When we enter our classrooms, we encounter students who will be superstar language students. These anomalies are easily able to learn language no matter what style of teaching, what text type, or minutes in the class hour. We also find students with different strengths, weaknesses, learning styles, ears for music, ears for accent… and students who stroriginal-2896575-1uggle. What we do NOT find is a set level of proficiency that can be achieved after a set number of hours. There are just too many variables.

This is of critical importance because if we don’t want to leave the majority of our students behind, we can’t teach to the fastest processors as if they were the norm. They are not. We must look at what actual proficiency is and what influences it. Below are 5 things that blew my mind when I began to learn about and teach toward a proficiency-driven classroom.

  1. Intermediate High: This proficiency level means that a student can write simple paragraphs on a variety of unrehearsed topics, has a broad vocabulary, and can talk in various time frames. The student still makes mistakes in these time frames but can easily be understood by those accustomed to language learners.

WHAT? Mistakes? Intermediate High is the norm for students graduating a 4 year college program without having studied abroad and I was expecting my sophomores to make NO mistakes using preterite and imperfect… My goals were seriously off!

More than just the errors, did you see that line about “has a broad vocabulary”??? Some of my students are only intermediate high in their L1, English! They are still trying to develop the vocabulary and conversational skills necessary to be Advanced Low level speakers. If they aren’t there yet in English, how can I take them there in Spanish? I had to seriously re-evaluate how long this “Intermediate” proficiency lasts! (It’s a long time, by the way.)

  1. Novice Low: This proficiency level is where our level 1 and 2 students start almost every topic. They don’t KNOW the words and phrases necessary to contribute to a class discussion until they have heard them in context a LOT… so they begin by replying back to us with single words and our chunks of structure. This is natural! We ask lower order questions first and then progress to questions that require them to reply with deeper language as we have provided them the necessary input to be able to do this!I failed here because I presented a grammar or vocabulary lesson and immediately expected my students to be able to use it to communicate with each other. While they did muddle through, the results I have seen through delaying this until after they’ve been exposed to the key structures have been impressive. They are creative and clever! And they make mistakes… and I love those mistakes.
  1. Novice High/Intermediate Low: This borderline is where our national average has hovered for years… See this study. Think of whose scores are reflected in those study scores??? Who stays for 4 years of Spanish in many programs? Only the highest achievers… So of our very best who muddle all the way through 4-5 years of our language programs, nationally they were only averaging Novice High/Intermediate Low? Making simple sentences?

The good news is that the level seems to be moving up. The better news… In classrooms with a heavy focus on comprehensible input, more students (both slow and fast processors) are staying enrolled for four years. In spite of these growing retention rates, the scores STILL seem to be moving upward. So not only are we helping them become more proficient by attacking language education from a different angle, we are also spreading that exposure to language across a broader audience.

  1. Proficiency by level: I used to think about my classroom goals in terms of “all Spanish 1 students should be able to…” but I’ve realized that different things click for different students at different times. Teaching for proficiency allows me to embrace student growth on an individual basis. I’m amazed by how encouraging this is to them! Grading with a proficiency based rubric allows me to focus on what is RIGHT a lot more than what is wrong. What could be more uplifting for us as teachers AND for our students?
  1. John Legend is a smart guy: In his song “All of Me”, he says All of me loves all of you, all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections… This is how we need to look at our students’ budding language skills. With eyes of love. If we tear them down, they will be afraid to be creative. If we don’t do grammar in context (notice I didn’t say we shouldn’t do grammar because they have to be FIRM on present/past/future to hit Intermediate High/Advanced Low) we will lose the students who don’t think in that box of deconstructing and reconstructing language. If we don’t embrace mistakes, we will never see them stay in class long enough to become proficient. I STILL make mistakes and I’ve been a fluent speaker for more than half my life. Heck, I still make mistakes in English and I am a proficient native speaker… It is reality.

So take some time to get familiar with the ACTFL proficiency descriptors and ask yourself what this means for your expectations in the classroom. Stop yourself as you grade and ask “am I loving their perfect imperfections?” Going through this messy, intermediate phase is the only way to grow into a fluent speaker. Who better than us to shepherd them along the path?


Carrie Toth is a Spanish teacher from Illinois with over 20 years of teaching experience. She was the 2014 Central States Teacher of the Year. Carrie has authored La Calaca Alegre, La hija del sastre, and Bianca Nieves y los 7 toritos. Her new level 3 novel Vector is now available also! She blogs at somewheretoshare.com and can be found on Twitter @senoraCMT.

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