Category Archives: Teaching Methodology and Research

ACTFL Core Practices

Do you ever find yourself in a conversation where you tell someone that you are a foreign language teacher and the response is something like this, “I had 4 years of Spanish in high school, but I can’t speak a word now.”  Clearly this traditional methodology has not been very effective.  What can we do about this to make sure that 20 years from now our students are not saying the same thing?

ACTFL provides us with Core Practices that guide teachers toward teaching language proficiency rather than simply teaching about the target language.  It comes down to providing students with opportunities to do something with the language and not just demonstrate what they know about the language. Take a look at the 6 ACTFL Core Practices below.

ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com     ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

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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

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Students rise in proficiency, but what about language accuracy?

It’s the question on everyone’s mind.  What is the role of accuracy in foreign language as students grow in proficiency?  Do we tend to accuracy?  Do we just focus on proficiency and assume that the language will become more accurate with time and practice?

Students are rising in proficiency, but what about language accuracy? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

The ACTFL performance descriptors are an effective tool to determine precisely what students can do at each proficiency level (and sub level).  The descriptors go on to state what the language output of students looks like at each level.  Take a look:

Students are rising in proficiency, but what about language accuracy? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

While these are very useful, we are often met with the issue of inaccuracy in language.  To be clear, proficiency is about communicating a message and is not so focused on polished and accurate language forms.  Essentially the language structures need to be accurate enough for the message to be understood.  It is generally understood in second language acquisition research that continued exposure (input) to language structures in context will lead to internalization and acquisition of the native-like language structures.

The issue here is that it is often challenging to focus specifically on a particular language element or structure when providing students with contextualized input.  Is there are a way to provide this focused input to students?  Is there a way for students to be actively engaged in the content, which will peak their interest?

I have been faced with this challenge of students moving up to the intermediate proficiency level and speaking and writing in complete, discrete sentences, but the verb forms are often not correct.  Students communicate their message, but I want to provide contextualized input of a particular structure so that students  move toward more accurate language as well.  I’m assuming you have been here?

In an effort to make input compelling and interesting to students I try to have them create the content as much as possible.  The more they choose the topic the more they will be interested and will pay attention to the themes and language structure being highlighted. Combining student-generated content and a focus on a particular language structure I developed these activities.

Students are rising in proficiency, but what about language accuracy? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com Students are rising in proficiency, but what about language accuracy? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Students begin by  writing the correct form of the verb when given the subject and the infinitive.  To reiterate  the correct form students them locate the subject, infinitive and verb form in the grid.  It works like a word search.  Until this point, it’s a very mechanical exercise that is devoid of context.  So, the next step is to write a sentence with each subject and verb form.  This is where the student-generated content comes in.  Some students choose to write personal sentences, other prefer to write about topics that interest them and some prefer to be humorous.  Regardless of the sentences, in the end the correct verb forms in a contextualized sentence provide very focused input for students.

I have seen a marked increase in accurate verb forms when students use this type of writing activity.  The word-search element provides an interesting way to focus on the correct verb form and the sentences that are student-generated highlight correct usage in context. You can take a it a step further and use the student sentences to create a task such as collating sentences into different categories and graphing results.  The important thing to keep in mind is that all the while students are seeing and using the sentences that contain the accurate verb forms in context.  Increased exposure to these language forms is what is needed to move toward acquisition.

If you would like to help your students  polish their language structures, take a look at these activities.  There are many topics in both French and Spanish.  Click on the links below to access these resources and watch the accuracy of your students’ language rise with their proficiency.

Spanish:

French:

ACTFL Modes of Communication (Presentational, Interpretive, Interpersonal)

Foreign Language Class Lesson Plan in 3 Easy Steps

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.

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels?

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comThe ACTFL Proficiency Levels and Performance Descriptors provide a very useful tool for seeing exactly what learners are able to communicate and produce at the various proficiency levels.  I put together a graphic to visualize the output a bit more concretely.

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

The question always comes up about how students can move up in their proficiency level.  The ACTFL Text Types show the specific types of language that novice, intermediate and advanced learners produce.

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comReferencing the types of language that learners produce along with the descriptors of what learners are able to communicate we can provide a few suggestion for moving up sub-levels (low-mid-high) and levels (novice, intermediate, advanced).

To move up sub-levels in the novice proficiency range:

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comTo move up sub-levels in the intermediate proficiency range:

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comTo move up sub-levels in the advanced proficiency range:

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Foreign Language Assessment Rubrics (Interpersonal, Interpretive, Presentaional)

The ACTFL Proficiency Levels and Performance Descriptors provide a useful way of creating prompts and assessing student communication in the classroom.

Foreign Language Assessment Rubrics (Interpersonal, Interpretive, Presentaional) (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com)Teachers are becoming more familiar with these proficiency levels and the text types associated with them.

Foreign Language Assessment Rubrics (Interpersonal, Interpretive, Presentaional) (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com)

The Performance Descriptors break proficiency down into several categories: Language Control, Vocabulary and Strategies.  Depending on the task a cultural assessment may also be a part of this.  Quite often the challenge is  finding a way to concretely assess students in these categories.

When creating an assessment, the teacher should begin by going over exactly what language looks like at each proficiency level.  By knowing the current proficiency level of students the teacher can create prompts that require speaking, listening, writing and reading that is possible for students to accomplish without going too far above or below their proficiency level. If you need a refresher on assessing proficiency levels and communication strategies take a look at these posts:

Begin planning each task with these questions:

  • What is the current text type of students (proficiency level)?
  • What are the language structures to be assessed?
  • What is the vocabulary theme?
  • What communication strategies are needed?

Then, based on this information, write a prompt that will allow students to speak, read, listen, write and communicate at a proficiency level that is appropriate to them. It’s important to follow this order so that the prompt is appropriate to the proficiency level.

You can download detailed rubrics that assess interpersonal, interpretive and presentational communication HERE.  They include text type, language control, vocabulary and communication strategies and can be used on any topic or proficiency level.

Teaching Skills of Cultural Competency in the World Language Classroom

Skills in cultural competence are in high demand as we all become more interconnected around the globe.  These skills, which are essentially behaviors and attitudes that enable us to work effectively cross-culturally, are a central part of my classroom teaching.  And, it starts early on.  Here are a few ways that I provide opportunities for some of my youngest student to start honing their skills of cultural competence early on.

Teaching Skills of Cultural Competency in the World Language Classroom (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.com

Teaching Skills of Cultural Competency in the World Language Classroom (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.comThe French speaking world is so much larger than France and Canada, and I strive to expose my students to the many countries and cultures around the world that use the French language. Beyond European countries such as Belgium and Switzerland, French is used in many African countries including Senegal, Benin, Guinea, Cameroon, Chad and Rwanda just to name a few. Additionally there are francophone areas in the Caribbean (Haiti, Martinique) and the south Pacific (French Polynesia and New Caledonia).  In an effort to engage students in the language and culture of these countries, my French students have been corresponding with students from around the francophone world.

Teaching Skills of Cultural Competency in the World Language Classroom (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.comThree years ago my fourth grade class connected with the Fontamara School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  The partnership was made through a connection I have with the Power of Education Foundation, which started the Fontamara School following the earthquake in 2010.  My students wrote autobiographies in French to talk about their homes, families, likes and dislikes, and their school.  The students at Fontamara also wrote to our fourth graders following their lead of topics which made it rather easy for my students to understand the French.

Teaching Skills of Cultural Competency in the World Language Classroom (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.comTwo years ago one of my classes was paired with a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in a school in Senegal. Our Peace Corps partner, Samantha, kept a blog of her experience, and the my class was able to follow her adventure in addition to corresponding with her students in French.  They even got to see pictures that Samantha posted on her blog of students in Senegal writing to us.

Teaching Skills of Cultural Competency in the World Language Classroom (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.comThis year we were able to take advantage of my school’s partnership with the APAPEC School in Rwanda.  Each year a teacher from each school spends two weeks in this sister school. One of our first grade teachers recently traveled to Rwanda and prior to her departure my students wrote personal letters that she presented to the APAPEC students. Many of the classes in the school are taught in French and upon her return she brought letters in French from the students in Rwanda.  I put them on display on bulletin board outside of my classroom with QR codes so that community members can scan and listen to our French students reading their letters.

Teaching Skills of Cultural Competency in the World Language Classroom (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.comThese connections between my students and students in Haiti, Senegal and Rwanda have been a truly authentic way of engaging the skills of cultural competence.  Students are often quick to point out what we all have in common, but we as educators need to push students to look for what is different as well.  This is where we have to put our cultural competency skills to work.  It is easy and somewhat effortless to respect, honor and understand that which we share in common.  The learning and strengthening of skills of cultural competency come from respecting, honoring and understanding that which is different.

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.