How to Assess the Spanish Level of New Students

I’m going to speak on the importance of accurately assessing students’ level of Spanish from a personal standpoint. Many people assume I was raised bilingually because my dad is from Mexico, but I didn’t actually start studying Spanish until I entered high school. I knew some words and phrases before I set foot in my first Spanish class, and I could mimic the pronunciation pretty well because I grew up hearing a lot of Spanish, but I definitely couldn’t understand much when I was in a Spanish-speaking environment.

I will never forget the first week of Spanish class my freshman year of high school because my Spanish 1 teacher pulled me aside one day and suggested I move into the heritage speaker class. She assumed I spoke Spanish well enough to be moved to a higher level, and I didn’t think to question her judgment. In fact, I was honored that she thought I could handle a more advanced class, so I agreed to change my schedule. The next day, I entered the new classroom. The teacher gave me a warm welcome in Spanish and introduced me to the class. One of the students asked “¿Cómo te llamas?” I answered. So far, so good.

I sat down at a desk and the teacher began to tell the class a story. As she spoke, I could tell the students around me were interested in what she was saying. At one point, everyone in the class burst out into laughter. Apparently, she had made a joke. I remained completely clueless to the content of the story. My understanding of the class had stopped the moment after I had been asked my name in Spanish. I remember a feeling of absolute panic. My eyes welled up with tears because I couldn’t understand what was going on.

This was a 90-minute class, but it was thankfully broken up halfway through by a lunch break. Once we were dismissed for lunch, I tried to figure out my next move. I don’t know why I didn’t think to speak to the new teacher and tell her my dilemma. Part of it was that my brain was in panic mode. Another part is that I had always been ashamed to be a Mexican-American who didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t want her to know. Even though I was only 14 years old at the time and I had been raised with both parents speaking to me in English, I felt bad for not speaking Spanish. So, instead of confronting the issue, I simply didn’t return to class after lunch. All of my classes had been rescheduled to accommodate this new class, but I decided to just follow my old schedule for the rest of the day. After school, I spoke with my original Spanish teacher and begged her to change my schedule back. She seemed annoyed with me because she had just changed my schedule with the school counselor on the previous day, but she finally agreed. I did well in her class, and I continued to excel in all my Spanish classes throughout my high school and college years.

I share this story because I am now a Spanish teacher, and it’s crucial to me to correctly assess my incoming students’ level of Spanish. Misplacing students can lead to a fear of the class, lower grades, misbehavior, and even a dislike of the language. So what can we do to make sure our students are in the appropriate class?

Refrain From Making Assumptions

In order to properly assess a student’s Spanish language ability, the most important thing you can do is refrain from making assumptions about any of your students. I know it’s hard. I greet students at the door with an “¡Hola!” and a big smile on my face from day one. When a student responds back on the first day of school in Spanish with native-like pronunciation, I start wondering about their background in the language. However, I do not assume they speak Spanish fluently. At this point, the teacher can only safely infer that it’s not the first time someone has greeted that student in Spanish. When this happens, just make a mental note to remind yourself to follow up by asking your students for background information.

Ask For Background Information

Within the first couple days of class, you can have students fill out a short questionnaire asking them if anyone in their household speaks Spanish at home, if they speak Spanish at home, if they’ve traveled to or lived in any Spanish-speaking countries, etc. You want to get a feel for who you might want to have a more extended conversation with.

A Formal Placement Test Isn’t Necessary

I know that many schools use placement tests for incoming world language students, and I understand why. However, if your school doesn’t require a placement test, I’d say you’re better off assessing students on your own through informal conversation. I did placement tests for a couple years. Some semesters I’d have all my students take the test. Some semesters I’d only have certain students test. It usually took up a good portion of the class period. One semester I had a student from Myanmar with zero background in Spanish test into Spanish 2 simply by making a lot of good guesses on the test. I quickly realized I could assess students much more accurately by just conversing with them. As a teacher, if you approach a level-gauging conversation with your students from a place of wanting to know more about them and you ask good questions, students will generally be able to help you form a clear picture about their level of Spanish.

In the personal story I shared, my Spanish teacher approached the conversation by assuming I spoke Spanish, and I was so flattered, I didn’t want to tell her she was wrong. I also thought that as a teacher, she probably had a better idea than me of whether or not I could be successful at a higher level. Now that I am a teacher myself, I know this isn’t true. I never assume I know more than my students about their own level of Spanish–especially on day one. For students who indicate that they have a background in Spanish, I let them tell me more about their experiences. I listen to their stories. I ask questions. Does anyone in their household speak directly to them in Spanish or do they just hear it being spoken at home? If they are spoken to in Spanish, are they asked to respond in Spanish or do they speak to their family members in English?

Of course, I also ask them if we can have a short conversation in Spanish. I go beyond the basic “¿Cómo te llamas?” and “¿Cuántos años tienes?” because I know that students who don’t speak Spanish but have grown up hearing it in their environment can still answer basic questions. You can ask students to describe their family members or their best friend. Ask them open-ended follow-up questions. This should only take a few minutes if you ask the right questions. If a student has some background in Spanish but can’t understand or answer simple, open-ended questions, that student would benefit most by staying in level 1.

You will get a good idea of your students’ level through short conversations that divert from the basic line of questioning. After assessing their background and their conversational ability, you will have a much clearer picture of their level. At this point, I will tell the student if I recommend that they jump to level 2 or 3. Usually they agree with my assessment. If the student shows a strong language ability but is apprehensive about moving to a higher level, I arrange a time when the student can stop by the other teacher’s room (if I am not teaching the higher level) so that they can get a better idea of whether or not they could visualize themselves in the class.

Follow Up with Students

If a student has agreed to move out of your class and on to Spanish 2, 3, or a class for heritage speakers, make sure you follow up within a couple days to ask the student how things are going in the new class. Some students are apprehensive to share if they are struggling, so this is where establishing rapport with students goes a long way. They will be much more comfortable talking to you if they see that you have taken an interest in their wellbeing and success.

Trust Yourself as an Educator

If you and the student have discussed their background, you have had a conversation with them in Spanish, and you have mutually agreed on the best class for them, trust that you’ve made the best decision with the information you’ve been given. The reason I say this is because when I first started teaching high school several years ago and I was still relatively new to teaching in general, an administrator from my school district who had previously taught Spanish came to visit my Spanish 1 class. She walked around the classroom to see what students were working on then she approached one student in particular who was Hispanic. She asked him in Spanish what he was doing and in English, he told her what he was working on.

Just before the administrator left, she pulled me aside and told me that the student should have been moved out of level 1 at the beginning of the semester. Her evidence was that she had asked him a simple question in Spanish and he had responded in English. Again, I was still brand new to teaching high school at this point and it was the administrator’s first time visiting my classroom, so although I didn’t agree with her assessment, I thanked her for her advice and moved on about my day. If something like that were to happen now, I would feel much more confident advocating for that student and discussing my reasoning for keeping him in the class.

The student had understood her basic question. He had some background in Spanish because his family was from Mexico. The student often listened to music in Spanish and even wore clothing that represented his Mexican heritage, but this student could not produce a simple utterance in Spanish. I knew this because I had already assessed him at the beginning of the semester and found a lot of parallels between his story and my own.


The bottom line is that you are your students’ greatest advocate when it comes to placing them in the appropriate Spanish class. It’s important to refrain from making assumptions about a student’s language ability before properly assessing them. If the student has a background in Spanish, just talk to them and find out more. Make sure to ask all students for background information. There are students who speak fluent Spanish who might not look like your idea of a typical native Spanish speaker. Then there are students who you suspect might speak Spanish but you soon find out level 1 is the best class for them. You just never know. Start on day one or two by giving all students a short questionnaire then follow up with specific students based on their responses. Your students will be able to tell you their experiences with Spanish, and as a professional, you will be able to interpret those experiences and help them make the best choice. 

I created a Google background info form entitled “Spanish Questionnaire” to send out to students at the beginning of the semester. To make a copy of this Google form, click here. This is your personal copy, so feel free to edit it however you see fit! 


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