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Aurora Institute

What Can We Learn From Our Foreign Language Teachers?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Base Learning on Mastery, not Seat Time


I stumbled upon an article Proficiency-based assessment and personalized learning: What world language educators have known for years that described the process that World Language studies used as they moved toward a competency-based system over the past thirty years.

In 1993, four organizations (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the American Association of Teachers of French, the American Association of Teachers of German, and the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese) developed standards for learning foreign languages designed around five themes (Communication, Culture, Connection, Comparison and Communities). Click here for the foreign language standards and proficiency guidelines.

According to the author, embracing standards immediately challenged the notion of grade levels:

The most evident change to the foreign languages standards at that time was replacing grade-level standards with proficiency-level expectations. The proficiency levels are: novice, intermediate, advanced and superior. Additionally, each of these levels (except superior) was further subdivided into low, mid and high. The proficiency levels were defined separately by the ability to listen, speak, read and write in the target language. These new foreign languages standards were framed differently than standards in the past. A Novice Low proficiency level, whether taught to a first grader or a 10th grader, would contain the same standard content — gone were grade-level standards.

Forty states now base their state standards upon this framework. Yet they’ve been operating in the traditional world of Carnegie units and bell-curved grades.  Perhaps we can find leadership and expertise behind the doors of our foreign language classrooms. Perhaps competency-based foreign language teachers in states and districts with enabling policies can now unleash the power of time so that students can reach for higher achievement. Certainly, strong foreign language programs are important for recognizing the assets our ELL students bring to school, helping all of our students  compete for college and jobs, and for our country to navigate globalization.

A final thought — in considering the world language standards, perhaps if we apply competency-based instruction to ELL instruction, we might finally be able to open the door for students to fully access academic literacy across the disciplines. In January, I’ll be writing about how ELL in competency-based schools.