C.I.-taught Students Evaluated by A.C.T.F.L. Writing Standards

How well do C.I.-taught students do in terms of ACTFL writing standards? Well…pretty darned well, I’d say.

Inspired by a Facebook post, I thought I would measure some of my Spanish 1 students’ writing on the ACTFL scale.

Here is their criteria for Novice High

Writers at the Novice High sublevel are able to meet limited basic practical writing needs using lists, short messages, postcards, and simple notes. They are able to express themselves within the context in which the language was learned, relying mainly on practiced material. Their writing is focused on common elements of daily life. Novice High writers are able to recombine learned vocabulary and structures to create simple sentences on very familiar topics, but are not able to sustain sentence-level writing all the time. Due to inadequate vocabulary and/or grammar, writing at this level may only partially communicate the intentions of the writer. Novice High writing is often comprehensible to natives used to the writing of non-natives, but gaps in comprehension may occur.

Here are some writing samples.  This is Bani’s work, after about 60 hours of C.I. (I do mostly TPRS, along with Movietalk, Picturetalk and some Slavic-style Invisible “untargeted” stories.)


Let’s see…Bani uses a load of sentences (actually, she uses only sentences). She fully communicates her intentions. There are no gaps in comprehension, The writing is far beyond the “lists, short messages, postcards, and simple notes” that ACTFL says Novice High writers can produce.  So, where is Bani?

Considering her use of various verb tenses, clarity etc, I would say somewhere between Intermediate Mid and Intermediate Advanced. What do you think?

Next, we have Marcus. This kid has an IEP, and has missed about two weeks (~13 hrs) of class.  He has some behaviour challenges, some of which involve staying focused in class.  Here is his most recent story:



 This is obviously not even close in quantity or quality to Bani’s. He uses English, has some problems with basic verbs, is occasionally incomprehensible, and the story does not really flow.

So, where does this fit on the ACTFL scale? Well, here is their Novice Mid descriptor set:

Writers at the Novice Mid sublevel can reproduce from memory a modest number of words and phrases in context. They can supply limited information on simple forms and documents, and other basic biographical information, such as names, numbers, and nationality. Novice Mid writers exhibit a high degree of accuracy when writing on well-practiced, familiar topics using limited formulaic language. With less familiar topics, there is a marked decrease in accuracy. Errors in spelling or in the representation of symbols may be frequent. There is little evidence of functional writing skills. At this level, the writing may be difficult to understand even by those accustomed to non-native writers.

Marcus fits most of this.  However, he does use sentences, sometimes properly. So– at about 50 hrs of C.I., plus behaviour and learning challenges– he’s at Novice Mid.

The lessons?

  1. C.I. works very well indeed, even for students who are not especially motivated or focused, or who have attendance issues. One of many key C.I. plusses: the vocabulary is constantly recycled in comprehensible but new ways.
  2. C.I. does get the “grammar teaching” done, despite traditionalist “those TPRS kids don’t know grammar” complaints. As we have all experienced, the stereotypically successful  language-class kids– wealthier, whiter  and fairly L1-literate females– will pick up and memorise whatever grammar rules etc we throw at them. The rest, not so much. Bani can’t tell you what a verb is, or conjugate one in a chart, or explain the difference between preterite and imperfect verb tenses…but she can use them correctly and meaningfully. Grammar: my kids havn’t been taught it…but they got it.
  3. C.I. is going to reach kids who would be dead in the water with a textbook. I have had loads of kids like Marcus over the years.  Most of them failed with the text.  Worse, most were disengaged.  Now, I’m not much of a teacher…so if *I* can get Markus this far, anyone can do well!
  4. Anyone who has issues with department members who complain that eg “when I get your TPRS kids in Spanish 2, they can’t write out all the numbers from 555 to 579,” or “they can’t conjugate the verb traer in the pluperfect ablative subjunctive causal declension” can just point at ACTFL guidelines to show where their students are. Verb charts, memorised grammar rules, etc, are not part of ACTFL’s proficiency scales: the ability to write in contextually clear and meaningful ways is.
  5. ACTFL broadly suggests that in a regular (ie non-Immersion) classroom, students will need about two years to get to Novice High, another two for Intermediate High, and two more to Advanced. These writing samples suggest that we can go waaaaay faster than ACTFL thinks.

One last thing:  these kids do well not because Mr Stolz is a brilliant teacher, but because C.I. methods allow us to stay in the target language much more than the textbook does.








  1. I always enjoy reading your posts, Chris. Sounds like things are going great and you’re a poster person for why CI is, as the kids say, “da way.” Have you ever posted anything about your classroom rules / curriculum / lesson plans or any videos of you teaching? I have had similar successes at the K-8 level but I’m curious how you do things in your classroom. Thanks, and keep it up!

    1. Aw thanks Derek. I don’t really have lesson plans. My curriculum is whatever kids are interested in. Rules— see pictures on my classroom walls post

  2. Hi Chris,

    I am a Chinese teacher and new to TPRS but even though I am not very good at it, I have seen significant improvement in my students this spring. I just read your blog “What’s it like teaching a split class” I will have Levels 1,2,3 in one combined class next year so your posts are so helpful to me. I am not sure how to plan story telling/asking sessions for mixed levels. Do I have a few basic items for the L1’s in a story even though the L2’s have seen it, and then also an item or two for L2’s ?

    I am still trying to understand how I will make sure L2+ students get lots of reps with new language items while also giving Level 1’s the intro items they need to get started. Do you do some kind of embedded story telling? In other words are there parts of the story telling that are aimed at mainly the L2’s and the L1’s are sort of along for the ride but not so much accountable for those parts?

    Thanks again for your posts.

    Ray Barton

    1. Chinese is a whole different ballgame than is Spanish, because of the reading & writing. I would suggest you get ahold of Terry Waltz and ask her: she is the Chinese expert.

  3. Colleagues!
    We need to be careful, we are starting to lose credibility again. The ACTFL proficiency levels for presentational communication are based on how well students can write to a communicative prompt and create language on their own, not how much they can remember a story. They respond using all they have learned to that point. We can’t measure our kids stories with those proficiency levels because we aren’t giving them a real language task where they create language on their own.

    My students can also write those pages, but when I give them a real communicative prompt such as ‘what are your favorite things about school’, or ‘tell me about your family’, they still only are at novice-mid or novice-high. Even if I do some Movie-Talks and stories to help with those vocabulary sets. The ACTFL proficiency levels are used to measure how well students can write on a communicative prompt. So we can’t use these proficiency levels to measure our kids ability to remember a story we create in class. Because if our students were really at an intermediate or advanced level, they could sit down and have a real interpersonal conversation for an extended amount of time about a variety of topics according to that proficiency level. We know our kids can’t go sit in the cafeteria with a native speaker and produce at intermediate mid or high level. So we can’t start posting on our blogs that our kids are at those levels. This is like the third blog where I have seen this in the last few months.

    I have found that many of my TPRS colleagues don’t really understand ACTFL’s proficiency levels. I have just recently learned a lot about them since I have some colleagues in my building that don’t do TPRS (although I have been after them to try it), they do thematic units but don’t use a textbook or do rote grammar. I have found that teachers that really understand ACTFL’s proficiency levels also don’t do the rote grammar textbook stuff. We need to read up on the modes of communication and those proficiency levels and rubrics better before we start quoting and using them to back up our TPRS language teaching methods.

    1. This is *written* output not spoken. My kids are novice mid in speaking. You would expect better writing than speech (lower affective filter rtc)

      1. I understand where you are coming from. But my concern is that the writing in the above samples are not written to a communicate task or purpose. It’s more about memorized language with the very specific structures and memorized phrases that were modeled in the story, they are not creating language for communication. So we shouldn’t measure it with an ACTFL proficiency level. In order to use the descriptors for each proficiency level, we would have to use a corresponding prompt. Like give the students a situation and tell them to create something on their own. See what they can really write without anything to fall back on. Just use the language they have acquired through the stories and activities in class.

        For example, the one story above by Bani talks about someone who went shopping and how they felt. So you would ask the student, “write about a time you went on a shopping trip. What did you buy? Did you have a good time? Tell me anything you can about your trip.” Then you could use an ACTFL rubric to measure the quality of the writing. You would be able to see what the real presentational communication proficiency level was of the student. My guess is that it would be novice-mid because it would be based on what the student could produce on their own. That is when you can measure the written output with an ACTFL proficiency level. Does that make sense?

      2. I guess what I am trying to communicate is that the ACTFL rubrics measure how well a student can perform to a communicative task and creating a story is not a communicative task, so we can’t use their rubrics or proficiency levels. I use stories in my class as a tool to build their proficiency level. But when I want to know what their proficiency level is with writing, I have to use a real communicative task to measure it. It is amazing to see the discrepancy in my students’ writing. Some of my TPRS colleagues in another state have started doing the same thing. Anyway, those are my thoughts. I would encourage you to try giving your kids a writing prompt related to a communicative task and see how they do.

        Sorry about the long responses. Like all of us, language teaching is my passion. 🙂

  4. Do you have your students sign a waiver allowing you to post their work online? I am very careful about these things and wonder if it has ever caused you an issue in the past.

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