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Volume 25, No. 1 Fall 2001

Heritage Language Literacy Club: Developing Literacy in Two Languages

by Bridgette Devaney, Center for Applied Linguistics and Regla Armengol, Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences, Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools

"I always wanted to be a teacher, but it's hard. Sometimes they're not focused or it's the end of the day and they want to talk to their friends, but I like helping them understand Spanish."

The sentiment expressed by this teacher is one many educators can empathize with. However, one thing that makes her different from others you may know is her age. She is a bilingual sixth grader at Glasgow Middle School in Falls Church, Virginia, who, along with over 50 other bilingual students from the fifth to ninth grades, volunteers as an after-school tutor in the Heritage Language Literacy Club at Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences, also in Falls Church. Tutors meet once a week with students in second, third, fourth, and fifth grades to help them develop literacy in Spanish, the language most of the students speak at home.

Bailey's Elementary is emblematic of the country's growing diversity. The school's 900 students are from 45 countries and speak 20 different languages. Seventy-five percent of the students speak a language other than English; 55% are Hispanic. Approximately half of the students are eligible for English as a second language services. The school is frequently cited as a model, and visitors from around the country and the world come to observe its challenging, inquiry-based instructional approach.

Among the school's innovative offerings is a Spanish partial-immersion program, which begins in first grade. While some of Bailey's native Spanish speakers are enrolled in the program, Regla Armengol, a partial-immersion teacher, wanted to do more to promote biliteracy among those who were not able to participate. Armengol, a native speaker of Spanish, knew firsthand the personal and professional benefits of

bilingualism. She was also aware of research supporting the beneficial effects of native language development on the acquisition of literacy in English (Collier & Thomas, 1989). However, ninth grade, when most of these students would have their first opportunity to study Spanish at school, would be too late for them to fully realize the benefits of biliteracy. Armengol, a 1999 Virginia State Teacher of the Year, devised a creative solution. She used the $2500 award from the State of Virginia as seed money, collaborating with a group of teachers from Bailey's, to found the Heritage Language Literacy Club.

Goals of the Club

The Heritage Language Literacy Club aims to promote the academic achievement of language minority students and empower them to continue on to higher education. Five goals guide the club:

1. To develop native language literacy as a bridge to biliteracy in both English and Spanish.

2. To increase awareness of foreign language and multilingual career options by mentoring young English language learners and their parents.

3. To develop leadership and academic skills in at-risk students to prepare them for college or for careers as multilingual professionals.

4. To raise awareness in the school community of the special needs of this student population.

5. To increase parental involvement in education.

Sample Activities

It is 3:30 in the afternoon, and most students at Bailey's are eager to head home and play with friends on this warm spring day. But the school day is not yet over for the second graderswaiting to enter a sunny classroom covered from floor to ceiling with student artwork and charts and posters in Spanish. During the regular school day, the room is home to the Spanish partial-immersion program, but three afternoons a week, it provides a stimulating learning environment for Bailey's native Spanish speakers.

As the second-grade student readers take their seats, the tutors welcome them in Spanish, setting the tone for the next hour. Helen Arzola, a certified bilingual teacher, gathers the student readers in a circle and shows them the cover of a large illustrated book, Saltarín y la primavera. She asks them to guess what the story might be about, and how Saltarín, a rabbit, may have gotten his name. "Porque brinca," guesses one student. "¿Y qué significa brincar?" asks Arzola. "¡Saltar!" answers another student.1 When Arzola begins her dramatic reading, they listen intently, captivated by the story. Afterwards, the student readers pair up with their tutors. Today they will play Syllable Bingo, designed to develop their awareness of final sounds and syllables, before they select books to read with their tutors.

Next door, Susan Yang, another of Bailey's bilingual teachers, has just finished reading El Oso, a story about bears, to another group of student readers. The students each have their own copy of the story to read aloud toeach other and take home. In a third classroom, several students read a science magazine while tutors ask questions to check their comprehension. Other students are working in pairs and small groups on puzzles and games that require them to read and write in Spanish. The Literacy Club is entirely voluntary, and the fun and varied nature of the activities keeps the student readers and the tutors motivated to continue.

At the end of each session, student readers select a Spanish book to take home for the week. One of the keys to the program's success is a parent sign-off sheet that goes home with the book. Students may read the book to their parents; their parents may read the book to them; or they may read the book together. Yang says that encouraging students and parents to read together at home benefits everyone. No matter what their level of literacy, parents can still be involved in their children's education, and parents who have difficulty reading have the opportunity to improve their skills along with their children. But the real secret is communication between the teachers and parents. Literacy Club teachers talk with parents informally when they pick up their children at the end of the tutoring session. Armengol also frequently makes telephone calls to parents to discuss students' progress and encourage families to work together with the school. She has noticed that phone calls in Spanish are a much more effective way to communicate with parents than sending letters home.


Teachers and School Staff

Eight certified bilingual teachers from Bailey's participate in the Club. In addition to delivering instruction, teachers design curriculum and materials, recruit tutors and student readers, disseminate information to other staff, and communicate with parents and volunteers. A grant from a local private foundation allowed the Club to offer small stipends to the teachers and also funded a part-time salaried coordinator. Members of the PTA, the community, and other staff at Bailey's and the neighboring middle school have also contributed to the program's success by recruiting students, volunteering in the classroom, and offering positive feedback.

Student Readers

Bailey's staff and the program coordinator conduct extensive outreach to recruit students for the Club. Currently, there are approximately 150 student readers in Grades 2 through 5. While increased funding has allowed the program to serve more children, many more would like to participate. Club members represent a wide range of Spanish-language proficiency. Many of them have recently emigrated from Latin America and are fluent in Spanish, but some U. S.-born students have only a receptive understanding of the language; that is, they can understand it but are not able to speak it. Students' literacy in Spanish also spans a wide range.

Teachers report that the student readers are enthusiastic about the Club. Yang says students in her regular classroom have written journal entries about how excited they are to participate. Another teacher at Bailey's reports that her students have asked permission to read their Spanish books during independent reading time in the regular classroom.


Over 50 students in Grades 5-9 volunteer as tutors. Some attend Bailey's, and others attend the neighboring middle school. Prospective tutors must participate in a rigorous selection process involving a job application, teacher recommendations, and an interview. They must also demonstrate an adequate level of literacy in Spanish. Once selected, tutors receive three afternoons of training where they learn about reading strategies, goal setting, and behavior management. The teachers and the program coordinator provide ongoing support to the tutors throughout the year. As an additional incentive, tutors receive a $200 college scholarship in the form of a U.S. savings bond.


Increasing parental involvement in education is a major goal of the program, and parents are encouraged to play an active part by reading at home with their children. They are also invited to attend activities and become volunteers. As is often the case for immigrant families, many parents work long hours and are not available to participate in Club sessions; nevertheless, several parents do volunteer after school.

Benefits of the Club

The most obvious benefit of the Club has been the opportunity for Spanish-speaking children to develop literacy in their native language. From an academic perspective, native language development is important because it can serve as a bridge to literacy in English (August, Calderón, & Carlo, 2000). But biliteracy also confers personal, professional, and economic benefits that will continue long after the students leave school. Helping students maintain their home language averts the potentially devastating social consequences of native language loss (Fillmore, 1991). And building on students' oral fluency by developing literacy in Spanish will allow them to use their bilingualism to best advantage in the workplace and beyond. However, the student readers are not the only ones who benefit. The tutors find that their Spanish skills improve as well. One of the tutors' main responsibilities is to observe and diagnose their student readers' difficulties and devise strategies to help them. In the process, the tutors develop a heightened awareness of language and the process of reading and writing.

Not all of the Club's successes have been strictly academic. The mentoring component has had a significant positive effect on students' self-esteem and goals for the future. From the beginning, the tutors are treated as professionals, and they develop a collegial relationship with the participating teachers. They learn about educational and career options they may never have considered, and many express a desire to attend college. One tutor described how participating in the Club led him to reconsider his plans for the future:

Because this is my third year in the program, I now have about $800 saved towards college and I want to know if I will be able to continue to earn more scholarship money. My father is a construction worker and I used to think that I wanted to grow up to be like him, but now I want to be an architect, and I know I will have to go to college.

Other students have expressed interest in pursuing careers in education, which the Club's founders find particularly gratifying.

The relationship that develops between the tutors and the student readers is also mutually beneficial. One tutor described what he likes best about the Club: "I like having fun with the other kids, and sometimes they become your friends." In fact, the tutors often become role models for the younger students, requiring the tutors to exercise a significant degree of responsibility and emotional maturity. Their contributions are valued and respected, which provides an additional boost to their self-esteem. Meanwhile the younger students gain a mentor who shares their language and understands the experience of growing up in two cultures.

Both the tutors and the student readers learn the value of persistence. Joining the Club is a year-long commitment, and students and tutors find they occasionally miss out on after-school activities with friends. Armengol counsels those who get discouraged and enlists the help of the their families to motivate them to continue. In fact, nearly all the turnover among participants is due to families moving in and out of the area, a testament to the students' commitment and ongoing communication with families.

The Club sends a clear message to parents that their language and culture are welcomed and valued by the school community. Parent participation in their children's education is both encouraged and confirmed by the frequent communication between teachers and parents. The weekly reading sign-off sheet provides further evidence that parents are reading at home with their children. Mutual understanding is fostered as thevolunteer and school staff who support the Club learn about the special needs of immigrant families as well as the assets they bring to the school community.

The Heritage Language Literacy Club was developed as one school's attempt to better meet the needs of its Spanish-speaking students. The Club's founders hope it will serve as a model for other schools seeking to build on the strengths of language minority students. They welcome questions and comments at


1. The English translation of the story Saltarín y la primavera is Hopper Hunts for Spring. Brincar and saltar are synonyms for "to hop" or "to jump."


August, D., Calderón, M., & Carlo, M. (2000, September). Transfer of skills from Spanish to English: A study of young learners. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. Available online.

Collier, V.P., & Thomas, W.P. (1989). How quickly can immigrants become proficient in school English? Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students, 5, 26-38.

Fillmore, L. W. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6, 323-346.



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