Writing Proficiency of Heritage Language Learners (WPHLL) – Home

The WPHLL pages provide resources for instructors whose goal is to develop the writing proficiency of heritage learners. The resources target the development of proficiency of writers who are at Intermediate and Advanced levels of proficiency. We understand “proficiency” and “proficiency levels” within the framework of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (2012).

Original research conducted with Chinese, Korean, and Spanish heritage writers in the United States informs the resources available on this site. The research entailed the collection and analysis of biographical data from 187 heritage learners (61 Mandarin Chinese, 49 Korean, and 77 Spanish). In addition to providing biographical data, participants were tested using the ACTFL Writing Proficiency Test (WPT). We subsequently analyzed the relationship between WPT rating, and self-ratings of proficiency, linguistic profiles, and biographical factors, including language acquisition context, educational experiences, and language use practices.

Underpinning the resources you will find here are specific theories of language acquisition, the role of explicit and implicit instruction in the acquisition process, and literacy and proficiency. Expand the sections below to read more about these topics.

We adhere to the theory that acquiring a language entails the development of an implicit linguistic system and that such development does not take place without input (Krashen 1982). These theoretical ideas have important implications for instruction: most salient is the need to include multiple opportunities for input processing in the curriculum. The type of input—oral and/or written—will depend on the course’s learning goals. 

While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of explicit instruction on the linguistic development of heritage learners, it is important to consider what to teach explicitly and why to teach explicitly.


Grammar. There is conflicting evidence on the effectiveness of explicit instruction of grammar topics on the improvement of accuracy in the language of HLLs. Since each HLL has different needs with respect to accuracy, and since proficiency develops globally, we believe that the best use of instruction time is to provide exposure to input and to work with output at the appropriate proficiency level instead of focusing on “teaching” selected grammar rules to the class as a whole.

​Literacy. Many components of writing can be made explicit to writers to assist them in developing proficiency. For example, writers can be shown the difference between strings of sentences and paragraphs. Stylistic and discourse conventions are a matter of literacy rather than language acquisition, and as such, they are more susceptible to explicit instruction.


Some groups of learners might need to develop metalinguistic vocabulary due to their professional goals. For example, teacher candidates will benefit from learning metalinguistic terms since textbooks are typically organized around explicit grammar instruction. On the other hand, if HLLs are in a class to develop proficiency and literacy in the HLL for more general professional, social, or artistic purposes, metalinguistic knowledge might not be useful at all.

A clear idea of the what and why will help optimize limited instructional time.

Literacy and proficiency develop slowly and through repeated exposure and use. Proficiency does not presuppose literacy, while literacy does assume proficiency.

Proficiency, according to ACTFL, “is the ability to use language in real world situations in a spontaneous interaction and non-rehearsed context and in a manner acceptable and appropriate to native speakers of the language. Proficiency demonstrates what a language user is able to do regardless of where, when or how the language was acquired.” (See ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners 2012, page 4.)

Literacy, on the other hand, is the process of meaning-making, in our case, from and through language, that is both creative and critical. As the multiliteracies movement advocates, meaning-making “should be regarded as a dynamic process of transformation, rather than process of reproduction.” Writers, in this sense, are not just replicating conventions, but questioning and transforming them. (See ‘Multiliteracies’: New Literacies, New Learning Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, page 10.)


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