ACTFL Proficiency
and the
National Standards
Vanderbilt University
Center for Second Language Studies
Virginia M. Scott
November 11, 2011
Overview of the session
Historical context for our discussion
Proficiency-oriented instruction and
the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines
Communicative Language Teaching
(CLT) and the National Standards for
Foreign Language Learning in the 21st
Audiolingual Method (ALM)
ca. 1950-1980
ALM = combination of Army Method and behaviorist
drill (rote learning)
use of language laboratories
The first language lab was installed
at Louisiana State U. in 1947.
Proficiency-oriented instruction
ca. 1980-2000
The idea of “proficiency” was founded on new understandings in
about the nature of communicative competence.
 Canale & Swain’s (1983) model includes 4 components:
1. grammatical: mastery of linguistic code
2. sociolinguistic: knowledge of social and cultural rules
3. discourse: ability to connect sentences coherently
4. strategic: ability to use verbal and non-verbal communication
A proficiency-oriented approach
develops communicative competence:
“It is now generally accepted that proficiency in another
language includes much more than knowledge of the
grammar and vocabulary, or linguistic competence. It
includes the ability to say the appropriate thing in a
certain social situation (sociolinguistic competence);
the ability to start, enter, contribute to, and end a
conversation and the ability to do this in a consisted
and coherent manner (discourse competence); and the
ability to communicate effectively and repair problems
caused by communication breakdowns (strategic
competence).” (Brandl, 2008, p. 278)
Principles of
proficiency-oriented instruction
Focus on what learners can DO and not just what
they know.
Provide rich, authentic input (oral and written)
Organize lesson around 4-skills
Avoid a focus on grammar and accuracy
Provide opportunities for learners to USE the
ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (1986)
Four levels for assessing speaking, listening,
reading, writing proficiency:
Novice = words, phrases
Intermediate = sentences
Advanced = paragraphs
Superior = extended discourse
ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines
The guidelines represent a hierarchy of observable behaviors, or
performance, in speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
Each description is a representative, not an exhaustive, sample of a
particular range of ability.
These guidelines identify stages of proficiency, as opposed to
achievement. They do not measure what individuals achieve
through specific classroom instruction, but assess what individuals
can and cannot do.
The levels of proficiency are designed for global assessment and are
not related to where, when, or how the language was learned or
Oral Proficiency Interview
1) Warm-up
Puts interviewee at ease
Reacquaints him/her with L2
Tester builds database (context, areas of interest and experiences)
2) Level checks
Shows what s/he can do (narrate & describe in major time frames;
hypothesize; express opinions; persuade)
Identifies functions/content
Finds highest level of sustained performance = floor
3) Probes
Shows what s/he cannot do
Identifies the areas that result in linguistic breakdown
Finds lowest level at which performance can no longer be sustained =
4) Wind-down
Returns interviewee to level at which s/he functions accurately; leaves
interviewed with a sense of accomplishment and positive feelings.
Communicative LanguageTeaching
ca. 2000 - present
CLT in an approach based on a socio-cultural understanding of
learning. In particular, it addresses several important issues that
were not addressed in the proficiency-oriented approach.
Use tasks as organizing principle for teaching
Promote cooperative and collaborative learning
Focus on meaning before form
Respect affective factors of learning (anxiety, motivation,
learning style, etc.)
The “weave” of curricular elements
Language system * Cultural knowledge * Communication strategies
Critical thinking skills * Learning strategies * Technology
“The Standards (1999) grew out of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act ... and
represent an effort to go beyond a limited four-skills view of language education,
proposing in the process to change radically current teaching paradigms.[...]
Rather than seeing language study as a fundamentally skill-oriented, selfcontained enterprise that only tangentially includes culture in terms of practical
competencies, the Standards encourage language instruction that focuses on its
interdisciplinary implications and ability to influence learners in terms of
developing an increased awareness of self and others and in terms of
encouraging deep cognitive processing skills”(13).
Jean Marie Schultz. 2001. The Gordian Knot: Language Literature, and Critical Thinking. In SLA and the
Literature Classroom, edited by Virginia Scott and Holly Tucker. Boston: MA, Heinle.
Standards for Foreign Language Learning
in the 21st Century
1. Communication: communicate
in languages other than
2. Cultures: gain knowledge and
understanding of other
3. Connections: connect with
other disciplines
4. Comparisons: develop insight
into the nature of language
and culture
5. Communities: participate in
multilingual communities at
home and around the world
Arabic, Chinese, Classical languages,
French, German, Italian, Japanese,
Portuguese, Russian, Spanish
Standard 1
Communicate in Languages Other Than English
1.1: Students engage in conversations, provide and obtain
information, express feelings and emotions, and exchange
(interpersonal mode)
1.2: Students understand and interpret written and spoken
language on a variety of topics.
(interpretive mode)
1.3: Students present information, concepts, and ideas to
an audience of listeners or readers on a variety of topics.
(presentational mode)
Standard 2
Gain Knowledge and Understanding of Other Cultures
2.1: Students demonstrate an understanding of the
relationship between the practices and perspectives of the
culture studied.
2.2: Students demonstrate an understanding of the
relationship between the products and perspectives of the
culture studied.
Standard 3
Connect with Other Disciplines and Acquire Information
3.1: Students reinforce and further their knowledge of
other disciplines through the foreign language.
3.2: Students acquire information and recognize the
distinctive viewpoints that are only available through the
foreign language and its cultures.
Standard 4
Develop Insight into the Nature of Language and Culture
4.1: Students demonstrate understanding of the nature of
language through comparisons of the language studied
and their own.
4.2: Students demonstrate understanding of the concept
of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and
their own.
Standard 5
Participate in Multilingual Communities at Home & Around the World
Standard 5.1: Students use the language both within and
beyond the school setting.
Standard 5.2: Students show evidence of becoming lifelong learners by using the language for personal
enjoyment and enrichment.
Define goals in terms of
developing literacy
“What I mean by “literacy”… is more than reading and writing
as skills or as prescribed patterns of thinking. It is about
relationships between readers, writers, texts, culture, and
language learning. It is about the variable cognitive and social
practices of taking and making textual meaning that provide
students access to new communities outside the classroom,
across geographical and historical boundaries. It involves an
awareness of how acts of reading, writing, and conversation
create and shape meanings, not merely transfer them from
one individual or group to another. It is precisely because
literacy is not monolithic, but variable and multiple, tied to the
various sociocultural practices of a given society, that is of key
importance in our teaching of language and culture .”
(Kern 2003, p. 3)
In language specific groups, look at the
standards for your target language.
Klaus Brandl’s 8 principles of
communicative language teaching
1) Use tasks as an organizing principle (rather than
grammar topics)
Ex: Talk about your family; organize a dinner;
plan a trip
2) Promote learning by doing
3) Input needs to be rich and authentic; maximize use
of the target language
4) Input needs to be meaningful and comprehensible
Klaus Brandl’s 8 principles of
communicative language teaching
5) Promote cooperative and collaborative learning
6) Focus on form
explicit grammar teaching:
deductive = rule  example
inductive = example  rule
7) Provide error corrective feedback
positive vs. negative feedback
8) Recognize and respect affective factors of learning
(anxiety, motivation, attitude, etc.)
Brandl, K. (2008). Communicative language teaching in action: Putting
Principles to Work. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kern, R. G. (2003). Literacy and advanced foreign language learning:
Rethinking the curriculum. In H. Byrnes & H. H. Maxim (Eds.),
Advanced foreign language learning: A challenge to college
programs (pp. 2-18). AAUSC Issues in Language Program
Direction. Boston, MA: Heinle.

ACTFL Proficiency and the National Standards