Research Report on What Heritage Learners Want/Need from a Spanish Course

Case Study: Perceived Needs and Expectations of Rural High School Heritage Spanish Learners Informing a New Program


During the 2013-2014 school year, the high school I work at launched a Spanish course reserved for native or heritage Spanish speakers who already have measurable proficiency in Spanish but have not fully developed their academic skills in the language. The class is composed of 16 Latino students, ranging from freshmen to seniors with cultural backgrounds from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, some of whom have received little to no formal schooling in their native language. The course is in a pilot year and is being taught by myself (the author) and the Level 3-5/Advanced Placement Spanish instructor. We have no official school board-approved materials and have been using the Spanish Level 4 textbook at an accelerated pace with supplemental activities for heritage speakers.

Unfortunately, discipline and motivation have been significant problems so far. We often struggle with off-task behavior, vulgar language (in Spanish), disrespect toward the teachers and other students, extraneous talking, etc. It is often unpredictable whether the planned activities will either flop or surprise us. Many students are not completing assignments, whether given in class or as homework, and rarely take initiative to understand instructions, whether verbal or written. As both of us are experienced language instructors (I, in my 8th year, with experience as an English as a Second Language teacher and former French teacher, and my co-teacher in her 20th year of teaching Spanish), it is exceedingly frustrating to be dealing with such ongoing classroom management concerns. We as instructors continue to realign, seek informed advice and try alternative strategies in hopes that the course will go more smoothly and our students will benefit from the instruction we are trying to provide.

The Research Question

I designed this research project as a case study, using student questionnaires and behavior observation data, in response to our real information need. Going into the study, I assumed that the behavior problems we saw were stemming from inappropriate materials and/or activity selection, since students were continually complaining about tasks being unclear/too easy/too difficult. Our hypothesis was that if we know what students actually want or need from a heritage language course and we can deliver that, then our situation and the behavior problems will improve. Ultimately, this research seeks to answer the following question: What do heritage learners actually need from a Spanish language course (that can be used to drive instruction)?

The Search Strategy

I collected feedback directly from the heritage learners, as well as from several advanced nonnative speakers enrolled in the Level 5/Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish course for comparison purposes. Data was solicited from an additional two heritage learners who had previously been taking World Language Spanish courses and are now currently enrolled in the AP Spanish Language course; these two students were given the same surveys as the other heritage learners.

Where possible, I worked with my co-teacher to develop tools that we could use to collect data for this project and to help us make decisions for the class. At the beginning of the course, we conducted brief conferences to review placement test results with the heritage students and asked them to briefly analyze their data and set goals for the course. The primary data collection tool, however, was a four-page survey that asked students to consider their reasons for registering for the course, what their strengths, weaknesses and learning styles are, as well as their opinions of the course content. Students were also given a type of holistic self-assessment rubric called the WIDA Can-Do Descriptors, which is used to qualify student linguistic ability in reading, writing, listening and speaking, and asked students to rate their own Spanish abilities (WIDA, 2012). To assess and rank learning style preferences, students completed an online inventory (Memletics Learning Styles Questionnaire, 2013). Nonnative students from the Level 5/AP course were given a similar needs survey and the Can-Do Descriptors rubric.

I compiled all of the data using Google Forms, which also makes an interesting graphic analysis of the data collected. I also had access to all of data in a Google-created spreadsheet that I could sort and organize to draw conclusions. I used this spreadsheet data to create the additional charts included later in this report.

Here is the Placement Conference and Goal worksheetHeritage Learning Expectations and Needs Survey and Nonnative Learning Expectations and Needs Survey. You may also view a PDF of the compiled heritage learner survey data here. The nonnative survey data is available here.

The Findings

When asked to self-assess their language abilities in listening, speaking, reading and writing, the heritage learners ranked themselves highest in the oral language domains of listening and speaking, which were likely the primary ways that these learners acquired Spanish as young children. In contrast, the nonnative speakers felt more comfortable in the literacy domains of reading and writing. A chart of the average self-ratings of both groups is shown below:

Self-Rating of Abilities

One part of the survey asked students to check off areas or skills from a list that they felt they needed to improve and areas or skills that they saw as strengths. Top areas of improvement for the heritage learners were: using accents (94.4% or 17 of 18 respondents marked this), editing/finding mistakes in my own writing (77.8% or 14 of 18), spelling correctly (66.7% or 12 of 18), formal/presentational writing (61.1% or 11 of 18) and interpreting English to Spanish (61.1% or 11 of 18). Their commonly perceived strengths were: interpreting English to Spanish (55.6% or 10 of 18 respondents), informal/everyday writing (50% or 9 of 18), watching TV or listening to the radio in Spanish (50% or 9 of 18) and fiction/informal reading (44.4% or 8 of 18). While several of the nonnative speakers marked formal/presentational writing (60% or 3 of 5 respondents) and interpreting—speaking (80% or 4 of 5) as an area of improvement, they were not as concerned with spelling correctly or using accents as the heritage learners were. In fact, 60% or 3 of 5 of the nonnative speakers listed spelling and accents as strengths. Charts comparing the two groups’ perceived strengths and weaknesses are shown below:

Weakness Chart

Strength Chart

When asked about what they saw as the most valuable part of the course so far, heritage learners cited the work they had done with writing (7 mentioned this) and learning about accents (4 mentioned this). Interestingly, the most common frustration (mentioned by 5 students) was the poor behaviors of other students, such as not working or too much talking.

My Interpretations

Overall, according to the survey results, there is a general consensus that heritage learners are looking for help with their writing, especially using accents and spelling. Students are also interested in reading more and practicing interpretation/translation skills. Based on the data, it is fair to conclude that since heritage learners are most confident with oral language, we could use oral language as a tool for accessing content and higher-level thinking. For example, students could listen for input (using a strength) and then respond in writing (addressing a weakness). Likewise, students could read for input (addressing a weakness) and then discuss orally (using a strength).

While discipline has been a problem in this class, I was pleasantly surprised to see several serious, insightful reflections from students on their surveys, as well as two students who actually expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to share their opinions and have input on our course content. Unfortunately, three students have dropped the course from the original 19 we began with, but we think/hope we may be left with solid core of students who care about their own improvement. These results warmed my heart and made me wonder if my assumptions were correct—that if we gave students what they wanted and needed from the course, then the poor behavior would improve.

Reacting to the Data

Incidentally, in the week leading up to the administration of the survey, we attempted to change our teaching approach from text-guided to project-based. The students, while sometimes dawdling, seem to be much more engaged with a project that seems meaningful and authentic to them. Two of them made comments on this move as “most valuable” on their survey before they had even completed the project! After receiving the survey results, we also began including some drop-in mini-lessons on written accents and spelling, since a significant number of students had cited these as weaknesses.

In general, we did see some improvement in behaviors; there were definitely less discipline referrals during this unit. Students were also more focused while working on a larger, integrated digital storytelling project as opposed to completing photocopied worksheets about the “present perfect subjunctive” verb tense. However, we still quite frequently encounter destructive and negative attitudes from some students who say, “I can’t/I won’t/I’m too lazy/I don’t care/This is dumb because I already know everything/This is too hard” (sometimes out of the same students’ mouths within the same five-minute period!)

My conclusion—just because someone claims to value something, doesn’t mean that they will follow through and pursue said thing.  My heritage learners may be able to identify that written accents and spelling are weaknesses for them, but they are not all quite ready to commit to the concentration and critical thinking necessary to pursue mastery. The presumption that my research question would provide me with the solution I was looking for was perhaps misguided and there may be other components coming together to cause the classroom chaos that we have been experiencing.

Suggestions for Future Research

Given the defeatist and defiant attitudes expressed above by those students still resisting our attempts to teach a meaningful needs-based Heritage Spanish curriculum, it might be valuable to investigate motivation as a factor causing some of our classroom problems. For example, sometimes when presented with an optional extension activity for those who finish the required work (this would be intrinsically motivation—the pursuit of self-improvement), students refuse and choose instead to try to distract other learners. A similar phenomenon occurs when students are offered a “reward” such as a piece of candy or a mystery prize (an example of an extrinsic motivator). In the context of the digital storytelling project, several students worked very diligently and meticulously on the written and visual portions of the project, but then shut down and refused to complete the audio requirement, despite the knowledge of the rationale for the audio part of the project and facing a significant negative effect on their grade. These refusals to succeed are puzzling, yet worth looking into.

While the move from using a Spanish textbook aimed at nonnative speakers to project-based learning was a definite improvement, stringing together a series of projects will not create a unified, intentional curriculum. Locating a research-based, integrated skills Heritage Spanish textbook written specifically for a high school audience is important to the success of this program. Students will need a top-down, or macro-, approach to language development that both employs their oral strengths and activates their literacy weaknesses, with a targeted bottom-up, or micro-approach, that develops linguistic needs (such as accents and spelling) specific to heritage learners. Additionally, for the sanity of the teachers involved, who both are charged with multiple courses to prep for in a day, having a quality textbook in place to guide the course would be a welcome addition, instead of creating everything from scratch.

Although this study hinted at comparisons between heritage learners and nonnative speakers of Spanish, the sample size was not statistically significant, nor was the data collection focused on extracting the differences between the groups. This would be another viable option for future research. I chose not to include a formal literature review as part of this research report because I tried to based my findings on action research instead, but a reasonable next step would be to conduct an in-depth literature review on, for example, the differences between heritage learners and nonnative speakers, the specific needs of heritage learners and the most pedagogically sound approaches to teaching heritage learners. Even though heritage language instruction is not extremely common at the secondary and post-secondary levels, there do exist leaders in the field to consult with.

Suggested References for Further Study

Beeman, K., & Urow, C. (2012). Teaching for biliteracy: strengthening bridges between languages. Philadelphia: Caslon Publishing.

Carreira, M. (2007). Spanish-for-native-speaker Matters: Narrowing the Latino Achievement Gap through Spanish Language Instruction. Heritage Language Journal, 5(1). Retrieved from

Carreira, M., Jensen, L., & Kagan, O. (2009). The Heritage Language Learner Survey: Report on the Preliminary Results. National Heritage Language Resource Center.

Jensen, B. (2013). Research Project Organizer. Big6. Retrieved October 21, 2013, from

Maxwell, L. A. (2012). “Dual” Classes See Growth In Popularity. Education Week, 31(26), 1–17.

Memletics Learning Styles Questionnaire. (2013). Retrieved October 11, 2013, from

Polinsky, M., & Kagan, O. (2007). Heritage Languages: In the “Wild” and in the Classroom. Language and Linguistics Compass, 1(5), 368–395. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818X.2007.00022.x

Potowski, K. (2005). Fundamentos de la enseñanza del español a hispanohablantes en los EE. UU. Madrid: Arco/Libros.

Ricento, T. (2005). Problems with the “language-as-resource” discourse in the promotion of heritage languages in the U.S.A. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 9(3), 348–368. doi:10.1111/j.1360-6441.2005.00296.x

StarTalk/NHLRC. (2009). Teaching heritage languages: An online workshop. [Online course modules]. Retrieved October 26, 2013 from

WIDA. (2012, September). WIDA’s Can Do Descriptors by grade-level cluster. World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment. Retrieved from

Leave a Reply