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There are four ACTFL levels for language learners: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, and Superior. While Distinguished is also a rating, it is unlikely to be applicable at the K-12 level. The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are the most widely accepted language learning standard in the United States for many languages, including French. As such, these guidelines can be used to measure and set realistic goals for learners of all levels, from those who are just beginning their French language journey to those who have been speaking the language for many years.
ACTFL levels and hours of instruction
At the end of a first year high school French class, students should be at ACTFL level Novice Mid or for most skills, but still Novice Low for speaking. This means they are able to understand simple oral information in the language and are capable of introducing themselves in basic terms. ACTFL level 1 includes approximately 135-150 hours of instruction. Assuming a 180 day school year with classes of slightly under 60 minutes per day, this would seem to be a reasonable level to achieve.
By the end of a second-year high school class, most students should reach ACTFL level of Novice high. At this level, they are able to effectively communicate with other speakers by asking questions and describing feelings. This is after 270-300 hours of instruction.
By the end of the third year of French, most French students should be at ACTFL’s Intermediate Low level or higher. This includes understanding short conversations on familiar topics as well as being able to express opinions in written form. By the end of the fourth year, students should reach ACTFL’s Intermediate mid level or higher. This means they are able to hold a conversation with peers and communicate opinions in both written and spoken forms.
These ACTFL levels serve as benchmarks that French language learners can use to track their progress throughout their high school experience, and allowing teachers to establish realistic goals for each year of study. With consistent effort and dedication, students will be on track to reach the ACTFL level Intermediate Mid by the time they graduate from high school if they take four years of a language class.
A major disconnect
In my school, there is a definite break between the Spanish teachers and the teachers of other languages. We offer a variety of languages, including Spanish, French, ASL, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, German and Farsi. Due to the difference in difficulty and required skills (ASL doesn’t have reading or writing), our district recognizes that certain languages will not reach the same levels as others. But there seems to be a MAJOR disconnect between the Spanish teachers and the French teachers, with the Spanish teachers insisting that students can/should reach ACTFL level intermediate mid at the end of second year.
Where does this disconnect come from? In my view, there are two different major issues at play. The first is that the Spanish teachers may simply be having a different experience than the French teachers. French students tend to come in speaking NO French and having NO exposure to the language at all. Spanish students in our area may already speak some Spanish, or they have at least been exposed to it a bit due to the large Hispanic population in the area.
The second possibility – and the one that I think is more at play – is that there is a genuine misunderstanding in what the different proficiency levels really look like. Some teachers think that a student who speaks in sentences is novice high, and that a student who makes a slightly more complex sentence is intermediate low. Two things make this a possibly incorrect assumption – are the students consistently speaking in novel sentences, or just basic memorized formulaic sentences? And are the students using different time-frames consistently? After 1 or 2 years, the odds are pretty low that this is the case.
Comparing ACTFL levels to CEFR
If teachers were to compare the ACTFL standards to the CEFR standards, they would quickly realize that the ACTFL guidelines are generally correct as far as what can really be accomplished. Let’s take a look at the CEF guidelines to see how they correlate to the ACTFL standards.
Both ACTFL and CEFR provide a framework to help learners track and measure their progress as they develop proficiency in a language. ACTFL divides proficiency into four categories: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, and Superior. Similarly, CEFR has six distinct levels—A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2—which represent basic user to proficient user of the language.
At the Novice level according to ACTFL levels guidelines, students can understand simple oral information in French but may not yet be able to hold conversations or express opinions written form. This would equate to an A1.1 level on the CEFR scale. As students reach ACTFL’s Intermediate Low level at the end of a third-year French class, this would compare to an A1.2 CEFR level which includes being able to communicate with other speakers by asking questions and expressing feelings.
When students reach ACTFL level Intermediate Mid by a fourth-year French class this equates roughly to an A2 CEFR level which includes understanding short conversations on familiar topics as well as being able to express opinions in written form. One thing to consider is that many countries require a B2 level in order to apply for citizenship. Do your fourth-year students have the skills and abilities needed to live and function in the target country? On the comparison to ACTFL, a B2 is equal to ACTFL level Advanced Mid!
Once one looks closely at the CEFR ratings to see what is considered novice, intermediate and advanced it becomes immediately obvious that teachers are over-estimating what their students are doing. Many times, I believe this is due to teachers not understanding that the gap between levels isn’t linear. The time it takes to move from novice-low to novice-mid is much shorter than the gap from novice-high to intermediate-low.
Perhaps more training in recognizing what an ACTFL level really looks like is in order. There are quite a few examples of CEFR tests online, but not quite as many using the ACTFL scale. I’ve watched some of the videos of the B2 tests and the idea that a student will reach that level in just a couple of years is quite optimistic. I am working under the assumption of conditions similar to most high school situations – the student has an hour at best of instruction per day and has few opportunities outside of class to use the language, either through availability or desire.
I do know that the teachers in my district have done a backwards design when planning for curriculum – at which ACTFL level do students need to be at the end of the 4th year course in order to be successful on the AP test? They then divide the levels by the number of semesters and that’s the target. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily jibe with reality – that students do not move 1 level per semester. I work under the assumption that ACTFL has done enough research that we can trust their numbers.
What can be done?
So what is to be done? I suppose more education can be helpful. I have used some of the sites produced by the French government to promote language learning and it made me realize that even my novice high students can only do the most basic activities – the A1.1 activities. My second year students can do some of the A1.1 and are just now getting into the A1.2 activities.
I’m especially spending time working on getting them to bridge the gap between A2 and B1 – this means reading and being exposed to vocabulary and structures about topics not related to their own personal lives. I’ve been writing a bunch of short reading practices to push them a little bit in this area. The topics are interesting, but about things outside of their experience. They aren’t long readings, but a little more advanced than what they see in their textbooks. Bundle 1, Bundle 2 and Bundle 3 are available now (individual sets are also available) and I’m working on a final bundle so that there will be enough readings for every day of the school year.