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by Erica Fischer on Nov 3, 2014

Tips for Implementing a New Proficiency-Based Program

Tips for Implementing a New Proficiency Based ProgramLast Thursday night, #langchat was back in full force! Even our seasoned moderators were out of breath trying to follow the fast paced conversation. @alenord said, “I can hardly keep up and I am a moderator!” Langchatters enthusiastically shared their thoughts on how to implement a new proficiency-based program. They discussed initial goals that instructors could set, brainstormed the first instructional changes to be made in a move towards proficiency-based teaching, talked about good ways to deliver content using this approach, and reflected on changes to make in implementing proficiency-based assessment. If you got lost in the whirlwind of tweets or couldn’t join us last week, your #langchat summary has got you covered!

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the rich discussion and a special thank you to last week’s moderating team, Amy (@alenord) and Colleen (@CoLeeSensei), for structuring the conversation.

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Question 1: What goals should a teacher set in a proficiency-based program?

Langchatters laid out some goals for teachers looking to implement a proficiency-based program. We have summarized their main suggestions:

  • Use the TL to communicate. #Langchat participants urged instructors to model communication in the TL as much as possible. @tmsaue1 said, “My advice: start small, inhale proficiency … speak the language.” @MmeFarab also encouraged instructors to serve as TL role models: “[Speak] the language! [Your students] won’t do it if you don’t do it!” @SenoraWienhold reiterated the importance of TL exposure in proficiency-based courses: “[To] me proficiency-based classes are all about using the language to [communicate].”
  • Align your goals with student ability. Instructors highlighted the importance of being aware of student ability. @LauraErinParker wrote, “Goals should be based on what students can understand/interpret or communicate (speak/write).” @Marishawkins agreed that “goals should … align [with] student ability,” adding, “Do not expect too much at the start.”
  • Start with can-do goals and help students reach them. Many instructors suggested that teachers “start with can-do statements and work backwards” (@AndyCrawfordTX). @MmeFarab wrote, “Like several others, I think that the first step is setting a proficiency goal you want [students] to reach. Planning comes after.” @ms_kdub also advocated that instructors “[Plan] in reverse. [Say:] This is where we will end up and these are the steps we must take to get there.”
  • Make goals relevant to students. Langchatters have said it before, and they said it again! @espanolsrs wrote, “Make language relevant to the students. Give them real reasons they will use it!”
  • Share goals with parents. Some participants favored sharing proficiency-based expectations with parents and/or administrators. @tiesamgraf wrote, “Providing a can-do letter [with] expectations for parents at open house night is a great start to proficiency [language] for stakeholders.”
  • Familiarize yourself with Proficiency Guidelines. @tiesamgraf shared a link to the @ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (, encouraging instructors to “chew and digest slowly.” He also provided a link to “[awesome] samples of each level from @actfl”

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Question 2: What are the first instructional changes to make to move toward more proficiency-based teaching?

Participants shared initial steps that you can take if you’re looking to move to a more proficiency-based approach.

  • Become less textbook reliant. Some participants felt that instructors seeking a proficiency-based approach should gravitate away from the textbook. This might not mean ditching it all together but rather using it as a resource and not the sole means of instruction. @LauraErinParker wrote, “I like skimming through textbooks to spark ideas for possible units. [I don’t] use the book necessarily, but as brainstorm tool.”
  • Implement more performance-based assessments. Langchatters urged moving away from grammar-based tests to assessments that evaluate performance. @jackimorris23 said, “For me, [moving to a proficiency-based approach meant getting] rid of grammar [tests] and putting in performance [assessments] like letters or [conversations].” @MmeFarab agreed, writing, “Ditch fill-in-the blank, conjugate this, check [the] box grammar stuff. It’s not necessary.” In light of this, @alenord commented that “[sometimes] the very things we thought MADE a language class are the things that we should get rid of first!” @klharri highlighted the importance of focus on real world relevance: “[Proficiency] is not about getting ‘rid’ of grammar. [It] is [about] moving students toward useful functions.”
  • Ditch the dictionary? Instructors valued making students more comfortable with circumlocution. To this end, @alenord proposed that language teachers might “ditch the dictionary [to get] kids comfy with being uncomfortable,” adding, “You won’t hurt the children!”
  • Emphasize mastery over grades. While you most likely can’t get rid of your grading system all together, many #langchat participants did endorse placing more emphasis on mastery than grades. @tiesamgraf said, “[I’m] trying to work towards grading less and giving more feedback.” @IndwellingLang also pointed out the importance of recognizing students for what they have mastered: “Give [students] credit for what they Can Do, whenever they can do it.”
  • Consider rearranging your classroom. In another step towards a proficiency-based learning environment, you might think about reconfiguring your classroom. @esantacruz13 said, “I also rearranged my classroom, [putting students into groups] instead of [focusing on] individual work.”

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Question 3: What are good ways to deliver content in a proficiency-based approach?

When it comes to delivery of content in proficiency-based instruction, participants recommended “[anything] that’s comprehensible input! Videos, stories, games, whatever you can do to [have students] listen and read as much as possible” (@SrtaJohnsonEBHS). They also recognized the importance of modeling circumlocution. @tiesamgrad wrote, “CIRCUMLOCUTION is key! [Teach] it intentionally. He shared “one great example from @chericem” Finally, Langchatters once again encouraged “relating [content] to things that students are interested in and/or have prior knowledge about” (@Sralandes). They recognized that there are a number of ways to do this and shared some useful ideas:

  • Personalized Questions or Discussions. @sonrisadelcampo suggested use of “personalized questions [or] discussions … that [create a] need for [students] to [communicate] their opinions.” @IndwellingLang also encouraged “Personalized Question and Answer (PQA) before, during, [or] after any type of content (story, movie, article, commercial, etc.).” @espanolsrs suggested movie talk as one possible discussion topic: “[Movie talk] is super too! … I’ve dreamed about teaching entire course around just that…” @sonrisadelcampo proposed using an image to catch students’ attention and engage them in a discussion: “A picture is worth a 1000 words; [it] encourages communication [and] conversation [and] more!” @MlleSulewski shared another idea about how to get students talking: “We’re telling ‘rumors’ in [French 3] this week [as a] lead-in to talking about love [and] relationships and François Hollande. [Students] loved it!”
  • Storytelling. Use of stories with content related to student interests was also recommended. @espanolsrs wrote, “Storytelling! About stuff kids are interested in/find funny/movie stars/etc.!”
  • Free Reading. Free reading was mentioned as a way to allow students to pursue their interests while developing language skills. @MmeMurphy commented, “Free reading, too! Reading builds [vocabulary] and proficiency. And student choice helps build motivation and interest!”

Question 4: What are the first changes to make to move toward more proficiency-based assessment?

#Langchat participants emphasized creating ample opportunities for students to show what they know. @IndwellingLang said, “Let [students] demonstrate proficiency (with [an] effect on [their] grade) ANY TIME, not just ‘on the test’.” @carmenscoggins pointed out the need to differentiate assessments in order to provide maximal opportunities for students to demonstrate their proficiency: “Realize that students might need a variety of ways to demonstrate proficiency. Differentiate assessment.” In light of the focus on relevance, instructors encouraged providing students with realistic contexts in which to show proficiency. @espanolsrs wrote, “[Let] students demonstrate proficiency in as many ‘real-life’ situations as they can,” adding, “‘Real life’ makes it relevant to students and gives them more motivation to learn it [and] see value in it.” Finally, @esantacruz13 highlighted the essential role of student reflection and corrections in increasing proficiency, writing, “[Reflection] is the key. What’s the point of grading an essay if the student receives it and she/he never looks at it again?” She also commented, “[And] always let students … make corrections. Mistakes are part of life. It is [OK] to be wrong.”


Participants shared lots of thoughts on how to shift to a more proficiency-based approach. While you can’t get there overnight, they suggested small changes as steps towards proficiency-based instruction. @CoLeeSensei wrote, “[Take] baby steps [and] keep trying. [It’s] a journey and [there are] lots of #langchat colleagues to support [you] along the way!” Finally, in the words of @Sra_Arnold, “Support students [on] their way to proficiency! Find what they like and celebrate their accomplishments!

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Thank You!

Thank you again to all of the Langchatters who contributed to last Thursday’s discussion and to Amy (@alenord) and Colleen (@CoLeeSensei) for moderating a rapid-fire chat! Due to space limitations, many tweets had to be omitted from this summary. To view the entire conversation, you can access the full transcript on our tweet archive.

If you have a topic you’re eager to discuss, send in your ideas for future #langchats so that our weekly discussions can become as relevant and inclusive as possible!


Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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