Linguistic Profile

Writing Proficiency Profiles of Heritage Language Learners of Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and Spanish

The following material is informed by a research project conducted at the Center for Integrated Language Communities (CILC) from 2014 to 2018 with 187 heritage learners of Mandarin Chinese (henceforth “Chinese”), Korean, and Spanish. For this research, the definitions of writing proficiency were based on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Proficiency Guidelines 2012 – Writing. This study sought to address the following three research questions:

  1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of writers at the Intermediate and Advanced levels of proficiency?
  2. What prevents writers at the Intermediate and Advanced levels from consistently functioning at the next higher level of proficiency?
  3. What are the implications of the proficiency profiles for instruction?

For full descriptions of profiles identified by the study, as well as for details on research methods and participants, please go to the “Publications” button on the left panel.”

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines describe functional proficiency, i.e. what an individual can do with language “in real-world situations in a spontaneous and non-rehearsed context” (ACTFL Guidelines 2012). The guidelines assess functional proficiency. When using them to assess writing with the Writing Proficiency Test (WPT), functional proficiency is gauged by documenting the writer’s ability to perform the functions belonging to the major levels (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, or Superior)

  • in specific context and content areas,
  • with a level of comprehensibility and accuracy required by the functions,
  • demonstrating control over a specific text type (sentence, paragraph, etc.).

For a description of the criteria at each major level, see pages 10-14 from ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines

At any given point in time, a writer functions primarily within a specific proficiency level (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, or Superior) with evidence of writing ability across a contiguous higher level. This is true for ALL writers, independently of how they have acquired the language; that is, independently of their categorization as native, heritage, or L2 writers of the language in question.

In the context of the language classroom, identifying proficiency levels ensures that learning goals, curriculum, and assessments

  • support linguistic development
  • are appropriate to the abilities of the learners in a given class or program

​Support of linguistic development

A main goal of the proficiency-oriented classroom should be to help learners strengthen their abilities at one level and to progress to the next higher level of proficiency. Such movement will not take place if the learning goals, curriculum, and assessments are designed to work only within the learners’ current proficiency level. For instance, Intermediate-level writers, while broadening the context/content areas and expanding the text type of their writing at the Intermediate level, must also be focused on systematically targeting the functions and other assessment criteria of the Advanced level in order to develop and ultimately sustain Advanced-level writing proficiency.


Working to develop the next higher level of proficiency supports proficiency growth. Working on criteria that are too far from a learner’s current level (i.e., criteria that are two levels beyond the learner’s current ability) will not. Expecting Intermediate-level writers to work at the Superior level not only does not support development, but moreover, essentially asks learners to do something they are not linguistically able to do yet, even with an instructor’s support. For example, Intermediate learners who are asked to work on Superior level functions, contents/contexts, and text type will fail at the task since they lack control over the Advanced level criteria upon which moving into the Superior level rests. This scenario of setting unrealistic expectations for learning outcomes is simply unfair to learners: it sets them up for failure, and it creates a situation of ongoing frustration for learner and instructor alike.

While the statements above are true for both L2 and HL learners, instructors who work with both populations immediately recognize that L2 learners and HLLs at the same level of proficiency may be linguistically and sociolinguistically different from each other. The goal of this guide is to highlight some of the particular ways in which HLLs perform at Intermediate and Advanced in order to support instructors and learners in the development of HL proficiency toward the next level.

For additional information on the use of the ACTFL Guidelines with HLLs, see:

ACTFL. (2017). ACTFL OPI Testing of Heritage Speakers. Unpublished manuscript

Kagan, O. (2005). In support of a proficiency-based definition of heritage language learners: The case of Russian. The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 8(2&3), 212-21.

Martin, C. (2010). Assessing the oral proficiency of adult learners, “heritage” and “native” speakers using the ILR descriptions and ACTFL proficiency guidelines: Considering the Challenges. Russian Language Journal/Русский язык, 60, 167–181.

Martin, C., Swender, E., & Rivera-Martinez, M. (2013). Assessing the oral proficiency of heritage speakers according to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012–Speaking. Heritage Language Journal, 10(2), 73–87.

Swender, E., Martin, C. L., Rivera-Martinez, M., & Kagan, O. E. (2014). Exploring oral proficiency profiles of heritage speakers of Russian and Spanish. Foreign Language Annals, 47(3), 423–446.


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