Thursday, March 7, 2019

Teaching about proficiency levels

At the beginning of the year, I take 1 whole hour per class to teach about proficiency levels. In English. (Gasp.)  It is a day where I provide virtually no input in the target language.  Double gasp!  But aren't you a CI teacher?  Don't you have to speak in 90% target language for students to acquire language? Yes, yes, and yes.  But I also have to teach in a school, which means I have to do all kinds of things that have nothing to do with language acquisition. I have to make compromises. I bet you do too!

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I do my best to use standards based grades, and that I try to spend as little time as possible assessing (in class) and grading (out of class) for many reasons.  (Curious to read more about how I actually do it? Here you go: Assessing writingassessing reading, and what goes in the grade book.)

Those reasons include (but are not limited to): it takes time away from providing input (unless it is an input-based assessment), it takes time away from planning great lessons, developing relationships with students, and taking care of myself. Since learners can't control their rate of acquisition, it is kind of pointless.  (See this post for a long, philosophical meditation on standards based grading.)

AND the ACTFL proficiency levels were *not* developed for schools.  Wait. Please go back and re-read that sentence.  My understanding is that they were originally developed for the Foreign Legion- to categorize overseas workers.

I KNOW!  So why do we used them?  Well, I use them because they come from our national organization, they provide common language, and someone else already invented that wheel (click here for resources regarding that wheel)  so I don't have to.  And, using these standards  means that I have a great deal of professional discretion in teaching what is going to be most effective for language acquisition.  Because the standards say nothing- NOTHING- about accuracy and grammar.  

Providing clear targets for learners *is* good practice in other subjects, and I have to squeeze into the school box and the grade box for my job.  And since I switched to talking about (and assessing with) proficiency targets, I have seen a HUGE shift- like earthquake level- in the mindset of my students when it comes to acquisition (instead of grade grabbing).

That in and of itself makes it worthwhile.

This is what it looks like at the beginning of the year:

I tell the kids that my goal for them is to have a certain level of proficiency at the end of the year.  My job is to give them as much input as they can, which is the only way to get there. Their job is to engage with the language.  But, I teach middle school. They want to know what that proficiency level actually means!

I use this activity from The Creative Language Class to introduce the different levels.  (Note: the authors have updated the original lesson plan from what I used- use the updated one that is linked!)

1) Show the first slide and come up with something that the class is going to describe.  Basically, there is a new kid in town and you have to describe something to that kid, but you can only use the kind of language you are given (novice low, intermediate high, etc.)
We have used these in the past: a watch, grocery store, taco, bicycle, cat, and circus.

2) Group students and give them markers, an 11 x 17 sheet of paper, and a card from the lesson plan.
     I have them glue the card on the paper.

3) Ask them to do their best to follow the directions on the card and try to explain what the thing is - IN English (or L1).

4) With time remaining in class, stop the kids and invite them to present.  They can read their card, then read their poster.

Here is a video of them presenting with a bonus peek at how I manage my classroom (making them practice routines, walking and pointing to the rules).

5) I usually project the slide for that level after the group goes.
Novice Mid poster

Intermediate Mid poster

6) Feeling frisky?  Good at making displays?  (I am not. See below.)  Make a display of the posters.  I leave mine up all year and have gotten very positive feedback from parents and administrators.  I also print up some of the slides to display.


Make sure that you remind them multiple times to write in L1 (English, in my case).
Check in often with the group that has novice low and novice mid.  They tend to need the most support.
If you have big classes, do 2 or 3 different groups for the same card.
This takes much longer than you think it will. That's fine. Go with it.
Have fun!


  1. Do you know what the proficiency levels are for the cards included in the slideshow?

  2. Could you tell me what the proficiency labels are for the cards included in the powerpoint?

  3. Hi Jenny, the product is available for free from the link above; it is not my product and has been updated since I last downloaded it so I don't want to give you incorrect information!

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. this is AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!! THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING. Could you please share your class rules?