ERIC Identifier: ED328082
Publication Date: 1991-01-00
Author: Phillips, June K.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington
Upgrading the Target Language Proficiency Levels of
Foreign Language Teachers. ERIC Digest.
Teachers of foreign languages recognize that improving their proficiency
in the target language is a never ending process. Regardless of the skill
levels they possess, new communicative tasks in the second language continue
to challenge them. Recently, the advent of performance descriptions in
the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (1986), has provided teachers with new
ways of evaluating their language skills. As curriculum, too, emphasizes
performance outcomes, teachers find they must be able to comprehend and
convey messages in real world contexts larger than those of textbooks and
carefully controlled lessons on vocabulary and grammar. Unfortunately,
numbers of teachers find that they come up short when measured on this
Their inadequacies can often be traced to having learned the target
language under different paradigms and for different reasons. Today's standards,
along with the "small world" phenomenon, mean that teachers often must
prove to students, parents, and the community that their second language
is strong enough to handle contemporary media, both aural and written,
and to interact successfully with native speakers here and abroad.
QUESTIONS OF UPGRADING OR MAINTAINING SKILLS
A body of research has focused on language maintenance, but improvement
of proficiency levels is a distinct issue. When questions of language maintenance
are addressed, the usual assumption is that a functional level of language
once existed, and the concern revolves around maintaining competency where
conditions tend to inhibit or prohibit retention. In the case of foreign
language teachers, many never achieved a functional level of language use,
and now must endeavor to convert form-based knowledge into communicative
skills. Other teachers claim to have had fairly useful skills upon graduation
or subsequent time spent abroad, but years of concentrated work speaking
first-level French have restricted the conditions in which they speak and
even more severely limited their opportunities for listening to native
speech. Evaluation reports from inservice programs (Cook, Stout, &
Dahl, 1988; Glisan, & Phillips, 1989; Harper, & Lively, 1987) underscore
the limiting factor of using the second language primarily to talk with
students; teachers fail to receive the stimulation of carrying out tasks
and discussing the adult topics and content that define performances at
Advanced and Superior levels of proficiency (ACTFL scale).
WHERE CAN TEACHERS GO TO IMPROVE THEIR LANGUAGE PROFICIENCIES? ARE
THE OPTIONS EFFECTIVE?
The former question is eminently more answerable than the latter. Teachers
participate in a spectrum of formal and informal programs with the hope
that their language proficiencies will be enhanced.
Study and Travel Abroad Programs. Many of these programs are either
affiliated with U.S. institutions of higher learning or sponsored by foreign
institutions for nonnative teachers. Published documentation on gains in
proficiency as a result of these experiences is minimal. One small study
is reported by Millman (1988) in which eight Alabama recipients of Foreign
Language Study Grants were given certified ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interviews
(OPI) before and after their stay abroad. Results indicated that three
individuals remained at the same level of speaking proficiency as measured
on the OPI (one each at Intermediate High, Advanced, and Superior). The
other five improved a step (one Intermediate Low to Intermediate Mid, two
Intermediate Mid to Intermediate High, two Advanced to Advanced High).
It will become increasingly important that similar measures be taken, especially
where financial support from government and foundations is sought.
Institutes and Summer Seminars. Teachers participating in regular or
special summer courses at colleges and universities often do so with the
intent of improving their language skills. In the case of regular coursework
offered over the summer, the gauge of success is ultimately a course grade.
There is no evidence of a linkage with improved language proficiencies.
In the case of special courses for teachers, such as those funded by federal
or state agencies, there are limited but emerging efforts to measure competencies.
Wipf (1988) reports that differences in mean scores in listening comprehension
were significant (p>.0001), as measured on the Modern Language Association
(MLA) Cooperative Foreign Language Proficiency Tests using a pre-test/post-test
design, for a series of four-week National Endowment for the Humanities
(NEH) Institutes. It must be noted that the last institute he described
occurred in 1985; speaking was not directly assessed, and the Oral Proficiency
Interview was relatively new in academia. A more critical reservation concerns
the MLA test itself, because it does not reflect current parameters in
listening proficiency, which include authentic passages on a range of topics
as the stimulus for specific proficiency levels. However, this study remains
one of the few that attempts to assess improved skills in an experimental
Most evaluations of institutes and seminars have relied on participants'
self-reports of gains and benefits (Cook, Stout, & Dahl, 1988; Harper,
& Lively, 1987, 1990). Satisfaction and self-assessment serve a role
in program evaluation, but the need remains for confirmation that proficiencies
have indeed improved.
ACADEMIC ALLIANCES AND INFORMAL OPPORTUNITIES
The concept of academic alliances, whereby teachers assume some responsibility
for their own pedagogical and linguistic growth, has taken strong root
in many areas of the country. Local groups identify their own areas of
need; arranging better opportunities to practice and improve language skills
is a fairly common activity. These often take the form of immersion weekends,
monthly dinners where current events and timely issues are discussed in
the target language, or similar models. Again, virtually no documentation
exists on proven effectiveness in improving skills.
STRATEGIES FOR UPGRADING PROFICIENCIES
Programs and institutes with specific missions to upgrade language proficiencies
are being designed so that learning experiences concentrate on improving
teachers' abilities in higher level tasks of narration, explanation, hypothesis,
negotiation, and supported opinion. Glisan and Phillips (1989) describe
Saturday workshops where teachers moved through various activities, some
of which were at their level of competency, and others that challenged
them at higher levels. Cook, Stout, & Dahl (1988) used video comprehension
as a means of increasing oral proficiency as well.
As future efforts to upgrade the target language proficiencies of foreign
language teachers are developed, assessment of the effectiveness of these
efforts must be an accompanying feature. If the efficacy of programs and
approaches used to upgrade proficiencies is not evaluated, teachers may
go to great effort to recycle themselves without significant improvement.
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (1986). "Proficiency
guidelines." Hastings-on-Hudson, NY: ACTFL.
Cook, D.G., Stout, D.F., & Dahl, R.C. (1988). Using video to increase
oral proficiency: A model for "Lehrerfortbildung." "Unterrichtspraxis,
21," i. pp97-101.
Glisan, E.W., Phillips, J.K. (1989). Immersion experiences for teachers:
A vehicle for strengthening language teaching. "Canadian Modern Language
Review, 45," pp478-484.
Harper, J., & Lively, M. (1987). "Improvement of instruction in
critical foreign languages: A report on the 1987 languages for communication
workshops at Tarrant County Junior College Northeast Campus." (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 287 548)
Harper, J., & Lively, M. (1990). "Strategies for proficiency in
second language acquisition, Tarrant County Junior College Northeast Campus:
Final project evaluation report, 1989." (ERIC Document Reproduction Service
No. ED 313 059)
Millman, M.M. (1988). The renaissance of foreign language teaching in
Alabama: A case study. "Foreign Language Annals, 21," pp553-559.
Wipf, J.A. (1988). Professional renewal through National Endowment for
the Humanities summer institutes: The Purdue experience. " Modern Language
Journal, 72," pp37-41. (EJ 367 564)