Building Proficiency Through Language PerformanceBrooks
An obviously desirable outcome for world language instruction is proficiency. One challenge to this is that decision makers rarely understand what proficiency is and what role world language instruction has in achieving it.
What Is Proficiency?
Simply put, proficiency is the ability to use language in real world situations. When a learner can use language in real world situations that are not rehearsed, and the language used is culturally appropriate to native speakers, the learner is said to be proficient. Proficiency does not depend on how, where, or when a language is learned—a five year old learner can be more proficient that a 15 year old—but it does require sustained levels of appropriate language usage.
ACTFL developed their Proficiency Guidelines for language learning and established three levels of proficiency for language learners: Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced. Each level is subdivided into Low, Mid, and High sub-levels. Performance Descriptors for each level of proficiency describe how learners use language across the three modes of communication—interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational. Some examples of Performance Descriptors include:
- A learner achieves a Novice Low level of proficiency in interpersonal communication if she can provide information by answering a few simple questions on very familiar topics, using practiced or memorized words and phrases, and with the help of gestures or visuals.
- A learner achieves a Novice High level of proficiency in interpersonal communication if she can request and provide information by asking and answering practiced and some original questions on familiar and everyday topics, using simple sentences most of the time.
It is important to note that proficiency is not the same as performance. Performance describes the ability to use language in practiced and familiar contexts, usually in an instructional setting.
How Is Proficiency Achieved in World Language Instruction?
It is helpful to consider the opposite question: How is proficiency not achieved in world language instruction? The important factor is that proficiency relates to real world communication. We know that proficiency will not be achieved when world language instruction focuses on vocabulary lists, rote memorization of phrases, and isolated learning activities with no opportunity for interaction in the three modes of communication. These types of activities actually take the language out of any real world context. When is the last time you had a conversation that consisted of reciting vocabulary words?
Online language learning also fails to develop proficiency because interpersonal communication is severely limited, and there is a loss of communicative elements such as negotiation of meaning, facial expression, and body language. Online language programs simply cannot provide the real world, communicative, and context-rich learning environments that are required for language learners to achieve proficiency.
To be fair, proficiency is not really achieved in the classroom ever. It is not until the learner takes her language skills out into the real world and applies them to real world situations, that proficiency is achieved. The best that we can do in world language instruction is build for proficiency, and this is done through performance.
Performance and Proficiency
The foundation for proficiency in a language is built through performance of that language. In other words, when learners have the opportunity to use language in practiced and familiar contexts—especially ones that reflect culturally appropriate and real world use of language—they can then transfer the skills to real world situations in order to achieve proficiency.
Ideally, learners have the opportunity to perform language and develop cultural awareness consistently over time. This provides the best opportunity to build proficiency. ACTFL makes it clear that time is a critical element for developing language performance. A student who begins his language education in 9th grade may only reach a Novice High level of proficiency by the end of high school. A student who begins his language education in kindergarten may reach Novice High by 4th grade. This student then has the opportunity to reach the advanced range of proficiency by the end of high school.
Start Early and Scaffold
It may be most accurate to say that proficiency is achieved when world language instruction provides consistent practice of language performance and of developing cultural awareness, and the learner then has the ability to apply this practice in real world situations. The earlier and longer that a learner engages in performance of a language, the better chance she has of achieving proficiency. This is why world language curricula such as Sonrisas Spanish, which is designed for preschool and elementary Spanish, are so important.
It is also important that world language curriculum provides a scaffolded sequence of lessons which includes lots of review and a progression from simple language concepts to more complex ones. This enables learners to develop their language and progress to higher ranges of performance. Then, as they have the opportunity to practice their language in real world situations, they progress through different levels of proficiency.
We can certainly have the expectation that the outcome of world language instruction is proficiency, but we serve our students better when we focus on building proficiency through language performance.