Module 2: In-Class Assessment of Heritage Speakers

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Module Overview

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During this week, you will learn how to administer an in-class assessment of Heritage Speakers.

After you complete all the readings and assignments for this module, you will be able to:

  • Demonstrate knowledge of different assessment tools.
  • Develop the criteria to choose the right tool for students in the class based on student characteristics
  • Understand how to analyze the results of the assessment instrument


"Assigning CEFR ratings to ACTFK assessments", an article discussing ACTFL Proficiency Levels

Wikipedia page explaining European Framework Proficiency Levels

Culture and Instruction in the Spanish Heritage Language Classroom, Clara Burgo, Loyola University Chicago, 2017

Valley View Schools 365U Heritage Spanish Placement Exam for SY15-16


  • ACTFL webinar explaining ACTFL Proficiency Levels
  • Video Lecture "Understanding and Using the CEFR Rating" explaining European Framework Proficiency Levels
  • Video featuring Dr. Guadalupe Valdéz discussing assessing HLLs


Write Journal Entry # 4 and #5

Learning in Context: Meet Robert


Robert was born in Palo Alto, California. Robert’s mom immigrated to the United States from Monterey, Mexico. She met Robert’s father in graduate school at the University of California in Berkeley and they got married a few years after that.

Robert grew up hearing both English and Spanish at home. The family lives in Palo Alto, near San Francisco. They live in a suburb where most families only speak English.

Once a month, Robert’s mom takes him out to lunch at a Mexican restaurant in the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco. Robert is able to order his food in Spanish and can usually answer questions in Spanish from the restaurant’s staff. Seeing Robert interact in Spanish with members of the Mexican community makes Robert’s mom very proud since at home he refuses to speak in Spanish with her parents or younger siblings.

Robert goes to Mexico every year in the Summer to visit his grandmother who lives in Monterrey.

Assume that you are Jose's Spanish teacher. You are wondering if Jose should be considered a heritage language learner. This module will provide you with the tools to analyze Jose's case and make an informed decision about what is the best way to help him improve his Spanish language skills.

Language Skills Assessment Tools

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Tools currently available to all foreign language teachers

There are two major frameworks for learning, teaching, and assessing foreign language skills: The ACTFL system and the European framework. As a language teacher, you are probably familiar with one or both of them. However, neither one of these systems is a perfect tool for assessing the language skills of Heritage language speakers. However, they offer a good starting point to think about proficiency levels and perhaps consider developing your own specialized assessment tool. Depending on what part of the world you are from, you are probably already using the European Framework of assessing foreign language skills or the American framework developed by ACTFL. For a quick visual reminder, please take a look at these two images.

If you are not familiar with these frameworks, I encourage you to spend some time watching the videos embedded in this section. I have also included links to two academic articles explaining the frameworks in detail in case you would like to go over the key elements of each system of assessing foreign language skills.

It is important to keep in mind that although these two main frameworks are very useful for understanding the language capabilities of second language learners, they do not correlate very well to the language skills developed by Heritage speakers who grew up speaking the second language in the home.

ACTFL Framework

ACTFL Proficiency Levels at a glance

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Video Lecture explaining ACTFL Proficiency Levels


Journal article discussing ACTFL Proficiency Levels

European Framework

European Framework Proficiency Levels at a glance

European Framework.jpg


Video Lecture explaining European Framework Proficiency Levels


Journal article discussing European Framework Proficiency Levels

Other Methods of Evaluating HLLs Language Skills

Over the last decade, a number of scholars have started looking at the effectiveness of using ACTFL and European Framework to assess the foreign language skills of heritage speakers. Given that HLLs generally learn Spanish informally through oral interactions with family members, assessment tools that measure formal academic skills are not accurate in evaluating the language abilities of this group. HLLs have a high level of implicit grammar knowledge but a low level of understanding of explicit grammar concepts. Therefore, these learners usually get lower scores in assessments designed to check for knowledge of grammar rules and higher scores in oral proficiency activities.

There are many advantages to creating your own assessment tools. You will have the ability to focus mostly on the language features you would like to test, create tools that evaluate for certain skills such as cultural competence, and develop an assessment tool that builds on your knowledge of your student community. The first step in designing an assessment tool for your HLLs is to decide what are the goals of the foreign language program at your institution (Fairclough, 2012, p. 124). If the purpose of your HLL is to have students learn literature in the foreign language or be ready for academic work, then the assessment of skills required to participate in those academic activities will be completely different. Dr. Guadalupe Valdéz states that if the purpose of the HLL program is to inspire students to continue learning the language, then you will assess for a certain level of language skills that will allow students to be engaged in language experiences that you think will keep their motivation for learning the language alive (detailed explanation in the video below). Some of the tools that could be useful in assessing the Spanish level of your HLLs are oral interviews, written questionnaires, and written essays.


In this video, Dr. Guadalupe Valdéz discusses how important it is to understand the purpose of your language program before you assess for Spanish proficiency.

Oral Interviews

What is the best way to assess how well someone speaks a language? According to the research featured in He and Young's book, LPIs: A Discourse Approach: "The best way of assessing how well a learner speaks a language is to get him or her to speak; in particular, to get the learner to have an interview with a proficient speaker of the language." As a Spanish teacher, you can develop your own oral proficiency tool or you can use one of the oral interview tools available on the market. However, if you are a proficient speaker of the language you can create a list of questions that allow for evaluating a range of grammar and vocabulary abilities. As the authors piont out, you will also need to have enough time available in your schedule to conduct a relaxed interview with the learners. These interviews are often called "oral proficiency interviews".

In the link below, you can read chapter 1 of the book "LPIs: A Discourse Approach" by Agnes Weiyun He and Richard Young to be introduced to this method of assessing and to understand what elements you need to take into account to prepare a good oral proficiency interview and use it to assess your HLLs.

Language Background Questionnaire

The language background questionnaire elicits information on how learners perceive themselves as language speakers, experience using the target language at home and abroad, linguistic history, formal education in the second language and learning goals.

Click below to look at an example of a language background questionnaire developed by the National Heritage Language Resource Center.

Language Background Questionnaire

Written Compositions

If you are going to be emphasizing reading literature in your heritage language program, then you will probably need to assess for comprehension of written texts. From this perspective, Ziegler (1981) has argued that written composition is the best tool for obtaining a large amount of information about language skills in a short amount of time (Fairclough, 2012, p.125).

Click below to read the article The Written Competence of Spanish Secondary Education Students in Bilingual and Non; Bilingual Programs by Ana Cristina LaHuerta Martinez, that offers a description of the use of essay writing to assess Spanish language skills in high school students.

Journal Entry 4

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In this module, you were introduced to Robert. After learning and reflecting on different ways to assess HLLs, please answer the following questions:

Do you think that the European Framework and ACTFLassessment tools would give you an accurate picture of Robert's Spanish abilities?

In your opinion, what is the most ideal tool to assess students with similar backgrounds to Robert?

If your school principal asked you to create a dedicated Spanish HLLs program, how would you go about deciding what its purpose should be?

Cultural Competence

Assessment of Cultural Competence

Another aspect to take into account when planning an assessment of HLLs is the element of cultural competence. One of the reasons HLLs cite for taking Spanish classes is to be able to reconnect to their roots, explore their identities and learn more about their cultures. In trying to understand what is the level of cultural knowledge achieved by a student at the time they enter our classrooms, one of the best assessment tools will be biographical questionnaires. Teachers will have to be familiar with the different cultural differences in the Latino community and will probably need some guidance on how to interpret the results of the student questionnaire. Even though culture is an essential part of any Spanish curriculum, we still don't have a good understanding of how to assess cultural knowledge of HLLs and how to offer culturally relevant instruction (Burgo, 2017, p. 13).

Teaching culture and reinforcing identity

While second language learners are exposed to the culture of the Spanish speaking world as part of an academic curriculum, heritage speakers' knowledge of the culture of Spanish speaking countries comes from being part of that community. Therefore, while enrolling in a foreign language class creates for some students an opportunity to be introduced to a new cultural world, for some other students it becomes an opportunity to explore their own identities and their connection to their cultural heritage. This is why it is important for Spanish teachers to understand the cultural diversity of Spanish speaking countries so they can better serve the needs of the heritage students.

HLLs scholars have proposed using the foreign language classroom as a place to develop an understanding of the Spanish culture at three different levels: self cultural knowledge, intracultural knowledge, and intercultural knowledge about other Spanish-speaking groups (Aparicio, 1997). It is important that teaching methodologies show respect for the culture of different Spanish-speaking countries, the culture of Latinos living in the U.S. and the variety of dialects spoken by each group (Burgo, 2017, p.9).


Culture and Instruction in the Spanish Heritage Language Classroom, Clara Burgo, Loyola University Chicago, 2017 .

Case Study: Valley View School Assessment Tool

Review the Assessment Tool

Assessing Heritage Speakers' language skills is not an easy task since there are no specialized assessment tools available to teachers. Therefore, teachers can adopt one of the assessment tools used to determine the language skills of second language speakers or they can create their own tools based on their goals and teaching plans. Below you will find an example of an assessment tool prepared by the language department at Valley View School. Please download the document and spend a little time reviewing it in preparation to write your next journal entry.


Valley View Schools 365U Heritage Spanish Placement Exam for SY15-16

File:Valley View Assessment Test.pdf

Journal Entry 5

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Analyze the assessment tool developed by Valley View school and answer the following questions:

Why do you think the test designers created an assessment tool that includes so many pieces of authentic language content?

What are the advantages/disadvantages of using a tool like this one to assess the language abilities of Heritage Speakers?

List three things you would ask your school to facilitate if you are asked to create an assessment tool to evaluate HLLs in your class?

Extended Learning

Watch the following two videos featuring heritage language speaker Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to continue understanding how this group of Spanish speakers have different language abilities in their dominant and heritage language. As you will notice, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is able to communicate complex ideas in Spanish. However, she makes some minor grammatical mistakes that a native speaker would probably not make. However, she sounds much more comfortable using English and makes no grammatical mistakes, when using her dominant language.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Interview in Spanish

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Interview in English

Next Steps

To continue to the last section of your training go to: Module 3: Creating Individualized Curriculum

To go back to the previous section of your training go to: Module 1: Defining Heritage Speakers