Simply stated, Proficiency is the ability to use language in a real-world situation, Performance is the ability to use language in a limited and controlled situation such as a classroom or controlled situation-based exchange, and Achievement is the ability to repeat language elements that have been taught and mastered at some level. Each has a role in language learning, but only proficiency is what people use to communicate in the real world.

Why Memorizing Vocabulary Is Important

Language learners at the novice level need to focus on memorizing vocabulary and the basic building blocks of language so achievement exercises/tests are particularly appropriate and important at this level.

So you can just ignore those ads for some language learning programs that claim you won’t need to do any of that needless memorization. Memorization is important, but it is only part of the picture. Without beginning to apply those memorized words and phrases into an unscripted proficiency-based learning environment, learners will not learn how to improvise and respond to the unexpected and incompletely understood situations they will experience in the real world. Instead, they risk becoming fearful of any situation in which they do not know every single word.

This fear of the uncertain is the experience that many learners have sadly been given in traditional classrooms that focus on rote memorization and regurgitation.

So, achievement assessments are important, but if used excessively, can produce learners who are incapable of real-world use of the language elements they have learned in class.

Proficiency Situations And Real-world Language

As learners advance and accumulate more building blocks of language, classroom exercises and assessments that encourage learners to practice familiar topics in an unscripted, but comfortable environment can be effective in easing them into real-world proficiency situations.

These performance type exercises and assessments lie between achievement and proficiency but are clearly distinct from proficiency, which is based on topics that are unplanned and potentially unpracticed, but that is appropriate for a learner’s level. A proficiency assessment that questions a novice learner about politics will be meaningless, but one that asks about personal information about an exchange student, for example, is appropriate even if the learner hasn’t studied vocabulary or a dialogue specific to that situation.

The exchange student question will ask the learner to pull together language that s/he has learned in a way that replicates real-world language, i.e. proficiency situation.

The ILR And ACTFL proficiency guidelines

On the US Government ILR language scale, from which the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines is derived, novice level learners are labeled as Zeros. While novices are of course not zeros, the government appropriately describes them as non-functional in the language.

It is only once they rise to the intermediate level that they earn a One on the ILR scale. At this point, learners have enough language building blocks that they can survive in the language and begin to learn and expand their language skills on their own. This makes it easier to teach and assess proficiency because the learner has a solid foundation and the requisite skills to work with and engage with the language.

One of the great challenges we see in our national Avant STAMP assessment data is that a majority of learners rise to novice-mid or novice-high after one year of study. While that is a positive outcome, after three years of study a majority of students are still novices and have not broken through into the intermediate level.

How could this be? Why are the learners hitting a ceiling at that level? I will write more about this in an upcoming blog entry.