Organizing principles and best practices for mixed classes

An interview with Professor Alegría Ribadeneira (Colorado State University, Pueblo)

Professor Alegría Ribadeneira from Colorado State University, Pueblo, presents her twelve-point checklist for designing and teaching mixed classes that serve the needs of both heritage and second language learners at all levels of instruction. In addition, the discussion considers teacher training, program design, and project-based learning for mixed instructional contexts.


Carreira, Maria. (Producer). (2019, July 11). Organizing principles and best practices for mixed classes [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

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Duration: 00:32:23


[Maria] Hello everybody. This is Maria Carreira from the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA and it is my pleasure to welcome today Spanish Professor Alegría Ribadeneira from Colorado State University. Dr. Ribadeneira will be talking to us today about mixed classes - by that I mean classes with heritage and non-heritage language learners. This is a very important topic - one, because it is the most common context in which heritage language learners study their language and two, because it's one of the most challenging contexts in which language teachers engage learners. Alegría will be sharing with us today some very valuable ideas as to how to reach both populations of learners. I should point out that some of the main ideas discussed today are summarized in a 12-point handout that Alegría has prepared for us and that is published in conjunction with this podcast. [1:10]

Alegría, welcome to our podcast. It's a pleasure to have you here and I'd like to start out by asking you to tell us a little bit about your department. In particular, what your students are like and what kinds of programs of study you have. [1:26]

[Alegría] Yes, well first of all thank you so much for having me. It's always a pleasure to share what we're doing here at Colorado State University in Pueblo. You're asking me about my department, and I wanted to contextualize it a little bit. I am in Pueblo, Colorado. We are 52% Hispanic here and my university, of course, attracts a lot of students from all over the region. So, we have about 33% of students who identify as Latino and Hispanic, which makes us a Hispanic-serving institution. Now, when it comes to our Spanish program, about 85% of my majors are heritage language learners. And the rest are second language learners and I even have some native speakers and I will be very happy to talk about this amazing mix we get.

When we talk about the students, which you wanted to know a little bit more about, we will have our traditional second language learner who starts either at high school or the university. Then, we also get our heritage language learners in the broad sense, which would mean we have these kids who are from the region... and I don't know if you know this, but Pueblo used to be Mexico and Pueblo used to be Spain, and then the boarder crossed us. And so, of course, I have a lot of Martinez... Gonzalez...., whose families date back to a long, long time ago. So, the language has been lost along the way but, of course, they have a very strong tie to the Hispanic culture, and they see themselves as Hispanic. Though their language needs are more second language learner language needs, their identity is very much Hispanic.

Then, I also have heritage language learners which would be more of the narrow category. So here, we're talking about kids who, maybe, were born here but spoke a lot of Spanish at home or maybe they came here little and then English became dominant but they all have some sort of measurable proficiency so I can actually place them in courses. And finally, believe it or not, as I was saying before, we have native speakers. For example, I had this student who was born here in Pueblo but then his family took his back to Mexico. Then he came back, he graduated high school there, he came back and then started studying at the university level. And I even have had people with university degrees from other countries who come and sign up in our program because they want the U.S. degree and maybe they've decided to go into teaching, so they go for Spanish. So, as you can imagine, we have a super mega diversity of students here at the university. That really represents a challenge. [4:28]

[Maria] Definitely. The diversity of the student population that you have... but one of the things that I hear you saying, it sounds like you have enough heritage language learners to have a HL courses, to separate the two populations - heritage versus non-heritage - and yet from what you have told me, your department does not offer HL classes. You only have mixed classes. Is that correct? [4:58]

[Alegría] Exactly. It's very, very accurate. So, a lot of people would think, "Wow you have so many heritage speakers. Why are you not separating them?" First of all, it is a matter of resources. I would say, first and foremost, it's a matter of resources. We are a small program. We average about 60-70 Spanish majors lately. We employee about three full-time faculty members, a couple lecturers, and some adjunct. And there truly... there are not enough resources to do it. And if I were to separate them, I would have very, very small classes of second language learners and so it is not economically feasible. And to tell you the truth, I think that we have actually capitalized on a lot of the abilities that each of the groups bring to the class in order to create a program that is benefitting all of them. I think one of the things that we are doing well is that at the core of our program we have, I would say, two aspects.

The first one would be that we are a proficiency-based program. That is, that we are looking at what can students do with the language versus what they know about the language. And so, this allows us to place students into levels of proficiency in our four-year program. This gives us a great advantage because we have heritage speakers that, as I said before, behave just like a second language learner besides the effective aspect. But then we have even native speakers. So if you want me to talk a little bit about how this placement works within our curriculum, I would be happy to do that because I think that that would help people understand how it all falls into place and everybody can make progress in their language skills regardless of their proficiency or their linguistic background. [7:10]

[Maria] Absolutely. Do you think this would be a good point to talk about assessment?

[Alegría] Well, more than anything I think that a piece that I keep hearing from a lot of people is the placement piece and when people approach me, a lot of times they say, "But how can you put a heritage language learner who's hardly proficient in the same class as a second language learner and then a heritage language learner?" And I think that what happens is that a lot of people are thinking that you're putting a very highly-proficient heritage language learner in a first-year class. And so, of course, then your levels are going to be all over the place. So what we do, and of course this may not be feasible for everybody but, again, we're a smaller program so we're able to do it, is we have a very strict rule - if you're not a true beginner of the language, you do not go into a first-year class. As simple as that, you cannot stay. We have great ways of giving students incentives to move ahead from that. As so all our instructors know that first day of class in the first-year classes if anybody has any measurable proficiency, they have to come and do an oral placement test. [8:28]

So, we don't care what they know about grammar, but we do care how well they can speak already and where are they with their proficiency. So just to give you a very quick overview of how this looks is usually in our first-year classes, we have either second language learners or heritage language learners of the broad sense. And so with these two groups, what we're at in those classes is addressing it more like a second language learner class but certainly inserting that effective piece to make sure that the heritage language learners do not think that this is a foreign language class but it's actually a class for them as well in the sense that we are going to address issues of having maybe lost the language along the way, maybe issues of being embarrassed of not speaking your language... all these things that come up at that point.

[Maria] Let me say something here for one second for our listeners. You said heritage language learners of the broad sense - by that, you mean learners who do not speak the language but have a family connection to the language, correct? [9:42]

[Alegría] Exactly, exactly. And so those are the students who would go to our first-year classes. Then if they are in about a novice-high or an intermediate-low, then we place them in second-level, second-year classes, or second-level classes let's call them - 200-level classes. And here we, of course, infuse the curriculum with a lot of heritage pedagogical approaches. Then if I get students who are anywhere from intermediate to advanced - and sometimes I will even get advanced-high, especially with those native speakers - they go into 300 or 400 level classes. At this point our classes, as I was saying, are not limited to grammar. In fact, we have a very grammar-light class just to make sure that students have a little bit of access to the more complicated structures of Spanish that they may have not acquired, especially if English became dominant after they were 5 or 6. But after that, our curriculum is very multidisciplinary so we have courses that are about all kinds of things besides literature - I'm talking about music and society, power and politics, representations of migration, gender and society and a lot of cultural studies. The reason we do that is because a lot of our students who are heritage speakers don't want to be literature professors or teach Spanish or anything like that. What they want is to use their language skills in their other jobs - in their other majors - so most of our majors are second language majors. Now, of course, we're also serving our second language learners, so we have to find a way to serve both populations together and capitalize on the strengths that each one of them bring to the class and, of course, also tend to their weaknesses. We do this by setting, first of all, a tone of collaboration in the class - I think that is incredibly important. And we have, as you have mentioned before, our little 12-point checklist because I think it's very important to have all the instructors on board with what we are do so the curriculum makes sense. [12:06]

[Maria] Okay before we go into the 12-point checklist and before you start telling us what happens in the classroom setting, I want to make sure I understand where we are up to this point. I've heard you say that placement is of the essence - that you try together students... form classes of students where there's pretty much even proficiency levels.

[Alegría] Yes.

[Alegría] In cases where you have heritage language learners who have a family connection but who do not speak the language, you treat them linguistically like second language learners, but you have themes in your classes that appeal and are of value to these heritage language learners. Is that correct? [12:56]

[Alegría] Yes, very much so. And also, we do mini projects with them because, of course, their language skills are not that strong yet. But project-based learning is part of if and so with our projects, they are allowed to explore a lot of their effective needs and their cultural aspects that they may want to bring into the class or not, but they have that choice.

[Maria] Great. And then I also heard you say that your courses are catered towards presenting Spanish as a living language in the United States. They're not about teaching literature exclusively but about making real-world language use of Spanish and I think you said that this aspect of it appeals to the heritage language learners - the native speakers - and is very useful for the L2 learners.

[Alegría] I love the way you described it, because that is exactly what we are shooting for, yes.

[Maria] Okay so with that, let's get into what happens in your classes - how you structure those classes so as to serve this varied student population that you have described for us. [14:14]

[Alegría] Yes, I'm glad to do that. So, as I was saying before, one of the things that we try to do, of course, is to get everyone on the same page. We have various instructors and they come from different backgrounds, but I think it is important for everybody to be speaking the same language. So the first thing we do with instructors is train them to be under the actual workshop that teaches them to be oral proficiency interviewers, so this allows us to all understand the levels and communicate much more efficiently when it comes to what we're trying to get our students to do. Then we also, of course, have a tone of collaboration amongst all of us including, for example, that we all have an online meeting place where everybody shares ideas, projects, things that we're doing in the classroom. It is in this setting... I don't know if you guys have something like Blackboard, but ours is a Blackboard course... but it's a Blackboard course for instructors so that's where we post everything, and we have discussion boards and everything.

So, in this place, we have put together our 12-point checklist and with this does is allow us to think... to go through it and think, "Am I doing this in the class?" Because this is going to effectively help both the second language learners and the heritage speakers, it's going to tend to their weakness, it's going to capitalize on their strengths, and it's going to give them voice and choice in a lot of the things that they want to learn because everybody has a different reason to be taking the language. But most of them want a job! That came up as the first, the most important when I did a survey of students. They want to get a better job, so they want this to be a skill that they can use in the future and we're all very aware of that. So, without further ado, let me just run through the 12-point checklist as quickly as I can. [16:14]

So, the first is getting to know our students, so here we want to know what their linguistic background is but we also want to know what they like, what they're studying. We really encourage our professors to get to know them at every level and this is going to allow us to tailor the class to them, tailor projects to them, and make sure that we are taking care of their needs. Some of them may have had very traumatic experiences learning Spanish or maybe they have been language shamed by even their own families - we want all this to come to light so we can address it in the classroom. So, number one - getting to know students.

Number two - acknowledging the diverse abilities in the class. No class... as you were saying, we try our best to place them based on their abilities... but no class is ever going to be homogeneous. That doesn't exist, it's a dream, right? So, we make sure to let every student know that there is no competition amongst them and that nobody needs to be better than anybody else, and that their abilities are valued in the class.

Our third point is that we explicitly - and we all have a little PowerPoint slide that we are to put in our classes - we explicitly tell them what kind of learner they are. They have never heard of terms like heritage language learner, second language learner, native speaker - they don't know that. And so, of course, they can feel very intimidated, especially our second language learners. So, when we address what type of learner they are in the classroom, we tell them: "This is what you're good at. Usually, if you're a heritage language learner you're going to be really good at speaking. If you're a second language learner, you're going to be very good with the grammar, so this is what you need to focus on in order to advance." And so, they all get our little prescription. [18:06]

Number four is we acknowledge the validity of their own way of speaking, especially this is for our heritage language learners. As I had mentioned before, sadly there is some language shaming going on out there, or people who think that they speak broken Spanish or the "wrong" Spanish and we really want to dispel that because they have to understand that language is for communication, and if they are able to communicate within their families and their community, that language is perfectly valid. So, we address, of course, formal and informal language and how important it is that we know both of them and we can function in both worlds.

Our next point is practice careful error correction. This comes back to getting to know the students because with the different types of language acquisition backgrounds, some students may be very sensitive to error correction while others may really crave it. So, we want to make sure we know these students and our error correction is tailored to them. The next point is building differentiation into the syllabus of each of our classes. This means having flexibility so we can adapt to the needs of our students and also - what I think is very important - which is having a variety of items for assessment of that final grade. That is, not only having final exams or not only having oral practice or not only having written practice, because when you have L2s who need oral practice they may not do so well there but maybe in the written aspect they will and the HLs - having complementary abilities - might be the other side of the coin. So we want to make sure that everybody has something that they can excel at for that final grade. [19:55]

Our next point is also regarding assessment, meaning that we have to look at a variety of assessments not only for the grade but also for understanding where our students are. So, we're taking a lot about formative assessment and then, of course, summative assessment but always knowing and gauging where every single student is at. I always tell my students, "I can tell where you're at and I just want you to go a little higher! You're not competing with anybody."

[Maria] So what I hear you saying is that you're using formative assessment to modify instruction as you go along. [20:32]

[Alegría] Absolutely. I think that that is crucial. And also, to approach the students and let them know that, you know, you know where they are and that they are a perfect speaker of that level, and all we're doing is trying to get them higher. The next point is being the guide - being the facilitator versus being the person who's lecturing all the time. So, this idea that your job mainly is to create activities and projects for the students to engage with the language instead of lecturing to them, so guide on the side not the sage on the stage.

The next point is grouping - grouping the students sensibly. We discuss this in our meetings with our faculty because a lot of people, when you have mixed classes, think: "Oh, I'm going to put a weak student with a strong student, or I'm going to put an HL with an L2, and in some instances this might be the perfect mix but in other instances it might not. So, for example, if you have a project where students are working together, perhaps you want to put two students who are weak together so then they lift each other up and somebody doesn't end up doing all the work.

[Maria] So I hear, that's strategic and flexible use of groups. [22:01]

[Alegría] Absolutely, absolutely depending on the activity, depending on what's going on that day and changing those groups all the time because I think that one of the things you want is everybody to become a strong community and become friends so you want to break up cliques, you want to move them around, you want them to change people so they hear different accents, different approaches, you know, and it works wonderful. I did a survey of my students. I think I have 116 surveys now where I ask them what are some of their ideas about having mixed classes and a lot of them mention how they learn so much from each other, and it's because we switch them around so much. So I only have three more points left and then I can go back and clarify anything else if you'd like.

But the next point is giving students, maybe, the same task but having different expectations, and this goes back to understanding what level everybody's at and letting them know that you know, but if you give someone a composition you're going to expect something different from a native speaker than you are from a second language learner or a heritage language learner or of the broad sense, for example. So knowing that it's okay to have different expectations is important. Second-to-last is incorporating cultural and community inquiries but especially focusing on U.S. Spanish culture. So many of the books and the themes of the more traditional second language class treat the language as this foreign, exotic thing and these are the languages that people are speaking at home with their abuelitas, and to call them a foreign language doesn't make sense - and not only for our heritage speakers but also for our second language learners because they're seeing it all around them, so why would they want to think of it as a foreign language. So, this cultural and community inquiry piece - I think it's very important to infuse in projects that have mixed classes as well.

And finally, what I'd say is at the core of our program - and I had mentioned this before - is that we really promote task-based, project-based, content-based instruction into our programs from the very first year to the fourth year... a lot of project-based so students can have a voice and choice. [24:33]

[Maria] Excellent. And I want to point out for our listeners that you have two other podcasts on project-based, task-based learning. You said I could ask for clarification about a point and it's point number ten that I want to ask about, I think it's number ten - having different expectations for different students. Does this not create problems among the students? Don't you get students saying, "Well why are you grading me harder than you are grading somebody else"? How do you handle this?

[Alegría] Oh I love it that you asked because I think that's something that really scares people. So, the expectations come not with the final product for us but in the process. Scaffolding is a big piece, especially when we're doing... I'm thinking, for example, of a project - a project that everybody has to complete. The project is going to have many pieces to it. Some of the point that come from that project, are going to come just from completion. And when we do our other podcast, I'll be glad to so share those rubrics. But the idea is that if you have, for example, a final product which is a video that must contain three things that the student talks about, at the end everybody has to have that but the process itself is going to be different for a lot of them and it's going to have a lot of scaffolding.

So, for example, if everybody has to fill a worksheet and then hand that in in order to put together their thoughts and organize their project and know what they're going to talk about, my expectation is going to be very different from a native speaker and what they're going to write in their versus my second language learner. So here's where their piece of having the scaffolding to help them get to the end product helps because when I see that my second language learner has maybe missed some points that he or she needed to do or maybe the grammar is not strong enough, then that's when they can go to our tutors to work so that that quality goes up. So, the expectation is more in the process - at the end, everybody has to do the same. And the grade... the final project is part of the grade, but the process is also a big part of the grade. So, I think that that gives everybody the opportunity to get a good grade. [27:10]

[Maria] Excellent. So, in the language of differentiated instruction, I'm hearing you're differentiating the content - what it is that students are learning to get to that common endpoint - and you're also differentiating the process - what it is that students do to get to the same endpoint. Everybody produces something at the end that is high-quality and level appropriate for the course, but they go about it differently depending on their starting points and abilities and everything else.

[Alegría] Yes, I would agree. That is a perfect assessment of what is going on, and also remember that the final grade of the course - and this is something we do in all of our classes from first year to fourth year - is there are a variety of assessments from which we derive that final grade, a variety of items that get assessed. So, where you might not be as successful on one thing, you will be successful at another thing. You would be surprised, but I have never had anybody complain about grades in our courses and I think it has to do with the fact that they understand how much process there is before they have to hand in something. [28:24]

[Maria] Well, I also think it has to do with the fact that you're structuring in a very fair way. Everybody has the opportunity to shine. Everybody also gets the opportunity to learn something meaning. So, it's fair, it's not just catered to any single type of student, but it's designed with a variety of students in mind.

[Alegría] Yes, I really think that that is something that has really strengthened our program and at the end of the day, a lot of people want to separate classes and I completely understand but most programs are going to be able to have what... one, two classes that separate? And then they're going to be together, so I think it's very important for us to find ways in which we can have them work together and learn from each other. You know, I was mentioning that survey that I had run for my students. There was a student who said something so sweet. He said, "It gives us opportunities to share our knowledge," so that tells me that he or she was empowered by what they brought to the class and then said, "and helps strengthen each other's weaknesses," and that tells me that they were also receptive to getting better at what they knew... they were not as good at.

And so I think that setting that tone at the very beginning of helping everybody where they're at, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how everybody is bring something into the classroom sets a path for everybody to be open to learning more. Just a quick, funny thing - you know our second language learners, at the beginning, are incredibly intimidated, as you can imagine, by the heritage speakers and so we have lots of talks about this. I've had tears in my office with this, however, something that I love to see is how at the end they are so empowered because they think, "I actually know more grammar than they do!" and they feel really good about it. [30:36]

But they also love learning slang from our heritage speakers, and I think this is a very important thing because our L2s know such book Spanish but if they're going to go out in the field so of social work, well they better know slang words or "me duele la panza" instead of "me duele estomago." So, they're getting that as well from our heritage speakers, and then our heritage speakers are getting more of a grammar structure support from our L2s. So, I think that it can be a very positive experience if it's set right and people follow some general practices - that is going to make everybody understand where they are at and where they are going.

[Maria] And what I'm also hearing you say, Alegría, is that you set up the classroom to foster collaborative learning. You pick out activities that work well for all populations of learners and then you empower your students to teach what they know and learn from other learners which is, really, an ideal situation for mixed classes. And so, it looks like our time is up Alegría. [31:52]

[Alegría] Time flies when you're having fun!

[Maria] Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful ideas. I'll remind our listeners that we have two other podcasts coming up with Alegría on project-based learning, task-based learning which she has mentioned several times as being central to this model of mixed classes that works so well with them. Once again, thank you very much Alegría.

[Alegría] Oh it's a pleasure, I look forward to our next one. [32:22]