Bootcamp Takeaway 1: ACTFL Proficiency Scales


Greetings from Portland!  This week, I am fortunate enough to be attending an OWL bootcamp in Portland, Oregon.  Thank you St. Mary’s.  Today we had a workshop run by ACTFL trainer, Arnold Bielcher.  The goal of the training was to familiarize the group with the various ACTFL proficiency levels (in multiple languages!) and then discuss how we move our students through the levels.  Here are my top three takeaways:


When questioning students always base your questions around what they have put on the table.  For instance, if a student states he lives with his grandparents, don’t ask about his parents.  If a student mentions she went to the movies with a friend, don’t ask about the boyfriend. This seems simple, but it is easy to let curiosity get the best of us.  This also keeps the student at ease, allowing for better language production.


In order to move students across levels you must ask questions at the next level.  This means novice students must be given situations or questions that force them to describe, compare or ask questions. Intermediates must be asked to narrate and advanced must be ask to problem solve and discuss abstract situations.  However, the questions cannot not stay at the more advanced level. There should be a continual raising and then lowering and then raising of question level.  We don’t want to stress them out and cause break down!


When assessing proficiency level:

1.  Look at Function.  Read or listen to the student work and ask yourself,  “Did the student answer the question?”.  Could they effectively list, describe, compare, ask questions, give opinion, narrate or analyze?  Could they do what they were asked to do?

2.  Look at the Context. How rich or varied was the vocabulary?  To what extent could they talk or write about the question or did they stray from the topic?

3.  Look at FORM.  Did the student respond in lists of words, chunks of language, phrases,  sentences or paragraph?  Were the sentences original or were they memorized?

4.  Finally, look for Accuracy / Comprehensibility.

Traditionally, language teachers want to evaluate accuracy first.  For example, is there correct verb usage or adjective noun agreement?   Yet, with proficiency grading, this comes last. We must believe that correct grammar will come with time.  Whether the question is answered and how is more important than the accuracy.







Methodology: What makes an OWL teacher an OWL teacher?


OK, a bit of review. An OWL teacher is a teacher who believes in organic language acquisition and who employes the methods of Organic World Languages.  Then what are those methods?  How is the OWL teacher different?  How is the classroom different?  How is the learning experience different? You can read exactly how OWL defines the methodology here, but the point of my blog is not to reiterate the information on the official site.  Instead, here in my words are the methods that define me and my classroom.


All desks are pushed aside and students sit or stand in a circle.  This circle changes shape over the course of the class as students complete class activities.  However, every class begins and ends in the circle.  In addition, students come back to the circle after every activity.  It encourages participation and allows students to hear one another clearly, but most importantly it emphasizes the fact that language learning is social and cannot be done with out constant interaction.


Class conversation, school happenings and current events shape my classroom.  I am not tied to what comes next in the text book nor in the curriculum.  I am able to base my lessons on topics and issues that are of high interest to my students while simultaneously covering curriculum benchmarks.  For instance, Justin Bieber’s arrest was the basis of a lesson on stages of life and responsibility.


Students are given a baseline evaluation and individualized objectives at the beginning of each quarter. They then have one formative assessment a month to alert them to their progress and then are evaluated again at the end of the quarter.  Limiting assessment makes students see what language really is, a communication tool, not an academic subject.  Students become more creative with their language, make more mistakes and without knowing it, learn more.


Team building is essential to a successful OWL classroom and as such there are many games and we all know games can be loud.  There is lots of repetition of vocabulary and of phrases which again can get loud. Finally, there is a huge emphasis on interpersonal communication and as such students are constantly conversing in groups in two or three.  With 20 or so people talking at once the volume rises quickly!

5.  100% IMMERSION

From day one there is an understanding that English is not allowed in the circle.   If students need a word, they must either describe it, draw it or act it out.  Likewise, it is OK if a student does not understand everything.  The goal is to understand the gist of a conversation. As students become braver in asking for vocabulary and adapt to not understanding everything, the need for English quickly disappears.

Terminology: What is an OWL educator?


The OLA vs OWL Educator

As OWL techniques have infiltrated classrooms throughout the nation, there has been some debate amongst teachers. What do we call ourselves? Who are we? Are we OLA teachers? Are we OWL teachers? What does it mean to be an OLA teacher, an OWL teacher?

Over the past year, I have started to refer to myself as both an OLA and an OWL educator to the confusion of both my colleagues and parents.  To clarify, OWL stands for Organic World Languages, an educational organization based in Portland, Oregon.  This fabulous group under the direction of Darcy Rogers developed a teaching method that promotes Organic Language Acquisition (OLA). OLA is the theory that language learning should be natural and painless and mirror the processes of first language acquisition.  I ascribe to this theory and therefore call myself an OLA teacher.  Additionally, I am also an OWL teacher as I employ the specific methods endorsed by Organic World Languages.