04 March 2015

What's a Novice?

Switching to proficiency-based evaluation, one of my biggest problems was understanding the breakdown of the different levels and what tasks are actually appropriate for each.

Back in the day, I would require paragraphs on Spanish I tests because I thought that's what rigor meant, not because students had demonstrated readiness for that level of complexity. Conversely, I obsessively sheltered those same students from texts with *gasp* the past tense! I was convinced they couldn't ever make meaning from even a picture book with verb endings they didn't know, though research--and parenting toddlers--says that grammar is the least important factor in making meaning. Were it not for Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell of Musicuentos, I might never have even bothered questioning what appropriate expectations and assessments for novices might be.

I've come a long way.

Two ACTFL tools have been instrumental in helping me grasp the progression of proficiency levels:

Now, as a department of one at an early college, I will probably never have students take the actual AAPPL exam: I deal almost exclusively with Novices, simply because that's how their schedules work with college classes. I mean, I'm trying to push my Spanish IIs to Intermediate this semester, but the bulk of my work still has to be with pushing Novices higher, and so it is what it means to be a Novice that I am most interested in breaking down.

Interpretive mode: input
With interpretive tasks, all Novices will probably require repeated exposure to the text. Novice Low may rely more on visuals while Novice Mid and High learn to connect with their prior knowledge of the topic at hand as well as cognates and parts of words (think stems, verb endings, plurals, masculine vs feminine).

Beyond levels of engagement with the context, Novice Low, Mid, and High can basically be divided up as follows:
  • Low  =  words
  • Mid  =  phrases and sentences
  • High  =  main ideas in short passages

Interpersonal and presentational: output
When it comes to interpersonal and presentational communication, Novices are evaluated pretty much exclusively on what "teachers and others who are used to language learners can understand":
  • N1 - "some of what you are saying."
  • N2 - "much of what you are saying."
  • N3 - "most of what you are saying."
  • N4 - "what you are saying most of the time."
Novice Low and Novice Mid focus on talking about yourself whereas Novice High expands to "yourself and your life."

Based on what I can gather from what the ACTFL Can-Do statements in Novice Low and Mid versus Novice High, the difference between yourself and your life breaks down like this:

  • your name, age, and where you live
  • your address, email, phone number
  • your birthday
  • what you are like/look like
  • what you're doing
  • where you're going or went
  • your family members
  • your family members' ages/relation to you/hobbies
  • friends/classmates/coworkers
  • what you eat/learn/do
  • likes and dislikes
  • your classes
  • your daily/weekend activities
  • your house/room/school
  • your town/city/state/country
Your life:
  • family member characteristics
  • directions
  • making plans
  • weather maps
  • events
  • purchases (e.g. meal or ticket)
  • describing family, friends, school, and work
  • telling what you do (school, work weekends)
  • talk about favorite artists/performers
  • describe landmarks/vacations
  • others' likes and dislikes
  • others' activities
  • describing routines
  • weekend and vacation plans
Now Herr Sauer and Sra. Carnes have given voice to a complaint I've had about novice Spanish since my breakup with textbooks: doing what we've always done because we've always done it. Now my own seven-year-old son is finally becoming a budding bilingual, after years of telling me, "Mom, my voice is in ENGLISH." Part of it has to do with a desire to connect with his own Novice Low Abuela, and part of it has to do with relationships and wanting to DO something with the language.

Paolo and Pablo let the moms talk about their schools: the boys wanted to jump right in--literally--and make up pool games to play together. So I can't say I'm 100% on-board with Novice Can-Do statements about weather maps and routines and describing landmarks: Paolo wants to email Pablo about his geode crystals he got for Christmas--where does that fit? Does he need to practice telling how old his sister is and be Novice High before he does it?

I can, however, say that taking the Can-Do Statements and AAPPL rubrics give me a clearer picture about what he can do, even if it's just a few words Mom helps him string together until he gets the hang of phrases (besides no hay and Tú: zombi.)


  1. I am so glad to see other teachers that have made the move to a proficiency-based classroom. I am one of 9 Spanish teachers in my district and the ONLY one that has made this move. I often feel put down because the other teachers think my kids don't know anything because they haven't memorized every verb in the preterite tense. What I see in my classroom every day is so much different though - I KNOW my students can understand, speak, and write despite the fact that they have had zero direct grammar instruction.

  2. How can they write if they cannot conjugate verbs? I have a student who came to me from a school where she had no direct grammar instruction and she could not write a sentence to save her soul. She couldn't identify the verb in a sentence. Not criticizing, genuinely curious as to how they can write or speak correctly if they don't receive direct instruction. Our population shuts down immediately if we try to do stuff like this and they cannot understand us. They won't even try or engage. So then they get behind.

    How do you "test" and have data for evaluation purposes?

    Our kids won't learn their vocab. They want to treat class as a passive exercise. Trying to change that culture is very difficult.

    1. How did we learn to form sentences in our first language? It was a gradual process with trial and error. If a two-year-old mosconjugates, their speaking abilities are not ruined for life.

      I "test" with IPAs based on communication skills, scoring with the AAPPL rubrics linked above.

      Classes based on genuine and MEANINGFUL communication are much less affected by passivity, because the purpose is immediate and apparent. For instance, the self-improvement unit my Spanish 2s just did involved something they WANTED to talk and read about.

      I'm not saying it's all roses and sunshine, but if I'm not just playing some artificial game with them in exchange for a grade, the interactions are altered. Also, be forewarned, it probably took 3-4 years for ME to be able to maintain that kind of interaction. It's a messy transition, but completely worth it.

    2. Agree! We don't ask children in L1 to construct complex sentences in writing until 6 or 7 (if even!), but they do understand written and spoken language and can communicate their basic ideas in spoken and written language. As they progress towards each proficiency level, they learn more strategies, rules, and complex ideas. So much stress is put into correctness in the Levels 1-2 that students will loose interest and leave for another elective. (Idea shared by Noah Geisel on Twitter at #swcolt16).

  3. I really appreciate your careful list of "can do's" at each level. We've been working hard on proficiency for the last two years. My problem, I think, is preparedness for AP. I now have students who really struggle with basic grammar topics. I want to focus on proficiency, but also gain come measure of accuracy. How do you prepare students for AP in your program? How many years do you have before AP? (we have levels 1, 2, 3, and AP--4 years total)--Marie Stevens

    1. Because I'm at an early college, we don't have any AP, and students have to specially request anything beyond 2--mostly because their electives are generally college classes. However, the students who have been motivated enough to pursue higher levels are not EXTRMELY accurate, but they absorb a lot and advance through Intermediate Mid no problem.