Differentiation within Learner Groups of Arabic as a Heritage Language at Schools in Saxony

Nov 13, 2023

By Maria Alsalaitah, Laura Schalück, Bahi Ismail

This study was published in November 2022 in the Journal of Intercultural Foreign Language Education with the Darmstadt University and State Library of Germany. The edition’s focus was ‘Teaching Heritage Languages.’ The study was written in German and can be accessed here. A summary and key points are provided in English below:

This study, based on interviews with four teachers in Dresden, Germany, discusses the challenges of teaching heterogenous groups of heritage learners of Arabic.


The federal state of Saxony teaches 17 languages as heritage languages. No language has an individual curriculum; instead, teachers follow a general framework for heritage languages and supplement with their own materials. Lessons are held for two hours in the afternoon for students in years 1 to 10. Lessons are attended voluntarily and are not graded.

At secondary level, students may choose Arabic as a foreign language beginning in year 6. This requires a certain number of participants to commit to this option. So far, Arabic as a foreign language is only a theoretical possibility.

In Arabic classes for heritage students, teachers must navigate the diversity of learner backgrounds and experiences. The dimensions of heterogeneity distinguish between different types of learners, skill levels, and various family and religious backgrounds. This can present unique challenges and opportunities to teachers.


The authors used a ‘guided interview’ method to allow for open answers and the opportunity to set individual focuses. The four main points addressed were: the teachers’ professional background, framework of teaching heritage language lessons (HSU), and methods of teaching and dealing with the heterogeneity of the learning group.

The interviews were conducted via zoom and lasted around one hour.

All four teachers interviewed are originally from Syria and studied English or Arabic literature. Three of them had multiple years of teaching experience before coming to Germany. The teacher without prior teaching experience teaches at a primary school, and the other three in addition to primary, teach at secondary schools as well. Although all four 4 teachers speak fluent German, they preferred to be interviewed in Arabic.

Class sizes vary between the four teachers and often change throughout the school year. The average number of students per class is between 10-20. One class increased the student number from 20 to 40 in one year.

There is a significant drop in student numbers enrolled in Arabic language classes after primary school. All teachers believe that this is due to a decreased influence of parents.

Learner groups and types of heterogeneity

The study distinguishes between receptive and productive competencies of heritage students. Students who can understand Arabic but not speak well are ‘receptive bilingual,’ while students who speak Arabic and usually use the language at home have ‘productive’ language skills. As a result, there can be large gaps between student capabilities in the classroom.

In addition to receptive or productive skills, the teachers mentioned distinguishing factors in the classroom such as cultural background and ethnicity, socio economic background, age, origin, migration and refugee experiences and dialect. While most heritage students of Arabic in Saxony are from Syria and Iraq, the few students from Yemen, Libya, Algeria and Morocco provide another degree of linguistic and cultural heterogeneity in the classroom that can be difficult for teachers to navigate.

حصلت نقاشات مثلاً بين الطلاب وكانوا كلهم سوريين ولكن طلاب حلب لا يعرفون شيئاً عن طلاب المدن الأخرى، عن عادات وتقاليد الناس الآخرين، فكنت أحاول بالنهاية أن أعلمهم أننا كلنا عرب ونتكلم اللغة العربية.

For example, there were discussions between the students, and they were all from Syria, but the students of Aleppo did not know anything about the students of other cities, about the customs and traditions of other people, so in the end I tried to teach them that we are all Arabs and we speak the Arabic language.

The teachers often found themselves in the role cultural mediator in addition to that of a language teacher.

Catering to different levels of competency

The teachers are faced with the challenge of catering to the various linguistic competencies in the same classroom. The higher performers are often underchallenged due to their prior knowledge and their higher learning speed, while other students are overwhelmed due to a lack of prior knowledge, the active participation of fluent Arabic-speaking fellow learners, and the complexity of the learning material.

هناك بعض الصعوبات في التعامل بنفس الطريقة مع كل المستويات [اللغة] الموجودة بالصف.

I had a little trouble catering to all [language] levels in the class using the same methods.

Strategies for dealing with heterogeneity

Teachers are faced with a lack of materials available in Germany to support their lessons for heritage learners, and they develop their own teaching methods.

One teacher spoke of an entrance test she designed to give individual support to students with different materials. Another teacher provides supplementary worksheets to students who work quicker than others, while a third divides the group by skill and teaches to each group for an hour each, but this involves twice the amount of preparation while each group receives half the amount of class time.

Heterogeneity as an opportunity

While a challenge, the teachers also spoke of heterogeneity in classes as a learning opportunity for students.

لا يمكن أن نقول عن الاختلاف أنه أمر سلبي أو إيجابي. ولكن الأطفال يتعلمون أكثر من الاختلاف.

We cannot say that difference is a negative or a positive thing. But the children learn more from this difference.


كنت أستفيد من الأطفال الذين يجيدون العربية جيدا. يجلس مثلا طالب يعرف أن يقرأ بجانب طالب مبتدئ بالقراءة ويتعاونون على قراءة الدرس ليستفيد الطلاب من بعضهم البعض.

I have benefited from the students who speak Arabic well. For example, a student who knows how to read sits next to a student who is a beginner in reading, and they work together to read the lesson so that the students benefit from each other.

The students are encouraged to help each other because their different skills and backgrounds are valued as resources. The teachers incorporate various dialects and cultural differences into lessons so that students can learn about the diversity of the Arabic language and their own cultural backgrounds, compare experiences, and learn from each other.

Importance of parental involvement

Finally, the teachers all stressed that parental engagement and support are crucial for heritage student learning. Parents who are committed to their children’s language education, practice Arabic at home with them, and help them with their homework have positive effects on their students’ language skills. One teacher makes parental involvement a key part of her teaching strategy; she regularly communicates with parents about students’ progress, language level, and learning behavior. All interviewees agreed that greater communication with parents is needed moving forward.


While this small-scale survey and analysis cannot make generalizations about teaching heritage students of Arabic, it provides a valuable initial exploration into heterogeneity and heritage learning in Arabic language lessons. The researchers recommend interviewing more teachers in the future and/or expanding the list of questions asked to gain deeper insights into teaching Arabic to heritage learners.

Read the full paper HERE.

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