Those who have a home language other than English bring a wider range of language abilities to the classroom. These abilities range from minimal functioning in the language to complete fluency and literacy. It is important for teachers to assess the language skills of the different heritage speakers in the classroom. This diversity includes:
- Students who are able to understand the spoken language, but are unable to respond in the language beyond single-word answers.
- Students who are able to understand the language and communicate at a minimal level. These students may be able to read some items, but because of their limited vocabulary, they may not comprehend much information. They may write what they are able to sound out, but errors are evident.
- Students who can speak the language fluently but who have little to no experience with the language in its written form.
- Students who have come to the United States from non-English-speaking countries. They can understand and speak the language fluently; however, their reading and writing skills may be limited due to lack of a formal education in their country of origin.
- Fluent bilingual students who can understand, speak, read, and write another language very well and have possibly received formal instruction in that language in the United States or in another country.
Due to their diverse backgrounds, heritage speakers differ greatly in language skills and may need individualized instruction. Here are 5 strategies that may be helpful for heritage speakers:
- Build upon their background knowledge. Develop instructional units around themes and topics that relate to their life experiences. Encourage students to use these experiences as the foundation for building language skills through vocabulary development, reading, and writing.
- Help students connect aural with written language. If students don’t understand a word in a reading, have them read it aloud or ask a friend or teacher to read it aloud. Often they can recognize the word once they hear it. Allow for opportunities for students to follow along as a story is read aloud.
- Use strategies that are effective in a language arts classroom, such as building schema, teaching language-learning strategies, using graphic organizers, and incorporating pre- and post-reading tasks. Use the writing process to develop good writers.
- Encourage students to begin communicating, especially in writing. Have them write down their thoughts in the way they sound to them. Then have students work with the teacher or another student for corrections. Students can also look through textbooks and dictionaries to assist with error correction.
- Maintain high standards. Require students to focus on accuracy and proficient communication. Many heritage speakers experience frustration with reading and writing in the home language when they have good aural/oral skills. Building language skills takes time.
In many of today’s classrooms, teachers encounter classes that contain a mixture of beginning-level students and heritage speakers. These groups need different materials, different instructional approaches, and different objectives.