Category Archives: Teaching Methodology and Research

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.

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

Language Learning with a Growth Mindset

I wrote a post previously about how a change in words can change a students mindset.  Essentially if students change the words and questions they use to approach their work, the outcome will be different. A mindset that is more focused on growth and overcoming challenges will lead to higher confidence and a clearer understanding, whereas a fixed mindset causes students to limit their confidence and potential (Carol Dweck, Mindset).  I wanted to approach this topic again, but from a more linguistic perspective.  Here is a more focused list of ways that language learners can use a growth mindset to learn the target language more effectively, efficiently and with more increased proficiency.

Language Learning with a Growth Mindset. (French, Spanish, ACTFL) 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:

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 6.36.16 AM

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.

Staying Up-To-Date in the Changing-World of Foreign Language Teaching

Take a look at your foreign language textbook.  How long has it been used in your department?  Look at the publication date (the original one, not the new edition with new photos).  Does foreign language education look the same today as it did when that book was published?

Staying Up-To-Date in the Changing-World of Foreign Language Teaching (French, Spanish) wlteacher.wordpress.comThe reality is that when many of these books were first published they were based on current foreign language teaching trends at the time.  But, times change.  As much as we try to keep up with new research and do our best to modify our teaching to keep current many times we are restrained by textbooks that were published before the dawn of the age of communicative and proficiency-based foreign language teaching.  If we continue to use (sometimes because we are mandated..I get it) these textbooks and accompanying materials we are unable to fully embrace proficiency.

It takes years to write and publish a textbook and the cost of buying new textbooks needs to justify the investment, which means that the book will be used for many years.  The issue here is that teaching changes quite a bit on a regular basis.  So what is a teacher to do?

Several years ago I completed a graduate program in applied linguistics with a research focus on psycholinguistics and second language acquisition.  I had already been teaching for ten years, but my understanding of technique and methodology changed so much throughout my research and studies.  I was devoted to embracing communicative and proficiency-based language teaching, but, of course, the textbooks in my classroom were not going to be helpful.  Don’t get me totally wrong here.  There is surely a place to focus on the accuracy of language typically presented in traditional textbooks, but there was clearly a void when it came to proficiency.  Back in 2009 I started googling around and found Teachers Pay Teachers.  There I found materials from teachers who had also embraced proficiency-based language teaching and were making their materials available.  For me the true genius and worth of Teachers Pay Teachers is that it allows educators to quickly and efficiently adapt to the changing climate of education and provides materials that respond to this change in a fraction of the the time and cost that it would take to write, publish and purchase a textbook.  Teachers are dedicated to keeping up with teaching trends and methodology and now there is a way to share well-vetted resources with the larger teaching community.

If you have spent any time here on my blog, you know that I am dedicated to foreign language proficiency and bringing tips, tools and resources to teachers so that their students can rise in proficiency and communicate with confidence.  I often present these ideas at conferences and throughout social media.  The immediacy of sharing out in the constantly-changing world of education has been invaluable.  Teachers are held accountable for emerging standards, curriculum, evaluations and expectations, but traditional resources, such as textbooks, can’t keep up.  This is the beauty of Teachers Pay Teachers.  The resources on the site are from teachers in our situation who are providing what we need to succeed.  The fact that it is an open marketplace means that you can see the reviews of other teacher and determine very quickly the quality and usefulness of a product.  Does this happen when it comes to textbooks?

I’m assuming if the title of this post piqued your interest that you are in fact interested in staying up-to-date in the changing world of foreign language teaching.  I’m sure that you create great materials for your students in your classroom.  Keep it up.  Take a look around by blog by clicking on the categories to the right.  You will see some interesting topics and new ways of approaching foreign language teaching.  You’ll also see posts describing proficiency-based speaking and writing activities available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.  Read the comments and decide if these products will help you foster language proficiency in your classroom.

Here are some posts to get started:

 

 

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