring HL placement during the winter so the course doesn’t get cut due to a lack of numbers.


The Problems and Potential Solutions

1). We haven’t  been able to identify rising 9th grade HLs in the winter of their 8th grade year in their middle schools to get them placed into the HL course. None of our 3 feeder middle schools have a HL class, and nothing has ever been done to reach out to their Spanish teachers and guidance counselors to raise awareness and get placement right when scheduling occurs.

Solution 1 A: We tried to get guidance and admin to guarantee the heritage language section like they guarantee the Spanish 5 and AP class. I mean, our Spanish 5 enrollment at the beginning of the year was 16 and AP was 12 or so. We had more HL enrollments than that, so we suggested cutting the Spanish 5 class and making the Heritage class one of the guaranteed course offerings in its place. Admin responded with a hard no, despite the fact that many if not most language programs in our county and I dare say around the country have students progress straight from 4 to AP.

Solution 1 B: Since we couldn’t manage getting the HL course guaranteed instead of the Spanish 5 course, we’ve got to increase enrollment for the HL course during winter scheduling so it doesn’t get cut. Our Spanish staff is committed this year in going to the middle schools and meeting with the Spanish teachers, guidance counselors, and principal overseeing world language. Ideally, the current Spanish teachers could identify the HLs and ensure that they sign up for the HL class. Then, it would be great for the guidance counselors to screen all the 8th graders who aren’t currently enrolled in Spanish when reviewing schedules.

We as Spanish teachers are hoping to offer additional aid by analyzing the rising 9th grade Spanish placement lists ourselves to look for Spanish-specified as a home language, and then work to identify as many additional HLs as possible since there are a surprising number of HLs who have English identified as the home language but either still speak Spanish primarily and just didn’t tell the school system, or the parents speak to the students in Spanish and the students respond in English (which is still a HL description for sure), so they put English as the home language.

2). The second problem is that our guidance department has not been willing to force HLs out of regular Spanish classes into the HL class even though it is much more suited to their unique needs. Many of the existing high school HLs haven’t wanted to take the HL course because they perceived the course to be harder than the traditional courses. For many students, this misconception backfires. Many of the HLs who have remained in traditional Spanish classes have actually earned poor grades, even F’s for the year, despite having considerably more knowledge than the non-HLs in class. There’s lots of reasons for this. Many have been bored and uninspired by their needs not being met. Many have rejected and not turned in lots of basic assignments which to their language level is just busywork. Etcetera.

Solution 2: If guidance is unwilling to take a firmer stance, the responsibility falls to Spanish teachers to speak with HLs as to why they should voluntarily move to the HL class. Perhaps this is the way it should be anyway, since it is much better if the student buys into the HL course. And this type of 1-on-1 persuasion can work. Although we didn’t have the HL course offering, we as a Spanish staff, and I as the exclusive Spanish 1 teacher, have worked hard this year to get HLs to at least move up in Spanish to level 3 or 4. Our efforts were successful with all but 1 HL who demanded to stay in level 1. So HLs do understand that their language needs are different, and they can be convinced to seek out a non-traditional path.

3). Another guidance-type challenge: Our guidance director has indicated his concern for HL courses generally because according to him many colleges don’t recognize them, or don’t know what SP HL 1 means, for example. To make matters murkier, when we (hopefully) restart our HL program next year, we are going to have kids who have taken a wide range of previous Spanish courses really ranging as widely as Spanish 1-5, because we have encourage HLs to skip ahead to hopefully meet their needs more effectively. Their potential course history could look like:

  • Span. 1 and 2 in middle school, then HL 1
  • OR Spanish 4 as their first Spanish course, then (hopefully) HL 1, then HL2
  • OR Spanish 3 and 4, then HL 1 next
  • OR Spanish 1, Spanish 4 (when we convinced them to skip ahead), HL 1

I can see how that could complicate things in terms of how the students’ transcripts might look to colleges.

Solution 3: I don’t actually have any answers to this concern. How do guidance departments deal with this? Do they include an addendum with their transcript that explained what the HL course is? Does it even matter? Because it’s still a valid high school language credit, and, correct me if I’m wrong, but most colleges place students in part based on their own placement test. It’s not like colleges don’t know about HLs…!!!

Problem 4: The curriculum of the HL class and its perception has been problematic.  The first go-around, the county didn’t have a curriculum in place for the HL course. Although it was before I arrived at the school, I get the impression from conversations in the department that admin didn’t think much of the course. I cannot really speak to whether that estimation was correct or not, but based on what I was told, the class was perceived as a fluff course where students didn’t really do much.

By the time we reinstated the HL course at my school, the county had created a curriculum for the HL course, which the teacher dutifully carried out. But the curriculum misunderstood the role of the HL class (in my opinion). It was a lot of explicit grammar instruction, explicit spelling instruction, and lots of canonical Hispanic literature and literary analysis. I got the impression 2 and 3 years ago that the students didn’t enjoy the class, were bored, frustrated, etc.

Solution 4: Fortunately, there is a lot of room for teacher interpretation in the HL curriculum. There’s no textbook or textual mandate. There’s no standardized assessments. The course description is quite vague.

We can pivot the course to (1) make it more interesting for students so there’s a real excitement about the class, and (2) make it more research-based so students actually improve instead of being drug through ineffectual and frustrating explicit grammar and spelling instruction.

That’s where it’s really useful to read a book like the one Mike Peto edited: Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish: Essays by Classroom Teachers. So we can ground our HL classes in the research.

Where everyone agrees is that HLs most frequently excel in the oral aspects of the language: listening and speaking. They usually need to improve in reading and, more than anything, writing. Frequently, they make lots of phonetic spelling errors and grammatical errors when it comes to verb conjugations and agreement.

In the past, the course was set up to improve these shortcomings through explicit grammar and spelling instruction. However, the research is clear. Spelling and grammatical errors are most effectively resolved with extensive pleasure reading. In many cases, HLs have little to no literacy in Spanish. Perhaps they were read to in Spanish before entering school, but then read everything after that in English. What the need is a massive flood of text.

I propose that a full half of the daily classroom experience in the HL class be pleasure reading from a wide range of Spanish texts: from the most basic of language learner literature for the HLs who have never read in Spanish on up to native young adult literature and non-fiction texts. And everything in between. Just like our English and Language Arts classes do for their reading programs.

And the other half of class could be cultural inquiry to enrich and encourage the HLs Hispanic cultural awareness and appreciation. But always based in text. Not super advanced canonical texts like Cien Años de Soledad, but instead approachable, comprehensible text of all kinds.

Wish us luck! It’s a big task, but an important one!

One comment

  1. ¡Gracias por esta valiosa información! Este es mi segundo año enseñando español y pasé una propuesta para abrir una clase de HL el próximo año. Hay muchos retos pero considero esta clase necesaria en nuestra escuela. Mil gracias por publicar estos retos y opciones de sobrepasarlos. Necesitamos aprender de los que ya llevan camino recorrido. 🙂


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