The ACTFL Writing Proficiency Test Administered by LTI

As discussed in previous blogs, being able to speak English is not the only skill that employees who work in a global corporate environment need to have; being able to communicate by writing is also essential to remain competitive and gain success. A measure such as the ACTFL Writing Proficiency Test (WPT), administered exclusively through Language Testing International (LTI), is a valid and reliable assessment that measures how well a person spontaneously writes in a required language by comparing their performance in four to five specific writing prompts to the criteria stated in the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012—Writing. Topics included in the WPT range from practical to social and professional  that are usually encountered in both formal and informal contexts. The language proficiency level for this test is measured from Novice to Superior.

The ACTFL WPT is usually administered online. In cases where internet access might not be available, or for script/character based languages that present keyboarding challenges, a fixed form paper/pencil booklet is also available. In order to ensure an individualized assessment, candidates complete a Background Survey and a Self-Assessment. While the Background Survey provides information related to the candidates’ work, school, home, and personal activities to aid in identifying appropriate content areas, the Self-Assessment asks candidates to select one of six descriptions they feel most accurately describes their writing ability. Once these details are obtained, the computer then generates a WPT that is customized to each candidate’s experience, background, and self-assessed proficiency level. The computer can generate any of the three possible forms:

  • Form 1 targets Novice and Intermediate tasks and may be rated Novice Low to Intermediate Mid.
  • Form 2 targets Intermediate and Advanced tasks and may be rated Novice Low to Advanced Mid.
  • Form 3 targets Advanced and Superior tasks and may be rated Novice Low to Superior.

Even though the paper-pencil booklet does not include the Background Survey and  Self-Assessment, the tasks do increase in complexity throughout the test, just as they would in the fixed-form option, ranging from simple informative writing to descriptive, narrative, and persuasive writing.

Scoring

While the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are comprised of five major levels of proficiency – Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished, the WPT only tests proficiency through Superior. The major levels of Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice are divided into High, Mid, and Low sublevels. There are no sub-levels for Superior. The description of each major level is representative of a specific range of abilities. They also present the limitations that candidates encounter when attempting to write tasks at the next higher major level.

In assessing the writing ability of newly hired employees, or while making important hiring  decisions, having an assessment that is not only standardized but also provides individualized evaluations is highly valuable. The process of selection and hiring is one that usually requires a number of resources, not just in terms of time but also in terms of how the new hire will benefit the organization in the future. Upon hiring an employee, organizations are deciding to invest in that new incoming employee, therefore it is important that they have all the necessary information to make that decision. The ACTFL WPT, a standardized measure of an applicant’s writing ability in a given language, will enable organizations to make that decision. Prior to implementing a testing program, many clients undergo an LTI Task Analysis through which LTI works with a group of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) nominated by the client to participate in a series of data collection activities to identify the communication tasks and functions; range of content/context areas; level of accuracy; and degree of elaboration needed to perform the bilingual position in question. This allows clients to set fair and appropriate, legally defensible minimum proficiency levels, as well as confirm/identify the necessary skills to be tested for the position. Given the increasingly globalized corporate environment that we live in today, employees that are proficient in multiple languages are more important than ever.

ACTFL’s Oral Proficiency Interview Delivered Exclusively by LTI

Given how important spoken English is in a corporate environment for employees to be successful, it is essential to talk about standardized measures that are currently being used to measure these skills. The ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview, or just “ACTFL OPI®” is a holistic criterion-referenced assessment, because it measures a test candidate’s functional speaking proficiency in a given language on a range of tasks according to a specific set of criteria, and it does this within the context of a real-life exchange.  The criteria used during testing and rating of ACTFL OPIs® are the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, which identify five major levels of proficiency: Distinguished, Superior, Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice, the last three of which are divided into three further sublevels (High, Mid, and Low).

Since the focus of the ACTFL OPI® is on functional proficiency, and given its adaptive nature, the test does not focus on any set of content items that need to be covered, as with traditional testing formats. Instead, topics stem from the actual interaction between the candidate and the ACTFL-certified tester. ACTFL-certified testers are thoroughly prepared to ask questions purposefully to elicit the particular functions associated with each level of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. This is done following a standardized structure consisting of four phases:

  1. Phase 1: The warmup — During the first four to five minutes, testers use conversation openers and open-ended questions that invite candidates to share general information about themselves.
  2. Phase 2: The level checks — These are questions targeting the functions and content areas that candidates can handle most comfortably, demonstrating the ability to sustain the assessment criteria while doing so.
  3. Phase 3: The probes — These are questions targeting the functions and content areas of the next higher major level that result in linguistic breakdown. They establish the ceiling or level where performance is no longer consistent and the assessment features associated with that level are no longer sustained.
  4. Phase 4: The wind down — This is the last phase of the ACTFL OPI®. It signals the end of the interview and allows candidates to regain a comfortable level to leave the interview on a positive note.

The scores reported to candidates follow the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 – Speaking, which, as mentioned above, describe language proficiency along a continuum from the very top (Distinguished: highly articulate speakers of the language) to the very bottom of the scale (Novice: little or no functional proficiency)The current ACTFL OPI® only tests through Superior (general professional proficiency), and this is the highest rating candidates can receive, even if their performance surpasses the criteria for Superior. Therefore, the full range of possible scores reported to candidates includes: Superior, Advanced High, Advanced Mid, Advanced Low, Intermediate High, Intermediate Mid, Intermediate Low, Novice High, Novice Mid, and Novice Low. It is important to mention here that the ACTFL OPI® rating scale assumes that proficiency in the language increases substantially within the various global functions and throughout a hierarchy of those functions, rather than growing linearly in an additive fashion.

The ACTFL OPI® being a proficiency-oriented assessment with no recommended cut scores, means that it should result in a description of a candidate’s spontaneous, unrehearsed language abilities. This is important to underscore, because interactions in a corporate environment will not always be such where an employee gets time to think and then speak. Most of the interactions will be casual and in a collaborative setting. Thus, being able to measure spontaneity when it comes to language assessment is a significant positive.

The ACTFL OPI® is easy to use and convenient for candidates, who, while scheduling their test, can choose three possible time slots during which they are available to take the test. The ACTFL OPI® is delivered remotely and multiple proctoring options are available to meet any organization’s or individual candidate’s needs.

Why Language Training is Critical to a Business

The world is becoming more and more interconnected every day, and new technologies and digital platforms capable of bringing brands to any customer with access to the internet are the driving force behind this unstoppable phenomenon. Additionally, to help facilitate access to these new international markets, businesses are striving to increase cross-border trade, international investment, and labor integration.

The vision for most, if not all, business leaders is to turn their humble enterprises into international brands, and there are many reasons for this. For one, successful globalization not only helps companies access the latest industry-specific technologies and innovations, but also helps attract a wider customer base. Expanding internationally can also provide companies with plenty of chances to work with a highly diverse talent pool, enabling them to significantly lower production costs and increase global competition.

There are myriad ways companies can prepare for smooth globalization, one of which is by introducing language training. Below are some of the reasons why language training is critical to a business.

Language Training Upskills Employees

As highlighted in one of our previous posts, languages can be a gateway into another culture  and help companies nurture, foster, and maintain a truly diverse and inclusive workforce that can better communicate with a global customer base. This, in turn, can significantly improve customer retention and foster brand loyalty. Language training can also heighten employees’ cultural awareness and respect for others, thereby allowing them to connect effectively with customers and improve customer satisfaction. Companies that offer language training also demonstrate that they are willing to invest in their employees, thus making the company more attractive to prospective job applicants.

Language Training Improves Business Leaders

Mainstream employees aren’t the only ones who can greatly benefit from language training. In fact, business executives and administrators can also gain an array of competencies from learning a new language. Language training can make them better leaders who can empathize and build a stronger rapport with employees from all walks of life. In the long run, this can lower employee turnover, increase morale, and improve engagement. By working in a multinational company with employees from all over the world, business leaders will be better equipped to deal with conflict management because they are able to view situations from different perspectives. Proficiency in other languages has also been noted to help business leaders become highly perceptive and sound decision-makers who have a wide personal network.

Language Training Enhances the Hiring Process

One of the most desired skills for businesses, outside of regular training, is hiring employees who are multilingual. If you can train your HR department to have language skills, this will also widen your ability to hire globally. This is becoming more common within the business community because of the shift to remote working across the globe.

Language skills could also dictate which job seekers are worth hiring. With the business world now more interconnected globally than ever before, knowing a language gives any job applicant an advantage when seeking employment. For this reason, many choose to study languages while  at the college level as they prepare themselves to enter into the workforce. Studies show that completing at least a minor in a language while in college can boost academic achievement. The good news for students is that all top learning institutions offer foreign languages as a minor, and many students opt to combine them with business degrees to expand their career options. For anyone working toward a business administration degree, they will no doubt be looking to work for global companies, non-profit organizations, or in the government/public sector. All of these sectors often work or have offices abroad, giving those who have a business degree combined with language skills a wider scope for career advancement. A prospective employee who speaks a second language has in-demand skills that can set them apart from other applicants when applying for jobs.

Having people who can speak the languages of your diverse customer base will give your business an advantage over the competition. After all, this ensures that your company values and messages are accurately translated and delivered to foreign markets. In addition, a company capable of communicating in various languages will have a higher chance of working well with external branches, resulting in a locally driven international brand.

Once you’ve offered your employees language training, you will want to test their proficiency. Language Testing International (LTI) can help you with that task.

Since 1992, LTI has been a leader in language proficiency testing for more than 120 languages in over 60 countries. We are the exclusive licensee ACTFL, and to ensure the quality and validity of our tests are up to international standards, we use only certified ACTFL testers and raters.

Our accredited ACTFL language assessments are widely recognized and accepted by major corporations (from Fortune 500s to small businesses), academic institutions, and government agencies. Each test is designed to determine the specific proficiency level of an individual’s speaking, reading, writing, and/or listening abilities and ultimately to provide a valid and defensible rating language credential.

Developing Talent: Language Proficiency Testing As Learning Impact Evidence

Building workforce capability is critical in achieving an organization’s strategic and operational objectives. Learning and development (L&D) is one of the primary talent management strategies for workforce capability building. L&D interventions could range from new hire orientation to technical skill training, compliance training, language training, or soft skill training to leadership development.

The corporate L&D market has grown to over $370 billion worldwide. In the United States alone, total spending on L&D in 2019 soared to $169 billion, which does not include government or military training dollars yet. However, there has not been much evidence that all the spending on L&D is producing more capable talent. Two-thirds of L&D professionals did not see their L&D efforts as effective in meeting their organization’s business goals. According to a study conducted by the Association for Talent Development, although 96% of the organizations surveyed did some form of learning impact evaluation, only 44% of the organizations surveyed believed their evaluation helped meet their learning goals. Lack of effective evaluation underscores the importance of using the right measurement tool in demonstrating the impact of L&D efforts.

Language Training As A Talent Development Solution

In an increasingly globalized economy, organizations rely on employees who can speak non-native tongues to win the market, whether that involves healthcare practitioners treating migrant patients or a hotel’s staff interacting with international guests. Language training enables your employees to communicate in the language your customers and clients prefer. It also makes in-house translators available for important business meetings or transactions. Multilingual employees help organizations build better client relationships and improve customer feedback.

The benefits of learning a foreign language are not limited to multinational organizations whose business relies on multiple languages. In national or local companies, learning training is one of the effective strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion continues to get traction in the workplace, because it brings various business gains to organizations, such as employee engagement and job performance.

Regardless of the purpose of language training, business needs or workplace diversity and inclusion, organizations need a strategy that connects learning to measurement, like any other talent development solutions. Measurement is the only way for organizations to demonstrate that their investment in language learning is an effective use of resources. A well-designed learning measurement plan helps organizations build the chain of impact from skill or knowledge acquisition to learning transfer / behavior change to business outcomes. While learning transfer is critical to achieving business outcomes set for a talent development solution, skill or knowledge acquisition is a prerequisite for learning transfer.

Language Proficiency Testing: Commercial Tests Versus Tests Built In-house

Once you offer language learning to your employees, measuring their improvement in the language skill is essential before you start tracking business outcomes associated with language learning. Language proficiency testing is a more suitable method of measurement than achievement testing, which assess knowledge of context-specific information. A proficiency test evaluates one’s ability to use language to accomplish real-world tasks across a wide range of topics and settings and compares one’s performance against a set of criteria for different levels of language proficiency.

When it comes to assessment tools, the buy-versus-build decision is important for organizations, and time, cost, and convenience are the key factors to consider. Building an in-house test is time consuming and requires specialized assessment expertise in your workforce. Not all tests are created equally. A good language proficiency test needs to be reliable and valid. Reliability and validity of a test are established through a rigorous test development process, which includes describing test specifications and desired statistical characteristics of a test, item writing and review, pilot studies, item analysis, and reliability and validity studies. Besides the cost of test development, ongoing costs exist in online hosting, maintaining databases of test scores, revising items, and continuously collecting validity evidence.

Alternatively, organizations may choose to use commercially available tests, which vendors can implement quickly and host, update, and maintain. Test quality has already been demonstrated with sound psychometric properties and with large volumes of validation data across organizations and countries. In language proficiency testing, organizations do not need tests with the organization’s values and culture embedded, as they would in other talent assessment tools. In other words, organizations do not lose their competitive advantage by using commercial language tests. Neither do companies incur huge test licensing fees, since many testing vendors, like Language Testing International (LTI), provide affordable language proficiency tests. LTI helps organizations measure language proficiency in speaking, writing, reading, and listening, separately or altogether, with certifications in more than 120 languages, online or over the phone, making its proficiency testing available anywhere in the world.

Conclusion

The increasing costs and competition for corporate resources have pushed the need to demonstrate the effectiveness of L&D through various learning impact evidence. Language proficiency testing provides one type of impact evidence that is necessary for receiving business gains associated with language learning. Testing tools can be either bought from testing vendors or built in house. However, comparing the pros and cons of both options suggests that organizations would gain the most by using commercially available language proficiency tests over those built in-house.

References

Helfat, C. E. (2007). Dynamic capabilities: Foundations. In C. E. Helfat, S. Finkelstein, W. Mitchell, M. A. Peteraf, H. Singh, D. J. Teece, & S. G. Winter (Eds.), Dynamic capabilities: Understanding strategic change in organizations (pp. 1–18). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Training Industry, Inc. (2020, April 1). Size of the training industry. https://trainingindustry.com/wiki/outsourcing/size-of-training-industry

Prove and Improve L&D effectiveness. (2018). In Gartner. https://www.gartner.com/en/human-resources/insights/learning-measurement

Ho, M. (2016). Evaluating learning: Getting to Measurements that matter. Alexandria, VA: Association for Talent Development. https://www.td.org/research-reports/evaluating-learning

Gurchiek, K. (2017 May 3). Language Training Speaks to Improved Business Results. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/organizational-and-employee-development/pages/language-training-speaks-to-improved-business-results.aspx

Ho, C-H. (2020, December 30). Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in The Workplace: Language Training. https://blog.languagetesting.com/2020/12/30/promoting-diversity-and-inclusion-in-the-workplace-language-training/

SIOP Top 10 Work Trends. https://www.siop.org/Business-Resources/Top-10-Workplace-Trends?utm_source=SIOP&utm_medium=Website&utm_campaign=FOWpage&utm_content=FOWpage

5 Ways Language Training Improves Employee Performance. https://www.td.org/insights/5-ways-language-training-improves-employee-performance

Best In Class: Is Your Company Multilingual Enough? https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesinsights/2017/04/07/best-in-class-is-your-company-multilingual-enough/?sh=4d3c619b63bf

Alliger, G.M., Tannenbaum, S.I., Bennett Jr., W., Traver, H., & Shotland, A. (1997). A meta-analysis of the relations among training criteria. Personnel Psychology, 50, 341-358.

Understanding Proficiency. https://www.languagetesting.com/lti-information/understanding-proficiency

Choosing Effective Talent Assessments to Strengthen Your Organization https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/special-reports-and-expert-views/documents/effective-talent-assessments.pdf

The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (2014 Edition) https://www.apa.org/science/programs/testing/standards.

Hinkin, T. R. (1998). A brief tutorial on the development of measures for use in survey questionnaires. Organizational Research Methods, 1, 104-121.