ERIC Identifier: ED347852
Publication Date: 1992-09-00
Author: Stansfield, Charles W.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
ACTFL Speaking Proficiency Guidelines. ERIC Digest.
In l952, Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote a memo to the Dean of the
Language School of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), calling for the creation
of criteria that could be used to identify the foreign language proficiency of
U.S. Government Employees. According to the memo, the criteria should be able to
differentiate testable levels between "no knowledge" of the foreign language and
"total mastery." A committee, consisting of representatives of government
agencies concerned with foreign languages, was established by the Civil Service
Commission to develop definitions for each of these testable levels of
proficiency and to create an inventory of employees with foreign language
proficiency in the various agencies. The result of this effort was a scale,
numbered 0-5, with a brief definition of the proficiency associated with each
point. These l952 definitions were field tested and substantially revised in
l956. That same year, the FSI established a policy of rating the language
proficiency of all foreign service officers according to these definitions.
Although they have subsequently undergone a number of revisions, the definitions
of the different levels of speaking proficiency, which consist of one- or
two-paragraph descriptions, have remained essentially the same. This system of
categorizing language proficiency was then adopted by all U.S. Government
agencies, from the Peace Corps to the Defense Department (Sollenberger, 1978;
Wilds, l975). Today the government scale is known as the Federal Interagency
Language Roundtable (FILR) Skill Level Definitions and is available in Higgs
(l984) and Duran et al. (l985).
ACTFL PROVISIONAL PROFICIENCY GUIDELINES
In the early
l980s, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the
Educational Testing Service (ETS), and the FILR began working on an adaptation
of the government's proficiency scale to be used in secondary schools and
colleges. The result of that collaboration, the ACTFL Provisional Proficiency
Guidelines, was published in l982. These guidelines made a number of changes in
the Government scale, yet were designed to be commensurate with it. First, the
numerical designations of points on the scale were replaced with names that
represent each level. Second, a further subdivision was made within the two
lowest levels on t he scale. Thus, level 0 was renamed Novice and subdivided
into Novice Low, Novice Mid, and Novice High, while level 1 was renamed
Intermediate and subdivided into Intermediate Low, Intermediate Mid, and
Intermediate High. Level 2 was renamed Advanced, and levels 3, 4, and 5 on the
Government scale were combined into a single level called Superior, because data
had shown that few university graduates reach even level 3. Following their
publication, the Guidelines were widely distributed for comment throughout the
foreign language teaching profession. Several hundred individuals were later
trained to administer a face-to-face speaking test to assign one of the
proficiency levels defined in the Guidelines to each person tested. As a result
of their field testing, the guidelines were determined to be an appropriate
scale for assessing language proficiency among secondary and college-level
students of foreign languages. Thus, following minor revisions, the word
Provisional was removed, and the scale was republished in l986 as the ACTFL
Proficiency Guidelines. They are available today from a number of different
sources (e.g., Byrnes et al., 1986; Liskin-Gasparro, l987).
SPEAKING PROFICIENCY GUIDELINES
"Generic Characteristics of
Each Level." As indicated above, the Guidelines define four main levels of
language proficiency: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, and Superior. The
characteristics of each level for speaking are as follows.
Novice-The Novice level is characterized by the ability to communicate minimally
in highly predictable common daily situations with previously learned words and
phrases. The Novice level speaker has difficulty communicating with even those
accustomed to interacting with nonnative speakers.
Intermediate-The Intermediate level is characterized by the ability to combine
learned elements of language creatively, though primarily in a reactive mode.
The Intermediate level speaker can initiate, minimally sustain, and close basic
communicative tasks. The speaker can ask and answer questions and can speak in
discrete sentences and strings of sentences on topics that are either
autobiographical or related primarily to his or her immediate environment.
Advanced-The Advanced level is characterized by the ability to converse fluently
and in a clearly participatory fashion. The speaker can accomplish a wide
variety of communicative tasks and can describe and narrate events in the
present, past, and future, organizing thoughts, when appropriate, into
paragraph-like discourse. At this level, the speaker can discuss concrete and
factual topic s of personal and public interest in most informal and formal
conversations and can be easily understood by listeners unaccustomed to
Superior-The Superior level is characterized by the ability to participate
effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social,
professional, and abstract topics. Using extended discourse, the speaker can
explain in detail, hypothesize on concrete and abstract topics, and support or
defend opinions on controversial matters.
"High Levels." When a learner fulfills most but not all of the basic
characteristics of a given level, he or she is assigned a rating immediately
below the level in question, but with the designation "High." Thus, a person who
fulfills most but not all the requirements of the Superior level is rated as
Advanced High. Similarly, a person who exhibits most but not all of the basic
characteristics of the Advanced level may be rated as Intermediate High, and a
person who exhibits most but not all of the characteristics of the Intermediate
level may be rated Novice High. The Government scale refers to these levels as
"Plus" levels, and, by analogy, the l986 ACTFL Guidelines listed an Advanced
Plus level. However, in l989, the name of this level was changed to Advanced
High in order to be consistent with the High designation that can be obtained at
the Novice and Intermediate levels.
As indicated above, certain
changes were made in the Provisional Guidelines between l982 and l986. These
changes were due in part to concerns about the applicability of the Provisional
Guidelines to languages other than Spanish, French, German, and Italian. The
Provisional Guidelines made reference to the learner's accuracy in using common
Western grammatical constructions, such as subject-verb and noun-adjective
agreement, tenses, and passives. These constructions either do not exist or do
not pose a problem in the learning of many non-Western languages taught in U.S.
schools, such as Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic. As a result, specific mention of
these constructions was eliminated from the l986 version. At the same time, a
series of language-specific guidelines was developed through grants from the
U.S. Department of Education. These guidelines include considerable detail
regarding learner accuracy in using specific constructions of that language at
each level. Initially, committees were formed to work on language-specific
guidelines in Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic. A draft of the
guidelines in each language was published or circulated, and comments were
invited from other teachers of the language. Subsequently, they were revised and
republished (ACTFL, 1987a, 1987b, 1988, 1989, 1990). Today, additional
language-specific guidelines are under development or exist as circulating
drafts for Hebrew, Korean, Hausa, Indonesian, and a number of other languages.
These guidelines have exerted considerable influence on the organization of
curriculum as well as on the pedagogical approaches employed by instructors in
the classroom (Thompson et al., 1988).
THE ORAL PROFICIENCY INTERVIEW
Both the FILR Skill Level
Descriptions and the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are rating scales.
Traditionally, individuals have been rated on these scales through a
face-to-face speaking test known as the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI). The
OPI is a structured conversation between a specially trained interviewer and an
interviewee. The conversation may last from 10 to 25 minutes.
The OPI progresses through four stages. It begins with a Warm-up, which is
designed to put the interviewee at ease and to the interviewer in making a very
tentative estimate of the speaker's level of proficiency. During phase two, the
Level Checks, the interviewer guides the conversation through a number of
topics. The purpose of the Level Check is to verify the tentative estimate
arrived at during the Warm-up, and to permit the speaker to demonstrate the
level of language that can be handled with confidence a and accuracy. During
phase three, the Probes, the interviewer raises the level of the conversation to
determine the limitations in t he speaker's proficiency or to demonstrate that
the speaker can communicate effectively at a higher level of language.
Interviews alternate several times between the Level Checks and Probes. The
purpose of the final phase, the Wind-Down, is to put the speaker at ease by
returning to a level of conversation that the speaker can handle comfortably.
HOW TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE GUIDELINES AND THE OPI
are a number of ways to learn more about the Guidelines and the OPI. First, one
can obtain the familiarization kit developed by Judith Liskin-Gasparro (l987).
Parallel versions of the kit exist for Spanish, French, German, and English as a
second language. The kits include a book explaining the Guidelines and the OPI,
and one sample interview at each of the four major levels. By listening to the
interviews, the interested individual can become familiar with how the OPI is
conducted and how the Guidelines are applied. For more thorough training,
possibly leading to certification as an oral proficiency tester, one can
participate in a 4-5 day tester training workshop. These workshops are offered
by ACTFL several times a year at locations throughout the U.S. Occasionally ,
they are offered abroad. Information on upcoming workshops is available in "Foreign Language Annals" or from ACTFL (914-963-8830).
ACTFL. (l987a). ACTFL Chinese Proficiency
Guidelines. "Foreign Language Annals, 20," 471-487.
ACTFL. (l987b). ACTFL Japanese Proficiency Guidelines. "Foreign Language
Annals, 20," 589-603.
ACTFL. (l988). ACTFL Russian Proficiency Guidelines. "Foreign Language
Annals, 21," 177-197.
ACTFL. (l989). ACTFL Arabic Proficiency Guidelines. "Foreign Language Annals,
ACTFL. (l990). ACTFL Hindi Proficiency Guidelines. "Foreign Language Annals,
Byrnes, H., Child, J., Levinson, N., Lowe, Jr., P., Makino, S., Thompson, I.,
Walton, A.R. (1986). ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. In H. Byrnes & M. Canale
(Eds.), "Defining and developing proficiency: Guidelines, implementations, and
Duran, R.P., Canale, M., Penfield, J., Stansfield, C.W., &
Liskin-Gasparro, J.E. (l985). "TOEFL from a communicative view point on language
proficiency: A working paper." TOEFL Research Report 17. Princeton, NJ:
Educational Testing Service.
Higgs, T.V. (Ed.). (l984). "Teaching for proficiency, the organizing
principal." Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Co.
Liskin-Gasparro, J.E. (l987). "Testing and teaching for oral proficiency."
Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle.
Sollenberger, H.E. (l978). Development and current use of the FSI Oral
Interview test. In J.L.D. Clark, "Direct testing of speaking proficiency: Theory
and application" (pp.1-12). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
Thompson, I., Thompson, R.T., & Hiple, D. (1988). Issues concerning the
less commonly taught languages. In P. Lowe, Jr. C.W. Stansfield (Eds.), "Second
language proficiency assessment: Current issues," pp83-124). Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice Hall Regents/Center for Applied Linguistics.
Wilds, C.P. (l975). The oral interview test. In R.L. Jones & B. Spolsky,
(Eds.). "Testing language proficiency" (pp. 2 9-44). Washington, DC: Center for