What is a Proficiency-Based Teacher?

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Over the past few days I’ve been honored to be part of a series of exciting Twitter conversations about what it means to be a proficiency-based language teacher. The conversation all started with this thought-provoking post.  Like many of the others who’ve contributed to this conversation, I don’t feel that my own methodologies fit neatly into either of the categories that the writer described. In fact, I disagree with her suggestion that “it helps us communicate better and more efficiently about diverse practices if we can categorize teaching styles.” It was clear from the responses  that the professionals in the language teaching community are committed to finding common ground and learning from each other.  Although I am not nearly as far along my proficiency-oriented journey as many of my distinguished colleagues, I’m thrilled to join the conversation by sharing my current understandings of what it means to be a “proficiency-based” teacher.

On the most basic level, being proficiency-based means that I make my instructional decisions based on what I believe will improve my students’ proficiency. However, this definition is not as straightforward as it seems. As the ACTFL Performance Descriptors state, “Proficiency is the ability to use language in real world situations in a spontaneous interaction and non-rehearsed context and in a manner acceptable and appropriate to native speakers of the language.”  Therefore, as a classroom teacher, it is only performance (“language ability that has been practiced and is within familiar contexts and content areas”) that I am actually able to assess. Nevertheless, I’m not quite ready to begin referring to myself as a “performance-based” teacher.  While I might not be assessing actual proficiency, my goal is to prepare my students to prepare my students to function in target language environments. As ACTFL states, “instruction needs to focus on real world-like tasks with the anticipation that learners will be prepared to do the same outside the instructional setting (as in a demonstration of proficiency).”

Although I hadn’t heard the term “task-based” used to refer to proficiency-oriented teachers, I can see why Martina chose it.  ACTFL talks a lot about tasks when describing best practices for instruction and assessment. For example, they recommend that “Educators should provide language learners with practice of a variety of tasks related to the curriculum. In this way, learners will be ready to apply these elements in the context of the new tasks they will face on the performance.” Based on my understandings of these Performance Descriptors, the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, and the ACTFL Can-Do Statements, I have come to believe that well-designed tasks can lead to increased proficiency.  Therefore, I use the following types of tasks in my instructional practice.

Interpretive Tasks.  Much of my planning involves designing tasks in which my students will interpret a written or recorded text.  Because I am preparing my students for the “real world” these texts are nearly always authentic–created and produced for native speakers by native speakers.  While the reliance on authentic texts continues to be a point of divergence between my fabulous “Comprehensible Input” colleagues and those of us that are “Proficiency-based,” for now I’m convinced that using these resources is vital. I believe that my students must practice the skills required to interpret a text in which they don’t know all of the words.  As with other language skills, many students also need to develop a certain level of confidence to complete these tasks.  Practicing the interpretation of authentic resources in class both develops the skills of using context clues, identifying cognates, making inferences, etc. and builds the students’ confidence in their ability to do so. By choosing texts that are appropriate to the students’ proficiency level and then designing tasks that allow students to successfully demonstrate their comprehension, I ensure that my students are able to interpret increasingly complex texts on a wider variety of topics.

Interpersonal Tasks. As a proficiency-based teacher, I believe that students can increase their ability to communicate in this mode by practicing the skills required to negotiate meaning with another individual.  For the novice students, this means lots of class time is spent practicing the questions and answers that they will use during the performance assessment.  I try to create a variety of contexts in which these questions and answers are used, so that the students are never rehearsing the actual conversation that will take place during the assessment.  As the students’ proficiency increases, more open-ended tasks allow the students to practice creating with the language on a wider variety of topics.

Presentational Tasks.  After my students have been exposed to new vocabulary and structures in the authentic materials that they read and use this language to communicate with others, they complete and written and/or spoken presentational task. Depending on their proficiency level, the students may write (or say) short sentences or paragraph-length discourse.

Although my current practices seem to fit with the “task-based” methodology that Martina described, I found that many of the descriptors she used did not describe my teaching.  For example, she indicates that proficiency-based teachers use English to teach culture.  In my classroom, it is the authentic resources that I choose that enable my students to develop new understandings about the target culture.  She also mentions that the infinitive is the “default form” in a proficiency-based classroom.  My students see all types of verb forms in the materials they read and use the forms that they need to express their meaning on the instructional tasks.  With my early novice learners, this means that most of their responses use the first person and they add the second person as they begin to ask questions. Lastly, she describes task-based teaching as providing broad and shallow input.  While it’s not clear to me exactly what she means by this, the gains that my students have made in their language performance reassures me that the input they receive may be deep enough to lead to increased proficiency.

While I didn’t agree with many of Martina’s assumptions about what those of us who refer to ourselves as “proficiency-based” do in the classroom, I sure am glad she wrote this post. Her professionalism in responding to her readers and openness about her own growth is inspirational.  I am looking forward to continuing to learn from her and from the other great educators that have joined in the discussion about best practices in the language classroom!

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