|Abstract:||The present dissertation covers a gap in the literature that has been noted in recent work (Bowles, 2018; Montrul & Bowles, 2017; Valdés, 2017): the effects of instruction on heritage language development. As it was pointed out by Ortega and Byrnes (2008), “developing advanced capacities in any language, but particularly in a second, foreign or heritage language, is a process that inherently involves time, and a long time at that” (p.3). Ortega & Byrnes noticed that despite the fact that longitudinal methodology to investigate linguistic development in second language (L2) learning is well established, there is a lack of longitudinal research that provides insights about L2 development that can inform pedagogical practices. In the field of heritage languages, longitudinal research is even scarcer, limiting understanding about language and literacy development taking place outside of the school system. This is the first set of five studies that investigate the effects of genre-based instruction on the development of writing by comparing instructed and uninstructed second-generation Spanish heritage learners at the university level over one semester.
Study 1. Eighty-five university Spanish heritage language learners (HLLs) were recruited to investigate whether HLLs’ background and writing experience can predict their writing ability at the structural level in terms of syntactic complexity, accuracy, fluency, lexical density, lexical diversity, and lexical sophistication. The results showed that accuracy can be predicted by gender: females write more accurate texts. Fluency can be predicted by higher oral proficiency in Spanish: more proficient speakers write longer texts. Although significance threshold was not reached, lexical sophistication might also be predicted by higher oral proficiency in Spanish and the correlation may prove to be significant with an increased sample size. Previous academic writing practice can predict lexical sophistication as this experience might serve as valuable input and practice for low-frequency vocabulary. Lastly, neither background nor writing experience variables were found to predict complexity, lexical density or lexical diversity. Lastly, it was found that accuracy was positively correlated with lexical diversity, and lexical diversity in turn, was positively correlated with lexical density. This suggests a connection among these three constructs indicating a parallel rate of increase in each of the areas. That is, when HLLs write with higher accuracy they also tend to diversify their lexical repertoire incorporating a higher number of content words. On the other hand, neither syntactic complexity, nor lexical sophistication nor fluency, were significantly related with the other variables or with each other. This finding suggests that it is likely that variation in these measures does not have strong implications for writing proficiency. In addition, when comparing all the measures, it is possible to find trade-off effects where some measures increase while other measures decrease.
Study 2. The initial 85 HLLs were divided into two groups carefully matched for demographic and proficiency variables. The instructed group (n=33) received instruction in their intact classroom for one semester, and the control group (n=32) did not receive any writing instruction over the same period of time. Both groups produced two writing samples, one at the outset of the study and the second at the end of a semester to assess writing improvement in terms of changes in fluency, syntactic complexity, accuracy, lexical density, lexical diversity and lexical sophistication. The results indicated that instruction had a positive impact on the instructed group, which improved in fluency and lexical sophistication, while the control group made no significant gains in any measure. However, instruction did not have a positive impact on complexity, accuracy, lexical density, and lexical diversity, and neither group made improvements in these areas.
Study 3. This study used the same design and groups of participants as the second study to investigate HLLs’ writing development in terms of grammatical intricacy. The results indicated the instructed group outperformed the control group by reducing their grammatical intricacy. That is, the instructed group reduced the percentage of paratactic and hypotactic clauses per clause complex making their writing more academic, whereas the control group did the opposite; they increased the percentage of paratactic and hypotactic clauses per clause complex making their writing more like speech. Individual variation was present, but the number of students who did not improve over the semester was higher in the control group (71.9%) than in the instructed group (42.4%). This result suggests that even though one semester of instruction can improve HLLs’ writing, this time frame may not be enough for some students.
Study 4. This study used the same design and groups of participants as the second study to examine whether instruction had any effect on the total number of grammatical errors in general. Three particular grammatical features covered in the course (‘a’ in verbal periphrasis, gerund vs. infinitive use, use of formal language) and one feature not explicitly covered (gender agreement) were analyzed in texts written before and after instruction. Results showed that instruction did not contribute to a significant reduction of the total number of errors produced by the instructed group. Regarding specific errors, the instructed group significantly outperformed the control group in their accuracy in the use of ‘a’ in verbal periphrasis in their writing after the instruction period. Both groups used the infinitive accurately most of the time with just a few errors, but committed more errors when using the gerund in contexts where the infinitive was required. However, a comparison between the pretest and posttest was not possible due to individual variation. Few participants used the gerund in their essays, and those who did, did not use it in both essays, making comparison impossible. As to informal language, there were no significant differences between the two groups in five of the features analyzed, except for in the use of loans. The instructed group increased the percentage of loans in the posttest while the control group decreased the percentage of loans in the posttest. However, the average number of loan words was too small to make any further conclusions. Lastly, no significant difference was found between the two groups in terms of accuracy in the use of gender assignment or gender agreement over a semester. This result is not surprising because none of the groups received explicit instruction on these grammatical forms.
Study 5. A subsample of the instructed HLLs (n=20) completed an attitude survey at the onset of the study and at the end of the course to assess the impact of instruction on their linguistic confidence in writing in the heritage language. The results showed that at the beginning of the study the participants on average rated their confidence in writing with 2.9 on a scale of 5 points with 1=very unconfident to 5=very confident. However, at the end of the semester, the results revealed that most of the students rated all 19 questions higher on the second survey, reaching an average score of 3.8.This result suggests that instruction helped students feel more confident in their ability to write in the heritage language and are more willing to advance from an informal register to a more formal one.