Literacy

Starting a Heritage Language Book Club

A book club can help students who mainly use English but speak another language at home gain valuable literacy skills in the home language.

A student reading a book in front of a bookshelf
©Shutterstock/santypan

Our school’s book club for heritage Spanish speakers—students who learned that language at home but whose dominant language is English—was born out of necessity: We faced the magnificent problem of having students who knew too much.

The student rosters for our middle school Spanish classes made this very clear. Although the majority of the students were monolingual English speakers, there were also students whose mother tongue was Spanish. Because the latter group possessed vocabulary and linguistic skills exceeding those of both their peers and indeed their teachers, it was evident that they deserved far more than what they would learn in an introductory class.

Yet though many of these Spanish-speaking students were bilingual, most of them were not biliterate—they could speak Spanish, but only a few knew how to read and write in Spanish as well. Unless their families had purposefully cultivated their Spanish literacy skills, their academic skills in Spanish had yet to be fully developed.

These accomplished linguists didn’t need to relearn their numbers, basic greetings, and simple verbs—they needed an opportunity to become scholars in their native tongue.

The fruits of the heritage language book club we crafted have been so numerous and significant that we wanted to share several of the insights we gleaned to help others think about how they might support heritage language learning at their schools.

6 Insights Gained From Our Heritage Language Book Club

1. Fostering pride in multilingualism: From the emphasis on English proficiency in school to pressure on young people to fit in, heritage language learners are constantly exposed to signals that their mother tongue is secondary or, even worse, unimportant. Any coursework for heritage speakers should seek to convey a different message. From the very first day, we stressed to the students that their Spanish knowledge was a tremendous gift. We also chose literature that invited students to reflect upon experiences of biculturalism. This led to especially rich conversations, and we gleaned many insights from the students.

2. Going visual: Students might be reading Because of Winn-Dixie or Wonder in their English language arts class, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for that degree of complexity in Spanish. Visual support goes a long way in helping students realize that they know more than they think. Graphic novels such as the Spanish versions of Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts (Fantasmas) or Cece Bell’s El Deafo (SuperSordo) are a great resource in this regard.

3. Learning from mistakes: Professor of linguistics Maria Polinski observes that heritage learners are diverse in their linguistic skill sets, yet one thing that many have in common is a lack of confidence in their linguistic abilities in their heritage language. The book club format, through its spirit of collaboration, encourages students to take risks and to avoid censoring themselves. As our students engaged with texts and learned to make connections to Spanish vocabulary, their confidence grew.

4. Building linguistic bridges: We encouraged students to notice connections between their two languages and thereby deepen their understanding of how both their languages work, often referred to as cross-linguistic transfer. Scanning texts ahead of time can be useful for to find examples of these connections.

We found that often, when a linguistic question arose, at least one of the students in the room knew the answer. Allow students to use their collective knowledge to help each other enhance and expand their Spanish, gently correct one another, and build a sense of camaraderie. Additionally, you can draw students’ attention to linguistic comparisons, inviting them to notice similarities and differences. For example, the suffix -mente in Spanish parallels the suffix -ly in English.

5. Learning grammar in context: Like native speakers, heritage speakers possess a knowledge of how Spanish should sound and be used in everyday conversation. However, this knowledge does not always transfer seamlessly into either reading or writing.

Even students who speak Spanish fluently may struggle at first to read the language. Rather than throw a spotlight on any one student, a teacher can ease students in by reading the book aloud at first and gradually releasing reading responsibility to students. By a few classes in, students should develop enough confidence that they will read aloud without help.

Part of the strategy of a book club is allowing students to enhance their use of the Spanish language through authentic contexts. Having had little to no formal practice with Spanish spelling or grammar, students may struggle to translate their thoughts into writing. We observed approximations like quando instead of cuando, and struggles with verb tenses. Avoid long, stand-alone grammar or spelling lessons. Instead, highlight Spanish grammar and spelling patterns by inviting students to notice examples in the texts.

6. Creating accountability: Getting pulled out of class for being “too smart” is an awesome feeling that we wanted our students to relish, but we didn’t want them thinking it meant they didn’t have to work hard. So we set up a notebook system for accountability and started each lesson by inviting students to write an answer to a prompt in Spanish in their notebook. The notebook was used as a place for students to record new words, grammatical patterns, or linguistic connections.

We also reviewed learning objectives in the traditional Spanish foreign language class to make sure our students were meeting those learning goals as well. It usually took only a quick review for heritage learners to show mastery of these structures.

It has been nothing short of a joy to see how this simple heritage language book club format helped our students develop a contagious enthusiasm for reading and learning.