The Heritage Speaking Classroom with Profe. Mora

By Esmeralda Mora

I’d like to share with you my thoughts about my Comprehensible Input experience teaching in inner city schools in Chicago. I have taught Spanish Heritage classes for levels 2, 3, and 4, as well as AP Spanish Language and Culture. 

Lesson Planning

My first piece of advice is to start your heritage classes at the beginning of every period with a hook. This builds relationships and trust. My hook has typically been a funny meme in Spanish or Calendar Talk or both. 

I work together with my class to create an agenda and anchor charts. I keep these charts on the walls for support for both the students and for me. Over half of my students have never taken a Spanish class in their life. They understand and speak Spanish but struggle with reading and writing. The charts might contain the class routine and words that are commonly misspelled that students are working on. At the beginning of the school year, I also explain what CI is and create a chart that I can point at whenever students are wondering why we are doing what we are doing. 

E.Mora pic

Another important recommendation I have for you is to use brain breaks! I use brain breaks approximately every 15 minutes in all of my classes, including in my heritage classes. My classes run for 70 minutes, and my students get very tired of paying attention for that long, especially after 3 or 4 classes of sitting down. My most popular brain breaks are Rock, Paper, Scissors and Simon Says.

Quarter 1 

During Quarter 1, I focus on the Persona Especial activity with my heritage classes. I give them some grammar just to get that itch out of their systems. Personal Especial is an activity that also works well with heritage speakers because it builds community, and it is still in the target language. Unfortunately, my students have been shy, so I have them fill out a questionnaire in Spanish and then project their answers when it is their special day. I do include on the questionnaire that the answers will be shared with the class. The students remain in their seat, but I would ideally have them up front as a guest in a talk show. As far as grammar, I use games that are engaging and show me how much students already know. Once students get a taste of grammar the first quarter, they are more receptive to CI the rest of the year.

The alphabet

I teach my students the alphabet and numbers mostly as a team-building exercise. It is a low-stakes activity that empowers the students to use the language. It’s fun! It allows us to get to know each other, and it allows me to teach some content quickly. 

For the alphabet, I have students get into groups. (My students sat in groups of 5-6 because of a designated school-wide policy). Then I ask them to go over the alphabet in Spanish as a group for 5 minutes. This creates great discussions in the groups especially when they get to negotiate sounds and letters such as ch, rr, and ñ. After the five minutes, I ask students to recite the alphabet together slowly as I write it on the board (I only write it once and then cover it up for the next classes). When we get stuck as a class, it creates a great whole class talking point. I usually have my discussions in Spanish, but there is no harm in talking about the mechanics of the language in English. Afterwards, when we have negotiated sounds and what the alphabet looks like (please see the Real Academia Española for more information), we recite the alphabet together and then have a few class competitions as further brain breaks. One competition consists simply of which group can say it the fastest and raise their hands at the end. I walk around and check for understanding. There is typically always a group that is faster, but if there is a tie, I just have those two groups battle it out again. I also have my groups get into a big circle and repeat the alphabet but start over if someone makes a mistake.

The numbers

I do similar activities with the numbers in Spanish, but I also include roman numerals 1-30 because some Spanish stories still use roman numerals (and let’s not forget about the Super Bowl!). Plus it makes students feel like the class is rigorous. I only go over the numbers 1-100 and then briefly talk about one thousand, one million, and one billion. I keep an anchor chart of the numbers and how they are written on a wall. Some students will need the support of the number chart for going over Calendar Talk and that is okay.

Conjugating Verbs

After the alphabet and numbers, I teach the students how to conjugate verbs starting with the traditional present, preterite, imperfect, and future. Once again, I only do this to get it out of the way because otherwise the heritage speakers will be asking for it. I only take about a week or two and do very traditional handouts. Afterwards, the students realize that they might not want to do conjugations all year and get over it.

Accent Marks

One grammar point that students love going over all year (I think it’s more as a sign of pride than anything) are accent marks. You can skip this step, and just point out words that have accent marks in words as the year goes by. During verb conjugation, I go over the past tense and future tense accent marks. Once I have exposed them to it, I quickly get over it because they will show mastery along the way when students have to use the preterite or imperfect in their writing. For the nouns that use agudas, llanas/graves, and esdrújulas to determine if a noun has an accent or not, I make a chart with pictographs that break down the rules. My heritage students love to figure out which nouns have accent marks and why for a beginning of class activity. This is great because class is silent, and I can take attendance and check in with students. It has taken them all year and a lot of practice to master the accent marks. If students did not like this, I would remove it from my lessons.

Quarter 2

During Quarter 2, I use the Comprehension-based™ reader Esperanza by Carol Gaab and teach about Mexican and Central American cultures with the films El norte and Bajo la misma luna. I use activities from the Esperanza Teacher’s Guide and begin the reader using the Audiobook. The Audiobook helps lower the effective filter of students who might have been made fun of for their pronunciation or accent in the past. It also saves my voice! I also create a Google Slides slideshow with visuals and keywords that students see over and over again to help them with their spelling and dialogue. Before every new chapter, we go over the previous chapters using the slides. After we listen to the chapter, the students play a game like Quizlet Live! (I only expose students to one game site at a time for novelty). My school did not have one-to-one computers, but we did have computer carts we could check out. Then, they work on a few activities from the teacher’s manual (remember my classes are 70 minutes long). At the end of class, we have a 10 minute timed writing summary of the chapter or what we have read so far. The class goal has typically been to write one page in Spanish. When students begin to reach that goal, that’s when I start to pay close attention to their grammar and give them individual guidance. Please note that my students like to go fast, so I do a chapter per class period. This gives them a sense of routine without sacrificing novelty.

Quarter 3

I like teaching Felipe Alou by Carol Gaab during Quarter 3 because I can also tie in Black History Month. During this time, I teach about the Caribbean with the film Nothing Like The Holidays (I show this film before winter break) and Pele. The students have had great conversations with this reader. I also continue the established routine from the reader Esperanza but introduce Kahoot for novelty.

Quarter 4

At the end of the school year, I teach Frida Kahlo by Kristy Placido and introduce Gimkit. At this point, students are writing full summary pages in Spanish about what they are reading. I also notice that their spelling and accent marks have improved or have been mastered. Students feel more confident in their abilities and want to continue to the next level. For fun, I show them an inspirational Latinx film such as Mcfarland USA or Spare Parts. This fills students with a, “Yes I Can!” attitude that is crucial during finals.


My grading scale looks like this:

        1. Assessments 50%
        2. Homework 25%
        3. Classwork/participation 25%

This was decided with my department. I would personally prefer 65% Interpersonal Communication and 35% Assessments. 

My assessments have consisted of open-ended questions and multiple choice questions. I also add at the end of a test: What else do you know that was not on the test? I also like to build connections by asking a personal question such as, “How was your day?” I have received very interesting responses that only make the class better.

Spicing it up

It is very important that we spice it up for heritage speakers with Brain Breaks and acts of kindness. Simon Says has been the most popular Brain Break of the year and is the most requested at the end of the school year. I recommend a Brain Break every 15-20 minutes for about 5 minutes each. When I’m also showing a film, I allow students to bring snacks. Think outside the box for things the students might like and are nice things to do.

Classroom Management

I love giving Student Jobs to help with classroom management. Persona Especial or Star of the Day at the beginning of the school year is also great for class culture, community, and long lasting classroom norms. When classes need to be redirected several times, I have found it easier to show them a film such as Under the Same Moon to regain their attention. The film is great to help students grow themselves in culture and respect.

Additional Activities

I do a version of Calendar Talk using a Google Slides slideshow but also include questions such as the time and how they are feeling. I also greet students with a Password in Spanish. These can be rejoinders or words that build class culture such as “Sí se puede” (Yes we can). I have also used Happy Points with class goals and rewards. At the end of every class, I ask, “What did I do today that you liked? What can I do better next class?” I close the class by saying, “Gracias por aprender” (Thank you for learning) and the students say, “Gracias por enseñar” (Thank you for teaching). That idea came from Bryce Hedstrom. This chant is great especially at the end of the school year or a bad day.


My previous school required homework, so I would assign students to write a summary of what we read, a drawing, or short answer questions from a teacher’s guide included with the reader.


  1. Less is more.
  2. Go slow and teach gently.
  3. It is okay not to stay 100% in the target language.
  4. The best thing we can do as teachers of heritage speakers is demonstrate pride and joy in the culture.
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