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TEACHING FOR PROFICIENCY: ARE WE READY?


Jeannette D. Bragger


FOR the last several years, the principles of proficiency have been the subject of discussion, debate, and even controversy. Many feel that a proficiency orientation has been of enormous value to the foreign language teaching profession and that it has made us look at ourselves, our students, our languages, our materials and evaluation procedures in a more consciously focused manner. Others seem to feel that “proficiency” is just another catchword that will do little or nothing to advance our professional activities and that, in any case, not enough research has been done to support the implementation of proficiency principles, Regardless of the position any of us may take on the subject, we can probably agree that all serious reexamination efforts should be an integral part of our professional commitment. More important, the profession has reached enough of a consensus on the application of proficiency principles in a variety of areas that serious and beneficial changes have already taken place in curriculum design, teacher behavior, classroom strategies, materials (both commercial and “homemade”), and testing. Nationwide, foreign language educators in secondary and postsecondary institutions are attending workshops on testing and on curriculum and instruction in order to renew their teaching and testing strategies. Many states have mandated the revision of secondary curricula so that their goals and objectives reflect the proficiency guidelines. Publishers and authors of commercial classroom materials are revising their texts toward a proficiency orientation that contextualizes and personalizes language use and that requires students to accomplish real linguistic tasks. Numerous articles and books have been devoted to the topic of proficiency (see Omaggio, Teaching Language ).

All this enthusiasm and work indicate, I believe, that the profession is ready to commit itself to very serious changes. The fact that total agreement will probably never be reached should not deter those who feel that the work on implications and applications of the proficiency principles must continue.

Before examining some of the major aspects of teaching for proficiency, I want to clarify the position taken by those of us who support the continued strengthening of proficiency-oriented curricula.

  1. Proficiency principles and proficiency tests are not magically going to resolve the many difficulties faced by foreign language teachers. To accept “proficiency” as a “final” answer is, at best, foolish and, at worst, a complete misunderstanding of the nature of language acquisition. New challenges and questions will always exist, and no one set of principles can ever be put forth as the ultimate answer.
  2. Much of what has been done in classrooms for decades is valuable and valid and is not negated by the introduction of a proficiency orientation. Teachers should see proficiency not as a threat to what they may already be doing very effectively but, rather, as a way to evaluate and refine their techniques.
  3. We recognize that a great deal of research on proficiency remains to be done and that this research will help us make necessary adjustments and modifications in years to come. What we are doing now must remain flexible enough to allow for shifts in perceptions and concepts as new research findings become available.
  4. The discussions need to continue, but such discussions must be based on complete information rather than on selective, and perhaps biased, bits and pieces. In other words, we owe it to ourselves and our students to learn as much as we can about the notions of proficiency and proficiency testing, about the many teaching approaches available to us, and about what is happening in materials development. Argumentation based on misconceptions and misinformation inevitably leads to the confusion that is evident at many professional gatherings dealing with proficiency principles.

Although we recognize that concurrent research must continue, many of us are convinced that proficiency principles can be successfully implemented at the present time. In fact, it is the very flexibility of the proficiency framework that is one of its most promising features. As research results are published, any necessary modifications in implementation can easily be incorporated into this existing framework.

At the very center of what has become known as the proficiency movement is the oral proficiency interview (OPI), an evaluation procedure with numerous possibilities. I would submit, however, that the OPI is less important as an evaluation instrument than as an agent for change. By its very nature, an OPI is only infrequently used in the language learning career of the typical student. Global proficiency testing in any of the skills is clearly not appropriate at the end of every semester of language study, nor can it become a substitute for effective achievement testing. Proficiency tests are most valuable as pre- and posttests of significant exposure to the target language, be this in secondary school programs, college requirement programs, programs for majors, programs abroad, or teacher education programs. Used in such a fashion, the OPI and proficiency tests in other skills give students and teachers a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of language performance and bring us closer to the type of accountability that has unfortunately been lacking in our profession. Understanding the OPI as much more than a test makes it evident that not every foreign language educator need become a certified proficiency tester. But it is crucial that every teacher fully understand what the test is all about and what proficiency principles imply. This can be accomplished through workshops, reading, and discussions and need not involve the often costly and time-consuming process of tester certification.

If we contend that the OPI is less important as a test than as an instrument for change, why then should we pay so much attention to it, and why are so many efforts being made to develop proficiency tests for the other language skills? The answer to this question brings us back to the effects that the OPI has had on every aspect of foreign language education: on curriculum design and articulation, teaching techniques, materials development, teacher behavior, and achievement testing. By starting with the evaluation instrument, we can backtrack and define more precisely what should be happening in our students' language development and determine more clearly which techniques are most likely to help us achieve our goals. Perhaps the ultimate effects of the OPI and the proficiency principles can best be summed up by the word balance.

Balance, because the proficiency descriptions and functional trisections direct us to look at students' language ability from the points of view of function, context, and accuracy: No longer should we merely teach and test a single aspect of language, be it grammar to the detriment of communication or vice versa. If, as Higgs defines it, grammar is “a system for converting meaning into language,” then it is the job of each teacher to emphasize to students that grammar carries meaning and that it is inseparable from effective communication. The aspect of “accuracy” in the functional trisections dispels the notion that morphology is the only criterion for judging linguistic effectiveness and introduces the idea of semantic accuracy as a major component of a language system (Chomsky). If in the minds of our students a dichotomy exists between grammar and communication, it is we, the teachers, who have created this misconception and it is therefore up to us to do something about it.

Balance, since the OPI and the proficiency principles have made us more conscious of the importance of the explicit and systematic development of all the skills, especially the receptive skills: It is true that researchers have given much attention to the receptive skills for many decades. It is also true, however, that this research has had little effect on what is happening in the classroom. Knowing that something is important and knowing what to do about it are two different things, and the latter has received little notice until recently. In every proficiency workshop, participants are reminded that we are indeed talking about proficiency, not simply oral proficiency, and that writing and the receptive skills need to be given serious and equal attention if we are to have any measure of success in our efforts to be proficiency-oriented. Every curriculum and instruction workshop focuses on the four skills and their development, on the examination and creation of materials, on the question of authentic input, and on the creation of classroom activities appropriate from the Novice to the Superior levels. In short, much of the research in this field has now been translated into the reality of the classroom.

Balance in terms of linguistic expression and intellectual development: The traditional dichotomy between language and literature that continues to plague the profession may lose ground in an effective proficiency-oriented curriculum. Eliminating this dichotomy will necessitate the realization that the proficiency scale is a developmental scale, that students need serious language preparation before being able to enter into abstract fields of endeavor, that concrete and abstract can go hand in hand, and that basic skills constitute the foundation for the advanced language skills. No one who is truly informed about the development of proficiency would argue for terminal “survival” behaviors. Every conscientious language educator wants students to be able to progress to the Superior level in oral expression so that they may be able to present their ideas effectively, to argue a point, to hypothesize and support opinions. A developmental scale such as the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines suggests, and even mandates, early exposure to such language, the constant input of authentic materials, and, most important, the solid and systematic preparation of the higher-level skills. Such preparation requires a fully integrated curriculum in which instructors of language see literature and other “texts” as necessary components of their courses and in which instructors of literature recognize the role that they must play in helping students reach higher levels of sophistication in their language use. Perhaps such a realization will eliminate much of the frustration presently felt by instructors of literature when faced with students unprepared for the nuances in creative texts. In addition, since the receptive skills tend to be developed at a more rapid pace, the early development of the reading skill can be the sound preparation needed for more advanced courses in literature, in culture, and in language for special purposes.

Balance between skill getting and skill using in the organization of the lesson plan: Wilga Rivers has argued effectively that such balance needs to exist and that students must have the benefits of both highly structured activities and open-ended activities that encourage them to take risks. Students who have never had the opportunity to be creative in the classroom can only experience frustration when they find themselves in a situation that calls for interaction with a native speaker of the target language.

Balance between a teacher- and a student-centered approach: Although proponents of many methodologies (Suggestopedia, Community Language Learning, etc.) have long argued in favor of putting students on center stage, the reality of the classroom has clearly not reflected such approaches. In a proficiency-oriented classroom, instructors are learning to relinquish some of their authority and to make students more responsible for their own language development. They are learning techniques for classroom management that permit effective small-group work, they are examining their correction strategies, and they are helping students to become more independent users of the language. Teachers are learning when to intervene and when to remove themselves from the process. The result is a balance between control and freedom as experienced by students. Although the freedom may be largely illusory, it is the students' perception of the situation that is important. If they truly feel autonomous, they will act accordingly.

Balance between the four skills and culture content: Perhaps one of the most elusive questions that remains to be answered is how to integrate culture (what kind of culture?) into the foreign language curriculum at the earliest stages of learning. Although much remains to be done in this area, proficiency-oriented curricula and instruction workshops emphatically stress the integration of language and culture. Culture is depicted not merely as a set of facts to be learned, not only as literature and the arts, but as a process that “drives” language-learning activities. It should be emphasized that proponents of proficiency are not necessarily the inventors of these principles but that they have effectively utilized research done by others to benefit educators at large.

Balance between the “English only” or “target language only” approaches to teaching: In the past, the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other, from the grammar-translation method to the audio-lingual approach. Given the renewed interest in receptive skills development and the emphasis on culture, teachers are making more informed judgments about the use of English in the classroom. If English allows the development of the receptive skills at an early stage, if it helps students cope with more complex cultural concepts at a stage when linguistic skills just barely exist, its use should be seen as an aid rather than as a hindrance.

Balance between achievement and proficiency testing or between formative and summative evaluation: As has been stated earlier, proficiency testing is clearly not designed as a substitute for effective achievement testing. Achievement tests in all the skills measure progress incrementally and provide short-term information on the various bits and pieces that constitute the whole. They allow students to study, and teachers to test, well-defined portions of material. But achievement tests need not be the drudgery they have so often been. Proficiency testing, and particularly the OPI, has taught us how to modify achievement tests so that they reflect the various skills and include both mechanical and more open-ended activities (Omaggio, Proficiency-Oriented Classroom Testing ). More and more, we are abandoning the so-called writing test that contains only fill-in-the-blank items, translation, single-sentence transformation, and so on. Although there is no need to eliminate this type of testing, each test should contain at least one opportunity for students to accomplish one real writing task (writing a note to a friend, writing a postcard, etc.). The same can be said of test items for any of the other skills. Only when significant exposure to the language has occurred is it time to bring everything together through a global proficiency evaluation. This evaluation will then pinpoint strengths and weaknesses and will provide the important criteria for determining the direction of further language study. Students will have a more precise idea of what they still need to refine, and teachers will know better what work their students need to do. The advice they can give to their students will finally be more meaningful than statements such as “You need more practice” or “Your grammar is still weak” or “You need to develop your vocabulary” or, worst of all, “You need to work on your fluency.” In this sense, proficiency testing can remain a formative tool leading to future correction. For students who have reached the end of their language study, the proficiency tests serve as summative evaluations that indicate their abilities and limitations. Whether or not these students ever continue their language study, they will have a fairly precise idea of what their language ability will allow them to do in terms of travel, work, research, and so forth.

Some would undoubtedly argue that none of the above is new. Indeed, when we examine the literature on language acquisition and when we look at the many different methodologies and approaches that have been developed, we find that much of what we are now doing is not all that new. What is new, however, is the fact that proficiency has given us a comprehensible frame of reference to which everyone can respond, that can be translated into the reality of the classroom, and that gives us an effective way of setting goals, examining teaching and testing techniques, and evaluating materials.

Most important, since proficiency is not a method and is therefore in no way prescriptive, it allows us to be ourselves in the classrooms, to choose our own approaches, and to tailor what we do to our students and to ourselves. A unique feature of the proficiency orientation is that it helps us to establish our goals and therefore gives us criteria by which to choose our techniques and our materials. It does not, however, force us into one approach that may or may not be suitable considering the many variables inherent in any classroom situation. The hypotheses and corollaries proposed by Omaggio are perhaps the best guidelines to help us shape our students' and our own classroom behavior (“Proficiency-Oriented Classroom”). Beyond that, in concert with the basic principles, teachers and students are free to be themselves.

It is my contention that the last two decades or so, when numerous questions were raised about “approach-oriented” innovations, have helped to prepare us for change. Perhaps theory was too far removed from practice and accessible to only a few people in the profession. But it was clear that any new approaches devised would be successful only if we had a framework in which to place them and if we had a precise idea of our goals. I would argue that the proficiency principles provide this framework to everyone who teaches foreign languages and that they are comprehensible to anyone willing to make the effort. One of the distinguishing characteristics of most foreign language educators is that they are open to new ideas and they are willing to do the work to implement them. While we are awaiting research results on the proficiency orientation, we need to trust ourselves and what we often know only intuitively. As professionals with a great deal of experience, we have a good idea of what our students need, what they want, and what will work in the classroom. We would like nothing better than to be able to prove the validity of everything we do through empirical data, but in the temporary absence of such data we should be willing to trust our collective experience and our informed intuition.

Are we ready to teach for proficiency? I would say that the answer is a resounding yes. We are learning to avoid the extremes, we are ready to break down the dichotomies, and we seem to be willing to take chances. Most of us are prepared to deal with any resultant uncertainties, with many unanswered questions, and with some inevitable confusion. To those who ask us to be absolutely sure before we implement proficiency principles, we can only say that to await certainty is to remain inactive and to lose sight of our real purpose—to serve our students to the best of our abilities.


The author is Associate Professor of French and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the College of Liberal Arts, Pennsylvania State University, University Park. This article is based on a paper delivered at the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 17–20 April 1986, in Washington. DC.


WORKS CITED

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. Hastings-on-Hudson: ACTFL, 1986.

Chomsky, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: MIT P, 1965.

Higgs, Theodore V. “Language Acquisition and Language Learning: A Plea for Syncretism.” Modern Language Journal 69 (1985): 8–15.

———. “Teaching Grammar for Proficiency.” Foreign Language Annals 18 (1985): 289–96.

Omaggio, Alice C. “The Proficiency-Oriented Classroom.” Teaching for Proficiency: The Organizing Principle. Ed. Theodore V. Higgs. Lincolnwood: National Textbook, 1984. 43–84.

———, ed. Proficiency-Oriented Classroom Testing. Language in Education: Theory and Practice 52. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1983.

———. Teaching Language in Context. Boston: Heinle, 1986. Rivers, Wilga M. Communicating Naturally in a Second Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

———. Speaking in Many Tongues. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.


© 1986 by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. All Rights Reserved.

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