Teach Languages: Checklist for a Proficiency-oriented Classroom

        Teach Languages: Checklist for a Proficiency-oriented Classroom

The internet provides us with more opportunities to learn and teach languages than at any time in history. Did you know that less than 1 percent of Americans are proficient in a language that they studied at school, according The Atlantic? In 2016, there were 110 million users on Duolingo, a top online language platform. 

People want to learn new languages. There are now more native Spanish speakers in the United States than in Spain, creating a clear advantage to being bilingual.

As people who teach languages, we appreciate the value and joy in the study of language for its own sake, too. We know that it gives our students a greater knowledge and awareness of their own language. We also understand that it teaches them about their own culture and cultures other than their own.

The study of language fulfills requirements for entering college and also prepares students for rigorous study. We know that it’s the foundation for further study leading to that ultimate cultural and linguistic proficiency that we strive for in all of our students and programs. The ACTFL Communication standard has earned its rightful place in the center of the ACTFL standards. It is essential to understand how vital this focus is to teach languages.

Many countries, such as Sweden, offer long sequences of language study in their schools, creating bilingual speakers. Many students in the U.S. are not required to take more than a few years of a language. Maximizing the time we have to teach students communicative skills in a language and engage them enough to want to continue their studies in a short period of time is our challenge.

This checklist serves as a framework to teach languages in a proficiency-oriented classroom. 


The target language is the vehicle for instruction. 

We all know how important comprehensible input is. Students are going to be able to acquire language naturally if we make it understandable. Ensuring we teach languages in the target language with comprehensible input for at least 90% of the time at all levels is key.

For example, we might do the calendar every day in our target language in our class. This simple tool can build an understanding of the days, months, numbers up to 31, weather, seasons, in that authentic context.

Class routines, classroom needs and language for classroom survival are other simple examples to deliver instruction at all levels in the target language.  

Can I get a drink of water? for example. Push in your chairs, or Open your book. Those are easy ways to teach language for real-world purposes at the very beginning of language study to provide comprehensible input.

Meaningful, authentic contexts delivered via comprehensible input work. However, a lot of from traditional language programs work, too. We know that learning patterns and being trained in specific techniques to learn vocabulary and grammar and exercises works to help our students become proficient in a new language. Essentially, to move into the Intermediate level sees learners transition from memorization to creation with language.

Consider language learning all of the traditional old school things we do, such as flash cards, verbs, text exercises or mnemonic devices. 

The majority of class time is spent doing activities that build communicative skills.

Language learning plus acquisition is the perfect marriage. Stephen Krashen’s research on these two concepts is quite clear. Use your target language to teach languages, and do that 90% of the time. Think games, role-plays, stories and activities, with communication always being the goal. These contexts naturally incorporate the two concepts.

The other 10% of the time is a fantastic time to spend explaining grammar, rules, and showing students how to memorize vocabulary to give them the tools to be lifelong learners of language, wherever they might be.

Communication is the main focus of class. 

All the materials, tools, and time are there to support communication, and not the other way around. Don’t be a slave to the text and go page by page.

Our textbooks provide us with common vocabulary to learn and understand as well as a common framework within to work, so try to honor and respect them. Those materials are there to help us teach our students to communicate in a new language and to help us have a common set of learning goals.

Time is one of our greatest resources to teach languages. There are times you’ll have to focus on accuracy to help them learn, but consider some of these interactive activities for that 90%.

You might do interactive reading where students read in small groups looking for specific things, or perhaps making questions to ask the other groups. IPAs, information gaps, guest speakers, journalling, conversations, games or surveys using the Language Experience Approach and skits are a but a few ways to build skills with the time you have. 

Members feel comfortable risk-taking in the target language.

Communicative activities are great ways to structure your time to make it interactive and fun.  They also lower affective filter, making learners open to using the new language.

When children acquire a language, we don’t bombard them with rules and corrections. We teach languages by encouraging them to express themselves and provide them with quality input. This encourages them to continue to take risks as they develop their skills. Do the same in your class. It’s unrealistic to expect them to speak perfectly. Expect them to try to communicate.

Students and teachers have awareness of and access to proficiency-oriented assessments and use them regularly.

In order to have a proficiency-oriented classroom, you’ve got to have proficiency-oriented assessments. This starts with performance tasks. 

A task can be as simple as greeting your neighbor, as complicated as talking about the ancestry of your family, with lots of tasks in between there. They could be simple, one-word, two-word or three-word tasks, and can be connected-paragraph length as well.

Giving the students specific tasks to be able to work on and achieve and complete is essential to learning a new language. All of these tasks build up into a proficiency-oriented assessment, like the AAPPL. LinguaFolio and NCSSFL Can-Do lists, allow students to continually grow their skills by working through specific performance tasks in their proficiency range.

Proficiency respects what people CAN do and considers what they CAN’T do as goals to conquer. Proficiency also honors the many different ways that people can attain real-world skills in a language- be it via family, travel or study. The AAPPL from ACTFL is a great resource to measure your students’ proficiency. There are tests available in Arabic, Chinese, ESL (English), French, German, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Hindi, Italian, Japanese and Thai.

Members understand that errors are natural on the road to fluency. Accuracy comes later.

Learners will make many errors before and after they become fluent in a language. Accuracy and refinement come through practice and time.

I think one of the most difficult lessons that I’ve had to learn as a learner and teacher to truly be successful is that learning languages involves a great deal of failing forward. You have to be willing to fail a lot to be able to speak a language fluently. This is really uncomfortable for people who are used to being able to put effort into something and being successful immediately. Before you really get to that ultimate success, you’re going to have to keep muddling through that failure, and it can be a very frustrating experience. They’ll never have that success if they don’t experience all a lot of failure in the language. They’ve got to keep failing forward. Practice to get better. Each task will refine their skills and build their confidence. Making errors during the communicative tasks they are working through will help them understand that mistakes are a normal part of this process. Enough of these experiences over time will give them the confidence to use the language in real life.

Looking for some ways to get native speakers speaking with your students? Check out this article: http://reallifelanguage.com/reallifelanguageblog/2017/02/22/google-apps-language-classroom

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