We are getting there. More and more teachers are embracing proficiency-based language teaching. There are increasing amounts of research that support an approach to language teaching that focusing on communication. Along with Communicative language teaching we use proficiency levels and ACTFL Performance Descriptors that provide concrete benchmarks. Simply put, proficiency is not what students know about the language, what rather what they can do with it. Resources, such as Can-Do statements, help to keep our teaching (and student learning/acquisition) focused on what students are able to communicate.
As happy as I am to see so many teachers adopt this approach, I am often reminded of how much more work we have to do. I find that individual teachers tend to implement communicative activities in their classrooms, but language departments and districts are slower to get there. In May of each year I often get a reminder of the work that is to be done when my 8th graders ask me to fill out a form to recommend them for their high school language level. I teach in a school that ends in 8th grade. Our students go to numerous high schools after, so I get a look at what is expected and what programs look like when I receive the recommendation forms.
As you can see, it is just a list of grammar topics. They place students in a language level based on what grammar topics they have studied. There is no place to speak to what the student is actually able to communicate in the target language. These types of lists are the opposite of proficiency, with a request to know what the student knows about the language and not what they can do with it.
So, how do we respond? I usually use it as an opportunity to educate about the ACTFL Core Practices and Proficiency Levels with a description of the students proficiency level. I provide examples of what the student is able to do with the language at their particular proficiency level. Hopefully this creates some interest in learning more. Just planting the seed, and hoping they will water it.
“Ben performs consistently at the Intermediate Low ACTFL Proficiency Level for Interpersonal Communication and at the Intermediate Mid Level for Presentational Writing and Interpretive Listening and Reading. At the IL level Ben can confidently and consistently speak in discrete sentence that he creates on his own without resorting to memoized chunks. At the IM Level he consistently writes, reads and listens at a slightly higher level with strings of 2-3 connected sentences.”
I would imagine that this is more useful than “Ben can conjugate regular verbs in the present tense.” Even if Ben can talk about the verb forms how does that indicate that he can actually use them to communicate? This is a frustrating situation at time, but hopefully the more often we use this as an opportunity to educate our colleagues the more the entire language teaching community will move toward proficiency.
One final point that I want to make. I fully understand that there are teachers, departments and districts that firmly believe that that a focus on grammar and structures is the most effective way to teach a language. I am always happy to have the conversation. I usually have several of these conversations each time I do a workshop in a school. I like to be challenged and appreciate the opportunity to show the benefits of a proficiency-based program. The only thing that I ask is that those who disagree have empirical evidence to support their argument and beliefs, because that is what I am bringing to the conversation.