Colorado State University - Pueblo: Building a Program to Serve all Students

Dr. Alegría Ribadeneira, Associate Professor of Spanish; Associate Chair of the English and Foreign Languages Department; Head of the Foreign Languages Program at CSU-Pueblo

In 2006 the Foreign Languages Program at CSU-Pueblo began a radical change in philosophy and curriculum. The transformation centered around two major influences: ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2012), and the MLA report “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World” (MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages, 2007). Our goal was to become a proficiency-oriented program that would focus not on what students knew about the language but what they could actually do with the language. Our success was astounding. Our numbers swelled once word got around that our program was useful for anyone who wanted to apply second language skills to any field of interest. Students interested in Business, Social Work, Mass Communications, Law, Nursing, English, Psychology, Health, and other fields, signed up as minors, majors, and even double majors.

The spike in interest was most noticeable in our Spanish program where numbers doubled from one year to the next. Though many of the students signing up were second language learners, we began to have a large influx of heritage speakers. CSU-Pueblo is an Hispanic Serving Institution, which means that at least 25% of our university enrollment is comprised of Hispanics. Many of these students had stayed away in the past because they thought the people who studied Spanish were going to become Spanish teachers or literary scholars. They also thought they already knew Spanish so there was no need to study it. With our new approach we could tell them that in our program they would further develop the amazing gifts of language and culture their families had given them and, as educated bilingual speakers, would possess a valuable edge once they joined the workforce in their respective fields.

By 2009 it became obvious that our heritage speakers would need special attention. Not only had they become the majority of our majors, but they also had an array of unique affective and pedagogical needs we wanted to address. For starters they needed to be recognized and named as a group. No longer would they be “those kids who learned some Spanish at home but can’t read or write” or “those kids who have a Spanish last name but don’t speak the language.” After a few failed attempts at finding outside guidance we were blessed to learn about the NHLRC in 2010. The NHLRC’s STARTALK summer teacher workshop (National Heritage Language Resource Center, n.d.) and its online workshop (National Heritage Language Resource Center & STARTALK, n.d.) gave us definitions and a shared vocabulary through which we could verbalize the problems that until then had no name.

The positive transformation we have experienced these last few years has not come without challenges. Getting everyone on board, training adjuncts and lecturers, retraining professors, breaking our old habits in the classroom, redesigning our curriculum, adding multidisciplinary content to our classes, creating new assessments, attending to our students’ affective needs, and taking into account the various motivations for language study of our diverse student population has been overwhelming at times. Like many institutions, we do not have the resources to offer separate tracks, so we have had to find strategies to maximize learning for second language learners, heritage language learners, and even native speakers who sign up in our program and share the same classroom.

As overwhelming as this may sound we have been able to build a strong foundation around three pillars: Our focus on proficiency guided by ACTFL standards; the incorporation of cultural inquiry and more subject areas into the curriculum as advised by the MLA report; and the pedagogical guidelines for HLL programs presented by the NHLRC. These three pillars have helped us create a program that truly serves our extremely diverse student population. The model we used for Spanish has now been applied successfully to all our other language programs. The positive results of our efforts are tangible. Our numbers are strong, student satisfaction is high, and our program assessments show that the majority of our students are graduating at the proficiency levels we have set as goals for minors and majors. More importantly, these same students are finding jobs in a variety of fields and using their language skills to become assets in the workplace.

Though our program is strong, there is always room for improvement. We now realize that good work is never done; instead, it is a process in which we must constantly participate. In this process we have to be ready and fearless when it comes to trying new approaches and discarding things that are not working. It is important to have continuous conversations with colleagues and to stay informed through research, workshops, and conferences.

Within our general program we have found these items to be central:

  • Instructor training – All our lecturers and professors have participated in the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview Workshop. This has helped us understand proficiency levels and develop a common vocabulary. When we say “we need to help a student get to intermediate high,” everyone knows the type of functions the student should perform together with content, context, text type and accuracy goals. It also helps us have realistic expectations, avoid frustration, and celebrate our students’ achievements at their level.
  • Placement – This is at the core of our program. If new students are not true beginners they undergo an oral proficiency interview for placement. HLLs who have measurable proficiency enter our program at the second- or third-year level in a course specifically geared to develop literacy and formal speaking skills for HLLs. The course also includes L2s who are at a similar proficiency level. In these courses we explore themes that deal with cultural identity while teaching to students’ common necessities and differentiating for their unique needs.
  • Credit for prior knowledge – This is a huge incentive for students who already have some proficiency when they enter our program. If students place in a higher-level course and pass that course with a C or more, they can file for credit by exam for the previous courses they were allowed to skip because the higher-level course counts as the exam.
  • Content courses – We have second-, third- and fourth-year courses that offer multidisciplinary content and allow students the opportunity to improve their proficiency and literacy by learning about subjects such as business, high and low culture, sports, history, politics, gender, literature, linguistics, film, identity issues, etc.

At the course level, instructors are strongly encouraged to practice the following:

  • Getting to know students – All instructors are encouraged to gather information about their students’ language background and goals. This helps instructors tailor the class according to their students’ pedagogical needs, home culture, and motivations for learning the language.
  • Explicitly acknowledging the diverse abilities students bring into the classroom – All instructors are encouraged to recognize, acknowledge, and validate what each student brings to the classroom. This helps L2’s be at ease about HLL’s oral abilities, while HLL’s can be at ease about L2’s grammar knowledge.
  • Letting students know the type of learner they are and what they need to focus on – Instructors are encouraged to address diverse language acquisition backgrounds, explain the different categories of learners, and help students figure out what they need to focus on in order to advance their individual proficiency.
  • Acknowledging the validity and usefulness of all variations of the language – Instructors are encouraged not to be language purists, address the topic of language variation, and talk about appropriate contexts for expression. Creating pride is important. In our Spanish program we actually celebrate Spanglish day and our Spanglish speakers teach others how to code switch.
  • Practicing careful error correction – Instructors are encouraged to take into consideration students’ affective needs and the degree of control that is expected of the activity or project.
  • Developing practical syllabi – Syllabi present broad objectives, flexibility, and a variety of items for assessment that allow opportunities to show proficiency in different ways. All syllabi have an explanation of the range of proficiency levels students should strive to achieve while engaging in all class activities. They also allow for long timelines to complete projects so students who need more time can pace themselves.
  • Being a guide on the side – Instructors are encouraged to not be the center of the class but instead direct students from activity to activity, and supervise and help with tasks and projects that give students opportunities to build proficiency by engaging in actual practice of the language.
  • Grouping students sensibly – Most of the activities in class are done in pairs. Grouping is done according to criteria that fit the activity, be it ability, interest, learning style, or other thought-out reason.
  • Practicing differentiation in class activities – For example, using the same text but giving pairs different tasks, giving pairs the same task but having different expectations, or asking each student to focus on different aspects.
  • Offering a blend of task-based, project-based, content-based, and community-based instruction that takes into account student interests and knowledge - With these approaches individual students can concentrate on the gaps they must fill in order to complete the activity.
  • Incorporating cultural inquiry – Instructors are asked to incorporate activities that encourage students to learn and participate in the target language cultures. The target language culture should not only be about what happens abroad but also in the U.S. within that language community. Students are pushed to constantly compare and contrast all manifestations of the target language culture and share their own culture.

As the process of building our program continues we have three goals to tackle in the immediate future. First, we would like to have our entire faculty complete the NHLRC online workshop. Second, we want to rework our first year courses to display more sensitivity to HLLs who have the linguistic needs of L2s but the identity issues of HLLs. Third, we would like to change our program name. Though we are currently called “Foreign Languages,” this is a name that ignores the fact that for a great number of our students the languages they are studying are not foreign. We want our name to reflect who we are. Suggestions?


Dr. Alegría Ribadeneira has received several awards for her teaching and service including the Student Choice Award for Outstanding Service and Transformative Leadership at CSU-Pueblo. She actively researches and presents on issues of instruction, assessment, and program development. Her current project focuses on a study of best teaching practices for courses that combine Heritage Language Learners and Second Language Learners.

Published: Thursday, April 10, 2014