Transitioning to Proficiency Part I: Advice From a Recent Convert

Would you rather conjugate verbs in another language or have a conversation with someone who speaks another language? Unless you are a true grammar geek, you prefer communicating.


Would you rather conjugate verbs in another language or have a conversation with someone who speaks another language? Unless you are a true grammar geek, you prefer communicating. That is why teaching through comprehensible input and using a proficiency-based practice is what we language educators should all be doing with our students. The question should not be whether to transition to a proficiency-based curriculum, but instead when and how to begin the transition.

My department has recently adopted the proficiency-based EntreCulturas and EntreCultures series for Spanish and French. It has been a challenging process, but during the transition, I have learned a few things I would like to share with you:

Lean on Each Other

We are teachers, and we have one of the hardest jobs in the world, especially since the Coronavirus pandemic began. That is why it is important to lean on, and learn from, each other. We should not feel pressure to create everything ourselves. Every language teacher knows that the communicative approach to teaching is what is best for language learners, and everyone has their own niche and area of expertise. So, work together with your colleagues to create amazing lesson plans and activities for your department and students.

Beyond your school or district, though, do not be afraid to follow some leaders in the profession. Read the Proficiency Talks blog at Wayside, and join the On Your Way(side) to Proficiency Facebook group. In these, Wayside’s instructional strategists offer both activity ideas and advice, and are available to answer your questions about using the curricula. Speaking of Facebook, it, as well as Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, have accounts by leaders in the field who provide practical ideas and suggestions.

Do Not “Chuck the Textbook”

We have all heard someone say it: “I chucked my textbook and created my own curriculum!” My guess is that you, like me, find this idea somewhat exhilarating but also terrifying. I mean, who has time to develop an entire curriculum? Rather than spending the countless hours creating your own curriculum, if it is textbook adoption time, adopt a proficiency-based series like EntreCulturas (Spanish) or EntreCultures (French). The work is done for you! Each unit is planned around I can statements, and all activities and concepts are designed to be taught through comprehensible input.

This way, rather than chucking your textbook, you can use it as a guide.

Create your materials using the book, and follow the ACTFL World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages, incorporating the ACTFL Can-do statements.

For example, each day should have a language objective in a can-do (I can statement) format. If you are teaching about family, have a statement/objective like “I can describe my family members and pets.” This tells the students exactly what they will be able to do WITH the language at the end of class. Your statement should NOT say: “I can conjugate the verb ser and use adjectives.” This is not language, and it is not proficiency-based teaching.

Teach that Grammar

Teach grammar, just do not let it be the focus of your teaching. I know, this is the hardest part. As teachers, we love grammar, and we want to teach it. However, we know having students memorize conjugation charts and meshing those charts with a canned vocabulary list is poor practice, according to the latest research in second language acquisition. Instead, teach students grammar through vocabulary, using an inductive approach. Use popular and effective strategies such as circling and story-asking to emphasize grammar structures.

Also, teach those structures as vocabulary words! Instead of teaching the verb “ser,” teach “soy = I am, eres = you are, es = s/he is,” etc. You can then put those structures with other vocabulary words for your unit. For example: Yo soy atleta. Me gusta practicar deportes. ¿Y tú? ¿Tú eres atleta?” Using it in context allows the learner to hear the language, focus on familiar structures, and to use it with you and others, as opposed to memorizing a chart and a list for a test.

Once you have reached the end of your unit and students are using and producing language, you can then present the chart (if you wish). This is another way to scaffold, and it could be beneficial to some students. However, we must recognize that it is not natural in the language learning process, and should only be used only after students have been using the language. And, once you are comfortable, try getting rid of it all together. However, we cannot hate on our colleagues who still use the chart. The transition is a process, we are all at different places in our journey to a proficiency-based teaching approach.

Take a Risk!

Try a new strategy every day. And if it does not work and you fail, that is GOOD! You can only get better. I highly recommend trying something new on a day you are being observed - you will then get feedback! Administrators and instructional coaches love to see teachers taking risks to improve the learning of students. If you do not have a planned observation, ask someone to observe you. Feedback is so important! Never fall back to an old strategy you are comfortable with, just because you are being observed. Jump out of your comfort zone and eat that frog, as they say. You and your students will only learn and get better!

I am going to be straight with you: the transition is tough. But it is glorious and well worth it once you begin a proficiency-based curriculum! Remember: work together, work to help your students produce, create, and use language, and always try something new. Use your resources and never be afraid to ask for help, for feedback, or for an explanation.

We are teachers—we know what is best for our students. In the 21st century, preparing students for our globalized world is necessary, so we know the best thing for them is to leave our rooms at a proficiency level in which they can communicate with others in the target language.

Conner McNeely

Conner McNeely

Conner is a Spanish teacher on the southside of Indianapolis, IN. He earned his BA in Spanish and Secondary Education from Franklin College, and is currently pursuing his M.A.Ed. in Spanish at the University of Nebraska – Kearney.

Conner is a member of the Junta Ejecutiva for AATSP-Indiana, and is the recipient of the 2019 Rising Star Award from the Indiana Foreign Language Teachers’ Association. Additionally, he is a leader both in his local union and the Indiana State Teachers Association, where he is a fierce advocate for students, teachers, and traditional public schools.
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