Real World Perspective on Language Proficiency

With the number of non-English speaking households in the United States continuing to grow exponentially, schools throughout the nation have witnessed a commensurate increase in the number of students attending English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Many school districts nationwide have struggled to accommodate the needs of children who often enter the educational system with limited or non-existent English.

While we have existing means to measure progress in school, primarily grades, there is ample evidence that exists to support the notion that grades alone do not necessarily indicate proficiency (or lack thereof) in a subject, and language learning is no exception. Standardized testing is yet another existing method to evaluate student learning and readiness for subsequent grade levels, but this to has been widely criticized as inadequate and inaccurate as a true measure of ability. In both cases, grades and standardized testing only provide a very small glimpse into what students can do, and they are not an effective means of getting a comprehensive view of overall proficiency.

So how then are educators to evaluate how much their ESL students are learning? How can they determine what real world English language skills their pupils have acquired?

The idea of standardized proficiency testing to evaluate language skills is hardly a new one, and several proficiency scales and tests exist. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has developed perhaps the most well-known and widely used set of Proficiency Guidelines to help evaluate language proficiency, which have existed in some form for nearly 30 years. Tests associated with the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are in widespread usage among Fortune 500 companies and other public and private sector actors, but remain underutilized in the ESL sector.

Many ESL teachers may be unaware that resources developed by ACTFL are relevant to them, as English is not a “foreign language” in the United States. Naturally, however, as it is a foreign language to the children learning it in ESL programs, the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines can prove an indispensable means of ensuring that ESL students are acquiring the language skills that they need to succeed at school and beyond.

This article provides a clear and insightful look at the way applying the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines has helped many ESL teachers throughout the country. With a thoughtful discussion of what the guidelines are, and how they are relevant to best practices for ESL educators, it sheds light on a very valuable and often overlooked tool. Feedback from seasoned ESL educators who have successfully integrated the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines into their curriculums gives a real world perspective on how they can be used, and how using them affects the overall quality of the academic program.

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