Teachers’ Oral Proficiency in the Target Language: Research on Its Role in Language Teaching and Learning

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    Krista S. Chambless (PhD, The University of Alabama) is Assistant Professor of Spanish at The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

    Teachers Oral Pro ciency in the Target Language: Research on Its Role in Language Teaching and Learning

    Krista S. ChamblessThe University of Alabama at Birmingham

    Abstract: In the past decade, the foreign language (FL) profession has established standards for beginning language teachers that are used by accrediting agencies and state licensing agencies to make decisions regarding teacher preparation program recognition and teacher certi cation. Among these expectations is the requirement that beginning teachers demonstrate a minimum level of Advanced-Low on the ACTFL Pro ciency Guidelines for Speaking. Consequently, the role that teachers oral pro -ciency in the target language (TL) plays in classroom instruction has become a critical issue in the eld of FL education. This review presents current research related to teach-ers TL pro ciency and its impact on classroom practices, teacher effectiveness, and student learning. The article raises questions that merit investigation in future research as it strives to clarify the role that teacher TL pro ciency plays in classroom instruction and learning of the TL.

    Key words: foreign language education, methods, oral pro ciency, teacher prepara-tion, teacher standards

    Introduction Over the past 10 years, a key focus of discussion in the eld of education in the United States has been on teacher effectiveness and student learning or achieve-ment (see for example, Darling-Hammond, 2000; Stronge, Ward, & Grant, 2011). Undoubtedly student achievement is one of the most critical issues in education today, often framed in foreign language (FL) education around the level of language pro ciency that students are able to demonstrate after a program of study. On a national level, the teachers role in student achievement has been brought to the forefront by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which called for highly quali- ed teachers (2001), on the grounds that knowledgeable teachers are effective teachers. According to NCLB, a highly quali ed teacher possesses a college degree with full certi cation and demonstrates content knowledge in the subject taught.

    Foreign Language Annals, Vol. 45, Iss. S1, pp. S141S162. 2012 by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. DOI: 10.111/j.1944-9720.2012.01183.x.

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    learning has become a critical issue in the FL education eld.

    Certainly, a teachers oral pro ciency in the TL is not the sole determining factor in student achievement, but it has been gen-erally accepted as an essential characteris-tic for effective teaching. This review seeks to explore the research related to teachers TL oral pro ciency and its effect on class-room practices, teacher effectiveness, and student learning. First, the concept of pro- ciency is de ned and current pro ciency expectations for K12 FL teachers are dis-cussed. Next, research on the pro ciency levels of FL teachers is examined, followed by research on FL classroom practices and teacher effectiveness. Finally, a research agenda with regard to the role of TL teacher pro ciency is presented.

    Teacher Profi ciency: Assessment and Expectations In FL education in the United States, the ACTFL Pro ciency GuidelinesSpeaking (ACTFL, 1986, 1999, 2012) are widely accepted as the model of speaking abil-ity in an FL, and the levels on the ACTFL scale are the FL professions current best attempt to describe a hierarchy of knowl-edge and skills that range from beginners in language learning to the pro ciency needed to function linguistically in a professional capacity. As Omaggio Hadley stated, lan-guage pro ciency is not a monolithic con-cept representing an amorphous ideal that learners rarely attain; rather it is comprised of a whole range of abilities that must be described in a graduated fashion to be meaningful (2001, pp. 89). Following initial work by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) at the U.S. Department of State start-ing in the 1950s, the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR), a consortium of federal agencies concerned with language pro -ciency testing, developed a scale to describe pro ciency levels as well as an assessment interview to assign pro ciency ratings. ACTFL, in collaboration with the Modern Language Association and the Educational

    Similarly, a U.S. Department of Education report (2002) stated that content knowl-edge is one of the most important compo-nents of teacher effectiveness. Because of the unique nature of the FL class, in which the language is not only the subject studied but also the medium of instruction, it seems uncontroversial to say that teachers must be able to speak the language in order to teach it. As Sullivan asserted, all can agree that the French teacher who cannot speak French will not be a successful teacher of French (2011, p. 241). Thus, a teachers oral pro ciency in the target language (TL), a major component of subject matter knowledge, would seem to be a signi cant factor in both teaching effectiveness and student learning.

    The intuitive assumption of a causal connection between a teachers oral pro -ciency in the TL and the teaching and learn-ing that take place in classrooms enjoys scant support in the empirical research lit-erature. However, an indirect connection can be made through research in second language acquisition (SLA) that indicates that the quantity and variety of TL input will indeed affect student learning. Propo-nents of the major theories of SLA argue that both abundant exposure to meaningful language (i.e., comprehensible input) and abundant opportunities to create meaning and solve linguistic problems in speak-ing and writing (i.e., pushed output; see Swain, 1985) promote language learning. Thus, it is intuitive to assume that teachers who have not attained a certain pro ciency level will be hard pressed to provide a lin-guistically rich instructional environment that will enable student learning to progress beyond the basics. Based on this common-sense assumption, several national organi-zations and state licensing authorities have established the level of Advanced Low in the ACTFL Pro ciency GuidelinesSpeaking (ACTFL, 1999, 2012) as the minimum pro ciency standard for new teachers. Consequently, the role that a teachers oral pro ciency in the TL plays in classroom practices, teacher effectiveness, and student


    gram Standards for the Preparation of Foreign Language Teachers in 2002 (ACTFL, 2002a). NCATE, a national organization that accred-its teacher education programs at colleges and universities, uses a performance-based model in which institutions must provide evidence of teacher competence through teacher performance. The ACTFL/NCATE standards provide a framework for what FL teacher candidates should know and be able to do as they graduate from teacher preparation programs and enter the foreign language teaching profession.

    The ACTFL/NCATE standards are aligned with the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) state licensing standards for beginning teachers, as well as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) for accomplished teachers. These three sets of standards describe expectations across the career continuum of language teachers, while calling for a high level of TL pro ciency for FL teachers. INTASC (2002) states that teachers should have suf cient command of the target language to commu-nicate on a variety of topics in both formal and informal contexts. They can effectively conduct classes in the target language at all levels of instruction (p. 13). Similarly, the NBPTS asserts that accomplished world language teachers should exemplify a high pro ciency in the languages they teach (2010, p. 27). Likewise, the ACTFL/NCATE standards call for candidates to demonstrate a high level of pro ciency in the target lan-guage (2002a, p. 3).

    The ACTFL/NCATE standards state that teacher candidates should achieve an oral pro ciency level of Advanced Low or Intermediate High, depending on the language. ACTFL recognizes that the expected level of oral pro ciency for teacher candidates is contingent on the spe-ci c target language as well as the native language (2002a, p. 4). Research con-ducted by the FSI has shown that it takes more time to develop a speci c level of oral pro ciency in languages that are typo-logically distant from the learners native

    Testing Service, adapted the ILR scale and interview procedure for academic use. Breiner-Sanders, Lowe, Miles, and Swender (2000) stated that the ACTFL Guidelines were designed to describe learners func-tional competency, that is, their ability to accomplish linguistic tasks representing a variety of levels (p. 1). The Guidelines have de ned language speaking ability in terms of global pro ciency (i.e., the abil-ity to function within speci c contexts in the TL with a certain level of grammatical accuracy). First published in a provisional form by ACTFL in 1982 (ACTFL, 1982), the Guidelines have undergone several revisions, the most recent one occurring in 2012, in an effort to continue to re ne and expand performance descriptions.

    The Oral Pro ciency Interview (OPI), adapted from the early ILR assessment interview procedure, is the tool used to assess a speakers oral pro ciency level. Administered in person or by phone in a conversational interview format, the OPI results in a rating of Novice, Intermedi-ate, Advanced, or Superior, with sub-levels of Low, Mid, and High for all of the lev-els except Superior. The interview is con-ducted by an ACTFL-certi ed tester and is recorded to receive a second independent rating to ensure reliability.

    The dissemination of the ACTFL Pro- ciency Guidelines through tester-training workshops, curriculum projects, teaching methods courses and textbooks, and lan-guage textbook publishing contributed to a paradigm shift in FL education that focused on meaningful, autonomous communica-tion in FL teaching. The increased attention to oral communication skill development from the beginning levels of language study created a demand for a higher level of oral pro ciency by language teachers as well. A review of the standards set by various agencies charged with assuring the quality of K12 education reveals a convergence on Advanced Low on the ACTFL scale as the oral pro ciency standard for beginning FL teachers. In partnership with NCATE, ACTFL released The ACTFL/NCATE Pro-

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    dents to communicate, which can only be possible if teachers themselves exemplify effective communicative skills (ACTFL, 2002a, p. 4). To this end, the choice of Advanced Low is based upon current SLA theories that assert the crucial role of input in the TL that focuses on meaning and prompts communicative interaction. (For a detailed description of Advanced Low pro- ciency, see Appendix A.) That is, speakers make sense of the input they hear by nego-tiating meaning with one another (Long, 1996), they engage in interaction using strategies such as turn-taking (Hall, 2010), and they interact with others in real-life conversations (Hall, 1999, 2004). Teach-ers need to be able to rely on their strong language skills to provide abundant and varied input as well as guide students to interact, interpret, and negotiate meaning. According to ACTFL, teachers who are not at least Advanced Low level speakers [will] have dif culty serving effectively as a facili-tator [sic] in helping students to negotiate meaning with one another and to func-tion spontaneously in the target language (ACTFL, 2002b). It is further asserted that pro ciency at Advanced Low is the thresh-old needed for speakers to be able to pro-vide the type of input necessary and create the environment in which language acquisi-tion can occur. Phillips argued:

    The teacher must have the facility to manage classroom communica-tion through negotiated meaning with students. That means possessing the ability to work spontaneously and crea-tively in the target language. To assist students to interpret texts as readers or listeners and to present information or creative works, teachers have to be highly skilled themselves. (1998, p. 5)

    Although there is now a consensus among the various national FL professional organizations that Advanced Low is the minimum level needed to function effec-tively as a teacher, the states also impose licensing standards for teacher certi ca-tion. On the one hand, to earn national

    language than those that are typologically similar; for example, learners will typically need considerably more instructional time to reach the Advanced level of pro ciency in Arabic than in Spanish when the learn-ers native language is English (Liskin-Gas-parro, 1982).

    In setting its oral pro ciency standards for beginning teachers, ACTFL assumes that most teacher candidates will be native English speakers. Based on the FSIs esti-mate of the number of hours of study needed to reach the Speaking 3 level for its four groups of languages, ACTFL has set oral pro ciency standards for each group. Most languages taught in U.S. public high schools belong to Group I (e.g., French, Italian, Spanish) or Group II (e.g., German); less commonly taught languages belong to Group III (e.g., Russian) or Group IV (e.g., Arabic, Chinese, Japanese). While the ACTFL/NCATE standards have used this FSI paradigm to a large degree, they ulti-mately set pro ciency levels for teachers based on the recommendations of the vari-ous national language-speci c organizations (e.g., American Association of Teachers of German). According to the ACTFL/NCATE standards, candidates who teach French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish must attain an oral pro ciency rating of Advanced-Low, mean-ing that they contribute to the conversa-tion with suf cient accuracy, clarity and precision to convey their intended message without misrepresentation or confusion, and that their speech can be under-stood by native speakers unaccustomed to dealing with non-natives (ACTFL, 2012, p. 6). Candidates who teach Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean must reach the Inter-mediate High level of oral pro ciency, which means that they handle a substan-tial number of tasks associated with the Advanced level, but they are unable to sus-tain performance of all of these tasks all of the time (ACTFL, 2012, p. 7).

    The authors of the ACTFL/NCATE standards asserted that the heart of lan-guage instruction is the ability to teach stu-


    the research is outdated (e.g., Carroll, 1967; Hiple & Manley; 1987; Thompson, 1996; Tschirner, 1996; Tschirner & Heilenman, 1998), and virtually none of the pro ciency testing followed the current ACTFL norm of OPIs conducted and independently rated by certi ed testers. In the most recent large-scal...


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