Why Do Spanish Speakers End Up In High School Spanish?




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Spanish teacher in classroom in front of blackboard

I’ll never forget Frankie, one of the young people that made the most impact on me during my first year of teaching high school Spanish.

Frankie wasn’t actually in my Spanish 1 class- he was in the classroom next door. Both the teacher next door and I taught Spanish 1, and we were using a (then) new Spanish language curriculum called Realidades. This was in 2005, and we were using the latest technology in listening activities- audio CDs. 

The audio activities were excruciating for anyone who knows Spanish- words are spoken painfully slow, with a super Americanized Spanish dialect, and often in a gringo accent.

These types of activities I think are a bit antiquated now with the advent of podcasts and youtube videos, but back in the day we used them to bring”authentic” Spanish language into the classroom. Also, we used them because we had to- they were on the test.

empty spanish classroom with desks, chalkboard and world map

As most schools do, ours had a small budget for these audio activities, so we only had one set of discs for two teachers. We were also supposed to teach the same lessons on the same day, and so when the day for audio activities came around, we had to get creative.

One of us would do the audio activities first, and then run the CD next door to the other teacher who would do it second and then run the CD back for the next period. 

So it was in running the Paso a Paso audio CD back and forth between classrooms that I met Frankie. Frankie was a kid that you just noticed- I think he was a sophomore when I met him. He was tall and thin and always wore awesome Nike running shoes- that’s because he was an incredible track star at the school.

Frankie always had a joke that was perfectly timed- and his smile could light up a room.  Frankie was super super smart too- college-bound and not focused on anything else.

So I was surprised when I would pop into his Spanish classroom during audio activities and Frankie would have his head down on the desk. He was literally doing nothing doing the audio activities. 

One day I remember giving him a questioning look as he popped his head up when I came into the classroom. He caught my eye and said “Miss, is this even Spanish?” Then he rolled his eyes and put his head back down.

frustrated Spanish language student looking at textbook

I later asked the teacher about Frankie- and she told me his real name was Francisco and he was Guatemalan. Spanish, from Latin America, was his first language!

So how did an intelligent kid like Frankie end up in this Spanish 1 class with his head on the desk? I’ll tell you.

Just for a minute here I’m going to give you some background on how foreign-language programming works in most schools in the United States.

Why Students Take Spanish Language in School

See, in most big high schools like the one I was teaching at, foreign language is an elective class.  However, it is also sometimes a graduation requirement or sometimes a college admission requirement. 

Due to massive budget cuts in most world language programs around the country, many schools have chosen to only offer Spanish as a foreign language option. This ensures a larger program that can support multiple levels and multiple teachers to teach the kids -and helps with teacher retention since there aren’t so many programs with one teacher trying to teach multiple levels.

Spanish is also the most widely spoken language in the United States after English- at latest count over 41 million people speak the language including native speakers. Spanish is also one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and one of the official languages of most Latin American countries and much of the Iberian peninsula.

So from a practical standpoint of the number of speakers of the Spanish language in the world, many schools choose to maintain the Spanish language in schools. Plus, a working knowledge of Spanish in the United States is super helpful in many post high school vocations and careers.

How Heritage Learners End Up In Mainstream Spanish Classrooms

When students are building their class schedules, school counselors generally help to place students in the courses they need or want depending on their goals. A college-bound student will need at least 2 years of a foreign language, and so those students are generally placed in Spanish 1 if they’ve never taken language before. 

If Spanish is also a graduation requirement, all students will be placed in a Spanish 1 class, or sometimes tested into a higher level of Spanish if they have received prior language instruction.

What no one, absolutely no one takes into consideration, is what to do with Latino students who are bilingual from birth and totally fluent in Spanish- but have never learned to read or write the language.

This section of the Spanish speaking population can’t test out of  Spanish classes for college admission or graduation requirements since no exam exists, but they also don’t need to learn Spanish alongside kids who have never heard a word of Spanish in their lives. (Like Frankie!) 

If schools were offering a wider number of languages (other Romance languages such as French or Italian, or even German or Mandarin) native Spanish speaking students could then pick up a third language. When that’s not an option at the school, these students find themselves in a sort of catch-22.

Spanish teacher in classroom in front of blackboard

Look- it’s me playing teacher in Finland. Now Finland knows a LOT about bilingual education!

Misplacing Native Speakers in Foreign Language Classes- The Effect On Teachers

Ok- so back to my first year of teaching and the horrible audio CDs. Our school worked on a block system where students would take an entire year of classes in one semester. For the first semester, I had no Latino students in my Spanish 1 class. I saw what was happening to Frankie, but it didn’t really dawn on me as a problem until my second semester of teaching when I got a whole new set of students.

First day of Spanish 1- I’ve prepared my lessons on numbers and colors and gotten my classroom all ready 1st period went great! I had a bunch of upper-middle-class white kids who were high performers- so we sang color songs and learned to say “me llamo_____.”

Second period? 75% of the students placed in my Spanish 1 class were native Spanish speaking students. This means that Spanish was their first language- and they weren’t going to sing the color song with me and they sure as heck already knew how to say “me llamo.”

(I’ll note here that the other 25% of the students in the class were lower-middle-class white kids. I would later learn that these groupings of students are common side effects of student tracking. Learn more about tracking and it’s effects on students here.)  

In fact, when the students saw me, a white lady at the front of the class they rolled their eyes and started speaking to each other in Spanish, assuming I didn’t understand them. (Boy were they in for a surprise! To be fair, many of my colleagues who taught Spanish 1 over the years had little more than a working knowledge of basic Spanish even though they taught the subject, so the kids weren’t too far off in their assumptions.)

I literally had no idea what to do with the second group of kids. I mean, how could I, in good conscience, teach native Spanish speaking students the Spanish 1 curriculum I had been given? It did not apply to them at all. But- they were in the room with kids wh didn’t speak Spanish at all and did need the traditional Spanish 1 curriculum.

At this point, I saw myself with a few options:

1. I could just teach the provided curriculum with the students in the classroom as they were given to me. It wasn’t my fault they were misplaced.

2. I could ask the native speaking students to teach the non-natives what they knew, and basically have a planning period for myself.

3. I could fight to get the native speaking students the Spanish education they deserved. 

And then I remembered Frankie- and thought of him sleeping-walking through his Spanish credits just so he could go to college. It was a complete waste of his time- and it wasn’t honoring his bilingual background.

With that, I decided firmly on Option 3.

lightbulb on chalkboard with circles around it

How To Implement Spanish Language Programs For Native Speakers 

For almost 15 years I worked on a detailed Spanish for Native Speakers curriculum for my native Spanish speaking students. By the end of my career, I had the highest pass rate on Advanced Placement exams by Native Speakers in Denver Public Schools.

Not only that, I graduated students who could test out of a minor in Spanish in college. Many of my undocumented students were completely literate in Spanish by the time they completed my three-year program- and they were able to return to their home countries for college and begin a path to United States citizenship through their educational institutions. 

I’m super proud of the work that I did- and I can’t wait to get back into it when my daughters are in school full time. For now, I’m raising bilingual kids, and sharing on the blog how I created my SNS program with you.

How did I do it? Four steps:

  1. Identify native Spanish speakers in the school and advocate for separate Spanish classes for them 
  2. Create and implement a curriculum that meets the literacy needs of native speakers of Spanish
  3. Find resources to teach the curriculum
  4. Assess student learning to prove growth- and to prove your program works and is necessary

Need help making your program a reality?

Make sure to subscribe to our mailing list for all the future posts on teaching Spanish for Native Speakers in high school. And if you want any of the resources listed above, please reach out to me at puravidamoms @ gmail (dot) com

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