If I didn’t know that my last post would open a can of worms, I should have! In this instance, though, I am quite glad that it did. I realized that I had a lot of misunderstandings and was making a lot of unfair assumptions. Thank you to everyone that has been helping me learn through Tweets, private messages, emails, and texts! In particular, thank you to Thomas Sauer for your ACTFL expertise, Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell and Justin Slocum Bailey for your knowledge of SLA research and passion for making it accessible to teachers, Amy Lenord and Lisa Shepard for your passion for “proficiency” (whatever we mean by that, ha!) and desire for language educators to work together toward our common goals, and Mira Canion for knowing me well enough to give me frank advice. Many others have joined in the conversation here and there, but these folks are the ones whose phones have been exploding for three days straight with Twitter notifications.


The biggest misunderstanding that I had was that the Can-Do Statements are examples. I don’t believe that I am alone in this misunderstanding, and that was a major part of the frustration that sparked the thinking behind my last blog post. Teachers are being asked to align their curriculum with Can-Do Statements, when what should be asked of us—if schools are using the Can-Do Statements in the way that ACTFL intended—is that teachers write their own Can-Do statements. This is in line with the principles of backward design; that we should set a goal before we begin, and that goal should inform the journey. The key point for me, though, is that teachers should set their own goals for their students: goals that are communicative (interpretive, presentational, and/or interpersonal) and informed by an awareness of language acquisition. Let’s look at this chunk of Can-Do Statements from Interpretive Reading/Novice High (Page 37):

At the top, you see a general “I Can” statement for a Novice High language user with respect to Interpretive Reading. It is very general. Now, look at the statements listed below it: we’ve got bold “I can” statements with more detailed ones below them and a blank space. I used to think that the blank space was for us to write in additional statements. Not so! You may certainly use the statements above the line, but you might choose to ignore them and write your own, unique learning target for your students on that line, discarding the rest. You might not even tackle any I Can statements in that category! ACTFL has put together these pages and pages of statements for you to have many statements that might work for your students and to have many statements after which to model your own. The possibilities are endless! So if your department chair or program director asks you something like, “Show me which of ACTFL’s Can-Do Statements your students are working on right now”, take that opportunity to have a conversation about the goals that you have set for your students, why you chose those goals, and how they are modeled after the kinds of goals that ACTFL has laid out as possibilities in this very thorough document. And be very gracious, of course, because I wouldn’t be surprised if you are just learning this yourself, much like I learned this over the last few days! Thank you very much to Mira Canion and Thomas Sauer for helping me to identify and fill the hole in this misunderstanding. Also, it is certainly possible that I do not yet have a perfect understanding of ACTFL’s intended use of the Can-Do statements, so please continue the conversation with me in the comments and on Twitter!

A concern that I have about the Can-Do statements is that they are—I believe they are, anyway—aligned with ACTFL’s Proficiency Guidelines. One very interesting part of the Twitter conversation has been what does proficiency mean?

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are a description of what individuals can do with language in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading in real-world situations in a spontaneous and non-rehearsed context. […] These Guidelines present the levels of proficiency as ranges, and describe what an individual can and cannot do with language at each level, regardless of where, when, or how the language was acquired. […] The direct application of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines is for the evaluation of functional language ability. The Guidelines are intended to be used for global assessment in academic and workplace settings. However, the Guidelines do have instructional implications. – See more at: http://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/actfl-proficiency-guidelines-2012#sthash.a0bEPrON.dpuf

Did you catch that? The Proficiency Guidelines have instructional implications but their function is in the ‘real world’! In a classroom setting, we cannot assess “proficiency” because we can only at best simulate real world scenarios; and the simulation will never be the same as the real deal. Instead, we must look at the guidelines and say, “Yes! THAT is how I want my students to be able to communicate in the real world!” and then plan instruction accordingly, informed by SLA research as to what practices result in language proficiency. The Proficiency Guidelines remind us to keep the end in sight: to remember that communication (in ALL modes, individually and collectively) is the goal. Don’t get caught up in accuracy; in memorizing vocab lists and conjugating verbs. Remember that we want to train up a generation of language students that are able to use the language and have the tools at their disposal to use it better tomorrow than they did today. That being said, the alignment of the example Can-Do Statements with the Proficiency Guidelines causes some concern for me. Click here to read Justin’s insights about the Can-Do Statements, and keep reading for more of mine.


Another big misunderstanding that I identified through this conversation is that I usually mean “Performance” when I say “Proficiency”. I’m not ever measuring my students’ linguistic proficiency (as defined above); I am only measuring—can only measure—their performance in the classroom context. In addition to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, there is a separate document called the “ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners”, which I previously thought were somewhat interchangeable with the Guidelines, or perhaps redundant, or most honestly I didn’t really think about their relationship at all. These Performance Descriptors are what I used to create the rubrics that I use for my assessments, but I never really spent time digging into where they came from or what they mean. How silly is that?! To be honest, I feel awfully foolish. See Page 6 of the Performance Descriptors document to read ACTFL’s comparison of Performance vs. Proficiency!


But if the Proficiency Guidelines are real-world descriptors of communication outside the classroom context, why are the example Can-Do statements derived from them? By modeling the example Can-Do Statements after the Proficiency Guidelines, which are real-world descriptors of communication outside the classroom context, teachers are encouraged to design assessments that simulate real world interactions (hence, the IPA). In order for students to be successful on those assessments, we must prepare them. And what is preparation, but practice?

While we know that output comes from input, and so in theory we could just stuff students full of comprehensible input and then, on the day of the IPA, the output would just flow out of them, I think we are insightful enough to realize that that’s not what teachers will do. If students have to complete an interpersonal or presentation component of an IPA, then teachers will build practice opportunities into their instruction. This is NOT a bad thing; it’s a good thing! However, we must keep in mind the proportion. If an IPA is equal parts interpretive/presentational/interpersonal, we might be tempted to spend equal amounts of class time practicing those modes of communication. However, SLA research would not support that instructional model. Output comes from Input. I believe that THIS is the major point of departure between so-called “camps” of proficiency minded language teachers: just how much comprehensible input is needed before practicing output, and just how much output (interpersonal and presentational) practice should happen in class. You see, we all believe the same things—we know that language is acquired through comprehensible input, that instruction, therefore, must be in the target language and comprehensible to students, and that proficiency is the ultimate goal. The way in which those beliefs manifest themselves in instruction will be different with each teacher, even among teachers that would say that they teach “the same way”. We are all producing students that are more proficient; better equipped than the students in our generation of learners, so we are all seeing great outcomes. I’m won’t say that I think that it doesn’t matter how much input you provide or how much practice you facilitate, because I think that it very much does. And while you might be seeing great outcomes, who’s to say that you wouldn’t see even BETTER outcomes if you didn’t play with the percentages a bit? As someone who incrementally transitioned from much output (cooperative learning, baby!) to much input, I can say from my experience that the amount of comprehensible input matters. The more comprehensible input that you provide for your students, the less output practice you will need. (It’s also important to note that all modes of communication are usually happening while the teacher provides comprensible input; interpretive is simply the most significant.)

Similarly, why does the Interpretive section of the Performance Descriptors describe interpretation of AUTHENTIC texts only? They do not provide a way to measure progress in interpretation of non-authentic texts. For this reason, teachers are subtly encouraged to use only authentic texts in class. I don’t believe that interaction with authentic texts is the best way to improve interpretation of authentic texts, and I don’t believe that SLA research would support that. In my experience, students are best able to interpret authentic texts through interaction with non-authentic texts, texts that are created to provide a strategic scaffolding that prepares the learner to interpret authentic texts.

Both of these concerns were affirmed by a teacher that shared their thoughts on this whole conversation in a private message. This particular teacher considers themselves to be a “text-based teacher” (as I defined it in my last post) in a “task-based” department. I’m sharing this excerpt here anonymously with the teacher’s permission:

The biggest difference that I see [between text-based teaching and task-based teaching] is when crafting a task-based assessment, typically an IPA, there is always an element of performance (whether it is presentational or interpersonal) that the students are expected to produce.  At the novice levels this requires a great deal of time to practice or rehearse. Students might have to present about their family members, or have a conversation about their daily routine.  From my point of view, this practice time, which might take many forms but always involves students speaking and putting out language, takes a lot of time away from the CI that I could be providing them. From my experience, task-based assessment requires  lots of output. For me, a text-based assessment focuses overwhelmingly on comprehension rather than production.

The second difference would be in the insistence on “authentic” resources.  Again, from my experience, the tasks are nearly always based on “authres” to make them more realistic.  Thus, the students listen to native speakers talk about their days, or read infographics about families, or use maps of cities in the target cultures to locate places. Even as a text-based teacher I would use some of these resources (though I wouldn’t denominate them as any more authentic), but I would use more texts (i.e. stories and novels) specifically intended for students in general or for my students in particular.  More often than not I find those texts to be a) more comprehensible to my students (less scaffolding, glossing, etc… needed) b) more compelling  and c) linguistically much more rich.


I guess that, in sum, I don’t know what I don’t know. I thought that I knew a lot of things about the resources that ACTFL has put together for curriculum planning, but in reality I knew a lot of things and had (still have, I am sure) a lot of misunderstandings. I look forward to continuing this conversation and studying the resources and the research further. I want to make sure that my curricula provide instruction that results in the best outcomes possible, and I want to be able be able to talk about how our profession can do better by our students. For the former, I need continue to learn more about Second Language Acquisition. Aside from just reading, reading, reading, two great, teacher-friendly resources are the Black Box Podcast and Tea With BVP. I’m also excited to learn from both Stephen Krashen AND Bill VanPatten this summer at iFLT in Chattanooga. For the latter, I need to make sure that I understand how ACTFL intends for us to use the resources that it has developed. I also need to make sure that my colleagues and I have a common understanding of the terms that we are tossing around in our conversations. It seems that most of the time—but not always—we agree but sound like we don’t because we have different understandings of some key terms, like “proficiency”, “task”, “performance”, “comprehensible”, and “practice”. As Mira pointed out to me, it is also most helpful for me to describe what I do and let other people describe what they do; not to assume I know what they are doing in their classrooms without giving them the chance to explain for themselves.

Anyway, I’ve spent long enough on this post. Keep the conversation going, and keep being kind! It is so fun to think through these things when everyone is kind and respectful, even in (apparent) disagreement.

As always, I reserve the right to be wrong 😉 Let’s see what the next round of conversation reveals!

15 replies on “Task or Text: the aftermath

  1. I think that for my young novice learners, the ACTFL Can-Do construct is clunky and burdensome, and frankly not very beneficial.
    Our instructional minutes are limited and precious, and ought to be used for comprehensible, compelling and contextualized input (CCCI – Carol Gaab). By insuring novelty, we’re probably incorporating a few of the suggested ACTFL language functions, but not necessarily. I say, “So what!!”
    I wouldn’t compromise a single minute of instruction to check off any of the ACTFL boxes for my young (elementary) novices so long as I insure CCCI. I believe that much of what ACTFL refers to doesn’t kick into gear until after the intermediate levels, when students have more control of the TL, and can output more spontaneously. Unless/until my admin insists that I follow ACTFL’s CAN-DO guidelines (¡Dios guarde!), I will continue to provide my kids with CCCI without regard for them, instead honing my skills and broadening my CI strategies.

    In skepticism, but grateful for your close read and commentary,

  2. Your original post about task-based instruction led me to contemplate what a “task” is. Bill VanPatten has an interesting perspective on what constitutes a communicative task: “Classrooms in which interactions truly focus on meaning and are level-appropriate for the learners will foster acquisition. Such interactions can be found in task-oriented activities in which the task has a particular communicative or informational goal. The task, of course, must be appropriate for the level of the learner.” –From Input to Output, BVP, page 107

  3. Martina, you have given an excellent review of my exact feelings for many years!! I have used TPRS since its inception and even my own version of it before I heard about it. I couldn’t force myself to use a textbook because it was such stifled memorizing and “learning” of info, just like students do in their Social Studies classes. They keep it long enough to “regurgitate”it on a test and then purge it from their memories.

    I hated my History classes because of that. Nothing fit together. It was just a long list of names, dates and places that didn’t connect at all in my mind UNTIL one teacher taught us by reading literature and connecting the historical significance of the settings, motivation of characters, etc. A lightbulb moment for me!! Finally!!

    By using the language in a WL class and reading examples of what we are targeting via stories or even in articles at a higher level, students can connect all of those grammatical principles without having to memorize. They use them and connect the meaning and patterns of the language. I always tell my students that language is a MESSY business. They will have ebbs and flows and sometimes will feel stranded, but it’s through pushing just a little above our level that we can grow. After repeated interaction with those difficult structures, they seem easy and we are ready to move ahead.

    Forcibly labeling all of that work into “I can…” statements is very time-consuming and almost impossible.. However, that’s what we are asked to do at this time. I’ve tried the task-based assessments, but I have seen that students try to memorize typical answers and later can’t remember such responses, even after having practiced working on them. However, when students learn to tell stories and express their versions of what happened, they are capable of saying what they feel and even tend to venture into unknown territory to say even more. I work at retelling our stories in several ways so that they are not just memorizing a story that we told in class. They hear it retold at least 3 different ways using familiar or targeted structures. Then they read another version. Most of the time, as an assessment, they tell me a story based upon a set of pictures that they haven’t seen before but using the vocabulary we’ve been using.

    I would feel safer sending a student who could tell me his/her own version of a story out into a country of the target language than one who had memorized typical answers for a task-based assessment. A student used to telling a story in his/her own words would know how to maneuver in more difficult situations.

    Some of the “I can…” statements include wording like “I can sometimes understand…” What does that mean? 2 out of 5 times? out of 10 times? Of course, I could use that myself… There are still topics that I haven’t studied much myself in Spanish with vocabulary that I haven’t encountered much. Maybe all of the categories should be labelled as such, “I can sometimes understand…” due to the possibility that they could encounter new vocabulary, especially if it’s from an authentic resource.

    Authentic resources have to be selected very carefully so that students don’t get intimidated. There are more now that level I students can handle, but strategic use of authentic resources really comes into play in level III classes. Level II students can begin the process of reading articles that are carefully selected and read as a class or with a group so that those who have trouble understanding some vocabulary can learn how others approach such difficult situations. Many of those students don’t maneuver those situations in their own languages and just quit reading when they see the first word that they don’t understand. In level I, this problem can be addressed through reading stories with mostly familiar vocabulary and structures and controlled so that they don’t get so stressed that they quit.

    I’ve taught English and Reading courses in the past and have witnessed this all too often. There’s an English article that I used in WL class in Spanish I but now put off until Spanish II because the students must make many connections and see the symbolism involved. Many have difficulties understanding the English and just stop reading without help understanding it. The reason I use the article is to help them see, firsthand, what to do when they don’t understand a particular passage. I talk them through it and have them use the skills that they used for that to help them with their reading in a different language. The article also helps them see the perspectives of other people about a culture.

    I feel that these are important skills to learn, but how do I place an “I can… ” statement on all of this? There are soooo many skills and lessons learned in the process. I could probably fill a page with those, but would that time-consuming task help me or my students? Could that time be better used creating more comprehensible input for my students? I believe so!!

    Many times I have felt that the “I can…” statements are made for teachers who don’t have a clue how to approach the teaching of a language and to cover all of those textbook bullets. BUT, languages are MESSY!! They are not limited to bulleted topics, vocabulary and grammatical structures. One must have an innate knowledge of the patterns of language and the intricacies of developing those grammatical structures with gradual additions and numerous repetitions while providing reading, speaking and listening expertise and strategies. Those cannot be bulleted easily, just practiced continually.

    Sorry, I tend to get side-tracked a bit. I’m also frustrated after working on our Program Review which now includes mainly Global Competence. I won’t get started on that one.

  4. I think another important aspect of language instruction (acquisition facilitation?) that is sometimes overlooked in this discussion is the affective filter. Language acquisition takes a lot of time, and a lot of input. So, as a language acquisition facilitator, I see one of my most important functions as ensuring that my students enjoy acquiring French, and choose to continue their efforts after they leave my classroom–whether that be on their own or in college.

    Using level appropriate novels and stories that recycle vocabulary and focus on the most frequently used language structures serves another purpose other than just acquisition of language. It is helps to build confidence. Students want to read more when they are able to understand and enjoy what they are reading. Also, you can do more with the story and higher order thinking skills in class of you don’t have to spend all of your time just ensuring that the students understand what they read.

    Just a thought as to why, in my opinion, authentic resources are not necessary (that’s not to say I never use them at all, because I do! But I find that other materials have a lot of value as well) at the novice and intermediate levels.

    1. True! Let us never overlook the affective filter!!! And thanks for pointing out that “skills” are being developed as language is acquired; such as confidence & critical thinking.

  5. Thank you for this post! I live in Japan and therefore have to follow different guidlines. However the Ministry of Education has also been pushing for a CAN-DO list. Similarly, they expect each school to come up with their own goals. I will check to see if again the examples provided by the ministry are only examples, similar to the ones in the US. If so, I personally do not think this is a bad idea as it does give the educator focus and helps students be aware of WHY they include certain phrases and activites in class.

    It seems though that some people equate CAN-DO with output. Is this always the case? Even in a 100% TPRS classroom aren’t teachers constantly assessing what their students CAN understand? Don’t we all have some goals that we have for our students? Is it wrong to pass these goals down to the students so they, too, can be aware of the progress they are making?

    Aimee in Japan

  6. I’ve always had a hard time with “task-based” and “can-do”. After reading your posts I would label myself a 100% text-based teacher since I don’t plan for the “do” part. I’ve always told myself that if my students have truly acquired language it doesn’t matter what context or “task” it was originally meant for, they will be able to access it for any task they are presented with. Situations will arise in class where it hits me that they know the language to say something they’re asking about and I’ll coach them through making a sentence. Or I’ll ask open ended questions and tell them to use any of “their” language or free writes…

    I guess my goal is just spontaneous speech and trying to connect “can-dos” to that is just a waste of time. I could be planning a conversation (PQA) writing a story, preparing to teach a novel, planning a movie talk….I know the only way acquisition happens is CI. : )

  7. Your blog today was very interesting to read, along with the comments. It is nice to see that so many other people are always working to improve skills of both the teacher and the student. Being a performance towards proficiency based teacher takes a lot of effort to work through issues we encounter on our own learning curve.

    My comment is that so many people are starting with the “Can do” statements when they should start with Proficiency guidelines. I see many new teachers are handed these who have no clue what proficiency is nor what the levels are. Being familiar with performance and proficiency along with the Guidelines allows one to see that the “can do”s are samples and are to be created through our backwards design so students know what their goals are, as well as the teachers.

    I found it interesting that “text based” teachers here comment that the “can do” statements only work for “task based” programs. In my humble opinion, there is no difference. In teaching using a story at the novice level, a teacher can still identify what the student “can do” with the communication. It is a performance at the novice level, such as identify the main characters, put events in chronological order from a story, etc. No matter if the text is authentic or written for the classroom, this is language input used to interpret. As students practice and learn to retell a story in their own words, this too is part of a focused outcome for the students which is performance and can be identified using “can-do” statements. So, the CCCI fits perfectly even if you don’t want to put “Can” in front of what students do.

    The purpose of the “Can do” statements is to get teachers and students to focus on what can be done in the language and not what is “taught”. I know many time teachers say, “My students did horrible on this or that even though I taught them this or that information or structure.” It does not matter! What matters is what the student “can do” with the language, i.e. understand a story, answer yes or no to details on it, or retell it. Comprehensible input only works when it is comprehensible to the student and that is the focus of the Guidelines and the “Can do” statements. Unless the goals of our classroom focus on what students can do (communicate- which included comprehend) in the language, we are not doing what we need to be doing. ACTFL, by way of the publications and professional development offered, is trying to offer resources to help teachers develop their courses based on this idea.

    Teaching based on Performance toward Proficiency is exciting and will always keep teachers focused on the needs of the students. As a teacher, I know I continue to modify and adjust to find just the right story, article video, photo, theme, etc. to entice my students to want to use the language to learn more and express themselves. I also know that it can be different for each group of students so I will have to stay on my toes! But, focusing on what they “can do” using the language, which may be just comprehend without any output is still the most important detail, not what I “covered” in the course.

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