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The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines: A Selected Sample of Opinions

Kenneth Chastain

A NUMBER of major publications reflect the rapidly growing influence of proficiency and proficiency testing on second language learning and teaching in the United States. In 1982 the ACTFL Provisional Proficiency Guidelines was published. A year later the Center for Applied Linguistics put out Omaggio's Proficiency-Oriented Classroom Testing . Two years after that the title of the ACTFL annual review was Teaching for Proficiency: The Organizing Principle (Higgs) . In 1985 the theme of the Northeast Conference was Proficiency, Curriculum, Articulation: The Ties That Bind (Omaggio). A year later the word provisional was deleted from the Guidelines , and Omaggio's book Teaching Language in Context: Proficiency-Oriented Instruction appeared.

Since the publication of the ACTFL Provisional Proficiency Guidelines , many leaders in second language education have focused their attention on the ability to communicate as defined by the guidelines and on proficiency testing as a means of improving students' functional language skills. The effect on the profession has been widespread. As Bragger states, “the proficiency movement is in full swing, and the enthusiasm for it seems to be increasing … ” (41).

The response, however, has not been unanimously favorable. Several highly regarded leaders in the field have raised serious questions regarding the validity of the guidelines and their application to classroom instruction (Savignon; Lantolf and Frawley; Schulz; Jarvis; Kramsch, “From Language Proficiency,” “Proficiency”; Bachman and Savignon; and Lowe).

This paper presents the opinions of a select number of second language educators regarding the proficiency movement. From the perspectives of their experiences and their situations, what are the possible benefits and the potential pitfalls?


Innovation is never easy. New ideas must be comprehended and tested. Those that are not understood will be either ignored or implemented incorrectly. Those that are not tested tend to be accepted whole-heartedly, applied uncritically, and discarded cynically. Past experience indicates that too often new ideas in education are adopted enthusiastically and abandoned unceremoniously a few years later as another promising concept appears on the scene.

The results envisioned by proponents of proficiency and proficiency testing can have a significant, positive impact on second language learning. As exciting as the potential may be, however, little of permanent value will actually be incorporated permanently into second language learning programs unless teachers understand, accept, and apply the concepts correctly. Otherwise, the results will be unsatisfactory, and teachers will not use proficiency concepts in their teaching or in evaluating their students.

Now is the time to discuss fully and completely all the various points of view regarding proficiency and proficiency testing. Proponents need to inform, explain, clarify, and change. Critics need to question, criticize, and suggest. The rest of us need to listen, consider, participate, experiment, improve, and implement. Only if we think of the current guidelines as being adaptable and subject to amendment in the future as we gain experience using them will their potential be fully realized.

The Questionnaire and the Sample

To gain an insight into what leading second language educators think about proficiency and proficiency testing, I asked a sample of language-teaching specialists to respond as they saw fit to the following four questions:

  1. How do you define proficiency in a foreign/second language?
  2. What do you see as the principal potential benefits of the present proficiency movement?
  3. What are the major obstacles to widespread implementation?
  4. In your opinion, what are the major potential negative results that could occur?

Both the questionnaire and the sample were intentionally limited. The purpose of the survey was to generate a variety of personal viewpoints from respondents whose experience and expertise were considered representative. The questions were prepared to elicit broad and open-ended responses that might serve to generate discussion of the many issues related to the effects that the ACTFL proficiency guidelines seem to be having on second language teaching. The sample included thirty-two leaders in the field of second language learning and teaching from all the modern languages including ESL. Of the twenty who answered, fourteen completed the questionnaire.

Respondents' attitudes to the questionnaire ranged from critical hostility to enthusiastic support. One person clearly believed that the questions were inappropriate, and another felt that answering the questions in the space provided was impossible. Others contributed stimulating replies that will provide second language teachers with much food for thought. Although one can only speculate about the attitudes of those who did not reply, there is no reason to suppose that the ratio of critical to supportive replies among nonrespondents and respondents would have varied significantly.


The first problem in teaching for and evaluating proficiency is to define the term. Obviously, teachers cannot choose goals, teach toward them, and test for their achievement if they cannot define what they want their students to achieve. Defining proficiency is much more difficult than one might imagine at first. The term seems to fall into that category of words that are commonly used without conscious attention to exact meaning. The result is fuzzy thinking that characterizes our discussions and carries over into our teaching.

In her discussion of the definition of proficiency Schulz underscores the complexity of the problem by reviewing the definitions given by several authors. Burt, Dulay, and Hernandez-Chavez identify sixty-four proficiency components. Canale and Swain theorize that proficiency includes grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic competence. Cummins maintains that proficiency can be separated into two categories: cognitive-academic language proficiency and basic interpersonal communicative skills, that is, classroom language knowledge and skills and social communicative interaction skills. Oller and Perkins, by contrast, contend that proficiency consists of only one global factor that can be tested with close tests. The inability of the participants of the 1981 Language Proficiency Assessment Symposium to agree on a satisfactory definition of proficiency reflects this lack of consensus.

The answers to my questionnaire were equally varied. Most respondents stressed the ability to communicate, but the emphasis shifted from definition to definition. Only one referred to the ACTFL-ETS scale. For some the definition was based on administrative requirements and practical concerns such as scores on a standardized proficiency rest or the completion of a course at a specified level. For others the definition was a more general statement about the ability to communicate in the second language. Some emphasized the learners' level of development within the learning situation, while others stressed that communication is context-specific and still others focused on real-life situations. Some were rather idealistic, defining proficiency in terms of an ideal native speaker; others were more pragmatic, describing proficiency in terms of a competent nonnative speaker.

Respondents typically referred to level, context, and real-life situations in their definitions. One suggested that the only definition of practical value to teachers is one that specifies the students' level of development, thereby indicating what the students are capable of learning at any given point in the course. Those that stressed context were responding to the need for communication to be meaningful, and meaning depends on context. Those that emphasized real-life situations were attending to the need to produce students who can use their classroom language to communicate with native speakers in everyday situations.

In summary, the several definitions reflect valid concerns of teachers. The concepts of proficiency must be practical to the extent that teachers can incorporate them into the administrative framework of their specific instructional settings. Proficiency must also be defined according to levels and within specific contexts. Finally, there was concern for what students can do with their language skills outside the classroom.

The responses to the item regarding the potential benefits of the proficiency movement indicate that those sampled have thought a great deal about the question and that they foresee numerous possibilities. In general, they believe that the concept of proficiency focuses attention on communicative language use. Thus, the stress in second language learning and teaching shifts from a language-based curriculum to a communication-based curriculum, and greater importance is placed on functional approaches. This orientation leads to a recognition that linguistic accuracy is only one component of proficiency and to an emphasis on communication as opposed to the memorization of linguistic forms for discrete-point test items. Greater importance is placed on skills mastered than on number of courses taken.

From an administrative point of view acceptance of proficiency helps the profession to unify objectives and standards and makes it easier for administrators, teachers, and other professionals to communicate more precisely about second language teaching and its goals. Basing their decisions on the skill levels defined in the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines , directors of language programs can specify the proficiency possible at each level of instruction and can group students according to levels of communication skills. Also, they can use the standardized scale to evaluate undergraduate majors and candidates for graduate programs. In addition, faculties of teacher-training programs can use the guidelines to establish language proficiency standards for second language teachers and to develop better training programs.

The concepts of proficiency provide motivation and direction for those in charge of curriculum development, materials preparation, and classroom instruction. Teachers choose pragmatic goals that motivate students and that encourage teachers and students to use their time more effectively as they work toward clearly specified objectives. Both authors and teachers shift their attention more toward global communication skills like those needed in the real world rather than grammar and vocabulary and toward testing language use rather than language usage. Teachers attend to their goals during all stages of instruction, and they give oral tests.

Like proficiency definitions, opinions about the potential benefits of teaching and testing for proficiency vary widely. Different individuals foresee benefits that relate to their own problems and needs. Some stress curriculum, some teaching, some testing, some teacher training, and some articulation. The important point to notice is that the respondents felt that proficiency and proficiency testing could have a positive impact on a number of important aspects of their discipline.

The responses to the question concerning the major obstacles to widespread implementation of the concepts of proficiency and proficiency testing reflected considerable thought, and they provoke thought. Certainly, they imply that many issues remain to be resolved. The respondents tended to mention either theoretical or practical obstacles. The first had to do with the validity of proficiency as a concept and of proficiency tests as a means of rating students' communicative skills, and the second raised questions about the practicality of trying to administer proficiency tests, especially the oral proficiency interview, to large numbers of students.

Regarding the theoretical questions, one respondent replied:

The fundamental flaw is the assumption that there exists a single proficiency (which can, of course, be rated). Proficiency is person-specific and context-specific . The Guidelines are no more than one committee's statement of those aspects of language functioning that the committee members value.

To date, the profession has no acceptable definition of proficiency, and the validity of the tests has not been established. Nor do linguists agree on what skills students should have at each level of instruction. Furthermore, the supposed correlation between grading procedures and proficiency objectives has not been verified.

The list of concerns relating to the practical problems of implementation is as imposing as the theoretical list and is much longer. Proficiency implies an emphasis on communication skills; yet many teachers continue to adhere to the traditional model of grammar and vocabulary as the basis for their teaching and testing. The use of the two principal language-based methods, grammar-translation and audio-lingual, continues to be widespread. Is the institution of a proficiency orientation possible throughout the profession? Teachers who are comfortable with traditional procedures are understandably reluctant to change. Even if they are receptive to adopting a proficiency-oriented approach, they may lack the necessary language skills or in-service training.

Consideration of the implementation of proficiency testing leads to even greater concerns. One respondent mentioned the “complex, confusing, and impractical procedures.” Teachers must be trained. There are not enough training workshops, however, and asking teacher-training programs to solve the problem is impractical. Even if there were enough training programs, the complex procedures are difficult to learn and to administer. In courses with large numbers of students, the administration of individual oral interviews may be impractical, if not impossible. Many schools do not have the funds to pay trained testers to administer the tests. Many teachers do not have time to administer oral interviews to all their students. In addition, global ratings must still be developed for listening, reading, writing, and culture, not an easy task.

One final point made by another respondent had to do with the relation between proficiency and proficiency testing. To date, most of the emphasis has been on the oral proficiency interview. However, the question arises about the order of implementation. Should not the curriculum be revised to stress communication and teachers be retrained to teach for proficiency before implementing testing procedures?

The respondents raised questions regarding the validity of the underlying tenets on which proficiency and proficiency testing are based and regarding the ability of the profession to implement the necessary procedures. Altogether, they posed several important problems, which serve as a reminder to enthusiastic proponents to temper the tendency in early stages of program implementation to overlook justifiable, practical concerns.

One general area of concern was the impact that proficiency may have on the profession. A bandwagon effect may occur, accompanied by unsubstantiated claims for the power of proficiency tests and unwarranted extrapolations to teaching. In the words of one respondent, “Like previous bandwagons, it could end up distorting instruction by focussing on glibness devoid of cultural referents.” Too much faith in proficiency test results may lead to the diminished importance of other factors such as attitudes and class size. Another potential problem is that administrative units may simply mandate the implementation of proficiency programs and tests without upgrading teachers' skills. In addition, implementation of proficiency and proficiency testing may lead to decreased understanding of the process of language learning and teaching, which is the prerequisite for all second language teaching. As one respondent noted, “it is important for teachers to understand that a certain concept or goal will not even begin to satisfy all their pedagogical responsibilities and their students' needs.” Furthermore, differing opinions among second language teachers may lead to an undesirable polarization.

Another source of potential difficulty has to do with the effect of proficiency on the curriculum. The use of proficiency tests may produce language programs that focus entirely on the tests and that even redesign their curricula and instruction to match the ACTFL guidelines. As a result, “quick-fix,” simplistic solutions may be applied to complex, creative phenomena, which may lead to greater misunderstanding of the true nature of communication.

The influence of proficiency and proficiency testing on teachers may have negative consequences as well as the positive ones previously mentioned. Inadequately informed teachers may misapply the guidelines. Up-to-date teachers may become disillusioned and abandon proficiency as a goal if curriculum development and teaching materials are not brought into line with research on proficiency. Teachers may become frustrated if needed information is unavailable. Some teachers may jump on the proficiency “band-wagon” and ignore the relation between form and function. As a result, they may focus on global learning to the point that they ignore discrete-point learning, thus confusing students. In fact, deemphasizing the importance of grammatical accuracy may generate problems for both students and teachers. On the other hand, teachers may develop negative attitudes because they feel that the new ideas are being forced on them. Negative results may also occur if teachers attempt to apply proficiency concepts in beginning levels as if the classroom were identical to the native-language environment.

The number of potential benefits leads second language teachers to conclude that the implementation of these concepts can have a productive impact. However, the number of issues raised by the respondents clearly implies that major obstacles remain to be resolved.

Self-actualization is a phenomenological term meaning that everyone is always in the process of becoming. Professionally, second language teachers are on the road to discovering how to help students learn languages better. We now have keener insights into how to help students develop communication skills, and we have materials that place greater emphasis on using language to communicate. We must keep in mind, however, that each improvement is a step toward other possible improvements. Self-actualization is not a destination or a product; it is a process. Similarly, our orientation should be toward continued adoption and adaption in our search for ways of doing better what we now do well.

Regarding proficiency and proficiency testing, achievement of desirable change seems to depend on clarifying the meaning and interrelations of several crucial terms. To implement proficiency, we must have a definition that is acceptable to all. We must differentiate between classroom language practice that leads to communication skills, on the one hand, and instruments for evaluating those skills, on the other. We must realize that there is also a difference between classroom tests and the ACTFL proficiency guidelines. The purpose of classroom tests is to evaluate students' achievement based on their knowledge of, or skill with, a specific segment of material; the purpose of the guidelines is to determine the level of an individual's language skill. The classroom test is an achievement test; the guidelines provide proficiency rating scales. One other point to keep in mind is that the guidelines are an evaluation instrument; they are not guidelines for curriculum development.

Second language teachers must develop proficiency goals, curricula, materials, and tests in order to enable students to develop second language communication skills. Current efforts to implement the concepts of proficiency and proficiency testing may lead to much-needed reform and productive progress, or, misdirected and misapplied, they may actually have negative effects on the study of second languages. Positive results will not accrue automatically. Obstacles can be overcome, however, and negative results can be avoided. The endeavor requires understanding, acceptance, large amounts of determination and energy, and the willingness to learn and to change.

The author is Professor of Spanish at the University of Virginia.

Works Cited

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

———. ACTFL Provisional Proficiency Guidelines . Hastings-on-Hudson: ACTFL, 1982.

Bachman, Lyle and Sandra J. Savignon. “The Evaluation of Communicative Language Proficiency: A Critique of the ACTFL Oral Interview.” Modern Language Journal 70 (1986): 380–90.

Bragger, Jeannette D. “The Development of Oral Proficiency.” Omaggio, Proficiency, Curriculum 41–75.

Burt, Marina, Heidi Dulay, and Eduardo Hernandez-Chavez. Bilingual Syntax Measure . New York: Harcourt, 1975.

Canale, Michael and Merrill Swain. Communicative Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing . Toronto: Ministry of Education, 1979.

Cummins, Jim. “Wanted: A Theoretical Framework for Relating Language Proficiency to Academic Achievement among Bilingual Students.” Language Proficiency and Academic Achievement . Ed. C. Rivera. Clevedon, Avon, Eng.: Multilingual Matters, 1984. 2–20.

Higgs, Theodore V., ed. Teaching for Proficiency: The Organizing Principle . Lincolnwood: Natl. Textbook, 1984.

Jarvis, Gilbert A. “Proficiency Testing: A Matter of False Hopes?” ADFL Bulletin 18.1 (1986): 20–21. [Show Article]

Kramsch, Claire. “From Language Proficiency to Interactional Competence.” Modern Language Journal 70 (1986): 366–72.

———. “Proficiency vs. Achievement: Reflections on the Proficiency Movement.” ADFL Bulletin 18.1 (1986): 22–24. [Show Article]

Lantolf, James P., and William Frawley. “Oral Proficiency Testing: A Critical Analysis.” Modern Language Journal 69 (1985): 337–45.

Lowe, Pardee, Jr. “Proficiency: Panacea, Framework, Process? A Reply to Kramsch, Schulz, and, Particularly, to Bachman and Savignon.” Modern Language Journal 70 (1986): 391–97.

Oller, John W., Jr., and Kyle Perkins. Research in Language Testing . Rowley: Newbury, 1980.

Omaggio, Alice C. Proficiency, Curriculum, Articulation: The Ties That Bind . Middlebury: Northeast Conference, 1985.

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

———. Teaching Language in Context: Proficiency-Oriented Instruction . Boston: Heinle, 1986.

Savignon, Sandra J. “Evaluation of Communicative Competence: The ACTFL Provisional Proficiency Guidelines.” Modern Language Journal 69 (1985): 129–34.

Schulz, Renate A. “From Achievement to Proficiency through Classroom Instruction: Some Caveats.” Hispania 69 (1986): 187–93.

© 1989 by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. All Rights Reserved.

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