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

My Research-able Question

My research project this semester is pretty open-ended: basically, research something using a specific research model, reflect on the process and report out. The results of the research are not as important as the process for once!

I found myself narrowing my topic into something that intrigues me (the notion of competency-based education) and that I could bury myself into reading and researching… however, the process of coming up with the Research-able Question made me think about where the research could potentially lead me (like a final product, if we actually were to write “the research paper” at the end). My conclusion–this topic would likely lead me to a persuasive/evaluative paper, which sounds good, especially since that’s a nice high level with Bloom’s Taxonomy. BUT… it’s probably not what I need right now!

What I need right now is a SOLUTION to a PROBLEM! Isn’t that the ideal information-seeking-need?! (Plus, problem-solution information needs can also involve higher-level thinking, so I am not going to consider this chain of thought inferior to my other idea.) Here’s my problem: I am team-teaching this high school Spanish for Heritage-Speakers course and it’s absolute chaos. We are in a “pilot year” and we are our own curricular and methodology leaders. We don’t have specialized materials or a set curriculum or even extensive training. We have each other’s strengths, prior knowledge of/relationships with the students, a daily prep period and a section of 18 kids. We are not being told or coached from above on how to do this and while we have formed some theories, this is truly trail-blazing for us. Did I mention it’s absolute chaos?!

Because this problem directly affects my daily work, stress level, overall happiness and self-actualization, this is the most motivating and in-depth information need I have right now… so here are my questions:

  • What do heritage learners need from a language course that foreign language learners do not need?
  • How can we motivate heritage learners to be invested in their biliteracy skills? What is the best use of class time for heritage language learners?
  • What course materials are appropriate for a multi-age, multi-ability classroom that could be used over two non-sequential years of a heritage course?
  • How can non-native-speaker teachers command authority and respect in a class of heritage speakers?
  • What is the best way to grade/assess heritage learners, especially within an institutional system of standards-based reporting?

Ultimately, the big question is, “What’s a girl to do in my situation?” Or, what do non-native-speaker teachers need to have for and know about teaching heritage learners in order to improve biliteracy skills?

The good news is that I’ve already identified a few leads on paper and human resources that should probably help me in this quest, I just have to get cracking on the actual DOING!

Novice Searching

It is easy to become overconfident as a novice searcher because simply finding an answer to a research question seems to count as a success, but that answer does not confirm that your search was exhaustive and includes the best results out there. However, when challenged with exercises based on more complicated or unfamiliar information needs, I found that my searches were sometimes misguided or incomplete. For example, it seemed like when I lost points on course assignments, it was usually for this reason: I either didn’t really understand how to find the answer or I stopped searching prematurely.

In Suzanne Bell’s Librarian’s Guide to Online Searching (2012), she provides a “Searcher’s Toolkit” in chapters 2 and 3. As I studied chapter 2 on the use of Boolean Logic in searching, which she described as

“the most fundamental concept of all… In fact, this concept is so fundamental that you’ve probably run into it before, possibly several times through grade school, high school, and college. But do you really know what Boolean logic is and how it works? Do you really understand how it will affect your searches?” (p. 19),

I thought, “Finally, a practical use for that semester I spent in Logic class as an undergrad!” Of course, I proceeded to read the chapter thinking of how the application of Boolean logic to my own Searcher’s Toolkit was going to be a simple, yet valuable addition. Indeed, it was; when I implemented it in an assignment to compare databases, I quickly got a nice tight package of results. I found out later from my instructor that I actually didn’t quite understand the “Order of Boolean Operations” (Bell, 2012, p. 23) necessary to successfully use Boolean logic in a database and that the use of parentheses helps a lot, just like in mathematics.

I’m actually still not sure that I always do it correctly, but I think it’ll come with practice. As I continued working in my chosen database, I know I was very bold with my use of Boolean logic in search terms and often probably opted for results with good recall over precision by searching broadly (Bell, 2012). It takes longer to sift through the false positives, but I was more satisfied not to miss relevant results, especially with a database like Ethnic NewsWatch that indexes a lot of newspapers—sometimes very superficially.

Throughout my semester group project (on Health Resources for Latinos), I also found it valuable to use some of Alastair G. Smith’s (2012) Internet search tactics that I wasn’t as familiar with before. The BIBBLE technique proved especially useful toward the end of the project when we realized we needed to find additional resources to complete sections of the LibGuide that were sparse (Smith, 2012). Webpages that had already compiled authoritative resources helped us fill in the gaps and saved us some time. In finding demographic information about the Latino population, we used the CROSSCHECK technique to be sure that we correctly represented Latino culture, especially since none of us are of Latino background (Smith, 2012). For example, before we summarized common Latino health behaviors, we consulted two or three scholarly articles on the topic for consistency, so as not to stereotype or overgeneralize.

We were unsure for quite awhile on how to reconcile the focus and audience of our final project with the use of academic databases. Unfortunately, it took us until we had to write our learning objectives for the final presentation before we had a clear idea of whom we were targeting and how we could arrange the LibGuide. While we were able to come up with scholarly resources all along, it seemed a little backwards, maybe even wasteful, to conduct a large-scale search on a general topic like “Healthcare for Latino Immigrants” and then decide later if it was useful and how we would organize it.

Once we established the sections of the guide, we had to reevaluate where we had holes in our research and search again, which felt a little bit like starting over. Perhaps an outline of the guide earlier in the process might have been more efficient, but I’m not sure we would have had as global of a view or encountered some of the resources that were the most valuable. For example, the plain language focus was a serendipitous find. I don’t think anyone had it in mind as a search term early on, since there weren’t resources from the academic databases specifically about using plain language in health care. It was a topic spawned from the section on improving care that we had to scramble to develop because we missed the idea in the planning stages. We likely would have overlooked it completely had we been asked to come up with an outline of the organization of our LibGuide before we tackled the databases.

Likewise, when we finally focused on our audience as the health care providers serving Latino immigrants, the final searching and organization process accelerated immensely. However, if this had happened earlier in the process, again, we may not have stumbled across some of the resources we gathered with broader searches. Regardless, even though we narrowed down our resources to a reasonable selection, I couldn’t help but wonder if the task would ever really feel complete, especially given the depth of information out there about nearly everything.

A collection for a growing Latino population

I received an assignment to develop a collection for a public library with a growing Latino population. The parameters:

Because there had only been a tiny number of Spanish-speaking patrons in your library to this point you have almost nothing in your collection appropriate for your new patrons. Likewise, because there had been almost no Hispanic patrons in your library, there was almost nothing in your collection representing Hispanic ethnicities or authored from an Hispanic perspective.

The new patrons are about half children and young adults, almost all of whom are in school. They are almost all bilingual, though Spanish is their first language. Working-age adults constitute most of the remainder. Some are bilingual, others speak only a little English. The rest are older adults, almost all of whom speak very little English. The adults have had some formal schooling, though only a tiny portion have a full secondary education or anything beyond. Literacy rates (in Spanish) among adults is quite high.

You have been authorized by your supervisor to use $500 of this year’s collection development budget and $250 in ongoing funds (i.e., yearly expenses extending indefinitely) to expand your collection to help meet the needs of your new patrons.

Here is my attempt to address the situation:

  1. a spreadsheet with my choices of materials
  2. pie and bar graphs showing the proportions and costs of the materials

And here is my explanation/rationale…


In order to develop a collection of library materials that would meet the needs of a growing Latino community, I divided my search into several themes: materials that maintain a connection to the Latin American world, materials that support early-childhood reading activities, multicultural material for bilingual youth and materials that address specific adult educational needs. I wanted to be sure to provide services to the Latino community that they may not be able to afford on their own or that could be used for programming to draw these families in. I specifically thought about having the appropriate resources to begin a bilingual or Spanish story-hour. I also wanted to secure cable television access to channels like Univision and Telemundo, so that families could watch soccer matches, telenovelas (soap operas) and Latin American movies in a common, social place like the library.

Because this is a collection for a public library in a community that is still adjusting to the population shift, I wanted the materials I got in English to be useful for both Latino patrons and white patrons. I choose some books that could give Anglo patrons a better understanding of the Latino experience and culture and promote tolerance.


To decide on a focus for what types of resources to look for, I asked for input from my Latino high school students. I also discussed the topic with the librarian at my school who is always working to improve our Spanish-language and multicultural collection.

As a starting point for children’s literature, I used lists of awards such as the “Pura Belpré Award” and the “Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature.” I also accessed resources from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, like their Choices 2012 publication and their “50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know” and “30 Multicultural Books Every Teen Should Know” booklists. I used Follett’s Titlewave website to get information about reading and interest levels on some of the children’s books. Customer reviews and popularity rankings on sometimes were helpful as a starting point to find what Spanish-speakers are reading. This wasn’t a perfect solution though, just because the “sample size” of customers publishing reviews on Spanish language books tends to be smaller than on English books. Fortunately, I do speak Spanish pretty well; otherwise, some of the descriptions would have been a barrier for me trying to figure out what to select.

When I was looking for magazines, I looked for circulation information and “top 10 lists” of Latino magazines. Ratings by HispanicMagazineMonitor published on the Media Economics Group blog were helpful. pointed me to a few ideas for magazines as well. There weren’t a lot of choices for men’s magazines unfortunately (unless they involved scarcely-clothed women), so most of the magazine subscriptions were for women.

In order to get more information about Latino cable television packages, I called Charter Communications and talked to a representative in the Charter Business department. He helped me draw up the pricing for a cable package at the library that includes 25 channels, ranging from Disney to ESPN Deportes to CNN en Español.

Other Considerations and Values

For the younger children, I decided that it would be best to get children’s books mostly written in Spanish, so that parents could read with them. Young readers would have also access to beginning-level texts in their native language, thus promoting bilingual literacy. I focused on tween and young adult books written in English with Latino multicultural themes. In my experience, Latino teenagers prefer to read young adult literature in English, unless their English proficiency is weak—then they either won’t read or they prefer reading in Spanish. Not surprisingly, they identify more with characters from their own national background (as opposed to exploring the experiences of Latinos from other countries.) They like stories about immigrant experiences or Latino issues (e.g. racism, gangs, poverty, etc.) set in the United States.

For the adults, I mostly searched for Spanish language materials, but I tried to focus on lighter topics, like pop culture and family. I looked for popular magazine subscriptions that would appeal to both men and women. Even though the adults do read well in Spanish, I thought the money was better spent on enhancing their entertainment and family life. Factory shifts are often long and grueling and many of the Latino parents that I know work opposite shifts so that someone can be home for the children at all times. If they are trying to balance time between work and family, I would assume that they are less likely to want to sit down with a novel than to grab a magazine or check out the soccer game on Telemundo in the library lounge. Also, considering the education levels of many of the adults, I chose a GED prep book in Spanish that could be very useful for those who never completed high school.

I chose to use as my primary source for purchasing and pricing, mostly because they currently have the largest Spanish language collection of books, movies, music and magazines all in one spot and free shipping if you purchase in volume, which the library would do. I chose library binding and hardcover books whenever possible, in order to prolong the life of the collection. The prices listed in the spreadsheet are publisher list-price, so someone replicating my plan would not necessarily have to purchase through

Because this is a budding collection in a library that essentially had not Spanish-language resources before, I thought it was most important to build a foundation of print materials, before seeking movies or music. Also, because children’s books are quick to read, it seemed important to have a ready supply. I had to sacrifice a few reference materials for the adults, such as picture dictionaries and ESL materials, in favor of a well-developed bilingual children’s collection. This children’s collection would be used by both the children and the parents, since the parents could read to their children as a family activity.

Unanswered Questions

It would have been useful for me to know more about the nationalities of these Latinos. Because I didn’t know if they are originally be from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Columbia, Honduras, Cuba, Guatemala, etc., it was hard to target books that they would identify with.

I also assumed that most of the Latinos world be Christian and Catholic, but without knowing for sure, it may have been presumptuous of me to subscribe to the Magnificat religious publication or buy the Bible storybook.

I wasn’t sure what kind of technology resources this library had at its disposal either. I calculated the price of the Latino View cable package as an add-on and assumed that the library already maintained basic monthly cable access. I also assumed that the library had some kind of station that digital magazine issues could be accessed. Without knowing for sure though, these resources may have been wasted.