Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Irina A. Sekerina

Committee Members

Virginia Valian

Patricia J. Brooks

Natalia Meir

Debra Titone

Subject Categories

Cognitive Psychology | First and Second Language Acquisition | Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics


L2 processing, HSs, Russian, reading fluency, proficiency, eye-tracking, scanpaths, prediction


The thesis presents the first comparative investigation of reading fluency and factors that affect it by examining eye movements in reading by Heritage Speakers (HSs) and L2 learners of Russian. The eye movements of bilingual participants are compared to two control groups, monolingual adults and monolingual children. Following the introductory Chapter 1, in Chapter 2 we present the study that establishes basic eye-movement characteristics in reading for Heritage Speakers and L2 learners in connection to proficiency and linguistics factors of word length and frequency. Contrary to our predictions, we found that all eye-movement characteristics of high-proficiency HSs are different from those of monolingual adults but are strikingly similar to eye movements of 8-year-old children. Low-proficiency HSs, on the other hand, were less similar to children and resemble more ‘typical’ unbalanced L2 learners. In general, bilingual readers fixated words for longer times, skipped words fewer times and regressed more than monolingual adults which is consistent with the weaker links account of bilingual language processing. The similarity in eye movements of high-proficiency Heritage Speakers to children is discussed within the divergent attainment theory of Heritage Language development.

The goal of the study in Chapter 3 is three-fold. First, using a scanpath approach (patterned sequences of eye movements) we identify common reading strategies that participants rely on in reading isolated sentences. Next, we ask whether these reading strategies correlate with the group to which the reader belongs, i.e., HSs, L2 learners, children, or monolingual adults. Third, we investigate the effect of individual differences on the choice of the reading strategy in two bilingual groups. Our results align with the findings in Chapter 2. We established that monolingual participants use qualitatively and quantitatively different reading strategy from all other groups, whereas high-proficiency HSs and low-proficiency HSs share the same strategy as children and L2 learners, respectively. We discuss findings in respect to divergent attainment theory of HL development as well as good-enough parsing account of sentence processing in L2 which explains the instances of ‘unusual’ reading patterns of the low-proficiency bilinguals.

Finally, in the two experiments included in the study in Chapter 4, we ask whether similar to monolinguals, Heritage Speakers and L2 learners are able to anticipate lexical and/or morphosyntactic information to facilitate sentence comprehension in reading. The results of the cloze test in Experiment 1 showed that HSs predict the upcoming lexical item with higher accuracy than L2 learners. Importantly, the size of vocabulary in Russian turned out to be a factor that affects the accuracy of lexical prediction, but the proficiency did not. We interpret results of the Experiment 1 in terms of prediction-by-production theory. Contrary to our hypothesis that L2 learners are more sensitive than HSs to morphosyntactic information in the sentence due to formal instruction, we did not find any evidence of morphosyntactic prediction in either of the bilingual groups. The findings of the Experiment 2 are consistent with HL theories of dominant language transfer as well as good-enough parsing hypothesis of bilingual language processing.

Taken together, the results of the three empirical studies show that HSs of Russian, regardless of their proficiency level, often experience the same difficulties in reading as L2 learners and young children: Their eye movements reflect poor decoding skill, reduced lexical access and difficulties with morphosyntactic information integration and prediction. We conclude that HL status alone does not predict an advantage of HSs over L2 learners in reading fluency. Their proficiency, however, determines the location of HSs on a ‘continuum’ of reading abilities where low-end resembles L2-like reading fluency, mid-point is equivalent to child-like reading abilities, and the endpoint represents the reading skill of a monolingual speaker. We offer it to future research to explore whether it is possible for HSs to achieve the endpoint of reading fluency continuum.