ODE Around the State

ODE World Languages Team

Putting Proficiency-based Learning into Perspective: Shift Happens!

Ryan Wertz, Kathy Shelton and Paula Sondej, World Language Consultants, Ohio Department of Education

Centuries ago Aristotle imparted this bit of wisdom: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” When you consider the implications of Ohio’s new learning standards and the requirements of Ohio’s new educator evaluation system, this has never been more apparent!  Several key factors coming together all at once have resulted in a new paradigm for second language teaching and learning that has been long in the making.  And it reads a bit like a mathematical equation:

New Learning Standards (2012) + OTES (2013) + Curricular Guidance & Proficiency Targets (2014) = MAJOR SHIFT!

So, what is this “new” paradigm – this major shift that is demanding our attention and forcing so many of us out of our comfort zones and into uncharted territory?  Understanding the many nuances of this shift is critical to public sector world language educators. Our very survival as teaching professionals is directly tied to our ability to understand the numerous, significant changes that are occurring in our field.  We must implement them successfully in our own classrooms to ensure adequate student growth. We all need to have a strong understanding of the “big picture,” yet it has become very obvious that too many of us simply don’t. Many of us are struggling to understand and implement smaller pieces of a much bigger whole.  So, let’s gain a better understanding of that “whole” by examining all of the different types of shift that are currently at play. By our count here at ODE, there are at least 20 (!) of them:

#1 – Shift from Teaching to Learning

This is the arguably the biggest shift that is occurring. Whereas teachers in the past used to extrinsically motivate passive students and provide direct instruction, today’s learning facilitators motivate learners intrinsically through active, self-driven opportunities that enable them to set personal goals, select effective learning strategies for themselves and learn with ever-increasing autonomy.  The end goal is the creation of self-sufficient, life-long learners.

#2 – Shift to Self-Regulated Learning

It’s important to note that teachers alone are no longer the sole determiners of student learning pathways nor are they the only testers of student knowledge – and this is a good thing! Today an effective learning facilitator encourages kids to use tools like LinguaFolio® to set personal learning goals, select strategies, collect evidence, self-assess proficiency, document intercultural development and guide their metacognitive reflections of learning. Peers in other places also interact with and provide critical feedback to our learners.

#3 – Shift to Collaborative Learning

Traditionally, language students often have worked in isolation on decontextualized, grammar-based activities. In today’s classroom, learners collaborate and solve problems with students in the classroom and around the world.

#4 – Shift to Building Proficiency

For far too long, students have been focused on learning about the mechanics of the language. Today’s learners should be developing functional proficiency in the language, which is the ability to spontaneously create with the language in both familiar and new contexts encountered in real life.

#5 – Shift to Communicative Modes

Until recently, the focus has been on developing students’ language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.  Today, these skills are developed through three modes of communication: interpretive listening and reading, interpersonal speaking and writing, and presentational speaking and writing. Providing learners with plentiful opportunities to interpret, communicate and present is a cornerstone of helping learners attain higher levels of proficiency.

#6 – Shift in the Role of Culture

For too long, culture has been an add-on or a source of extrinsic motivation (“If you get through these ten pages of grammar drills this week, you can have a culture party on Friday.”) In the contemporary world language classroom, culture is integrated on a daily basis with an emphasis on the relationship between cultural products, practices and perspectives in order to develop intercultural skills.

#7 – Shift in Teacher Language Use

Teachers who deliver instruction using primarily English and who rely on decontextualized, drill-based input to teach about the target language are doing their learners a great disservice. Learning facilitators who use the target language at least 90% of the time and who provide culturally rich, highly contextualized input are in keeping with best practices and are much more likely to move their learners along the proficiency continuum  faster and with greater ease.

#8 – Shift in Learner Language Use

In the old paradigm, students memorized, repeated and translated the target language – day in and day out! In the modern classroom, learners build their capacity to use the target language spontaneously in contextualized (life-like) situations across the three modes of communication. They are afforded numerous opportunities in every class and outside of class to use their developing knowledge and skills in meaningful and increasingly elaborate ways.

#9 – Shift in Rigor

In the past, tasks requiring the use of higher order thinking skills were only embedded with regularity in upper level AP or IB courses. Today, Ohio’s new learning standards require higher order skills to be used by all language learners at all levels on a daily basis. It is no longer enough for learners to simply remember and understand. They must be provided with culturally rich contexts that require them to apply their knowledge through analysis, evaluation and synthesis. Ultimately, the goal is for them to be able to create with the language on a consistent basis.

#10 – Shift in Audience

Until recently, students regularly submitted their work only to their teachers, something that was not highly motivational.  Today, learners publish and share their learning products with a variety of audiences other than the teacher. This provides great intrinsic motivation to learners, who generally strive to do their best when they know others with be viewing or interacting with their work.

#11 – Shift in Curriculum Creation

For decades, local curricula has been largely based – and paced – on the locally-adopted textbook series and its sequence of vocabulary and grammar learning.  Current curriculum development relates directly to the state learning standards and employs principles of backward design and culturally authentic resources in thematically-designed, content-enriched units of study.

#12 – Shift in Planning

Planning in the past meant lockstep coverage of the textbook via grammar-based lessons.  Today, learning facilitators use backward design to create standards-based thematic units of study around culturally authentic materials. These units feature a variety of performance-based formative and summative assessments and daily lessons which include a wide variety of learning activities that meet the needs of a diverse group of learners.

#13 – Shift in Learning Tasks

Traditionally, whenever anyone entered a foreign language classroom, it was normal to observe all of the students doing the same activities together most of the time.  In the best-practices classrooms of today, learners often will be engaged in a variety of differentiated tasks to meet individual needs and learning styles.

#14 – Shift in the Role of Grammar

For many language teachers who love the mechanics of their target languages, it is difficult to let go of ineffective, grammar-based learning methodologies and activities, even when their students clearly don’t enjoy or derive great benefit from them.  Deductive grammar methods, where students are given a rule to memorize and practice, have long been the standard fare in many Ohio language classrooms. However, the recent, strong shift to communication as the class focus compels teachers to employ inductive methods, which require learners to work out rules for themselves. Research shows this methodology to be much more engaging and meaningful to learners.

#15 – Shift in Text Type

There has also been a marked shift in the types of texts that students are using for language learning. Students used to spend much of their time reading contrived textbook passages and literary texts. Today’s learners use authentic informational texts in addition to literary texts to make language learning more relevant to real life.

#16 – Shift in Assessment Strategies

For many years teachers have tested students to find out what vocabulary, structures and cultural factoids their student don’t know. Today, learning facilitators assess performance and proficiency to find out what learners know and can do in culturally appropriate ways in real or life-like contexts.

#17 – Shift in Technology Use

As new technologies were developed in the past, they were often used as an occasional, fun add-on, more often than not for drill-work. Today, technology can and should be integrated into most facets of teaching and learning on a daily basis. The Internet can be used to access a rich repertoire of authentic materials.

#18 – Shift in the Places for Learning

Until recently, language learning was largely confined to the language classroom.  The creation of blended learning environments has extended learning well beyond the classroom. Today’s kids can use technology to learn language 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year if they want. Also, “flipping the classroom” to provide more time for practice and interaction during formal class time constitutes an innovative use of both time and place for learning.

#19 – Shift to Measuring Student Growth

Until recently, grammar-based achievement tests, homework, class participation and attendance/seat-time were the most accepted indicators of student learning.  Today, Ohio’s new learning standards and the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) both require the use of multiple, proficiency-based measures to quantify students’ overall language proficiency growth. Tools like LinguaFolio® are also used to document student proficiency growth and the development of intercultural competence.

#20 – Shift in Focus on Careers

Following the “great recession” of the first decade of the 21st century, there is a renewed focus on career-readiness. In the past, higher levels of language proficiency were seen as being beneficial only to a select few who wanted to become language teachers or translators. Today, we are evolving in our thinking to view language as being beneficial for all learners, regardless of their chosen career path. Proficiency in a second language is viewed by an increasing number of stakeholders as enhancing both college and career opportunities.

In conclusion, when we hear reference made to the communicative paradigm shift that has been occurring now for quite some time, it’s important to understand that numerous aspects of language learning are involved and a lot is at stake for our learners.  It’s imperative that all of us take the time to digest all of these elements of shift, in all of their complexity, so that we are better prepared to provide our learners with the best possible language acquisition experiences possible.  At the same time, we must be better prepared to explain and advocate for our various programs with stakeholders such as parents and administrators, who still view language learning through a now obsolete lens.


ODE would like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Francis Troyan of The Ohio State University in helping us to contemplate and flesh out many of these areas of shift.


Troyan, Francis J. and Wertz, Ryan T. “Shift Happens! Leaving Behind the 20th Century Paradigm for 21st Century Research-based Best Practices.” PowerPoint presentation given at the Ohio Foreign Language Association Annual Conference. April, 2014. Columbus, Ohio.

Wertz, Ryan T. “Putting Proficiency-based Learning into Perspective: Shift Happens!” PowerPoint presentation given at the 55th Annual NCSSFL Business Meeting. November, 2014. San Antonio, Texas.

This entry was posted in Advocacy, Around the State, Vol. 53, No. 2 - Winter 2015. Bookmark the permalink.