Category Archives: Speaking

Communicative Language Teaching Mindset Shift. That Was Then. This Is Now.

The field of language teaching is always on the move.  Every decade or so there is an innovative way to approach language teaching.  For a recap of the language teaching methodologies that have surfaced over the past century take a look at this post.  Over the past decade many foreign language teachers have embraced communicative language teaching, which focuses on authentic communication over language forms such as grammar structures.

That Was Then. This Is Now. Communicative Language Teaching Mindset Shift (French, Spanish)

To be clear, a certain level of accuracy of language is needed to convey a message that is comprehensible.  The difference from methodologies of the past is that previous approaches to language teaching focused almost solely on accuracy of language.  These days we see the value in focusing on the message, even when that means looking past some errors when the learner has not yet acquired the language structure.

There has been a significant shift in mindset along with the arrival of communicative language teaching.  Previous methodologies focused on what learners did wrong rather than on their progress.  The goal was complete accuracy in the past along with the belief that a speaker would not  be understood if the language was not completely correct.  We now accept that communication can happen despite occasional inaccuracy.  This is the base of the difference in mindset, or underlying tenets that support the approaches.

Here are four areas of this mindset shift that distinguish current communicative approaches from accuracy-centered approach of the past.

Objectives and Content:

  • Past: The teacher was the all-knowing possessor of knowledge and directed all content and objectives to ensure progress toward correct language.
  • Present: The teacher works in collaboration with students and there are shared learning objectives.  Content is driven by both the teacher and the student.

Communication:

  • Past: Typically communication was focused on the four traditional language skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking.  This usually meant that these skills were practiced in isolation and were not interconnected.
  • Present: The three modes of communication (presentational, interpretive, interpersonal) are now the focus.  They provide students with opportunities to do something with the four skills.

Performance:

  • Past: The focus was on what students knew about the language and its structures.  Practice of correct grammatical forms of the language were typically done in isolation and out of context.
  • Present: The focus is on what the learner is able to do or accomplish with the language.  This is always tied to context and students communicate authentically with the language despite occasional inaccuracy in language when the message is clear.

Assessment:

  • Past: Assessments determined the level of language accuracy and the teacher could easily and quickly point out what was incorrect, such as verb forms, noun gender, adjective agreement, etc.
  • Present: Assessments are performance-based.  Teachers use tools and strategies such as backwards design and Can-Do statements to guide students toward communication.

Where are you regarding your teaching mindset?  If you want to embrace communicative language teaching, take a look at the “present” mindset statements and see where you are.  It can take some time and a solid approach is always evolving.  It doesn’t have to happen this week.   Download this PDF with some questions to help keep your lesson planning in the “present.”

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Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks; Task-Based Activities

There are many different types of activities that we create for our foreign language students.  In the communicative language classroom there are two broad categories of activities: exercises and tasks.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

What is a task?

  • A task requires the use of the target language in order to complete a task. The goal is the completion of the task, though the expectation is that the target language is being used to complete it.

What is an exercise?

  • Bill Van Patten describes “exercises” as activities that focus on language mechanics and often use language out of context.
  • “Tasks,” in contrast, are activities that have a product, goal, objective or outcome that require using the target language to achieve it, but are not focused on mechanics.

With tasks the goal is independent of language. Research overwhelmingly shows that language used in context is most beneficial to language acquisition. Tasks are an effective way of providing communicative activities to students.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Is the activity an exercise or a task?

Consider these aspects of activities when determining if it is an exercise or a task:

The Activity is an exercise if it…

  • focuses only correct examples of language.
  • uses language out of context.
  • focuses on producing small amounts of language.
  • doesn’t focus on meaningful communication.
  • dictates language structures and vocabulary.

The Activity is a task if it…

  • focuses on achieving communication.
  • focuses on meaningful use of language.
  • employs communication strategies.
  • does not use predictable language.
  • links language use to context.
  • does not dictate language structures.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com 

How do I design task?

  1. Choose a theme and a goal. Keep in mind particular vocabulary themes or language structures that you would like students to use and craft the activity accordingly.
  2. Explain the task and desired outcome.
  3. Pairs/groups engage in task. Teacher engages as necessary to keep task on track.
  4. Pairs/groups share out their goals with other groups or as a whole class.
  5. Teacher provides an individual extension activity.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Take a look at this SlideShare that explains the difference between exercises, activities and tasks.

Also have a look at this post with lots of task-based activities for the French and Spanish classroom.

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom

There are six ACTFL Core Practices that serve as guide for teachers as they teach toward increased foreign language proficiency in their classrooms. Once of the key core practices is designing communicative activities for students.

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

The wave of communicative language teaching began several years back when the language teaching community (linguists, teachers and students alike) took a hard look at the “best” practices of language teachers and came to the conclusion that these practices were not leading students toward being able to use the target language.  Much of the language teaching that was happening several decades back was focused on what students knew about the target language (i.e. verb conjugations, adjective forms, pronoun placement) and not what they were able to accomplish or do with the language that they were learning.  When it became clear that students were not able to communicate effectively using the target language it was clear that we needed to modify how we teach languages.  This was the birth of the concept of communicative language teaching.  Essentially it is an attempt to guide students toward an increased ability to communicate.

What is a Communicative Activity?

There are three concepts of communicative language teaching that set it apart form more traditional approaches:

  1. The focus is on communicating and doing something with the language as opposed to practicing isolated language features out of context.
  2. It is student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered.  Students create with language rather than having the language explained to them.
  3. The approach is focused on understanding the message being conveyed by students despite inaccuracy in language form as opposed to being focused on correct usage of language structures and only secondarily tending to the message.

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Tips for Designing Communicative Activities

Here are a few tips and ideas to keep in mind as we design communicative activities.  Remember, communicative language teaching, or teaching that will guide students toward confidently communicating in the target language, is focused on the message, not practicing language structures out of context.

  • Activate background knowledge  (pre-speaking activities) on the topic of the activity and/or choose a topic with which students are familiar.  When the focus is on communicating and building confidence we want students to be comfortable with the topic.  If they have the language proficiency, but lack content knowledge they will not communicate as much as they would if they were more familiar with the topic.
  • Use open-ended prompts and questions when designing an activity or task.  Prompts that are more finite will not allow for opportunities to engage with the topic and negotiate meaning.
  • Design prompts that require that pairs or groups of students must rely on and listen to each other.  If the prompt requires sharing an opinion, but not finding a commonality or difference with their speaking partner the task is more presentational in nature.
  • Create questions and prompts that require pairs and groups to collaborate and use the language to arrive at a product, not necessarily something physical that they will produce, but more finding a collaborative solution.
  • Be sure that the tasks students complete are at their proficiency level.  Know what their level is and the text type (lists, chunked phrases, discrete sentences, connected sentences, paragraph).  Design a task that will require creating with language using these text types.  A prompt for intermediate low students that requires speaking in connected sentences will lead to a communication breakdown because the text type for their proficiency level is single, discrete sentences.

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Is the Activity Communicative?

Of the three modes of communication (interpersonal, interpretive, presentational) communicative language teaching lends itself best to interpersonal communication.  This mode is about active, real-time exchange of ideas and messages in a two-way (rather than one-way) exchange.  Often when teachers create activities that appear interpersonal they are actually more presentational.  Here are some questions to keep in mind to make sure that the activity that you are designing is actually interpersonal:

  • Is the activity student-centered, rather than teacher-centered?
  • Is the language spontaneous and unrehearsed, rather than prepared and practiced in advance?
  • Is the focus on conveying and understanding the message, rather than on correct language forms?
  • Is the communication a two-way exchange, rather than one-way, requiring response, reaction and spontaneous follow-up?
  • Do students have opportunities to negotiate meaning if they don’t fully understand, rather than understanding all vocabulary and language structures?
  • Do students have communication strategies that they can employ (language ladders, functional chunks, circumlocution)?

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Examples of Communicative Activities

Here are few examples of activity structures that, regardless of proficiency level or content, take into account the concepts of communicative language teaching outlined above:

  1. OWL (Organic World Language) Conversation Circle
  2. Info-Gap Activities
  3. Jigsaw Activities
  4. Picture Prompts
  5. Task-Based Activities

I created a PDF with one-page description of communicative activities along with a lesson template and an example lesson.  Download it HERE.

Move Student Speaking and Writing from Novice to Intermediate

At the novice level, students are speaking and writing with single words and lists initially, then move on to chunked phrases.  Here are some examples:

Novice Low/Mid:

  • green
  • apple, banana, orange
  • Josué
  • soccer, football
  • movies, restaurant

Novice High:

  • My favorite color is green
  • I like apples, bananas and oranges
  • My name is Josué
  • I play soccer and football
  • On the weekend I like to go to the movies and to a restaurant

Move Student Speaking and Writing from Novice to Intermediate (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comAs students move up to the intermediate proficiency level they begin to create discrete sentences on their own that move beyond chunked phrases.  This tends to be the most challenging for students as they begin to create with language and are not relying on memorized phrases to chunk together.  Rather than changing the detail after a memorized phrase such as “my favorite ______ is _______” and “I like __________” they are moving on to changing subjects, using various propositions and varying their verb forms and tenses.  Teachers can help scaffold this process for students by assisting them in creating sentences.  Students are often challenged by how to add details to a sentence to make it their own, particularly when writing.

I have found that using question words with students is a simple and effective way to have students add details to their sentences that move from memorized, chunked phrases to discrete sentences that are created by the student.  The more they do this the more they will grow in confidence and begin to do it on their own when writing.

A simple reminder of question words as students  write about a topic will guide them toward writing discrete sentences that they create on their own and and will move solidly on to the intermediate low proficiency level. For example, if a student writes ” I like to swim.” suggest a few question words to help make the sentence a bit longer and more detailed.  With whom?  When?  Where?

This will move the sentence from “I like to swim” to “I like to swim with my friend Julie on Saturday at the community pool.”  The more students get accustomed to adding details this way the more they will do it on their own when speaking and writing.

Here are a few posts I’ve written that have some suggestions and resources for guiding students through this process of moving their speaking and writing from novice to intermediate.  Click on the images to see the posts.

Spanish & French Verb Tense and Sentence Writing Powerpoint Activities

twist-on-memory-moves-students-from-novice-to-advances

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students-are-ring-in-foreign-language-proficiency

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How to Assess Proficiency and Give Number and Letter Grades

Most teachers are required to give number or letter grades in their foreign language classes.  Even though there is some level of autonomy regarding how this might be done, the reality is that at the end of the term, semester or year we have to provide one holistic grade.  This is often a challenge due to the sometimes ambiguous nature of communicative language teaching.  Our grading systems are based on a right/wrong approach to assessment.  It’s not easy to honor proficiency progress with a grading system that is set up this way.

How to include proficiency in a traditional grade. (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comIt’s a simple fact that does not seem to be evolving any time soon…schools require teachers to give a letter or number grade when assessing students.  Along with this reality we as teachers want to provide students with useful feedback on their progress.  Collectively, the hope is to provide this much-needed feedback and assessment while following the grading protocol in our schools.  Ultimately we would like to combine both what is useful to our students with what is required of us professionally in a sustainable way.  Does this even seem possible?

I’ve been there.  Several years back as I began researching and deepening my understanding of ACTFL proficiency levels and communicative language teaching.  It soon became clear that the fluidity of proficiency levels did not integrate well into a concrete grading system.  Essentially, like most teachers, my grades at the end of the term were more a reflection of what students knew about the language than what they could do with the language. As I wrestled with this reality I worked to create a grading program that concretely assessed student proficiency levels while honoring the grading requirements in my school.

As you grapple with this issue, I suggest that you begin by familiarizing yourself with the ACTFL proficiency levels and the text types that are associated with each level.  These text types are the output that students produce.  Knowing what the student output will be is the first step in creating tasks that will assess students.

How to include proficiency in a traditional grade. (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comOnce you know what the expected test type will be decide what thematic vocabulary you’d like to assess along with the anticipated language structures.  Once you know what the text type should be and you have a solid idea of what the anticipated vocabulary and structures are you can then create a prompt or task that students can complete and be assessed on.

How to include proficiency in a traditional grade. (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comThis sort of backwards planning is essential.  If you begin with the prompt without considering the text type output or the vocabulary and structures the prompt is not likely to have the intended outcome.

Once you have the task ready to go, you will need a proficiency-based rubric to assess what the student is able to do.  It is essential to include all the elements that that are part of language proficiency.  In particular, text type, language control, vocabulary and strategy use.

How to include proficiency in a traditional grade. (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comYou can download three types of rubrics HERE.  These rubrics include a lesson plan template and are applicable to any proficiency level.  In addition, you will find assessment rubrics for presentational, interpretive and interpersonal communication.

Once you use these rubrics you will quickly see how efficiently you can assess proficiency and easily integrate the grade into your overall grades in your class.  Without them you will likely find yourself where I was a few years back…ready to embrace communicative language teaching, but unable to assess in a productive and sustainable way.

Foreign Language Speaking Activity with Playing Cards

I am always a fan of repurposing things in my classroom.  Why completely reinvent the wheel when you can just spin it in a different way?  Playing cards are something that I always seem to have so I got to work trying to figure out how I can use them to get students speaking the target language.  I always want to make sure that in addition to practicing vocabulary and language structures (initially) that activities and tasks also provide ample opportunities for authentic communication as well.

Foreign Language Speaking Activity with Playing Cards (French, Spanish)Last year I wrote a blog post about an activity that I crafted using playing cards.  You can read the details of that those activities HERE. I was looking though Pinterest and saw that there was a math game that many teachers are doing using playing cards and I started thinking about how I could do this type of activity with my foreign language students.  The teachers were having groups lay out the cards in a path of their choice and using them as a sort of playing board.  I thought that this be easily modified for use with foreign language vocabulary and language structures and it also lends itself very easily to proficiency levels depending on the task and prompts given to the students.

In my previous playing card activity post I wrote about a reference sheet that I created for students that coincides with each card in the deck.

Foreign Language Speaking Activity with Playing Cards (French, Spanish)

I decided to have students use this same reference sheet to engage in this new activity.  Students have a chance to get a little creative with how they lay out the card path.  Once laid out they get a copy of the reference sheet.  This can be pictures, time, subject/verb pairings, questions…unlimited possibilities.  In addition to the deck of playing cards and the reference sheet, each group of 3-4 students also gets one die and a playing piece, such as different coins or any small object that distinguishes the players.

Foreign Language Speaking Activity with Playing Cards (French, Spanish)

Foreign Language Speaking Activity with Playing Cards (French, Spanish)

Foreign Language Speaking Activity with Playing Cards (French, Spanish)Each player takes a turn by rolling the die and moving the number of spaces (cards) along the path.  They find the box on the reference sheet that corresponds with the card they land on (4 of diamonds, king of hearts, 10 of spades, etc.) and speak using what is in the box.  If students are novice they may identify with a singe word or phrase, but intermediate students could use the word or picture in a complete, discreet sentence.

The first student to reach the end of the path is the winner.  This can sometimes move quickly, so I have students keep points by the number of wins and go back and start again each time there is a winner.

Foreign Language Speaking Activity with Playing Cards (French, Spanish) Foreign Language Speaking Activity with Playing Cards (French, Spanish)Be sure to keep this communicative by asking students to do more than say a verb form, time or vocabulary word.  Consider what the proficiency levels of the students are and have them speak using the reference prompt in context and with the text type that is at their proficiency level.

You can get these card reference sheets on a number topics by clicking the links below.

Spanish:

French:

Make Sure “I Can” Statements Are Communicative

We have made major strides toward language proficiency in recent years.  Classroom instruction, activities and tasks have all become much more communicative in nature.  Assessment has moved more toward what students can do with the language rather than simply what they know about the language.  One of the most important and effective tools available in this shift toward proficiency has the publication and implementation of the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can Do Statements.  The simple use of the phrase “I Can” has put the focus on what students are able to accomplish in the foreign language and move beyond just listing vocabulary and manipulating grammar structures.

Is "I Can" Enough to Demonstrate Proficiency? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

The Can Do Statements are intended to be used for any language and any age or developmental level.  The reality is that a “one size fits all” approach is often challenging, particularly when a novice mid can be 6 years old or 30.  For this reason many teachers have developed classroom or unit-based Can Do Statements that are developmentally appropriate to the age of the students.  As many of us create individualized Can Do Statements it is important to keep our communication and proficiency goals in mind.  It is easy to assume that simply putting “I Can” in front of a prompt will make it communicative.

Take a look at these “I Can” Statements and determine if they are communicative and based on proficiency:

  • I can count to 100
  • I can say the days of the week
  • I can day the date
  • I can say I like and I don’t like
  • I can say sentences in the present tense
  • I can say sentences in the past tense
  • I can say sentences in the future tense

These are a good starting point, but they can be more communicative by providing context.  Essentially they should provide an opportunity for students to do something with the language that they can produce.  The above statements demonstrate what a student knows about the language, but a change in the prompt toward more communication will allow students to show what they can do with the language.

  • I can tell you my phone number, age and address (using the numbers 1-100)
  • I can tell you what day(s) I have a class, lesson, sports practice or rehearsal (using the days of the week)
  • I can tell you my birthday and the birthdays of my friends or the date of an upcoming or past event (using knowledge of how to say the date)
  • I can tell you what activities, food, movies, books, art, sports that I like to do or don’t like to do (using the phrases “I like” and “I don’t like”
  • I can tell you what I typically do during the day or on the weekend or what I am doing right now (using the present tense sentence structure)
  • I can tell you what I did yesterday, last week, last year or earlier today (using the past tense sentence structure)
  • I can tell you what I am going to do tomorrow, next week, next year or later today (using the present tense sentence structure)

The examples above show that “I can say” does not lend itself to a conversation, whereas “I can tell” invites more detail, interaction and personalization of the language.

“I can say” is good starting point when working toward proficiency, but be sure to add in I can Statements that give students an opportunity to use the language in a communicative context as well.  These are the types of tasks and prompts that will lead to increased proficiency.

Foreign Language Modes of Communication (ACTFL)

What is the purpose of communication?  Is it to practice language?  Maybe it is to polish our verb forms and word order?  Perhaps it is to use all the vocabulary that we have learned in a language?  Hopefully, we can all agree that this sort of “communication” that has not have a clear goal is not the reason that we engage in language learning.  The reason we communicate in any language in any form is to convey or understand a message.

The Importance of Message when Communicating in a Foreign Language (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com When it comes to understanding or conveying a message there are three ways of looking at the communication.  The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines put communication to these categories: interpersonal, interpretive and presentational.  Each of these modes of communication looks at the message in unique way.  A solid understanding of how a message is conveyed or understood when speaking, writing or reading is essential to using various tools needed to effectively communicate.

Presentational communication is one-way speaking or writing that does not allow for real time clarification of meaning.  This means that the speaker/writer has to be sure to “fill in the gaps” and have a solid understanding of what the listener or reader knows or needs to know to interpret the message.

Conversely, interpretive communication is one-way listening or reading that also does not allow for real time clarification of meaning.  When reading and listening in this context the reader/listener needs to fill in their own gaps in understanding.  This may require accessing personal knowledge of the topic or doing research.  The most effective tool is the use of context clues and identifying what is understood to make meaning globally.

Interpersonal communication, on the other hand, is two-way speaking that allows for clarification of the message in real time.  When communicating interpersonally all speakers and listeners are involved in creating and interpreting the message and work together to assure that there is a collective understanding.

These tables below lay out the three modes of communication.

The Importance of Message when Communicating in a Foreign Language (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com The Importance of Message when Communicating in a Foreign Language (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

The Role of Short and Long-Term Memory in Language Learning

We’ve all been there.  Students learn a new language structure (i.e. grammar point) or vocabulary words, take a quiz, do well, and then a few days later they are unable to produce the structure or vocabulary.  What happened?  Where did it it go?

The Role of Short and Long-Term Memory in Language Learning (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.com

First, let’s look at Interlanguage.  This is the language that a learner speaks that is on a continuum between his native language (L1) and the target language (L2).  Selinker explains that Interlanguage has these characteristics:

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Bill Van Patten takes this a bit further in his work (particularly in Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen) and presents the ideas of intake and uptake along this interlanguage continuum:

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 6.36.37 AMInitially, language input becomes intake or part of the short term memory of the learner.  This is consciously attended to and learned by the learner.  When structures and vocabulary become uptake, part of the long-term memory, it is considered subconscious and acquired. The uptake is the proficiency level of the learner.

When students take a quiz on the new material and do well it is because they are being assessed on their short-term memory (intake).  When new material comes along and that older materials has not moved on to long-term memory (uptake) it is replaced by the newer material.  That’s why the grammar structure they knew so well for the quiz is not as easily produced a few days later….and the reason we need to spend so much time reviewing for final exams at the end of the school year.

So, this begs the question, “How can we help students acquire language so that it becomes part of their uptake (long-term memory)?”  The answer is not complicated and involved, but does take persistence and consistency.  It comes down to providing as much comprehensible input as possible to students, both listening and reading.  The more exposure students have to input that is comprehensible to them the more likely the language will become uptake and make its way to the long-term memory.  Again, this is mostly a subconscious process in which language is acquired so comprehensible inout is the most effective tool.  This is yet another reason to use the target language as much as possible (90-100%) in the second language classroom.

I want to end with a quick word about learning grammar and vocabulary, as opposed to acquiring.  Steven Krashen, who is best known for his input hypothesis (i+1), does speak to the usefulness of studying and learning grammar and vocabulary.  He describes this learned language as a monitor that assess output that originates in the long-term memory for accuracy.  This learned, often intake/short-term memory, language is useful in writing as well because the writer has the time to reflect and monitor the output.  When communicating interpersonally in real time the output is often less accurate with novice and intermediate students because the more accurate and native-like language has not yet made its way to the long-term memory.

VanPatten, B. (1996). Input processing and grammar instruction: Theory and research. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

VanPatten, B., & Cadierno, T. (1993). Explicit instruction and input processing. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15, 225–243.

VanPatten, B., & Oikkenon, S. (1996). Explanation versus structured input in processing instruction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18 (4), 495–510.

Assessing Proficiency with Student-Friendly Can Do Statements

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are a very helpful tool in the Foreign/World Language Classroom.  They provide teachers and students with clear guidelines and descriptions to assess proficiency levels.  They are also an effective tool for students and teachers to set achievable and concrete goals.

Assess Proficiency with Student-Friendly Ca Do Statements (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.comAssess Proficiency with Student-Friendly Ca Do Statements (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.comThe ACTFL Can Do Statements provide detailed examples of what students could/should be able to do at each proficiency level.  The challenge I have personally had with the Can Do Statements is using them for various age and developmental levels.  There are some Can Do statements that address such things as making reservations and asking questions about particular academic subjects.  While these are very applicable to older students, they are not developmentally appropriate for younger students.  For this reason I have developed, with the help of a few colleagues, Student-Friendly Can Do Statements.  These statements honor the text type (individual words and phrases, discrete sentences, connected sentences, paragraphs) of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, but are more applicable to elementary, middle school and high school students.

Assess Proficiency with Student-Friendly Ca Do Statements (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.com