Heritage Language Reading in the University: A Survey of Students’ Experiences, Strategies, and Preferences
Linda Jensen, University of California, Los Angeles; Lorena Llosa, New York University
This paper examines the reading experiences, strategies, and curriculum preferences of university-level heritage language students. One hundred and twenty eight students enrolled in four different heritage language programs at UCLA—Korean, Russian, Thai, and Vietnamese—completed a survey about their exposure to print, early and current reading experiences, strategy use, learning goals, and preferences. The survey revealed that the majority of the students were interested in achieving university-level academic reading proficiency, yet students reported spending little time reading in their HL despite the availability of print in many of their homes. This might be explained by the fact that students reported not transferring skills from English to the HL and that they perceived themselves to be slow readers. Moreover, most HL students expressed that their reason for learning the HL was to maintain their cultural identity and thus would like to read texts embedded with cultural and historical information in the HL classroom. The survey results underscore the importance of sustaining students’ motivation in HL literacy courses by selecting appropriate materials that are connected to students’ goals for learning the HL, and providing explicit instruction in reading skills and strategies in both English and the HL. Results of this study will be of particular use to HL curriculum planners and material developers.
In the last decade, the United States has witnessed an important shift in attitudes toward heritage language (HL) learners in both the private and public sectors. Not only is there growing respect for the desire of immigrant and language minority groups to preserve their language and heritage, but also a developing appreciation of these multilingual citizens as a national resource (TESOL, 2004; Campbell and Peyton, 1998). As part of this trend, HL education has moved beyond various ethnic communities and into private and public schools at all levels. At the post-secondary level, many American universities are now faced with a growing population of HL learners enrolling in foreign language courses. These students want to learn and improve their HL skills for a variety of personal and practical reasons, but often universities, which have traditionally taught foreign languages to nonnative speakers, do not know how to address their specific needs. Unlike nonnative speakers learning a foreign language for the first time, HL learners have been raised in a home where the HL is spoken, speak or at least understand the HL, and are to some degree bilingual in the HL and in English (Valdés, 2001). A clear, research-based picture of the backgrounds and motivation of post-secondary HL learners is essential not only for designing programs best suited to their needs but also for investigating the complex relationships among first, second and heritage language acquisition (Lynch, 2003).
In recent years, much of the research on heritage language education has increasingly focused on developing a clear and accurate picture of this relatively new population in U.S. universities. A number of studies have used student self-reported data to examine the linguistic attitudes and behaviors of HL learners in the university context (Beaudrie & Ducar, 2005; J.S. Lee, 2002; Oh & Au, 2005; Shum, 2001). Beaudrie and Ducar (2005), for example, used a survey and follow-up interviews to evaluate the attitudes, behaviors, and motivations of 20 beginning level Spanish HL learners. Their study revealed the need for beginning level courses for HL students who are motivated to study their HL but often lack self-confidence. Also focusing on Spanish HL learners, Oh and Au (2005) surveyed 55 students to investigate the sociocultural background variables that predicted their proficiency in Spanish. They found that students' cultural identification and cultural participation had a positive relationship to their Spanish pronunciation, and that their use of Spanish outside of class had a positive effect on their grammar. Shum (2001) surveyed 13 Asian-American graduate students in order to gain a better understanding of their HL use, their attitudes toward the HL, and the factors that affected their HL maintenance or loss. This survey revealed that students were concerned with developing a cross-cultural identity through maintaining and learning their HL. And J.S. Lee (2002) studied 40 second-generation Korean-American university students in order to investigate the role of cultural identity in heritage language learning. She found a positive relationship between HL proficiency and a strong bicultural identity. By gathering information from HL learners about their linguistic and cultural profiles, attitudes, behaviors, and motivations, these studies have contributed, among other things, to a better understanding of what students bring to the university HL classroom.
Typically, the goal of university HL courses is to help students develop high levels of literacy in the HL. The social and cognitive advantages of bilingualism and biliteracy have been well documented (Bialystock and Hakuta, 1994; Cummins, 1983; Hakuta, 1986; Fantini, 1985; Zentella, 1997). Students' ability to read and write proficiently in the HL not only contributes to language maintenance but also positively affects the economic and academic opportunities of HL students and their communities. For instance, Carreira (2003) notes that "the most lucrative and prestigious professional opportunities available in Spanish in the U.S. require highly developed literacy skills in this language" (p. 70). Recent research has thus addressed different aspects of HL literacy and its development. A number of studies have focused on academic writing and the development of academic registers in the HL (Achugar, 2003; Colombi, 2003; Schwartz, 2003; Acevedo, 2003). Other studies have focused on HL reading, but the focus of the research in this area has been relatively narrow. Except for the work of Tse (2001a, b), much of the research on HL reading has been limited to investigations of the availability of HL print in the home and the community (Lambson, 2002; Pucci, 1994, 2003; Ulanoff & Pucci, 1996). Pucci (1994), for example, examined the availability of books in languages other than English in elementary schools and public libraries in the Los Angeles area. Similarly, Ulanoff and Pucci (1996) examined the books in four elementary school libraries that serve a large population of Spanish speakers. More recently, Lambson (2002) investigated the availability of print in languages other than English in the libraries of a large elementary school district in Phoenix, Arizona, and Pucci (2003) examined the Spanish print environments in two predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Milwaukee. All of these studies consistently found that few books and print materials in languages other than English are available to HL learners and speakers. They argue that the limited availability of HL print in schools and communities presents a challenge to HL language maintenance and contributes to inequalities in the education of language minority students.
Availability of HL print is just one of the factors of HL reading that Tse (2001a, b) examines in her study of ten U.S. born bilinguals who had achieved high levels of HL literacy. Tse (2001b) attributes their success to exposure to HL print and HL literacy experiences both in the home and the community as well as their perception of the HL as having "high levels of vitality." She defines language vitality as "the status and prestige of a language as seen from an individual's perspective as shaped by a host of social, political, cultural, and psychological influences" (p. 686). In addition to positive perceptions of the HL, Tse (2001a) points out a number of HL experiences that contributed to the high levels of literacy of her study participants, including interaction with other literate individuals "who acted as literacy conduits and literacy models" (p. 256); contact with and participation in community or religious organizations that actively used the HL; access to "light" reading materials that fostered an interest in reading for pleasure; and opportunities to act as language and literacy brokers for family members "which supplied an authentic and important purpose for developing the heritage language" (p. 256). The present study builds upon the prior research on HL reading by investigating the reading experiences, strategies, and preferences of university level HL learners through self-reported data from 128 students enrolled in four different HL programs at a large, urban university. Specifically, this study addresses the following research questions:
- What is the general profile of students enrolled in university heritage language courses?
- What early HL reading experiences have these students had?
- What processes and strategies do these students employ when reading in the HL?
- What are the students' preferences and goals in relation to reading in the HL?
We conclude our paper by discussing the pedagogical implications of our findings for the teaching of reading skills to HL students in the university.
This study is based on a survey of 128 students enrolled in HL classes at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). These students were enrolled in four different beginning level courses in HL programs that serve a large population of heritage speakers on campus: Korean, Russian, Thai, and Vietnamese. This survey was part of a larger study of HL reading that involved these language groups. The HL instructors distributed the surveys in class to all of the students. Table 1 shows the breakdown of students who completed the survey by HL program.
Table 1: Number of Survey Participants by HL
|Group||Number of Students||Percentage|
The students who participated in the survey represented diverse academic backgrounds. Many of the students (37%) had declared majors in the Social Sciences and the Humanities. Twenty four percent were in the Physical Sciences and Engineering, and 16% were Economics majors. Two students were in the Arts, and the remaining students (13%) had not yet declared a major. In addition, 92% had studied both a language other than English and the HL. Of those, 77% had studied Spanish. Students from all class levels at UCLA were represented in the survey, but the majority (59%) were juniors and seniors.
The survey used in this study was designed to obtain general information about HL learners' backgrounds and HL language use, as well as more specific information regarding their HL reading experiences, strategies, and preferences. The first part of the survey included questions about students' general background information (e.g. major, place of birth, age at arrival, etc), language use (language spoken most often, language spoken at home, other languages spoken), their attitudes toward the HL (reason for enrolling in a HL class, importance of maintaining HL identity) and a self-assessment of their HL language ability. The second part of the survey focused specifically on students' reading behaviors (whether they read in the HL, what they read, and for how long), early reading experiences (whether there was HL print in the home, whether they were read to as children, and types of texts that were read to them), reading processes and strategies (what they find "easy" and "difficult" when reading in the HL, transfer of reading strategies from English to the HL, and the connection between reading and writing in the HL), and finally their motivations, preferences, and goals in relation to HL reading (whether they are interested in attaining college level academic reading skills in the HL, and types of texts they would like to read in the HL class). The complete survey is presented in the Appendix.
Data collection and analysis
Language instructors in the four HL language programs administered the survey to their students during class time. Student responses were entered into an Excel spreadsheet for analysis. Descriptive statistics were computed, including means and frequencies for all responses together and for each of the language groups separately. The open-ended responses were read carefully and analyzed qualitatively for patterns and themes (Strauss & Corbin, 1990).
The survey findings are presented in two sections. The first section examines HL use and identity and the second section focuses on HL reading.
Heritage Language Use and Identity
The majority of the students who participated in the survey (77%) were born in the United States (US), but this parameter varied when we examined place of birth by heritage group. Over 80% of students in the Thai and Korean classes and 60% of the students in the Vietnamese class were born in the US. However, only 17% of the students in the Russian class were born in the US. For the students not born in the US, the average age of arrival was six years old. In terms of language use, 93% of students reported speaking English most of the time. Once again, there were differences across the groups. The vast majority of the students in the Thai (100%), Vietnamese (94%), and Korean (97%) classes reported speaking English most of the time, compared with only 67% of the students in the Russian class.
Even though a vast majority of the students reported speaking English "most of the time," the pattern did not hold when asked which language they spoke with their parents/families. Figure 1 shows that across the groups, only 16% of students spoke only English with their families. 43% spoke English and their HL, and 41% spoke the HL. Once again, the distribution changed when we looked at each of the specific groups. Only one student in the Russian class and one student in the Thai class spoke only English with their families. A slightly larger percentage of students in the Vietnamese class (16%) and in the Korean class (21%) reported speaking only English with their families.
Figure 1. Languages Spoken at Home
The next question concerned HL identity. When asked if it was important to them to maintain their HL identity, the vast majority of the students (94%) stated that it was. 52% of the students felt that it was important to maintain their HL identity because it reflected their heritage and "who they are." 28% wanted to maintain their HL identity so that they could communicate with their family and community members, and 16% wanted to pass the HL on to their children. Only 6% reported that it was important to maintain their HL for their future career or job. These positive attitudes towards HL learning underscore the importance not only of maintaining the HL, but also appreciating the value of their HL for cultural, social and economic reasons (Lynch, 2003).
Students were also asked to rate their ability in their HL for each of the four skills-listening, speaking, reading, and writing-using a 0-4 scale (0=none; 1=low; 2=intermediate; 3=advanced; 4=native-like). Figure 2 below shows the mean ratings for each skill by language group.
Figure 2. Self Ratings of HL Language Proficiency
Not surprisingly, students in all groups reported their listening ability to be higher than the other skills and perceived their writing ability to be the lowest, closely followed by reading. This variation in perceived levels of proficiency across skills is consistent with other studies of HL learners. (Shum, 2001; Kondo, 1997). Students in the Russian class rated their proficiency higher in general than students in the Asian language courses. This may reflect different cultural attitudes towards modesty or perhaps the fact that most of the Russian HL learners were in fact more proficient in the HL given that the majority were not born in the US and spoke Russian at home.
Students were also asked to self-assess their reading rate, which can be a predictor of language fluency and proficiency (Grabe and Stoller, 2002; Eskey, 1986). Students had to describe their reading rate as falling into one of four categories: slow, average, above average, or fast. As illustrated in Figure 3, approximately half of the students considered themselves slow readers, only 10% self-rated as above average, and none of the students considered themselves to be fast readers.
Figure 3. Self-assessed Reading Rates
It is important to note that students' self-assessments of their ability in the HL may or may not reflect their true language ability. Recent research, however, suggests that students can effectively assess their own language ability. In a study of the linguistic abilities of various groups of Japanese HL learners, Kondo-Brown (2005) found a high correlation between students' self assessments of language ability and use and scores on a Japanese proficiency test.
Heritage Language Reading
This section focuses on survey findings regarding HL reading. Specifically, it reports on participants' exposure to print, their early and current reading experiences, their strategy use, and their goals and preferences.
Exposure to print and early and current reading experiences. Since the amount and type of reading material in the home is an important factor in promoting positive attitudes about literacy as well as developing literacy skills (Heath, 1983), the first question in the second part of the survey asked students about the type of HL print in their homes.
Sixty percent of the students reported having newspapers in the home, 50% reported having books, and 34% reported having magazines. Other types of print mentioned (by less than 7% of the students) include: dictionaries, the Bible, children's books, comic books, textbooks, videos, posters, calendars, food labels, wall writings, television, flyers, pamphlets, and the Internet. Only three students reported that there was no HL print in their homes. In addition to exposure to print in the home, being read to as a child by parents or other family members is an important early reading experience (Center for the Study of Readers, 1985). Fewer than half of all the students (43%) surveyed reported being read to in the HL as a child. But there were notable differences across the language groups. All of the Russian students, 50% of the Korean students, 40% of the Thai students, and 21% of the Vietnamese students reported that they were read to as children in the HL. Those students who reported being read to described the texts they were read as follows: children's stories/fairy tales/fables (32%), the Bible (5%), and newspaper, poems, songs and letters (<5%).
Only 58% of students reported reading in the HL and those who did only spent an average of 64 minutes a week. Thai HL students spent the most time reading in the HL (124 minutes); Korean HL students spent an hour (60 minutes) as did Vietnamese HL students (57 minutes); and Russian HL learners spent the least amount of time reading in their HL (18 minutes). Considering that most of the Russian HL learners (83%) were born in Russia and that all of them reported that they were read to as children, this low number was not expected. This was also not expected since the Russian HL group self-reported much higher levels of reading and writing abilities. Most striking is that over 40% of the students across all groups reported that they did not read in their HL at all even though they were enrolled in HL classes. This lack of practice reading in the HL may explain why at least half of the students assessed themselves as slow readers; this slow reading rate may in turn influence students' motivation to read. Since they don't read much, and don't understand all that they read, they read slowly. And since they read slowly, they don't enjoy reading. This "vicious cycle of the weak reader" (Nuttall, 1996) presents a great challenge for all readers: L1, L2 and HL.
When asked what types of print they read outside of class assignments, students responded that they read newspapers (16%), signs (7%), magazines (6%), and a variety of other material (<5%) such as: books, menus, comic books, websites, short stories, ads, karaoke lyrics, songs, the Bible, instructional materials, newsletters, famous poems, notes from parents, subtitles, food labels, greeting cards, and children's stories.
HL reading processes and strategies. Students were asked what was "easy" when reading in their HL. Responses fell into two categories: Almost a third of all survey participants (31%) interpreted the question to mean "what genres are easy to read." Those responses were labeled as text-based and included genres and familiar texts/topics such as: newspapers and magazines, children's books, short stories, conversational texts, comics, restaurant menus, and ads. But almost half of the participants (47%) assumed the question meant what is easy in terms of knowledge of the HL. These responses were labeled "knowledge-based" and focused on reading skills such as: familiar/easy vocabulary, decoding, and comprehension/main ideas.
When asked what is "difficult" when reading the HL, students responses again tended to fall into the same two categories: text-based and knowledge-based. Text-based responses included: newspapers and magazines, books/novels, and formal texts. Knowledge-based responses included difficult/unfamiliar vocabulary, understanding, speed, and grammar.
Students were also asked what reading strategies in English were useful when reading in the HL. Given the fact that the students in the survey had been admitted to UCLA, we assumed that they had at least basic reading skills in English and would be able to transfer those skills to the HL. Yet few reported transferring strategies: reading aloud/sounding out words (13%); practice (9.5%); using a dictionary (6%); getting meaning from context (4%); and finding the main ideas and skimming (only 2%).
Moreover, the majority (66%) of the students agreed with the statement that learning to write in the HL was necessary in order to learn to read. Thirteen percent reported that learning to write the script helps with word/character recognition and learning; 12% said that reading and writing "go hand in hand"; 10% said that writing helps with comprehension; 6% said it helps with pronunciation; and 4% said it provides more practice. About one-third of the participants (32%), though, did not make a strong connection between reading and writing: 10% said, "I can read, but can't write" and 8% said, "reading is easier than writing/spelling".
Students' preferences and goals. We asked the students what they would like to read in their HL classes. One-third of them (34%) responded that they would like to read cultural/historical texts, folktales, and children's stories. 29% said that they would like to read literature (novels, poems, etc.), and only 21% responded that they wanted to read about current events (newspapers and magazines). Other responses included: material that is interesting/fun; comic books; material that is not too difficult; picture books with English translations; movie reviews, star bios, and "anything."
The final question asked students whether they were interested in attaining college level academic reading skills in the HL. The vast majority (80%) responded "yes" and only 20% responded "no". This is not surprising given that, in addition to being university students, the survey participants had chosen to enroll in a heritage language class and thus were motivated to improve their heritage language ability.
Using a survey of students in four large HL programs at a university, this study attempted to gain a deeper understanding of HL learners' linguistic profiles, particularly their reading experiences, behaviors, and strategies. This study was also designed to identify HL students' goals regarding academic reading skills as well as the types of reading activities they would like to engage in. The survey revealed a number of patterns in the linguistic profiles and reading behaviors of these university heritage students. Consistent with the existing literature, this study found that HL students were more confident about their level of proficiency in listening and speaking than they were about their level of proficiency in reading and writing. The survey also revealed that the majority of the students were interested in achieving college-level academic reading skills. And yet the majority of the students reported spending very little time reading in the HL despite the availability of print in many of their homes.
One explanation for this seemingly contradictory finding might be the vicious cycle of the weak reader discussed earlier (Nuttal, 1996). Most HL students reported not transferring skills from English to the HL, which may in part explain why many perceive themselves as slow readers, and in turn account for why they are not motivated to read much even though they would like to improve. Explicit instruction in reading skills and strategies in both English and the HL could be one way to begin to address the problem. Also, since these HL students believe it is important to learn to write as they learn to read, instructors and material developers need to make the reading/writing connection for their students, especially for languages with non-Roman scripts.
But perhaps the most important component of this "vicious cycle" and an essential key to addressing the problem is motivation. Motivation is crucial in promoting literacy (Eskey, 1987). Kagan (2005) proposes that we use heritage students' motivations for learning the language as "a guiding principle for materials selection and curriculum design" (p. 213). In our survey, most HL students reported that it was important to them to learn the HL because they wanted to maintain their cultural identity. It is not surprising then that many of them stated that they would like to read texts embedded with cultural and historical information in the HL classroom. S.K. Lee (2002) also found in a survey of Chinese and Korean American high school students that the vast majority of the students (86%) were interested in learning more about their cultural heritage. He also found that fewer than 40% knew much about the history and culture of China or Korea. Lee concludes that students were not receiving adequate amount of exposure to Asian history and culture in and outside the home. This lack of exposure may be related to the unavailability of HL print in schools and the community discussed earlier (Lambson, 2002; Pucci, 1994, 2003, Ulanoff and Pucci, 1996). It might explain why, once in the university, HL students want to read culturally relevant texts and learn more about their HL culture. Children's literature in the HL could then be a valuable source of both language and cultural input in beginning level HL reading courses.
Selecting relevant materials that motivate students to read is an important step to promote HL literacy, but in order for students to attain academic level reading skills in the HL, changes beyond curriculum need to take place in the university. At many universities, HL courses offered are at beginning and intermediate levels (Kondo, 1998; Sohn, 1995; McGinnis, 1996; Moag, 1995). Also, typically the majority of students enrolled in university HL classes (as was the case in this survey) are juniors and seniors. If students are to attain high levels of literacy, HL programs need to entice students to enroll during their first two years so that they will have the time to continue on to advanced levels. More effort has to be made to sustain their motivation and interest in lower-level HL courses so they continue to study the HL at advanced levels. And more language programs should then offer these advanced courses for the HL learner.
This study also revealed the usefulness of surveying HL students in order to help inform HL program development. In fact, many have argued about the importance of this type of biographical surveys for a number of purposes. Kagan (2005) suggests that biographical information should always be collected from incoming heritage students given that this type of information can be a key instrument for placement and curriculum development. Beaudrie and Ducar (2005) argue that these surveys can fulfills two purposes: "to increase the meta-linguistic and meta-cultural awareness of students while simultaneously providing teachers with the necessary information to better suit the individual pedagogical and linguistic needs of their students." They also suggest using the information gathered in these surveys as the basis for classroom discussions about language, literacy, and identity.
Limitations and Future Directions
It is important to keep in mind that the findings of this study as well as the implications derived from them cannot be generalized since the students who participated in the survey are not necessarily representative of the entire HL university student population. For one, these students had chosen to enroll in a HL class and thus were motivated to improve their HL skills. It would be useful to identify and survey those HL students not enrolled in HL courses to learn about their levels of HL proficiency and why they have chosen not to enroll in HL courses. Another limitation of this study is that the survey only included HL students from four HL programs; more students need to be surveyed across other HL programs at the university. It would also be informative to survey HL students of a specific language program across several university campuses to better understand the needs of a particular HL population. Further research of this kind in the area of university-level HL education and, in particular, HL reading, would contribute to the goal of supporting these learners in their literacy development and cultural growth.
In conclusion, preserving and promoting heritage language literacy is of utmost importance to the economic and social development of HL populations. Much must contribute to the development and maintenance of HL literacy; often literacy practices begin at home within HL families and communities, but social and educational policies that promote language diversity and literacy must also be in place. Second language educators in particular should encourage HL literacy development, starting in pre-school and continuing on through college to protect this most valuable national resource.
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Heritage Language Learner Survey (back)
Please help us to improve heritage language (HL) instruction by telling us
(A heritage language learner has been raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken and who is able to communicate in that language and in English.)
A. Background Information:
2. Age:___________ 3. Class level at UCLA:________________
4. If you transferred to UCLA, where did you attend college before?______________
5. Major: _____________________________________________________________
6. Where were you born?________________________________________________
7. If not born in the US, how old were you when you came to the US?______________
8. What language do you speak most of the time?_______________________________
9. What language do you do speak at home with your parents/family? ______________
10. In addition to English and your heritage language, what other languages do you speak or have you studied? _____________________________________________________________
11. A. How many quarters of heritage language courses have you taken at UCLA? ____________________________
B. Why have you enrolled in heritage language courses?_______________________
12. Please rate your heritage language abilities by checking the appropriate level:
13. Is it important to you to maintain your heritage language identity? _______________
Why or why not? ______________________________________________________
B. Reading Information (please answer briefly)
1. What types of heritage language print do you have in your home (please be specific) ? ____________________________________________________
2. Did your parents or other family member read to you in the heritage language when you were a young child? ___________________
If yes, what did they read to you?
3. If you read your heritage language, how many minutes a week do you spend reading in that language? _________________
4. What do you read in your heritage language outside of class assignments?
5. When reading your heritage language, what is easy for you?
6. When reading your heritage language, what is difficult or challenging for
7. What reading strategies in English are useful for reading your heritage language?
How would you describe your reading rate in your heritage language?
Slow Average Above Average Fast
Do you know your reading rate in words per minute (wpm) in your heritage
language? _________________ In English? ________________________________
9. Is learning to write your heritage language necessary in order to read? ____________
Why or why not? ______________________________________________________
10. Would you find it useful to practice reading with a self-paced computer program?_____
Why or why not? ______________________________________________________
11. What would you like to read in your heritage language classes?
12. Are you interested in attaining college level academic reading skills in your heritage language? _______
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Published: Friday, January 12, 2007