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Volume 21, No. 1 September 1997

Teaching Spanish to Native Speakers:
A New Perspective in the 1990s

Cecilia Rodríguez Pino, New Mexico State University

In recent years, the foreign language teaching profession has once again focused attention on the teaching of Spanish to native speakers (SNS). During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the increasing presence of Hispanic bilinguals, primarily Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, in U.S. colleges and universities roused educators to consider more appropriate ways of teaching Spanish to this group of students. It was obvious that the foreign language teaching practices used with monolingual English speakers were not suitable for these bilingual students. This renewed interest in teaching Spanish to native speakers is rooted in major demographic changes; according to studies carried out on the 1990 census, the number of Spanish speakers in the United States increased from 11.1 million in 1980 to 17.3 million in 1990. The school age segment of this population grew by 1.2 million at a rate of 41.4% (Macías, 1993). This population shift has had a significant impact on academic Spanish language classes, particularly on secondary and postsecondary programs. Spanish teachers who were trained to teach Spanish as a foreign language are challenged with providing instruction not only to monolingual English speakers but also to students who already have some level of fluency in Spanish.

Although separate secondary school programs for native speakers of Spanish are quite numerous in Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona, many school systems do not offer separate programs for bilingual Spanish-speaking students. Instead, these students are placed in traditional foreign language Spanish classes that are not designed to develop bilingual students' existing competencies. At the postsecondary level, fewer than 25% of all colleges and universities in the United States are currently implementing both a nonnative speaker Spanish sequence and a separate Spanish for native speakers program (Valdés, 1995).

Challenges of Teaching Spanish to Native Speakers

One challenge to existing Spanish programs is how to provide instruction to a diverse population of heritage-language speakers with varying levels of Spanish proficiency. The broad continuum may classify students as follows:

  1. Third- or fourth-generation U. S.-born Hispanic students (considered to be receptive bilinguals) who are English dominant with limited speaking skills in Spanish. These students bring with them valuable cultural and linguistic knowledge not shared by the nonnative speaker studying Spanish as a second language.

  2. First- and second-generation bilinguals who display varying degrees of fluency in English and Spanish.

  3. Immigrant students who are Spanish dominant but who differ in the amount of formal education they have had in Spanish.

In all of these groups, language abilities may vary-even within the same generation-due to factors such as the amount of contact with both English and Spanish, reading skills, and writing practice. It is important for instructors to be aware of the individual linguistic and cultural experience that each student brings to the classroom. Such information is essential for designing appropriate instructional programs, curricula, and ancillary materials at multiple levels of language use within the same classroom.


There is growing concern for maintaining the student's home language and validating the community's spoken language. An important first step in matching instruction to individual language experience is to establish a connection between students and their Spanish-speaking communities. Numerous strategies have been proposed for use in SNS programs. Until recently, however, only a few of these approaches had been incorporated into published textbooks. Two SNS volumes published in the nineties (Colombi & Alarcón, 1997; Merino, Trueba & Samaniego, 1993) include a number of successful activities that incorporate a high level of interaction among students, teachers, and the community.

Activities for multiple levels of language use are advocated for SNS instruction. In particular, activities that incorporate regular access to the monolingual Spanish resources found in the community allow students to listen to native speakers in addition to their instructor. Instructional listening activities can be designed using a full range of the Spanish language through radio and television, and by inviting native speakers from different backgrounds, which exposes students to both community and academic varieties of Spanish. This allows students to develop their comprehension by experiencing authentic speech that is beyond the level of their productive skills in a variety of contexts. Other strategies include oral history projects, sociolinguistic interviews with member of the local Spanish-speaking community, interactive diaries using a functional/notional approach, and incorporation of U. S. Hispanic literature with pre- and post-reading activities. A detailed description of these strategies can be found in Rodríguez Pino (1994, 1997).

Many activities can be thematically incorporated for use with the class textbook. One highly successful activity is an introduction to the study of ethnography and the role it plays in researching the student's native language and culture. Ethnography is a method used to obtain cultural information from the native's point of view to explore how people within the target culture group prioritize their language experiences. The field work is done by interviewing a native speaker in the community who can provide an inside account of a specific topic. Ethnography takes place in a real world environment and uses techniques that do not prestructure or precategorize what is to be observed. Ethnography can be an important first step for students to obtain information about their communities. Background data from a native speaker's point of view is given to native speaker student researchers. Themes are divided into four categories: Community, home, school, and self. To design the interview questions, students are instructed to ask questions that will elicit descriptive details about particular historical topics, events in certain time periods, or people or places. Students must ask "descriptive questions that will give them practice in becoming creative listeners in an authentic setting" (Rodríguez Pino, 1994). Many students have relatives who can provide detailed accounts of the Mexican Revolution, immigrating to the United States as children 50 or more years ago, migrant worker experiences, or getting married at the age of 14 and raising 16 children. A sample question asked by one student was: "Will you please describe to me in as much detail as possible the day you saw Pancho Villa in your village?" Student researchers record the interview, which they can later write up for their final project.

A continuing priority for SNS instruction is the incorporation of the varieties of Spanish found in the community. These linguistic varieties are the foundation of students' realities when they enter the artificial setting of the classroom. To eliminate these factors uproots students by depriving them of a nurturing linguistic and cultural environment and contributes to the breakdown of the community within which these students were nurtured.


Assessment and evaluation of student progress in Spanish should reflect what goes on in the classroom. Assessment may be based on a variety of contextualized activities in which individual progress is analyzed throughout the semester or year. Portfolios, dialogue journals, and learning logs provide opportunities for each student to receive both oral and written feedback and progress reports over periods of time. Audiotaped or videotaped ethnographic and sociolinguistic studies, oral history family projects, and interviews with community professionals in various fields are excellent assessment tools for evaluating students' progress in all four skills using a range of domains and a variety of functions.


Much work remains to be done in the practice of teaching Spanish to native speakers. The need is especially great to identify each native student's instructional and affective needs and to design curricula that recognize and enrich the diverse language abilities of all students.



Institute of Spanish for Native Speakers at New Mexico State University

The Spanish for Native Speakers (SNS) Institute provides a theoretical and pedagogical framework for teachers who teach Spanish to native Spanish speakers. The institute supports a database of statistical information about students and current pedagogical practices in placement, curriculum, texts, and assessment. The SNS institute collects and disseminates research data on the development and extension of language maintenance theories and on the relevance of theory for pedagogical practices. It maintains a collection of materials on culture and language, including curriculum guides, sample assessment and placement suggestions, guidelines for teaching SNS, and instructional videos for graduate assistant training in SNS. The institute arranges an annual national conference on SNS research and publishes a newsletter. For more information, write to: Institute of Spanish for Native Speakers, Dept. of Languages and Linguistics, New Mexico State University, Box 30001, Dept. 3L, Las Cruces, NM 88003.

Fourth Annual Conference on Teaching Spanish to Native Speakers
July 24-26, 1998
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Submissions are being sought for 30-minute paper sessions and 2-hour workshop sessions. Topics may be drawn from any discipline but should be broadly related to advancing knowledge of this growing field by identifying the unique social or linguistic characteristics of native Spanish speakers, developing pedagogical theory, or implementing pedagogical techniques that address the specific needs of these students.

For more information, write to the Fourth Annual Spanish for Native Speakers Conference c/o Institute of Spanish for Native Speakers, Dept. of Languages and Linguistics, New Mexico State University, Box 30001, Dept. 3L, Las Cruces, NM 88003. Fax: 505-646-7876 • E-mail: or

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