Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Curriculum and Instruction

Major Professor

John Liontas, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Yiping Lou, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Sanghoon Park, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Janet Richard, Ph.D.


Heritage language learning, Heritage language teaching, Spanish as a heritage language, Second Life


In this exploratory case study, I take a constant comparative methods type approach to exploring a shift in second language acquisition (SLA) away from approaches built on the assumption that language participants in the U.S. are monolingual English speakers (Block, 2003; Ortega, 2009, 2013; Thompson, 2013; Valdés, 2005), with little initial investment in the language or its culture (Rivera-Mills, 2012; Valdés, Fishman, Chavéz, & Pérez, 2006). This bias has entrenched a monolingual speaker baseline for statistical analysis within many experimental designs (Block, 2003; Ortega, 2009, 2013; Thompson, 2013; Valdés, 2005). Further, I redress this methodological bias by applying sociocultural theoretical (SCT) (Vygotsky, 1986) approaches to investigating Spanish heritage language learners (SHLLs). Heritage Language Acquisition (HLA) has an established tradition of situating its research within socio-cultural context when considering language-learning phenomena, laying groundwork for relating these contextual factors to the issues in delivering pedagogically sound HL instruction.

Ducar (2008) identifies a specific gap in HLA literature, where HLL voices are underrepresented and Valdés et al. (2006) further highlights the need for the development of resources and strategies for accommodating HLLs specifically. I attempt to fill these gaps under SCT by using qualitative methods that incorporate HLL voices into the broader HLA discussion (Ducar, 2008). I take a bottom up approach to resource and task design targeted to serve Spanish heritage language learners (SHLLs) in the U.S. by first surveying the population’s backgrounds and motivations at universities that serve an over 20% student body of Hispanic/latin@ students. Next, I propose a supplemental resource whose agile design is able to adapt to the unique needs of these SHLLs. Further, I investigate in what ways one technological resource, the virtual world Second Life (SL), may be adopted to meet Spanish HLL (SHLL) needs. In this second part, I analyze how one SHLL, who I will refer to as David, used this SL resource. I was guided in this analysis by asking: “In what ways does differentiating HL instruction with SL afford identity mediation through symbolic artifacts within SL?” and “In what ways can task design and extension activities be adapted to meet specific SHLLs’ needs without overly constraining their creative language use or the open format of SL?”.

I do this by first taking a snap shot via anonymous survey of 47 SHLLs across the U.S., attending 133 universities with a high level of undergraduate latin@/Hispanic students (20% or higher) that offer concentrations in Spanish (see The respondents needed to be currently enrolled in a course advancing them beyond the Novice High level of proficiency as defined by ACFTL (2012). My analysis and discussion of these responses is organized around trends illuminated with descriptive statistics in their backgrounds and then motivations. Finally, I draw on open ended responses to create a qualitative analysis and present vignettes that highlight SHLL voices, while exemplifying trends found through word count analysis and axial coding of the data. Next, I explore the case of a single SHLL, reporting a familial connection to the language and studying intermediate Spanish at a university in the U.S, and his experience with SL.

My analysis of David’s case draws on data from a pre-survey that was designed to elicit data on his background, align discussion with established criteria for matching HLL backgrounds to learning needs, and elicit his emic perspective about using SL to study his HL. Additionally, the community of inquiry framework (COI) (Arbaugh, Cleveland-Innes, Diaz, Garrison, Ice, Richardson, & Swan, 2008) guided me in meticulously designing SL tasks that elicited data about David’s engagement with the SL environment, its affordances, and the HL. These also provided insights into what ways that he chose to expand or deepen his command of the HL. I coded these data with Dedoose, a qualitative research tool, using a three-stage coding process similar to axial coding, building code trees and constantly relating themes to one another until saturated thematic categories emerge.

I build a critical discussion of what this coding process reveals in relation to the case-study’s research focuses above, the guiding research questions, and relate the resulting findings to possible implications for teaching Spanish to SHLLs in the U.S., instructional design for this population within specific intuitional constraints, and for task design that leverages specific affordances that SL may offer SHLLs.

In Part I, I present a rationale for introducing two new research questions to help guide my investigation of the survey of 47 SHLLs: “In what ways do SHLL motivations for studying their HL differ and how might these motivations be best accommodated through instructional design?” and “In what ways do SHLL backgrounds differ and influence their objectives for studying their HL?”. I then used these research questions to analyze these data and weave a discussion. At the beginning of each stage of this analysis I explain the methodology behind the analysis and the generation of any figures or tables that helped me in interpreting the data and answering the research questions. Ultimately, I create vignettes to highlight SHLL voices (Ducar, 2008) and weave a narrative grounded in the major trends and themes sown together throughout the chapter.

In Part II, I present rationale for modifying my original three research questions, removing the second one completely due to lack of data: “In what ways do SHLL backgrounds differ and influence their objectives for studying their HL?” and “In what ways do SHLL motivations for studying their HL differ and how might these motivations be best accommodated through instructional design?”. I interweave my exploratory analysis and discussion about David’s background and motivations with that of the previous chapter to related David’s case to the larger data set. Further, I use the COI framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, 2001) and Dörnyei’s (1994, 2005, 2009, 2014) work on motivation to analyze my instructional design in relation to David’s experience within the SL Lab. I analyze David’s motivational attractor states from a qualitative perspective as he progressed through to completion of the lab and compare motivational factors between David and pilot study participants. Based on these findings I offer some recommendations for both revising the proposed resource’s design and for the design of other resources that might capitalize on what I have learned during the course of this investigation.

During the course of these investigative efforts I also encountered some challenges and surprising rewards. I reserve a section of this study to discuss some of these challenges, such as institutional barriers, demands on student time, strains on student motivation, and instructional design adaptations that frequently failed to address these challenges despite being research supported approaches. I correspondingly recount how these challenges coupled with moments of collegial collaboration to help both myself as a researcher and the project to grow, persevere, and adapt during the long course of the investigation. It is my sincere hope that sharing this personal perspective provides greater context to the study and insight for other researchers that would take on similar research endeavors.