Welcome to Language Latte: a conversation about teaching world languages. This is Becky Morales, and I am your host. We are on episode 6, and today we are talking about ACTFL: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. We are looking at the mission of ACTFL and their role in supporting world language teachers. What are their Can-Do statements and proficiency guidelines and how can teachers use them in their classes? Treat yourself to a latte, settle in, and join our Language Latte facebook group to get in on the conversation!
Every episode, I examine issues that world language teachers face when trying to help our students’ achieve proficiency. In this episode we are looking at ACTFL, and the implementation and implications of their can-do statements and their proficiency guidelines.
As you have heard in other episodes, in the Language Latte podcast, I first examine research, either from a historical standpoint, or current trends, and then talk with leaders in language education, whether it be teachers, principals, support staff, tutors.
Today I am interviewing Victoria Gilbert, an experienced Spanish and French teacher who is the world language chair at a private K-8 school in New York City. If you go to kidworldcitizen.org, and click on podcasts, I have the show notes for each episode. Look in episode 6 for the documents and links I mention today.
This episode might seem US centric, because I am highlighting the work of a non-profit organization in the United States, however the resources I’m going to share and talk about will be helpful to language teachers around the world. I personally am teaching English in Mexico right now, and I got excited digging deeper into the can-do statements, and most definitely will be implementing them with my students.
You might have heard of ACTFL- like I mentioned in the intro, it is the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. From their own web site, we see that
ACTFL is dedicated to the improvement and expansion of the teaching and learning of all languages at all levels of instruction. ACTFL is an individual membership organization of more than 12,500 language educators, students, and administrators.
So without sounding like a commercial, after looking at its history, let’s dive into the innovative, high-quality tools ACTFL has written to meet the needs of language educators and students, and then we’ll take a look at how teachers can utilize them in class.
The vision of ACTFL is to meet the needs of all language professionals, through advocacy, outreach, research, and professional development programs. They are keen on reflecting the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the US in the language-teaching profession. To meet these goals, ACTFL offers several publications and PD opportunities.
First, they hold Regional Conferences and Presentations– and I will link to that page in the show notes. It’s also possible to set up training and workshops at your school, or take an online course with a partnering university. Their massive annual convention every November attracts over 8000 educators.
For members, they have a publication called The Language Educator, with fabulously researched articles and tips. They put together the go-to List of Language Education Acronyms. But perhaps their most well-known publications are their Can-Do Statements, and their Proficiency Guidelines.
ACTFL Can-Do Statements
Let’s look at the Can-Do Statements first.
In 2003, language leaders in NCSSFL (National Council of State Supervisors for Languages) learned about European language practices and their Can-Do descriptors that are laid out in their European Language Portfolio. This planted the seed to work with ACTFL and develop their own version, aligning with ACTFL’s Performance Guidelines in the Linguafolio project.
In 2010, they revised the Can-Do Statements and shifted the focus from language performance to language proficiency. The new model outlined what language learners could explicitly do with language at a specific proficiency level in authentic situations no matter where, when, or how the language was acquired. The Can-Do statements define learning targets in terms of functional language use. Even the weakest students are able to see progress, and they are personalized- and they focus on what the students CAN do, rather than what they caNNOT do. It allows learners to chart their progress, and take responsibility for their learning.. but it also permits educators to document learner growth.
After this podcast, I encourage you to click on the link in the show notes and read through the document so you can see how valuable these are. The Can-do statements help language learners to identify and set goals, while documenting what they can do with their language. Research has indicated that learners are more motivated when they are actively engaged in the learning process- through authentic texts and media, and when they receive meaningful feedback. Students are motivated when they can begin to collaborate with peers and native speakers, and as they see their own progress.
The Can-Do Statements help teachers involve the learners in their learning process, and promote self-reflection. Research also has shown that autonomy in education is considered one of the most important factors in successful language learning and the Can-Do Statements do that as they encourage independence and self-monitoring.
In addition to helping the students, the Can-Do statements can serve as a guide for the teachers in developing curriculum, and creating learning tasks,: or for assessing language.
All right. So the first step in the goal setting process is to have the students determine where they are in their language skills. Like Nathan Lutz said in episode 4, even our youngest students can use the Can-Do statements to self-assess their communication proficiency level.
For example, a novice mid student might determine: “I can say hello and good-bye to my teacher” or “I can say things about my family.” The students can personalize the Can-Do statements in ways that are meaningful for them.
A teacher can use backward design, to identify the desired learning outcomes- the functions or goals that the students want to be able to do- and plan the appropriate learning experiences that will assist learners in achieving the desired outcomes.
The Can-Do statements are not meant to be exhaustive- teachers and students are free to create learning goals appropriate to their class and real needs. When I was teaching Spanish around 2002, I had a student come up to me and say he was taking Spanish so that he could understand the kids on his soccer team. He told me on his own that his goal by the end of the semester was going to be to understand all of the vocabulary related to soccer, and learn how to tell his teammates what to do and where to go on the field. He made his own Can-Do Statements before they were even developed by ACTFL! This bright student identified a level of language proficiency he wanted to reach by the end of the year- and you know what??- he totally achieved his goals and was so excited when he could tell his team to pass the ball or play up the defense.
It’s important that the Can-Do statements are recorded, and referred to, but teachers will use them in different ways. However- and this is important- there are a couple of things that the can-do statements are NOT:
- They are not a check-list that you do once and boom, you’re done
- They are not to limit teachers on what to teach
- They shouldn’t be tied to grades or points
- They are not packaged, no-prep lessons
If you read through the Can-Do Benchmarks, you will see that they are divided into the different proficiency levels, and then within the levels, they are defined in terms of the five skill or mode categories:
So we have the language input, the language output, and the interpersonal communication.
ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines
This brings us to the proficiency benchmarks (download them here). With the first version published in 1986, ACTFL has adapted and revised them in 1999, 2001, and 2012 (and you can see all of the different version in the link I will provide to ACTFL’s web site). ACTFL describes what students can do with language by breaking it down unto 5 major levels of proficiency, that are then further broken down into 11 distinct levels:
There’s novice low/mid/high, and then intermediate low/mid/high, advanced low/mid/high, and then superior and distinguished.
The levels represent ranges, and describe what a person can do and cannot do with the language at each level: they are simply an instrument used to evaluate the ability of functional language. Function is key. ACTFL has published Proficiency Guidelines for speaking, writing, listening, and reading. Students may be at different levels in each of the skills depending on their experience. For example, before moving to Mexico, but own children were probably at an Intermediate High for speaking and listening in Spanish, but only a novice high in reading and writing. I’m happy to report they are all progressing quite nicely in their local school now!
The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines can be downloaded in 13 different languages. It’s helpful to become familiar with the proficiency levels first, and then move onto the can-do benchmarks. I like that the Can-Do descriptors are located under each specific proficiency level, because they really are intertwined and meant to be used in tandem.
I hope that this has been a nice overview or introduction to the ACTFL publications, and now I would like to introduce our guest.
Interview with Dr Victoria Gilbert
I am really excited to speak with our guest today. Dr Victoria Gilbert, is the world language chair of Saint David’s School in Manhattan, NY. She has taught Spanish, French, and Science for over 29 years at all-boys independent preK-8 school. Dr Gilbert has also taught methods courses at NYU and abroad and also been a lead instructor for STARTALK programs. Outside her own world language department, Dr Gilbert she also works with the Global Language Project to provide language learning to students in underserved communities and professional development to world language teachers of Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. I am so excited to talk with you today: Welcome to the show!
- Dr. Gilbert, in what capacity have you worked with ACTFL?
- ACTFL has published something they call CAN-DO statements. Before we talk about incorporating them, could you explain what the Can-Do statements are all about, and how they came to be?
- student-friendly goal, performance indicators, building transparency to show what they can do. They show how you’ll get there.
- Many teachers have heard of the Can-Do statements, and many world language departments require using them as a curricular guide for planning. However not every teacher or every school is familiar with them. Can you address these teachers, who like the idea of having learners set goals, but don’t know where to begin?
- MOPI training; levels
- 3 Modes: Interpretive (for example listening to a conversation, video, podcast, magazine), Interpersonal (no script, making a decision, spontaneous, unrehearsed), Presentational Tasks (when students actually present the information in the target language, like introducing themselves or describing their school day. More rehearsed and refined). Can-dos identify what is appropriate, what it looks like. Now they included intercultural communication: having students become more aware of being able to investigate the products, perspectives, and practices of another culture as well as interact with them. Understand gestures.
- To me language encapsulates thought, it gives shape and form to what people are thinking. And so therefore you can’t truly understand what somebody thinks until you can understand the words that they’re using to describe their thinking. And so much of the way those words grab or put skin on the thoughts is culture and cultural. And even if you understand and can look up what a word means, you don’t understand how it’s used unless you truly understand the culture.
- Using proverbs in the world language classroom
- Teaching about holidays in the world language classroom
- ACTFL also has published proficiency guidelines. What do these guidelines describe exactly in terms of language acquisition?
- Markers, the difference between one level and the rest. You are not required to use the same descriptors for your classroom. Reading them and looking at them should serve as a model.
- Some of the confusion comes from teachers whose school already has set levels. Do the proficiency ranges apply to each task or activity? Or how do they fit into our system of French 1, French 2, etc?
- Continuum. Road map. Awareness of language acquisition. Skill-based, but different than other subjects. Building block course. “When we give kids an idea of what’s coming next, they get so excited, and engaged, and curious about how they can get there. And that’s the question we want them asking: “How can I get there?”
- As a parting question: why are you so passionate about language education, as an important part of global education?
- As we become more a global world, it is critical. Not only for understanding others, but for understanding ourselves. We feel threatened by things we don’t understand, and react poorly when we judge something that we only have a superficial understand of. Make an effort to understand where someone is coming from and what makes sense to them. We cannot move forward as a human society if you don’t understand where people are coming from. Languages are key- the lock will unlock- if you have the language to interact with someone.
Additional Resources to Learn about ACTFL
Breiner-Sanders, Karen E. Lowe Jr., Pardee. Miles, John. Swender, Elvira. (1999). “ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines- Speaking.” Foreign Language Annals. v33, n1, p13.
Liskin-Gasparro, Julie E. (2003). “The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines and the Oral Proficiency Interview: A Brief History and Analysis of their Survival.” Foreign Language Annals. v6, n4, p483-490.
Moeller, Aleidine J. and Yu, Fei. (2015). “NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements: An Effective Tool for Improving Language Learning within and outside the Classroom.” Dimension. p50-69.
EXCELLENT article and visual infographics on World Language Classroom: What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (and how can students move up?)