Proficiency based learning approach introduced in foreign language classes

Abby Waechter | Staff Writer

Foreign language teachers are taking a new proficiency based approach to teaching in order to enhance students’ learning.

 A proficiency based approach focuses on a student’s progress rather than a letter grade. By replacing letter grades with progress reports, students are able to see where they fall on the scale of proficiency. 

Compared to letter grades, proficiency based assessments help both students and parents see exactly what progress has been made compared to the expected progress of a student at that level.

 Before teachers ask students to produce the language on their own, they will provide students with a substantial amount of comprehensive input, or language that students can understand but is advanced for their current level. 

With this new method, teachers create lesson plans based on the way children learn their first languages. With comprehensive input, students start to pick up the language and can then apply it to conversation. Rather than sitting in class being taught the dynamics of the language, students will learn through hearing and applying.

 Spanish teacher Nicholas Smith compared the proficiency based approach to the technique of mimicking — gradually starting to pick up language, like a child listening to their family speak before they even understand the language.

 “One of the biggest things about proficiency is not talking to someone about the language, it’s actually using the language in a way that’s memorable for them, so it sticks,” Smith said. “You mimic with proficiency, you mimic [in order to learn] your first language, so second language acquisition should be the same.” 

 Teachers are shifting from assessing students based on the accuracy of their verb placement and spelling to assessing them on how well they can use the skills they 

have learned in a spontaneous, real world context. Smith said that oftentimes students can’t express what they want when asked a question because they are worried about small mistakes, whereas with a proficiency approach, making these mistakes is more normalized. 

 “The hope is that students will obviously be proficient in the language,” Smith said. “I’ve experienced situations where students spend more time thinking about grammatical rules than they do actually saying the things they want to say, the actual [words] that are on their minds.” 

 Since this approach doesn’t include teaching the dynamics of the language in a lecture context, teachers will be using authentic resources such as videos or books produced by native speakers or writers of that language. French teacher Jamie Pritchard said that the new approach is much different from the traditional textbook approach.

 “I think the biggest difference is that we’ve shifted from teaching the language to teaching the culture and using the culture to discuss the language,” Pritchard said. “The resources allow us to discuss the culture of Francophone areas in the world, so we can then talk about how the language fits into those aspects of the culture.” 

 By using this approach, students will no longer have to memorize techniques or conjugations; instead they will be utilizing the language in different ways. Pritchard said that the approach takes stress off of her students which makes learning more enjoyable and overall relaxes the classroom environment. 

 “[It is] just a more enjoyable approach for me and for the students,” Pritchard said. “It makes class just really more relaxed, which in turn, I think makes learning easier. If you’re not nervous and scared about being perfect, then you’re more willing to try.”