Developing Biliteracy with High School Spanish Speakers

In recognition of Multilingual Learner Advocacy Month, we are posting a series of articles highlighting programs in Santa Cruz County that illustrate the guiding principles of California’s English Learner Roadmap.

Teacher coaching multilingual students

This article focuses on Principle Two: Intellectual Quality of Instruction and Meaningful Access by examining the Spanish for Spanish Speakers courses at Harbor High School. Other local high schools, including Soquel High, Pajaro Valley High and Watsonville High have similar courses.  In addition to the Spanish for Spanish Speakers programs at the high school level, several elementary schools, including Alianza Charter School, DeLaveaga Elementary, Freedom Elementary, and Starlight Elementary have dual language programs where students study in both English and Spanish with the goal of developing high levels of proficiency in both languages. E. A. Hall Middle School, Lakeview Middle School and Branciforte Middle School also offer Spanish for Spanish Speakers classes. All of these programs are important charging stations for students to reach their full potential as global citizens.

Principle Two: Intellectual Quality of Instruction and Meaningful Access. English learners engage in intellectually rich, developmentally appropriate learning experiences that foster high levels of English proficiency. These experiences integrate language development, literacy, and content learning as well as provide access for comprehension and participation through native language instruction and scaffolding. English learners have meaningful access to a full standards-based and relevant curriculum and the opportunity to develop proficiency in English and other languages.

The Spanish for Spanish Speakers program at Harbor High is an intermediate to advanced level two-year program for students whose first language is Spanish. It serves students who are recent arrivals (native Spanish speakers) as well as dual immersion students and heritage language learners who are highly productive in both Spanish and English. Students who enroll in the program typically continue on to the AP Spanish Language and Culture class their sophomore or junior year. Upon graduation, many of these students qualify for the California Seal of Biliteracy and are awarded the seal on their diploma for demonstrating proficiency in English and Spanish on national and state exams.

These classes are different from regular Spanish classes because they are not for students learning Spanish as a second language, but for students seeking to deepen their skills in their home language, as several students from second and third generation Latino families are becoming more English dominant and actually losing their Spanish language skills. A second critical focus is building academic literacy in Spanish, as many students have not had the opportunity to engage in rigorous academic work in Spanish. The coursework is similar to high school English class Common Core expectations, but students complete their work in Spanish.

Teacher coaching multilingual studentsTo that end, students are exposed to Hispanic culture by reading works from Spanish and Latin American authors as well as authentic online resources that focus on high-interest and culturally-relevant themes so that students gain an appreciation for the cultural products and practices of the Spanish-speaking world. While the course emphasizes academic writing, reading and oral communication skills, particular attention is also given to grammar structures, spelling, accents and to expanding the students’ vocabulary beyond their particular region of origin.

A unique aspect of these classes at Harbor is that they provide recently arrived students who are at the novice level in English an opportunity to continue to study and express themselves at a more advanced level in their first language. Much research suggests that when we build on students’ first language skills and teach with challenging and age-appropriate content, it supports their learning in their second language and allows them to expand their second language more easily.

In 2015, Spanish for Spanish Speakers course teachers Anne Cappiello, from Harbor High and Roxana Jimenez, from Soquel High, participated in professional learning community (PLC) with teachers from San Mateo County, funded by the Light Awards. Ms.Cappiello was the lead writer for the curriculum guide that emerged from this PLC. The curriculum guide is available through the San Diego State’s Language Acquisition Resource Center. Here Ms. Cappiello shares her reflections on teaching these courses at Harbor:

For me, these are the most challenging and rewarding classes to teach as a language teacher. They are challenging because of the mixed grades and literacy levels and/or the life experiences of the students.

However, to me, these classes are also the most rewarding I have ever taught.  I have the privilege of welcoming new students into our school community, I try to provide them with a place where they can express themselves freely in their first language and where I can help grow their linguistic skill sets so they can be on an equal academic playing field with their US born peers.

I suppose one of the most important roles teachers of these courses have is to take away the “deficit mindset” that many of our students have engrained in them and turn their mindset toward seeing Spanish as a valuable and respected tool and an advantage in our community. It is a great joy to nurture (or see them regain) a sense of pride in their language and culture and to expand their career options by having the opportunity to continue their education beyond high school if they so choose.

I am most inspired by what my students teach me every day. I am in awe of their resiliency and their unyielding commitment to survive and to succeed in a new country without the support structures that many of us take for granted. I learn so much from them, and I have become a better teacher for it…one who is still honing her craft and trying new strategies to reach as many students as possible.

For students, the classes are equally rewarding. Students appreciate the opportunity to strengthen their language skills.

Para mí es muy importante tener clases de español para hispanohablantes porque aunque ya conocemos el idioma, debemos tener la oportunidad de aprender más sobre nuestro idioma. Siempre hay espacio para mejorar. (It’s important for us to have the Spanish of Spanish Speakers classes because even though we already know the language, we need the opportunity to learn more. There is always room to improve.)”

Other students highlighted how the classes help them maintain their connections with their families and language is an integral part of their cultural identity. One student wrote,

“I think it is very important that Harbor offers classes for native speakers because Spanish was the first language I learned, and it’s important for me to keep because my family speaks Spanish and SSP 1 and 2 help me practice my Spanish as well as improving my Spanish when writing, presenting, etc.” Another expressed, “I am so thankful for this program; it really has helped me embrace my identity and culture by helping me relate to what we learn. “

Visit Ms. Cappiello’s Spanish for Spanish Speakers class website to learn more.

To see examples of student work from their classes visit the class blogs: