Curriculum Guidelines For Heritage Language Classrooms at the University of California

NEH Focus Group Report prepared at UCLA, February 14-15, 2003

Table of Contents

Prepared at UCLA, February 14-15, 2003

Focus Group Chairs:

  • Olga Kagan, UCLA
  • Russell N. Campbell, UCLA


  • Susan Bauckus, UCLA
  • Donna Brinton, UCLA
  • Cecilia Colombi, UC Davis
  • Kathleen Dillon, UC Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching
  • Linda Jensen, UCLA
  • Betty Lou Leaver, Coalition of Distinguished Language Centers
  • Gyanam Mahajan, UCLA
  • Scott McGinnis, Defense Language Institute
  • Kathryn Paul, UCLA
  • Hongyin Tao, UCLA
  • Concepcion Valadez, UCLA


The focus group discussion and preparation of this report were supported by a Humanities Focus Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


On February 14-15, 2003 the Heritage Language Focus Group convened at UCLA to design a set of curriculum guidelines for heritage language instruction at the University of California pursuant to an NEH Humanities Focus Grant. This project supplements the UC Guidelines on Heritage Language Instruction (Guidelines: 2002) which, in anticipation of the Focus grant, did not address curriculum issues.

The following is a report of the Focus Group's consensus on the principles to be applied in developing curricula for heritage language education. The Introduction offers a general description of heritage speakers. Following the introduction, the report focuses on three areas crucial to curriculum design: assessment (I), instructional materials (II), and teacher training (III). Attached as an appendix to this report is a table that presents issues to be taken into account when creating curricula for heritage language students.

Introduction: The Need for Heritage Language Curriculum

The principal features of heritage language acquisition are that it:

  • is interrupted: Polinsky (2003) defines heritage language as "a language which was first for an individual with respect to the order of acquisition but has not been completely acquired because of the switch to another dominant language"; and
  • 2) takes place in the home, rather than in a classroom (Valdés 2003: 375; UCLA Research Priority Conference, 2000), and therefore has "a particular family relevance to the learner" (Fishman 2001). Valdés characterizes heritage speakers as being in some measure bilingual in English and the heritage language (2000: 375) but usually more proficient in English (386).

A large numbers of students in American schools and universities have measurable levels of proficiency in a heritage language. While those levels differ widely within the HL population, the single most reliable indicator of proficiency is the amount of schooling received in the target language. In general, HL students can be grouped as follows:

  • Group1: completed/almost completed school in the target language country
  • Group 2: attended/completed junior high school or equivalent
  • Group 3: attended/completed elementary school
  • Group 4: emigrated at a pre-school age or born outside of the target language country
    (Bermel and Kagan 2000: 410; Dillon and Kagan 2003: 3)

Understanding the challenges of teaching a heritage population is becoming increasingly important. According to the results of the 2000 U.S. Census, more than two-thirds of U.S. population growth in the 1990s resulted from immigration, and more than 25 million U.S. residents are foreign-born. In California, for example, twenty-six percent of the population is foreign-born. A large number of these students seek out instruction in their heritage language, as the enrollment figures in many less commonly taught languages attest.

Successful teaching of heritage (HL) students requires a curriculum for them that can be used whether they are in heritage classes or share classes with foreign language students. Such a curriculum will both build on the knowledge HL students bring to the classroom and address their deficiencies. At most educational institutions, however, HL curricula do not exist. It is our hope that the development of suitable curricula will result in more HL students developing their language proficiencies to their fullest potential, enriching their education and adding to the number of highly proficient language speakers in the U.S. Moreover, with proper instruction, HL students should be able to develop high-level proficiency during undergraduate study, unlike FL students, who typically begin language study with no prior knowledge and who, according to several researchers, attain Intermediate/Intermediate High proficiency typically and Advanced proficiency only exceptionally during undergraduate education (Rifkin 2003).

I. Assessment

Heritage students begin language instruction with some degree of proficiency. Assessment of students is essential for understanding the nature of HL proficiency, as well as of other HL characteristics.

Assessment instruments are needed for:

  • placement
  • identification of areas of strength, error patterns and lacunae to inform curricular needs
  • measuring student progress within programs (evaluating programs as well as students)
  • determining when (e.g., at which level, with what kind of focus) heritage and foreign language students can study together profitably
  • understanding heritage students' motivation

The role of assessment in heritage language curriculum development can be summarized as follows:

(1) Heritage students' proficiency may not lend itself to typical placement testing with its emphasis on grammatical accuracy and writing skills.

The customary approach to placement, which is based on written testing of foreign language students, will yield only a partial and therefore misleading understanding of proficiency if applied to HL students.

Aspects of proficiency particular to HL students include the following:

  • HL learners may lack literacy and still be highly proficient in listening and speaking.
  • Their pronunciation and vocabulary may reflect knowledge of a non-prestige variant of the language, or they may use English borrowings from an émigré dialect.
  • HL students may be highly proficient conversants on everyday topics but lack knowledge of vocabulary used outside the home domain, and they often are unfamiliar with a more formal register called for in many situations outside the home.
  • Some HL students' mistakes in the target language reveal an aspect of their knowledge: for example, in alphabetic languages, HL students' spelling may be phonetic, suggesting that they pronounce a word correctly, as opposed to foreign language students, who often pronounce words and phrases according to their non-phonetic spelling. Assessment of HL students therefore requires both an informed understanding of how to interpret what they produce and new or modified assessment instruments.

(2) Collection of Biographical Data and Self-Assessment

Lo Bianco (2003) argues that HL students' linguistic biographies are one of the most informative tools available for understanding HL linguistic profiles. A brief questionnaire soliciting biographical data should be part of the assessment process. Useful data for a linguistic biography include the length of time HL students have lived with the language and the nature of their interactions with it, e.g., their place of birth, schooling in the target language, age at emigration if foreign-born, – and languages spoken at home. Requesting a self-assessment of HL students' skills can also be a useful diagnostic tool: in addition to suggesting areas of strength and weakness, it indicates students' perceptions of their skills and the confidence with which they are approaching language study.

(3) Proficiency Testing for Placement

Proficiency testing in all four modalities is essential, because parallel or even similar proficiency levels cannot be assumed across modalities. Equally essential is the use to which those results can be put, to determine the areas that need the most work, knowledge that can be built upon and, more generally, understanding the characteristics and possible ranges of heritage students' proficiency.

(4) Motivation

Understanding students' motivations for studying their heritage language can inform curriculum design and play a role in determining the content of materials used. Motivations are likely to be influenced by factors specific to each language and community, as well as by students' interests. Eliciting information on motivations and interests will result in a more complete assessment.

While assessment of HL students is to some extent language-specific, a template placement procedure can be recommended with the following common elements:

  • a questionnaire soliciting biographical information;
  • a written test of both reading and writing proficiency for students who are literate;
  • an oral interview or recording of a speech sample combined with a test for listening, especially important for students with few or no literacy skills in the target language.

To create a template and assessment instruments, we recommend:

  • creating a data bank of already existing biographical questionnaires;
  • collecting information and conducting research on what such information contributes to an understanding of a heritage student's proficiency profile;
  • reviewing the suitability for HL assessment of existing proficiency instruments, including the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI), Simulated Oral Proficiency Interview (SOPI), Computerized Oral Proficiency Interview (COPI);
  • reviewing frequently used written tests to determine what formats yield the required information most successfully.

II. Instructional Materials

Numerous materials aimed at heritage speakers already exist for Spanish instruction; however, for the other heritage languages, most of them less commonly taught languages, they are in short supply.Effective HL materials should be designed with the following in mind:

(1) Materials for beginning HL students can start at a higher level and move at a faster pace than materials for beginning foreign language learners

Because of their prior exposure to the language, many heritage speakers are capable of covering material more quickly than foreign language learners. Early in the program, they can also be exposed to higher-level discourse and register, as well as to more advanced vocabulary and sentence structure.

(2) HL materials will be most practical if they are adaptable to a range of students in a variety of settings.

Adaptability of materials will benefit both educators and students because a) HL students placed in an HL class will still present a range of proficiencies; b) for a variety of reasons, HL students may be placed in classes with foreign language students. Materials should allow for the creation of tasks that offer challenges on different levels of proficiency.

(3) Materials for HL should be appropriate to students' level of cognition and their age.

HL students' language development often lags behind their cognitive development. For college-age students, elementary school materials from the target culture are cognitively inappropriate. Introductory foreign language textbooks are equally unsuitable because HL students are not typical foreign language learners. Using middle school texts from the target country in a variety of subjects, including mathematics, the natural sciences, social sciences, and literature, may provide a partial solution, although these materials will also need annotation and a teaching apparatus to be used effectively.

(4) Materials for heritage language instruction should include a significant and authentic cultural component.

HL students often study their heritage language because they want to strengthen their connection with their home culture. Heritage language instruction should help students realize their goals by helping them to acquire greater cultural literacy, and materials should be designed with this principle in mind.

Political content may play a role in the selection and adaptation of authentic materials. In a class of Chinese for Chinese speakers, for example, it is possible that materials could come from Taiwan or from Mainland China, and excluding publications from either area may not be appropriate.

(5) Materials for HL instruction should address HL needs for learning sociolinguistic appropriatenessand discourse competence

HL students often lack knowledge of sociolinguistic rules and discourse. Depending on the language in question, issues that may be covered include register, politeness markers, honorifics, and the vocabulary and expressions used by educated native speakers.

(6) Materials developers should be mindful of the role of family interaction in the lives of heritage students.

Unlike foreign language students, who start in the classroom and may or may not take the language they have acquired to the community, heritage students bring the language they acquired from their family and community into the classroom. Reinforcing family and community ties can be both a goal and vehicle of HL instruction. Ethnographic projects, such as interviews with family and community members (Valdés, 2000: 390), and volunteer work in a language community, can integrate home-based cultural and linguistic knowledge into a broader and more academic context. Implicit in the value placed on such projects is respect for the variants of the language spoken in the students' homes, which is necessary to the instructor's successful interaction with the class.

(7) Reliance on content may be one of the most satisfactory approaches to HL materials development.

Brinton and Snow (1997: vii) define content-based instruction as "the integration of content learning with language teaching aims" and list the following advantages of a content-based curriculum:

  • [It] takes into account the interests and needs of the learners.
  • It incorporates the eventual uses the learner will make of the target language.
  • It builds on the students' previous learning experiences.
  • It allows a focus on use as well as usage.
  • It offers learners the necessary conditions for second language learning by exposing them to meaningful language in use.
    (Brinton and Snow 1997: vii-viii)

Content-based instruction is particularly appropriate for heritage students, who have a background in the target language and culture and a need to develop knowledge of register, stylistics, and high-level vocabulary. Content-based instruction should also address the need for a cognitively and culturally appropriate curriculum already discussed.

(8) Computerized Materials

Computerized materials will help educators to accommodate the diversity within a classroom and the conditions under which HL study may be pursued, including the possibility of independent study and distance learning. They will also allow for the creation of interactive tutorials in areas where HL students are deficient. Finally, while creating computer-accessible materials is more time-consuming, they can be improved and updated more easily than printed materials.

(9) The collaborative design, creation and delivery of materials will help educators and programs across UC campuses or other universities.

Historically, language instructors on each UC campus have created at least some of their own materials, often reduplicating each other's efforts rather than collaborating and sharing. Because heritage language teaching is a new field, collaboration among colleagues from different campuses, as well as collaboration across languages, will expedite curriculum and materials development.

We recommend a collaborative effort to:

  • review existing textbooks and other materials for heritage students.
  • review K-12 books created for students in the target country, with particular attention to middle school curricula and textbooks.
  • gather web sites, films, music and other sources of authentic content.
  • develop bibliographies of literary and cultural touchstones that could be adapted for use in heritage curricula.
  • collect examples across languages of authentic materials that have been adapted and are used successfully in HL programs.
  • investigate the possibility of creating computerized materials, which will allow sharing across campuses, independent study, and easy revision.

III. Teacher Preparation

HL-specific pedagogy is still under development. Teachers of HL students should be trained in pedagogy that will enable them to impart linguistic, sociolinguistic, and pragmatic competence as well as cultural enrichment.

The principal areas in which teachers need training are:

  • Understanding differences between HL and FL
  • Culture, sociolinguistics, and identity in the HL classroom
  • Strategies for assessing HL proficiency, and
  • Instructional strategies specific for heritage speakers.

Teacher preparation involves the following considerations:

(1) Heritage language students differ fundamentally from foreign language students.

HL students bring to their studies a substantial background in their language. At the same time, HL students who begin language study with Intermediate or higher proficiency in speaking and listening may have elementary or even nonexistent literacy skills. The distribution of HL proficiency across modalities differs substantially from foreign language students' proficiency, and is the basis of the many differences between HL and FL students.

(2) Instructors of HL students should be knowledgeable about the nature of language proficiency assessment.

HL teachers need to be trained to interpret the results of oral and written testing, noting patterns of strengths first while also assessing weaknesses.

(3) Heritage language instructors need a background in the sociolinguistic, cultural and pedagogical issues relevant to HL students.

Teachers of HL students will need to draw upon knowledge of sociolinguistics, both for assessment purposes and for informing classroom discourse and building community.

HL students, particularly if they speak a variant of the language that is stigmatized, may believe that they are not legitimate speakers of the language, and they as well as their classmates need to know that they are. Teachers should know how to avoid and counter this type of stigmatization, by teaching about language variation and use, prestige and stigmatized dialects, the difference between spoken and written language, and the phenomena of borrowing and code-switching.

Teacher training should impart knowledge of HL-specific learning styles and strategies, of intergroup and personal dynamics, motivation issues, and affective variables, including the role of self-esteem and classroom anxiety in learning. It needs to be noted, however, that such knowledge is incomplete, and continuing research will contribute to its development.

(4) Instructors need to learn how to balance the requirements of teaching HL and FL students in mixed classrooms.

Instructors need training in the creation of tasks for a single set of materials in a class that may have varying levels of proficiency, or that combines heritage and foreign language students. They also need to know how to apply pedagogical strategies that will result in fruitful collaboration among students: recommended are group projects, study groups where HLs and non-HLs work together, content-based instruction, and experiential learning, all of which allow flexibility in teaching a mixed class. Workshops that emphasize the development of reading and writing skills over work on oral skills, and stress individual progress rather than comparing students' abilities, may be particularly suited to classes with a wide range of proficiencies, and may also be appropriate for classes combining heritage and foreign language learners.

(5) Teacher training for heritage language programs at the University of California should be developed collaboratively across campuses.

Not all departments or programs will be able to provide all the teacher training needed. Both collaboration and the development of computer-based training materials can make training and resources available to all UC language programs as well as to instructors across the country.

We recommend:

  • the creation of a web-based resource for UC language instructors, including a teachers' manual which includes case studies across languages and ESL, links to ERIC documents and other relevant articles, and bibliographies based on a literature review in the areas of sociolinguistics, heritage speakers, bilingualism, and language proficiency. A proposal to develop such an on-line guide has been funded by the UC Consortium on Language Learning and Teaching for 2003-2004 (Principal Investigators are Honqyin Tao and Georgiana Farnoaga (both of UCLA) and Myriam Smith (UCSB)).
  • regularly held workshops, on each campus and across campuses, on aspects of heritage language instruction.
  • coverage of teaching HL pedagogy in teaching assistant training programs.


Interest in heritage language instruction has grown considerably in the past several years, and has resulted in activity including two national conferences, the UCLA Research Priority Conference, workshops across the country, and several volumes dedicated to heritage instruction. Nevertheless, the development of the field depends on an informed and ongoing discussion of an HL curriculum enriched by continual research into all aspects of heritage HL knowledge, loss, motivation, and maintenance, both language specific and across languages; publications of case studies describing successful programs; the development of templates for HL placement testing, and teacher preparation that will impart to teachers a knowledge of appropriate materials development, classroom organization and pedagogical strategies. In all of the above, both differences and similarities between HL and FL instruction should be kept in mind.

Works Cited

Bermel, Neil, and Olga Kagan. "The Maintenance of Written Russian in Heritage Speakers." The Learning and Teaching of Slavic Languages and Cultures. Ed. Olga Kagan and Benjamin Rifkin. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2000: 405-36.

Brinton, Donna M., and Marguerite Ann Snow. The Content-Based Classroom: Perspectives on Integrating Language and Content. White Plains, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, 1997.

Lo Bianco, Joseph. "Clusters of Research Areas." Directions in Research: Intergenerational Transmission of Heritage Languages. Ed. Russ Campbell and Donna Christian. Heritage Language Journal .

UC Consortium on Language Learning and Teaching. UC Guidelines on Heritage Language Instruction.

Rifkin, Benjamin. "Oral Proficiency Learning Outcomes and Curricular Design." Foreign Language Annals (in press).

Valdés, Guadalupe. "The Teaching of Heritage Languages: An Introduction for Slavic-Teaching Professionals." The Learning and Teaching of Slavic Languages and Cultures. Ed. Olga Kagan and Benjamin Rifkin. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2000: 375-404.

Recommended Reading

Fishman, Joshua A. "300-Plus Years of Heritage Language Education in the United States." Heritage Languages in America: Preserving a National Resource. Joy Kreeft Peyton, Donald A. Ranard, and Scott McGinnis, Eds. Yonkers, NY: ACTFL, 2000: 81-97.

Heritage Language Development. Ed. Stephen D. Krashen, Lucy Tse and Jeff McQuillan. Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates, 1998.

Heritage Languages in America: Preserving a National Resource. Ed. Joy Kreeft Peyton, Donald A. Ranard, Scott McGinnis. Delta Systems Co. Inc: Center for Applied Linguistics, 2001.

Heritage Language Journal.

Teaching Heritage Language Learners: Voices from the Classroom. Ed. John Webb and Barbara Miller. Yonkers, NY: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2000.

Polinsky, Maria. Paths to learning: Text structure in monolingual and bilingual child learner. Heritage Language Acquisition: A New Field Emerging. Ed. D. Brinton and O.Kagan. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, in preparation.

Valdés, Guadalupe. Spanish for Native Speakers: AATSP Professional Development Series handbook for teachers K-16 (Vol. 1). New York: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000: 1.


Issues to be Considered in Creating Curricula for Heritage Language Instruction


  • REALITY: Often textbook-based ("the reality")
  • Authentic texts at a variety of levels
  • Broad variety of topics
  • Spectrum of tasks
  • Appropriate for different levels ("one text, many tasks")
  • Role for student input on selection
  • Customized, modular learning
  • Thematic units
  • Culturally essential "What every NS knows"
  • Usefulness of middle school content texts


  • REALITY: Diverse student populations, resource constraints
  • Tracking needed at the lower levels
  • Pyramid, hourglass model
  • In reality more than two tracks
  • Modularized groups
  • Peer tutoring (HL/HL, HL/NHL)
  • Community building


  • REALITY: Isolated pockets w/in UC system where technology is being used innovative-ly
  • Looking at materials produced in-country for NS use (and FL/HL use) as a possible resource
  • Functions: gap filler, tutorial, damage control, maintain motiva-tion, bypassing learning to write, writing vs. keyboard-ing (easing acquisi-tion)
  • Fonts
  • Use for communi-ty building (w-in class, across UCs of other universi-ties, across countries
  • Internet as a rich resource
  • Archiving
  • Peer tutoring


  • REALITY: HL learner is there for more than just language
  • Identity and culture
  • Prestige dialect
  • Parental expectations/clashes w/student or class
  • Western, American cultural values vs. heritage values
  • Racism, prejudices of all kinds (religious, political)
  • Politicization
  • Dimensions of community (classroom, home, extended family, neighborhood, church, homeland)
  • Previous LL/cultural "baggage" (e.g., study abroad, Saturday school)
  • Sociolinguistic and psycholin-guistic reality
  • Crucial to teach "What every NS knows"

Learner Profiles

  • REALITY: There are multiple ways to profile the HL; immigra-tion patterns color the learner profile; these are in great flux
  • Proficiency profiles; more complex vs. oral fluency vs. literacy but it is not a binary distinction; it's multidim-ensional
  • ACTFL scale too linear to capture the proficiency profile of the HL
  • Learner as customer or consumer
  • Needs vs. wants (can we make them need what they want?)
  • Students w/o knowledge of the script are not truly illiterate


  • REALITY: Mistaken notion that w/ HL we are only looking at 2 skills (in fact all skills are critical, as register, sociolin-guistic appropriate-ness, etc.)
  • Accuracy vs. fluency
  • Fossilization
  • Vocabulary expansion
  • Conduit from the written to the oral (and vice versa)
  • Building autonomy
  • Focus on academic literacy and proficiency

Goals & Strategies

  • REALITY: There are parental expecta-tions; students want their $$ worth
  • Responsible curriculum
  • Students as consumers ("What every student wants")
  • Helping them expand their goals so that motivation/retention is sustained
  • Encouraging them to continue (e.g., study abroad, immersion)
  • Building learner autonomy
  • Helping them see themselves as experts (e.g., potential tutors, readers, future teachers)

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Published: Tuesday, May 24, 2005