The Power of Feedback in the Proficiency-Driven Classroom

by Holly Morse
@Srta.Morse

When I was in my undergrad program, I had two professors who stood out to me. The first, let us call him Professor Deadly Pen shredded our papers with his red pen. Reading his comments was exhausting and at times a bit demoralizing. The second, who I will call Professor Nonspecific, gave little feedback, and what she did provide was vague. Which teacher did I resent? Well, both! One made me work hard for my “A.” The other seemed indifferent and was not particularly helpful. But I bet you can figure out which one I admire today. Yep, Professor Deadly Pen. He set expectations and worked with us to meet them by outlining proficiency requirements for the class, then provided consistent feedback. 

Like Professor Deadly Pen, I have learned that the product I get from my students is directly related a) the clarity of my expectations, and b) how much specific feedback I give them about their progress. Whether I am teaching virtually, hybrid or in person, I get the best results from my students when I keep them informed in a very specific way and almost daily.

In a proficiency-driven program we need to be very clear about differentiating the proficiency levels according to ACTFL standards. At my school, we name our classes according to skill level (Novice Mid, Novice High, Intermediate Low, etc.) and allow students to progress accordingly. As a team of language teachers, we created a document to inform the levels we teach and evaluate students based on these adapted ACTFL proficiency standards. This allows for smooth transitions between levels. We also use it to reinforce the expectations at each proficiency level by highlighting level goals for our students for every project and assignment. We have found that when we are specific, our students are more successful at making progress.  

For example, in an Intermediate Low class, the students know that I want them to incorporate a “variety of new and previously learned words and phrases to present a range of familiar topics.”  I also teach them how to extend their language with conjunctions, prepositions, and adverbs like “also” or “besides.” Then, I challenge them to use “a series of simple sentences, phrases and word combinations to create original sentences with some details and elaboration in context.”   

I expect them to use their new vocabulary and not rely on words they learned at the Novice Level. This gives them a specific goal to work toward and me something very specific to grade them on: Are they using new words? Are they creating original sentences?  

With the goals in mind and brought to the fore as necessary, my Intermediate Low students try to extend their language with a variety of new words and connector words, whether we are reading, watching a TV series, or delving into cultural topics. It is simple, and it works! No matter the proficiency level of the individual students in the class, they know what I want them to do with their language because I am specific and provide constant feedback.  

Consistent feedback may look different in our various and varied teaching environments today, whether in-person, hybrid, or online, but it is essential for students to know where they stand and what they need to do to progress according to the proficiency level of their class. So, give it a shot – it might just help you lead your students to a greater level of proficiency! 

Holly Morse is completing her 37th year teaching Spanish at USM. She developed the FLES program for young children and chaired the Upper School World Language department 2012-2018 as it transitioned from a traditional language department to an oral proficiency-based program.

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