ADVANCE: Making Proficiency Real for Preservice Teachers

ADVANCE: Making Proficiency Real for Preservice Teachers

Tell me and I forget

Teach me and I remember

Involve me and I learn

                  -Benjamin Franklin

The publication of the ACTFL Proficiency guidelines in 1986 was a watershed moment for the field. At last we had a common yardstick to measure learners' proficiency levels. Better yet, that yardstick was marked with proficiency levels, not the number of words memorized or chapters covered.

But the yardstick metaphor breaks down in practice. In order to become truly proficient at rating learners on the Guidelines, requires a significant investment of time and money in OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview) training. It was as if you had to graduate from ‘yardstick school’ to get a license before you were allowed to measure anything.

As reported in the article: Avant ADVANCE, Avant is addressing this problem by making its rater training system for STAMP available to the public under the name of Avant ADVANCE. Originally designed for internal use to ensure reliable ratings for STAMP speaking and writing items, ADVANCE is a cost-effective, time-efficient way to help teachers internalize the real meaning of proficiency levels through online tutorials, lots of practice, and specific, immediate feedback. Several innovative districts have used ADVANCE to give their teachers a deep, common understanding of proficiency levels, as reported here. 

But what about pre-service teachers? How much better could teachers be if they began their careers with this deep and nuanced understanding of proficiency levels when they first enter the profession?

This term, I am teaching a graduate class in language pedagogy. Most students have had no significant teaching experience or training. In other words, they’re newcomers to the notion of proficiency.

We first reviewed the Guidelines and CanDo statements. As expected, students came away with vague impressions of proficiency, but little ability to actually recognize performances typical of the various proficiency levels. This is as far as an introductory pedagogy class usually goes. 

But these students then went through the ADVANCE training. First, starting at the Novice level, (Levels 1,2, and 3 on the STAMP scale) they took a short-and-sweet tutorial explaining the system and key criteria for proficiency levels. Within 30 minutes, they dove into practice items where they got immediate feedback on whether their judgments were right or wrong and, most importantly, why. When they got to the point where their judgments were 90% correct, they could move on to the next set of levels.

Each week, my students write a short paper describing how they would apply what we learned in class — assessment, task design, etc. — to a hypothetical “target class” they might teach in the future. After the ADVANCE training, I noticed these papers began referencing specific attributes of various proficiency levels. Here are a few examples:

  • “The communicative task is designed to help Novice learners begin to create strings of sentences.”

  • “Novice learners are limited to listing, so my oral assessment would ask them to identify objects in a picture.”

  • “Before the class begins, I will conduct a needs analysis to determine whether students are able to create with language using a variety of structures.”

We have come a long way since 1986. A generation of young teachers with a concrete and intuitive understanding of proficiency levels and their descriptions will ensure that this trajectory continues. 

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