Assessing Proficiency and Providing Feedback

SCOLT is definitely my favorite new conference. It is like ACTFL, but I can find my way around and recognize people. Take ACTFL and take away 5000 people and you have SCOLT: All the same kinds of presenters (Including me!) and ideas being promoted, but in a way that is more manageable.

For me, SCOLT was all about proficiency:

  • How do I get the students from one proficiency level to another (for me, mostly novice to intermediate)
  • How do I assess proficiency
  • How can I quickly and effectively give feedback?

I didn’t know that going in, but it was definitely a theme that I followed around the sessions of the conference. I will spend the next few posts discussing these things and how they will be implemented in my own classroom framework.

How do I move students from one proficiency level to the next?

I went to a workshop given by Paul Sandrock (@psandrock), who is a former president of ACTFL and currently the ACTFL Director of Education. It was all about getting students from performance to proficiency and how to get novices to reach up into the their next proficiency level. I didn’t have the vocabulary or expertise on the proficiency levels to really use them to describe my students or to figure out how to use them. I didn’t have a good working understanding of what they are, so how could I use them?

But now I do.

Novice level is all about memorized language. Novices are parrots, repeating what they hear. As Paul Sandrock and Thomas Sauer both stated: “Novices are full of answers waiting for the right questions.”

Intermediates, on the other hand, are peeking out from behind the memorized language wall. In the intermediate low level, they are using the memorized language that they have internalized and are beginning to creating with it. Additionally, they are not just reacting anymore, but asking their own questions.

So the question becomes: How do I get the students from novice into intermediate? How do I get the students to create with language and how can I get them to keep conversations going by asking more questions?

Answer: Always be looking at the next level. By that, I mean to keep an eye on the ACTFL Can-Do Statements. Once they can reach the novice benchmarks, start planning on how to get them to the next. Give the novice level students lots of input and phrases that they would use as intermediates—question words, transition words, phrases like “I agree,” “I disagree,” “How is it possible that…,” etc. Basically, give them the phrases to start internalizing the strategies you will be teaching them to move beyond the parrot stage.

Remember that Novice learners can’t really interact with each other because they can only react to input from an interlocutor, they can’t really produce original language. That’s why if we give them the strategies and phrases to begin to talk to others on their own, we can foster more student-student interactions and get them to move beyond the novice level.

What would this look like in my TPRS classes?

So all my TPRS friends out there are reading what I wrote above about getting the students to speak (aka forcing output) and are probably spitting coffee all over their computer screens. The whole idea of TPRS is to get students to proficiency in the most natural way possible: Input until the kids start producing. I am all for this, but at the same time, I feel like my students are ready to begin their output journey. They have had a lot of CI in the last year and a half and are anxious to get the language from their heads to their mouths. I also find it to be beneficial to get students comfortable with being in the uncomfortable position of speaking to others in the target language.

I know that focusing on output in the classroom will not lead to true proficiency. I get that. I understand that performance and proficiency are not the same thing. At the same time, I learned at the conference that things learned for use in performance activities (output activities with strict parameters and lots of support posted around the room) can become internalized in the same way that input can be.

In the realm of writing, we do timed writings and retells to assess our students in TPRS classes. I am thinking of applying my new deeper knowledge of proficiency levels to direct how I assess this output. I am not going to take off points for the grammatical rules that students break. I will draw students’ attention to their errors and help them to correct them. I will help them to get to the next level in their output all while telling stories and circling and doing movietalks and all of the other activities that I have learned how to do as a teacher in the TPRS world. So don’t think I’m abandoning my beloved TPRS to go to back to another type of teaching from the past. I will continue to be forward thinking and focusing on acquisition and proficiency.

Assessing students’ proficiency

Another thing I learned (or that I inferred, you could say) from the conference is that my assessment tools are really lacking. With the kind of assessment I am doing now, it is very difficult to let the kids know what they can do to improve. Enter Thomas Sauer (@tmsaue1) and Bethanie Drew (@lovemysummer). Both of them presented on how to use rubrics and provide feedback to students in a positive way that emphasizes their movement along the proficiency continuum.

At Thomas Sauer’s presentation, I learned about using rubrics and about what makes rubrics useful. Firstly, no number ranges! There is no reason that rubrics can’t use the proficiency levels as the criteria. This lets the kids know exactly where they are on the proficiency continuum for each assessment. They will know that on such and such interpretive assignment, they are at Intermediate Low and on such and such interpersonal assignment, they are at Novice Mid. This becomes positive for the students because they can see the requirements for the next proficiency level. Rather than seeing that they lost points for only including 3 verbs instead of 5 (which they already know because they did the assignment), they can see where their proficiency is and the exact kinds of things that they need to be doing to move to the next level.

These levels can be tied to letter grades, but Mr. Sauer was reluctant to endorse that, even while saying that it may be a necessity in some places. Even though it isn’t ideal, it is much more valid than the, “I can understand what you wrote, you get an A” style of grading that I have been using (for lack of a better alternative) since I started using TPRS.

This leads into the other thing I learned about rubrics and proficiency in general: Kids will be all over the place depending on the kind of mode they are using. Someone may show high proficiency in presentational mode (because of the ability to revise and practice the presentation) and show low proficiency in interpersonal mode (because they are nervous in 1 on 1 conversations with others). The only way to know where they are is to use these rubrics consistently.

Providing Feedback

Bethanie Drew’s presentation on “Fortifying with Feedback” was great because it helped me to see how I can do what she calls compassionate assessment. The idea is that we focus on the strengths of the students’ work, rather than marking up their papers with red ink. We can focus on what was good, then give them concrete ideas on what they can work on to do an even better job next time. instead of saying, “You did A, B, and C wrong,” we can say something more compassionate, like, “I like A, so keep that up. To do a better job on B, why not try ___, ___, and ___?”

SCOLT was so inspiring and there is so much to unpack (both physically from my suitcase and metaphorically from all the great sessions I attended). I will be working on that for a while, now that I am back in the classroom and able to throw more ideas into my teaching repertoire.

As always, thank you to all of you out there who share your ideas through conferences and blogs and tweets!

Creating Characters


In the TPRS classroom, it’s easy to get lots of repetitions in the 3rd person. My kids can describe the details of another person pretty well:

“El chico es alto.”

“La chica tiene 17 años.”

“Chris está triste.”

“Mi amigo está feliz.”

But when I ask them about themselves, they generally respond in one of 3 ways:

  1. Respond in Spanglish – “I am feliz”
  2. Use the 3rd person verbs that they have acquired – “yo está feliz”
  3. Look at me like I’m from Mars – “are you talking to me? Oh gosh, what do I do? Ahhh!!!”

So what to do? How can I get them to start talking about themselves accurately?

Continue reading

Summer is Coming…And It’s Time For A Tune-Up

Summer is usually a time for re-evaluating the work I’ve done throughout the year. In summers past, I have spent the whole time completely re-working the curriculum based on whatever interesting things I find from the awesome blogs I read and teachers I follow on Twitter. This year, though, will be quite different. Rather than reworking the entire thing, I will be working on small parts. The main style of instruction and the things that I will be presenting in the coming year are not going to change very much, if at all, but there are individual parts that need tweaking. Unlike in past years, I will not be throwing away everything I have. I will not be starting again from scratch. It’s a good feeling.

Tuning the Engine (aka Curriculum) Instead of Rebuilding It

The only thing that will be getting a major overhaul is assessment. I’ll spend the summer looking at what worked from the year and what didn’t. There was a lot lacking this year, if I’m totally honest, in the way that I assessed the students’ proficiency. I know that they can write and I know that they can do all right in a very basic conversation, but I’ll be using the time off in the summer to find ways to really figure out what the kids are able to do with their language. 

My goals for the summer are to figure out the best ways to incorporate proficiency assessment. I have the Can-Do Statements and Standards and everything else I will need to build better rubrics and informal assessments. I need to have more than just a gut-feeling about where the students are. I plan to know very well where they are. If I had to break down the students by proficiency level, I’d say, broadly:

  • Novice-probably about 65% of the students
  • Intermediate-Probably about 30% of the students
  • Advanced-around 5% of students

But I have no way of really knowing. That’s where proficiency assessment comes in. Hopefully by this time next year, I will have a much better idea of where the students are. This is my goal and I will be working through the summer to figure out the best ways to find out.


This has been the year of results. Kids in middle school could sit down and write stories from scratch.  4th and 5th graders were writing bullet point summaries of stories that we read in Spanish. They had never been able to do this before. CI instruction methods are a completely different approach to learning a language (not learning, acquisition). The fact of the matter, though, is that regardless of what the classroom looks like (hectic, chaotic, silly), the kids can speak so much more and understand so much more than they could in past years. It’s kind of staggering. (And I’m not even very good at what I’m doing…I can only imagine what it will be like after a few years more practice!)

There were so many great things about this year, but there are so many ways that they can be even better. These results are confidence-boosters. As they say, success is the best motivator. This year, more than any other, I am feeling very successful.

The Key: Find What Works for You

Maybe all this confidence is getting to my head, but I feel like I can tell you what the key to success and confidence in the classroom is: Find what works for you. If you are having trouble with your curriculum, think about ways to change it. Go to a conference, attend a webinar, chat with us on Thursdays and Saturdays during #langchat on Twitter. This answer seems obvious, like a cop-out, but if you really think about it, usually the simplest answers are the best. That being said, it is a simple answer, but an incredibly hard task. Be open to new things and make sure that you have fun. If we aren’t having fun with our work, why do it? I found TPRS and I have run away with it. It has been a home run for me and my students’ success. It won’t necessarily work for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something out there for everyone.

The Trouble With Translators

I have a confession, something that might shock the other language teachers out there: I like online translators, especially Google. I think that (when used correctly) they can be great tools. They can help students to understand difficult passages and they can help them to double check their own work, among a host of other useful purposes.

But as much as I like them, I do have an issue. It’s not that I think that they will steal my job as a language educator and it’s not that I am afraid that the students will “cheat” by using a translator and try to pass off the work as their own. The biggest issue that I have with translators is that I don’t have any desire to know what a translator knows. On the other hand, I NEED to know what my students know.

Some context:

My Middle School students are currently working on final exam projects. The project: write a story in Spanish. Narrate story over an original animation created by you and a partner in class. Record and edit on iPad. Present completed video to class. Get good grade (because it has been labored over and corrected as much as is needed to be as near to perfect as possible).

The students work on rough drafts in class and turn them in when they are finished. Then, we can work together to correct them while everyone else works on the art and/or filming of their projects. The idea was beautiful: I will have a document of what the kids can actually do on their own in the rough draft and I will have a corrected copy for them to present and save for posterity.

But…There has been a problem. Several of my students are chronic overachievers. Normally, this is a good trait for them to have. They are discerning in their work and they don’t turn in work that is in any way incomplete or imperfect. They turn in quality work each time. They also are VERY nervous about turning in work that is not perfect. This leads them to do something that can be considered cheating in most professional language teaching circles: writing in English and translating with an online translator.

This is academically dishonest, true, but more than anything else, it is frustrating. It goes completely against what I have been trying to build all year. I have spent the year telling the kids that they will write in Spanish like elementary school students and that there will be errors and the text will be choppy and unsophisticated. And I have spent the year telling them that this is exactly what I expect for success! This is not only what I expect, it’s what I am hoping for. It shows me that progress is being made. I have seen the kids progress a huge amount this year using TCI methods and TPRS. There is no way that they could have done half the things they can currently do without it. At the same time, their work is messy and filled with errors—the kinds of errors that students going from novice to intermediate usually make.

Translators are great and can be a really wonderful tool, but they don’t replace the language inside a person’s head. Sure, they can (sometimes) produce grammatically correct writing, but they can’t do what a real person can do and that is where they are limited: they aren’t the Universal Translator from Star Trek, they aren’t the Babel Fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide. They are no replacement for a real person’s language use.

For the majority of the students who have turned in work that hasn’t been machine translated, the errors are almost always limited to the following: right word, wrong conjugation/form or wrong translation from the Spanish-English dictionary (side note, my favorite false translation from a dictionary is to say reloj for watch, as in “Quiero reloj una película”-I got this error once when I taught at the college level and I got it once this year and it makes me smile every time and I get to talk about how to use dictionaries for finding translations). These are the errors that the students have been producing all year and they have been steadily improving with more and more input.

When reviewing work, students tend to focus on their errors–they see a lot of different colored ink on their papers and immediately freak out. The fact is, though, that the errors above don’t really get in the way of comprehensibility. I can understand their stories. I am amazed by what they can do, but I have trouble conveying that to them (somehow telling them this to their faces doesn’t really translate into them understanding that they are doing a great job…Middle schoolers…what can ya do?)

Ultimately, I don’t want beautiful or perfect final essays. I want them messy and filled with errors because that’s how the students write. I don’t want them to have great grammar, I want them to be themselves, errors and all. Using translators is convenient and getting help from family members and friends is very nice, but online translators and family members don’t attend my classes.

Not even taking into account the issue of cheating/academic dishonesty, when students allow someone else to do their work, I don’t get a chance to see what that student can really do. I don’t get the opportunity to asses the student’s work, I get to assess the helper’s work. It gives me absolutely no indication of what the student is able to do. And that is the real trouble with translators (both machine and human).

Promoting Student Success, Pt. 4: No One Does Poorly in My Class

The fourth part in the ongoing series about how I can encourage success and not set students (and myself) up for failure.

Student progress in a language is a very individual thing. Different kids who have had the same amount of comprehensible input might have significantly different levels of proficiency. This is just a part of language acquisition. As language teachers (and as teachers, in general), we must be willing to explain things differently for different students or to give alternate assessments that will allow students to show their individual proficiency. Kids who have not mastered all of the things we have discussed in class are not going to fail because they are on a different mental time-table than my course pacing.

If you checked my online grade book and saw all my grades for all my classes-kindergarten through eighth grade-you’d see that the grades are almost all As and Bs and maybe some Cs. You might be tempted to think something along the lines of, “well, this guy must not be grading everything;” “this guy’s class must be a joke–all songs and games and no actual rigorous content;” “this guy must just give everyone good grades to avoid painful meetings with angry parents;” or something else along similar lines.

But there is a really good reason that almost all of my students have great grades and it is none of the things listed above. Continue reading

Middle School TPRS Tweaks pt 2 – Update on PQA

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I can engage students in the Middle School. They are definitely a different breed than the elementary schoolers. At the same time, though, I have found that I have the sense of humor of a fourth grader. If i have leaned anything in my 7 years of teaching, it’s that I can literally do no wrong in the 4th grade classroom. It’s interesting, because the kids grow up and they get tired of my approach to humor, but the new ones come in and they love it. Middle school still eludes me, if only slightly. They have different interests (I recently read a great article about middle schoolers that was a great reminder about exactly why middle schoolers are equal parts awesome and frustrating).

In the previous article, I talked about several things I was going to do work on to help them get more engaged: The PQA has gone pretty well. I have been adding lots more details about each of the characters and the kids have been understanding what I’m telling them and incorporating the details in their writing.

I have added another piece on top of just the PQA: stamp sheets. I am starting out modestly. I am looking for things that I know that the kids can do and things that are just beyond their reach. I don’t want to force anything that the kids aren’t ready for. The first sheet has 4 items on it: Continue reading

Hallway Conversations

Sometimes it is hard to determine where the students truly are in terms of proficiency. I am currently implementing a change in my curriculum from a traditional textbook-based one to a communicative one based on high frequency vocabulary and grammar forms. I use storytelling in class and I ask students lots of questions and they generally understand all the things that I’m saying.

For assessments, I have the students do several different types of things. for example, I have students write their own stories, rewrite stories they have heard in class, retell stories in English and Spanish (depending on confidence level), and draw comic strips of the stories that we have heard or read in class. Upon reflection, most of these assessments are very good at showing how well the students comprehend the language we use in class, but I’m not so convinced that they have great control over the language to use it on their own. Their stories are based on stories we have done in class, so it’s safe to say that they are just copying some of the forms and story structures and rewriting them. In other words, if they didn’t have the old stories to fall back on, I’m not convinced they could come up with the stories on their own. This is a challenge that I am going to face in the second trimester (which started yesterday) and I will keep you updated as I go.

Proof of Ability (in other words, Assessment)

In my search for authentic assessments that show students’ true levels of confidence and control of the language, I have been able to find one that is pretty accurate: Hallway Conversations. All I do is talk to the kids in Spanish outside of the classroom setting. It seems simple, but the way I see it, if the students are able to interact with me in Spanish outside the classroom, then I must be doing a pretty good job. And it works for all levels, K-8!

In my experience over the last few years, when I have spoken to students in Spanish outside the classroom, I got a range of reactions that went from blank stare to deep concentration while trying to remember how to respond to “hola” or “buenos días.”

Currently, though, things have improved. Students can generally answer when I say something to them in Spanish. Some of the more confident ones will even say things like hola, buenos días, or cómo estás to me without prompting. CI has built the students’ confidence outside the classroom. If that’s not a gleaming endorsement for teachers to use CI instead of (or along with, I won’t discriminate) grammar-based methods, I don’t know what is.

Building Student Rapport

Hallway Conversations have another, even more important benefit. Sure, they let me know (informally) who is feeling confident in using Spanish, but they also help to build rapport. The students feel confidence because they are able to communicate in Spanish. They feel a self-esteem boost because they have a teacher who is willing to meet them half way in their language. I never correct or tell them they are doing it wrong. That’s not the purpose of the activity. I just want to know how they are doing.

Only the Beginning

This promising development is one of hopefully many more that I will be able to implement that will show where they truly are in their ability to use Spanish in real world situations. I will be implementing speaking and writing rubrics that are much more formal and proficiency-based than I have ever used before. I will be drowning in data about the students’ proficiency (in a good way!). I don’t currently know definitely where each student is in their proficiency journey. I have a general idea about each one, but there is no direct evidence.

Now that the kids are starting to feel confident, it’s time to get more formalized with my assessments; it’s time to help them to branch out and reach the next level.