Professional Development

Clarifying Performance and Proficiency


What is the difference between performance and proficiency? There is so much information floating around about proficiency levels and performance descriptors that it can be hard to sort out. It is important to understand the difference, though, so let’s explore the most useful information and learn how to share it with our students.

Performance vs. Proficiency

It is important for teachers to recognize the difference between performance and proficiency so both teachers and students are on the same page.

Performance describes what a student is able to do with language that they have learned and practiced. Performance is based on classroom instruction, practiced, and stays within familiar content and contexts.

Proficiency describes what a language learner is able to do at any time, anywhere, under any circumstances. Proficiency is independent of specific instruction or curriculum, spontaneous, spans broad content and contexts, and demonstrates sustained performance across all tasks and contexts.

Confusion between these two can arise when teachers need to report on district or state standards using a proficiency lens but the evidence that they collect from students is through performance-based assessments. Students may demonstrate a much higher level of language ability when completing a performance-based assessment in class than if they were to take a true proficiency-based assessment such as an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI).

The ACTFL Performance Descriptors remind us, “In an instructional environment, the content and tasks are controlled, resulting in higher expectations of learners’ performance compared to how they perform in a non-instructional environment.”

The difference between performance and proficiency is important for teachers to understand in order to set realistic expectations for students. If you would like to share this difference with students, give them some examples of scenarios and ask them to choose which is an example of performance and which is proficiency.

Proficiency Levels

For most K-12 language teachers, the majority of students will achieve proficiency levels somewhere between novice low and advanced low. While it may not be necessary to identify exactly where students are on ACTFL’s proficiency pyramid, it is a good practice to have a general idea of where a student is so that reasonable expectations can be established.

Remember the strengths of a novice-level student. They can produce formulaic language by listing, naming and identifying. They can discuss highly practiced topics in everyday situations. They understand and communicate using words, phrases and some simple sentences.

Intermediate-level students will be able to express thoughts and preferences while creating with language and will be able to communicate about familiar topics. They will be able to produce sentences and strings of sentences.

Detailed descriptions of each level can be found in the ACTFL materials linked below. By recognizing where students are on their journey toward proficiency, teachers can better adapt lessons for their learners and know how to coach them to increase their proficiency.

If you need a refresher on proficiency levels, you can find more information about ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines here: ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines

To learn more about the ACTFL performance descriptors, check out this page: ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners