Proficiency 101

Proficiency 101

Proficiency? You mean I shouldn’t be basing everything on achievement? But, my students can already conjugate all their verbs and recite mindless lists of vocabulary out of context like language learning zombie-bots! Is this not sufficient to function in a target language environment? I think maybe I need to change my ways. How do I explain this to those that have a vested interest in my students’ learning, otherwise known as stakeholders?

To students, this is a no brainer. They want to be able to do things with language. They want to tell you what they like, and many times what they don’t like. They are curious and want to ask questions to get to the bottom of things. They want to tell little Susie that they think she’s pretty. They are dying to know how to be funny and poke fun at their friends. These are all functional aspects of language that are proficiency orientated. It’s of no use to make fun of your best friend in the cafeteria by rattling off a list of fruits and vegetables you’ve memorized. For students, the lean towards proficiency over achievement is natural and necessary. They want to use language to communicate effectively, or be proficient. I often explain to students using analogies, such as levels in a video game or an ice cream cone. In order to get to the top level, or add that cherry you need to have the tools to get there. We learn together that those tools are functions of language, and that knowing words only supports those functions. I remind students that they are speaking at the word or short phrasal level, especially if it’s something they are capable of saying at a higher level. The class becomes conscious of this to the point where I can ask if a student is adding that cherry or not. I’m more interested in what my students can do with that language, than what they know. It’s quality over quantity. If Johnny knows 100 words about sports, but can’t put them together to convey an understandable message, his focus is not on proficiency and he will have difficulty communicating in the real world. Students understand this quickly and easily through fun analogies and activities.

Now, on to the adults. It is the adults, including you, that have trouble with this idea. We learned language in a certain way, and it’s hard to think outside the box and embrace a proficiency-based approach. For parents and guardians, you can explain until you are blue in the face, but seeing is believing. Anytime I invite a doubtful parent to my classroom to join in the fun, they quickly realize the effects of proficiency-based teaching. They leave in disbelief that they learned how to say a few things that they could immediately use. It’s liberating and exciting. It’s a great idea to host a language night at your school for parents. Invite the students to join and actually teach a class to the parents of your students. These nights are great bonding experiences for the school community and also serve to drive home the message of proficiency. A short talk about proficiency and then a session to demonstrate works very well.

Administrators can sometimes be a tough crowd. They are always concerned that you are catering to the latest buzzwords in their observation rubrics. They often have no idea what’s going on in a classroom where the teacher is speaking 90% or more in the target. Sadly, some request more English and then mark you off for not employing high order thinking strategies. I’ve found the best way to communicate proficiency to administration is through keeping them in the loop on events, getting them involved and stopping them dead in their tracks with data. Data doesn’t lie, and if they have proficient students that are scoring well and providing them with positive data, your job is done. Clear
communication is extremely important to the success and wellbeing of any program. Keep your administrators in the loop. Invite them into your classroom. Force them to participate in TPR activities and leave excited that they now know what the kids are saying.

I said it once and I’ll say it again, quality over quantity. It’s not about how much your students know, but what they can do with it. Focus on language functions, teach chunks of useful language that are interesting to your students, and provide plenty of opportunity to practice, use and show off what they know.