What’s up with Intermediate?

In a classroom focused on comprehensible input, proficiency levels might seem to be difficult to define. They might not fit the mold set out for us by ACTFL. Many teachers who focus on proficiency and comprehensible input may feel that their students almost seem to bypass the Novice level altogether and spend ages at the Intermediate level. Personally, I feel like Intermediate is all we really need to focus on in a typical high school or middle/high school program in the US. In my classroom, I’d say that most of my students are either pushing toward Intermediate or are fully Intermediate in most skills after 1-3 semesters.

What I’ve realized about the Intermediate level is that it is incredibly MESSY and it lasts FOREVER. For some students, it literally lasts forever. It is often as far as a learner is able to progress, especially without access to an immersion experience. Intermediate learners will often appear to ebb and flow in their abilities. They may seem almost advanced on certain topics with which they are very familiar, and may seem to almost lose ground on their communication skills at other times. Intermediates are no longer relying heavily on a small collection of memorized phrases. They are just beginning to be creative with the language, and will often make mistakes. They may have had exposure to lots of different tenses and moods and language structures, and may be able to use many of those structures. However, one of the hallmarks of an intermediate is being all over the place with their “time markers.” In other words, they may interchangeably use past present and future in seemingly illogical ways, and yet at other times they may almost seem to have control over concepts like preterit and imperfect. Their ability to comprehend will often appear to far exceed their ability to produce language. All of this is normal. Intermediates are a difficult group, and can be hard to pin down and almost impossible to describe.

I think that ACTFL’s proficiency levels are helpful in that they help us have realistic expectations for our intermediate students. Sometimes we get dazzled by what we see some of our students doing and we forget that those superstars are atypical. We also need to remember that every student develops language proficiency at his or her own pace, and there are many factors at play.

Let’s take a look at some of ACTFL’s descriptions of Intermediates in each of the 4 skills and frame them according to our CI-based classroom environments.

Intermediate Listeners (according to ACTFL):

  • Simple, sentence-length speech
  • Familiar topics
  • Highly contextualized
  • Repetition/redundancy
  • Paraphrasing
  • High-frequency vocabulary
  • Controlled listening environment
  • No “curveballs”
  • Gaps in understanding from limited vocabulary
  • May sometimes understand more advanced texts if context is familiar

What kinds of listening are you exposing your intermediate students to in class? In my classroom, we do storytelling, listen to audio recordings of novels from Fluency Matters, we start each class with our “song of the week,” we do class discussions, which is a lot of me talking and asking simple questions to the whole class or to individual students, and I do short authentic listening “texts” such as commercials with a limited focus. In Spanish 3, I also begin using the series El Internado: Laguna Negra. We watch that series once a week. I play the show with the Spanish audio and Spanish subtitles, pausing frequently to define, paraphrase, summarize and ask questions.

I provide my students with a highly contextualized and thematic learning environment. Our themes stem from the novels we read and from El Internado. As the teacher, I provide lots of repetition and paraphrasing. When we are working with an authentic audio or video text, most of the students’ input still comes from me as we “discuss” the text.

Intermediate Readers (according to ACTFL):

  • Simple, predictable texts
  • Context clues
  • Familiar topics
  • Non-complex texts
  • High-frequency vocabulary
  • Sentences and strings of sentences
  • Simple in terms of chronology/sequencing
  • Simple description/narration
  • Misunderstandings are common
  • Personal interest may help
  • Ability may vary greatly from Intermediate low to high

My level 2 students primarily read novels from Fluency Matters and non-fiction informational texts created for learners (either texts I create myself or text taken from the teacher’s guide of the novel we are reading). The novels are ideal for Intermediate learners because they are easy to read, high interest, and use high frequency and repetitive vocabulary. I tend to differentiate quite a bit with our reading. I allow students who are ready to read independently to do so. Other students prefer to read in pairs or small groups, using each other for support as they decode the text. And other students prefer to read with me, asking questions and getting help as we read together. I also tend to intersperse our reading with verbal questions and discussion.

Intermediate Writers (according to ACTFL):

  • Can create with language
  • Basic vocabulary and structures
  • Understandable to a sympathetic reader
  • Simple summaries
  • Familiar topics
  • Paragraph length
  • Inconsistent use of time markers
  • Numerous, perhaps significant errors
  • May use repetitive structure
  • Basic errors in grammar, word choice, punctuation, spelling

In my classroom we do a “timed writing” every 1-2 weeks. I set the timer for 10 minutes and give students a topic. The topic is usually very general and relates to whatever novel we are reading or some other topic we’ve recently read and/or discussed. I collect the writing and make comments back to the students on the CONTENT of their writing. I do not correct errors because research shows that error correction accomplishes nothing except to give the students anxiety. I encourage students to take risks, get creative, and share opinions. Since there is no penalty for mistakes, they do.

For students who are on the lower end of Intermediate, they tend to simply write summaries or strings of sentences based on information they recall from the text they’ve studied. Intermediate Mid and High students tend to get more creative and expansive with their thoughts in their writing. There is no penalty or reward, but as a teacher it gives me insight.

Intermediate Speakers (according to ACTFL):

  • Can create with language
  • Familiar topics
  • Can ask simple questions
  • Can handle straightforward, uncomplicated situations
  • Sentences and strings of sentences
  • Understandable to a sympathetic listener
  • Inconsistent use of time markers
  • Numerous, perhaps significant errors
  • May use repetitive structure
  • May have breakdowns in vocabulary
  • False cognates and literal translations; interference from L1
  • Pauses and self-correction
  • May struggle to answer direct questions

Speaking is the most difficult and stressful of the 4 skills for most learners. I do not grade participation, but rather I encourage participation. I try to engage students in real-life conversation and provide interesting contexts to speak about. It is important to remember that speaking and writing do not create language acquisition. In my opinion, the productive skills serve 2 major purposes in the classroom. 1) Assessment. Teachers can evaluate speaking ability and writing ability to gauge the acquisition that is taking place. And 2) Satisfaction. Being able to communicate in the target language is a satisfying experience for students. It is something to celebrate!

So…what do YOU think makes intermediates so special? How do YOU approach intermediates? Do you agree with ACTFL’s description of the intermediate level? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I will be presenting at iFLT 2017 in Denver on the topic “The Wonderful World of Intermediates.” If you are coming to iFLT I’d love to see you! If you are unable to make it to iFLT, please join Carol, Kristy, Carrie, Cindy, and Nelly for our follow-up FOMO (Fear of missing out) webinar series and experience the best of iFLT from the comfort of home! 6 webinars for only $100! Plus you will have full access to view and re-view all 6 webinars until September 30!

Kristy Placido is the editor of CI Peek. She is the author of several novels for Spanish learners and presents workshops for teachers on teaching with comprehensible input. She has been using TPRS and comprehensible input approaches in her own classroom since 1998. Check out her blog at kplacido.com and follow her on twitter and facebook!

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