Acquisition & Proficiency vs. Learning & Performance

When I started teaching, I knew one thing: I didn’t want to teach language the way I was taught. When I was in jr. high and high school, I learned about Spanish (in English), but I never used it. I got A’s in all of my Spanish classes because I could conjugate verbs and translate vocabulary lists; but can now recognize that I never progressed past Novice-level speaking. I didn’t start to acquire the language until I was able to use it in real life situations during college and beyond. Did anyone else have that experience?

Often I hear people say that despite taking Spanish for 4 years they didn’t learn anything.

If that is the norm, why are we OK with that? It’s simply because those of us who did learn a language are the ones who are now teaching them, that system was OK for us, we learned in the flawed system. We were good at it. We could learn ABOUT Spanish and then through various experiences apply what we’d learned to actually acquire the language. The problem is that we are in the minority.

Once I became a teacher, I found that it was so natural to teach the way I was  taught. I also didn’t know a better a way. A lot of theories in my foreign language pedagogy courses made sense, but putting those theories into practice was the hard part. Especially when trying to fit them into the structure of a typical classroom.

It wasn’t until I learned about OWL that I discovered there was another way. The moment I experienced it, I knew this was what I had been looking for. It just made sense to me in a deep way. Students didn’t need to be learning about the language;  students needed to acquire the language. OWL gave me the tools to create a classroom environment in which students could acquire the language. It took out the obstacles that were not allowing students to acquire language: English, desks (isolation), error correction, focus on form, direct translation or speaking sentences right away; and it allowed me to focus on what language is all about: communication, community, self-expression, making mistakes, taking risks and playing.

I needed to shift my understanding from what students know to what students can do. It turns out that the ACTFL proficiency guidelines provide a road map for how students progress as speakers of a new language, and what they can do with the language at each level.

Now, when we use this road map to see how students grow in a language, a few things become clear quickly.

  • The objectives should be about what students can do in a language, not what they know about a language.
  • Communication is more important than form at the lower levels. Form/structure doesn’t become as important until Intermediate-Mid and above (that’s likely not until 4th year!)
  • Students need to be able to communicate on a variety of topics at each language level.
  • What students CAN do becomes more important than what they CAN’T DO.
  • Traditional grading systems do not work well with assessing student proficiency.

These ACTFL levels can and should be used to set course objectives, individual goals, to plan lessons, to guide your questioning, and to assess student’s in a World Language class.

It’s these levels that drive the curriculum. Not the content. In OWL, the content is student-centered and teacher guided. We talk about things that the teacher or students bring to the community as well as what’s going on in the school or the world (often as it relates to the students).

Even if you don’t follow OWL, if you want to have a proficiency-based classroom, No matter how you decide to organize your content, I would warn you not to let the content become the focus. What should we focus on?  Communication skills and the next language level should be the focus. (You need to know the current level of the students to push them to the next). The language level lets you know if you should be eliciting single words or sentences from your students and whether you should be asking for students to describe or narrate. What they are describing is not as important.

If I tried to use ACTFL levels to assess students who are not allowed to practice their Spanish skills over a variety of topics, I would not be successful. Think of limiting your interaction with a preschooler or elementary school child to one or two topics during a period of time. How would you expect that to impact his/her language development? I don’t think it would go well. When we organize classes by long units and themes, that is what we are doing. We are limiting language. We don’t speak in categories when we speak in English, why would we want our Spanish students to stick to certain categories?

If we choose a topic of study for a Spanish class and don’t allow for overlapping topics (and a wide variety of topics), we are setting students up for strong performance when discussing that topic, but weak proficiency overall. If our goal is proficiency, we need to be talking about a variety of things.

If topics need to be chosen, keep it very general, and level appropriate. It is appropriate for Novice speakers to talk about concrete things in the room and things that relate to themselves. Intermediate speakers deal with things related to survival, self and sometimes others (but still relating it to self) and Advanced speakers need to tell stories. (See the guidelines for more specifics; that was a very generalized statement about appropriate topics). At the Intermediate-Mid level and above, broad  themes could be used if they can elicit the language level needed. But, when building vocabulary and beginning to create with the language at the lower levels, the more the language input is like the real world the better!

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are a description of what individuals can do with language in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading in real-world situations in a spontaneous and non-rehearsed context.


ACTFL Inverted Pyramid 2013_0

In the classroom we want a variety of comprehensible input as well as meaningful opportunities for output so that students can practice their Spanish skills in order to grow in proficiency; and move to the next language level (as pictured above).

Our 8th graders are graduating from our three year OWL program speaking at a higher-level of proficiency than I could when I graduated from high school (after 7 years of learning about Spanish in a desk). Our 8th graders can’t conjugate verbs or tell you what an indirect object pronoun is. They can, however, communicate in Spanish with a sympathetic listener.  What do you think is more valuable?