Beth Hanlon, OFLA President Elect
Spanish Teacher, Oberlin High School
This past July, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) held a Summer Institute Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) training at the Ohio State University. I was very fortunate to attend this training that brought teachers from all over the country. My goal for attending was to become more familiar with the characteristics of each proficiency level in order to better identify where my students are as well as to serve as a resource for other world language teachers with questions about the proficiency levels.
I understood going into the training that the OPI is not an ideal assessment tool for my high school classroom. First, it can be time consuming which does not make it a feasible tool to use with 100+ students (ACTFL 48). It also only assesses one of the four skills, the interpersonal, that we need to assess with our Integrated Performance Assessments (IPA).
After the four day training, I DID leave with a much deeper understanding of the proficiency levels. I also left with a list of applications of the OPI to my classroom without actually using the OPI. The objective of this article is to discuss and describe the OPI classroom applications.
The first major application gained from the training is the ability to identify the major distinctions between the proficiency levels of novice, intermediate, advanced and superior as well as their low, mid and high sublevels. This is essential to the classroom because we need to be able to identify where our students are to drive our instruction as well as assess them for our Student Growth Measures. A quote from Eleanor Roosevelt accurately sums up the differences very well. Roosevelt stated: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” In this case, great minds are superior speakers who are discussing ideas abstractly and have moved away from talking about themselves. Average minds are advanced speakers who are narrating and describing events in all major time frames. Small minds are the intermediate speakers who are discussing themselves and their daily routine. Thinking about these key ideas during the training has boosted my ability to assess the proficiency levels of my students.
The OPI training concentrated a lot on the identification of the advanced and superior levels. As a high school teacher, the possibility of encountering a speaker above intermediate is very slim but can be possible with a heritage or native speaker who enrolls in a program. I believe that with a heritage or native speaker, it would be necessary to conduct the interpersonal portion of their IPA using the OPI format to appropriately gauge their proficiency level. It also might be more appropriate to conduct this with them before giving them an IPA in order to consider what level you are assessing them at to give appropriate interpersonal and presentational prompts as well as determine the correct rubrics.
Let’s now move on to the applications for the classroom but, first, it is important to have a quick review of the structure of an Oral Proficiency Interview. The OPI has 4 parts:
1.the warm-up to start the conversation and to establish comfort for the interviewee;
2.level checks (to establish the current proficiency level or the floor) and
3.level probes (to determine if the next proficiency level can be sustained or the ceiling); and
4.finally the wind down to return the interviewee to a comfortable level (ACTFL 23).
As we discussed the OPI structure in our group and analyzed various recordings of OPIs, I realized that my lesson plans should mirror how the OPI is structured (ACTFL 53). Meshing my current lesson plan structure and the OPI structure appear to be a simple modification! To start, at the beginning of my lessons, my students normally complete bellwork. Though this is generally a presentational writing task and not interpersonal, it should be a “warm-up” or an activity that establishes comfort for my students as the first thing they do in class each day to start out on a positive note. However, it can be an interpersonal task instead of presentational writing. A topic can be given to students that we covered the previous day to discuss in groups for review and for moving students into the target language.
After the bellwork, we move into the “meat” of our lesson. This section of the lesson should resemble the level checks and probes of an OPI. We would begin with the level checks in order to elicit language at students’ current level (ACTFL 23). For example, at the beginning of the year, a level two class is at the novice mid level. Their level check portion of the lesson would be geared at eliciting language at the novice high level. Once activities were completed at their current level, students would be pushed and stretched to do activities at the next level. This push to the next level would be equivalent to the language probes of the OPI. In the example given here, this would entail students being pushed to the intermediate level.
The OPI ends with the wind down which aims to return the interviewee to their comfort level and make them feel accomplished (ACTFL 23). In the lesson plan, the students have shot up to the next level for activities, they need to be brought back to their current language level to end the lesson. In my example, our novice high learners that have worked in intermediate activities need to be brought back to the novice high range with a final activity to end class on a positive, comfortable note.
I believe that formatting a lesson plan structure after the OPI would provide linguistic support as students start with their comfort level (current language level/floor) and then are pushed to the next level (language probe/ceiling) to finally return to their comfort level. When they receive support and scaffolding, this could increase their motivation and confidence in the target language.
It is important to note here that I am primarily basing this on interpersonal language because that is what the OPI measures. However, looking at other ACTFL rubrics, the descriptions of what language is being elicited is similar in both the interpersonal and presentational modes. For example, novice learners are using “memorized language” as their language function and “words, phrases, chunks of language and lists” as their text type in BOTH the interpersonal and the presentational modes.
Returning to the “meat” of the lesson plan in which students are working on activities aimed at level checks (current level) and level probes (next level), I also began to ponder the questions I use for my students within a lesson. It is very important to make sure that we are asking novice, intermediate and advanced questions where appropriate in our lessons (ACTFL 28). Let’s say, for example, we are discussing activities. We ask a novice “What do you like to do?” as they will answer in a list (dance, sing, run, play sports) and phrases such as “I like…” We say to an intermediate learner, “Tell me about the activities you like to do” in order to elicit strings of sentences such as “I play sports. I play in the gym. My friend is there. We play basketball.” If you have the opportunity to work with advanced learners, we need them to narrate and describe in the past. Therefore, we would say to them, “Tell me about a time you and your friend played basketball.”
Not only do we need to ensure that we are using the right type of questions but we need to make sure we are asking the right type of questions across a variety of topics (ACTFL 34). For example, our intermediate learners need to be able to tell us about the activities they do, their daily routine, their classes at school and their friends ALL using strings of sentences. Continuing to use a various of topics in order to elicit the same language functions is important to ensure that your learners are solidifying their proficiency level continue. It is important to remember here again that the functions and text types are similar for both interpersonal and presentational.
It is important to ensure that when working with the proficiency levels that we don’t skip over the skills of any level just as an evaluator would not skip over proficiency levels in an OPI (ACTFL 10). Building upon each level is essential and act as foundations for the next level. When we discussed this during the training, I immediately thought of the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum that I teach (as well as the Advanced Placement course many teachers teach). My novice high and intermediate low/mid students are expected to operate in the superior level as they discuss topics, such as global issues, that are outside of their realm of personal experiences for IB. I can not ignore their current level because that is leaving a huge gap in their language foundation and therefore, I need to make sure that we discuss, for example, issues and ideas that require students to use language relevant to themselves (intermediate) and their community (advanced) before discussing ideas characteristic of the superior level. This goes back to scaffolding and building linguistic support for motivation and confidence. You can not continue building the superior house without the advanced and intermediate (and novice) foundation.
Formative assessment that teacher collect from student responses can be enhanced by paying attention to the structure of lesson plans with the OPI (ACTFL 28). I believe I will be able to gauge where the responses of my learners are and adjust my questioning techniques if the responses are not appropriate for the levels of my learners.
The OPI training also demonstrated how important feedback is for students as they work on their proficiency level. It is our responsibility to sit down with students and explain to them what and how they can increase their proficiency. (For example, telling a novice high students that they need to begin creating with the language instead of using memorized phrases as well as start to ask questions in order to move into the intermediate range.) At the OPI training, our instructor modeled this with the volunteers that came to do practice OPIs with the people attending the training. When volunteers finished their OPIs, the instructor would escort them out of the room to give them feedback and advice on what she had observed during the practice OPI.
In conclusion, the OPI has many applications for the classroom without the use of the actual OPI. I would highly recommend it to any world language teacher as it is an excellent way to reflect on and better your teaching practices. I look forward to modifying and implementing what I learned at the training this coming school year! Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions or ideas, firstname.lastname@example.org
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview Tester Training Manual. Ed. Elvira Swender and Robert Vicars. ACTFL, Inc., 2012. Print.