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Unpacking the New York State Standards for World Languages

May 24, 2023

New York State (NYS) revised their learning standards for Modern and Classical World Languages in 2021, and many NYS teachers are now wondering whether they need to make changes in their teaching in order to meet the new standards. As a team, we have spent a great deal of time pouring over the resources that the New York State Office of Bilingual Education and World Languages (OBEWL) has developed to support teachers in the implementation of these revised standards, and we want to share our learning with you.

The purpose of this blog post is to support teachers in New York State that want to ensure that their instructional choices are in alignment with and supporting the revised standards. Although the NYS OBEWL has been clear that there are no plans to evaluate teacher compliance in implementing the standards, many district administrators will expect teachers to use the standards in lesson planning. Whether you are a teacher in NYS who is already using Acquisition Driven Instruction (ADI) and desire to know whether it matches state standards, or you are a teacher who recognizes that your current instruction does not match the standards and you need a new plan, we hope that this blog post will prove helpful.

We offer a special thank you to the teachers in NYS that helped us navigate the resources provided on the OBEWL website as we prepared this blog post.

What to expect from the New York State Standards for World Languages

by Elicia Cárdenas and Martina Bex

The revised NYS standards are in full alignment with the national ACTFL standards, and they fully support the kind of proficiency-oriented language instruction espoused by The Comprehensible Classroom. The standards are clear, concise, and focused on communication. As such, it will be easy for teachers that use a Communicative, Comprehension-based approach to Language Teaching to demonstrate how their teaching is in alignment with the 2021 New York State World Languages Standards

In addition to the Standards document, the New York State Department of Education rolled out an array of resources to support their implementation, and these resources are also in alignment with ACTFL standards, as well as College Board and IB standards. The new resources include a revised list of themes and topics, suggested rubrics, and–most notably–a document setting establishing Checkpoints for progress toward proficiency. The Checkpoints document lays out specific levels of performance that students will pass as they make progress toward each overarching standard. Historically, the Checkpoints have been tied to graduation and diploma requirements, and we are currently awaiting clarification regarding the degree to which this will remain true with the revised standards*.

The good news about the NYS State Standards for World Languages

We at The Comprehensible Classroom LOVE the streamlined nature of the 2021 NYS Standards for World Languages, and we applaud the team that designed it. The easy to read document lists anchor standards for world language on just two pages! The first page is for languages that have living, native speakers; and the 2nd page is intended for Classical languages, such as ancient Greek, ancient Hebrew, Latin, and “others from earlier time periods in human history”. 

With just a few caveats, the World Language Standards for New York are 100% in line with what we consider to be best, most sustainable, and most equitable practices. The standards are broken down into two Anchor Standards: Communication and Cultures. 

The Anchor Standard for Communication reads, “Learners communicate effectively in the target language in order to function in a variety of contexts and for multiple purposes”, and it is further broken down into 3 standards related to Interpretive, Interpersonal, and Presentational Communication. 

The Anchor Standard for Cultures also has a communicative focus, stating that “Learners use the target language to identify, describe, compare, and explain the practices, products, and perspectives of the cultures study”. Because this standard is proficiency oriented (focused on communicating about content for a purpose), it makes it easy for teachers to work toward both Anchor Standards simultaneously. Furthermore, the state does not require or suggest evaluation of the Anchor Standard for Cultures at each Checkpoint. We think that this is a wise decision, because there are many potential pitfalls when it comes to the evaluation of cultural knowledge and skills.

What the NYS Standards mean for teaching

The purpose of the standards is to establish what students should be able to do as a result of their experiences in language courses in New York State. To be in alignment with the standards, language educators in New York State must ensure that their instructional choices are resulting in students becoming proficient in the target language. This is an exceptionally practical standard, and it has the potential to greatly simplify teaching for the educators that choose to embrace it. 

What is proficiency?

Proficiency, as we have explained in previous blog posts, can be broken down into three components: content, function, and accuracy.

This is demonstrated in the NYS Anchor Standard for Communication: 

  • Accuracy: “Learners communicate effectively…”
  • Function: “...and for multiple purposes”
  • Content: “ a variety of contexts…”

The NYS Standards establish proficiency as the goal and encourage teachers to make instructional choices that will result in greater proficiency, and they leave great instructional freedom for teachers.

The NYS Standards do not dictate content

The anchor standards are written in such a way that language educators in NY can use any content to help students meet them, and the document outlining Checkpoints for student performance is also content-agnostic. We LOVE this! It means that there is no required “restaurant” or “travel” unit, and so teachers are free to choose content that is meaningful to and appropriate for their students and their own particular learning goals. 

What OBEWL HAS done is select four overarching themes and 17 topics that should be addressed across the three checkpoints. The themes and even the topics closely match the AP and IB themes, and because they are quite broad, it should be easy for teachers to find content that fits within them. Here is a document that lists the NYS themes and topics for each unit of The Somos Curriculum®.

It is valuable to note that, in order to meet the Cultural Standards students would presumably need to be learning some kind of cultural content knowledge regarding practices, products, and perspectives so that they can use the language they are acquiring in class to explain and compare. The Cultures standard does not specify which or which kind of products, practices, and perspectives should be explained or compared, so the teacher has a great deal of freedom in selecting content for their classes--which we believe is a good thing.

The NYS Standards do not dictate grammar

In addition to content, you will also find that there is no mention of grammar in the NYS standards. This is important to point out for a variety of reasons. For those teachers who are choosing to use their time speaking in the language in such a way that students can understand but may be pressured by outside forces to include discreet grammar points, this is validating. For departments struggling to shift to a proficiency-driven, acquisition based approach, the standards clearly do not support a grammar based curriculum. In fact, OBEWL used phrasing such as, “What if I have to use a textbook?” in some of their training videos, implying that a traditional textbook unit (which is often focused on explicit instruction of grammar and vocabulary), does NOT fit well with the proficiency-driven approach required to meet the standards. Knowing that the 2021 standards are focused on communicative success (the degree to which one understands and can be understood) can empower all teachers to leave behind practices that don’t support language acquisition. 

The NYS Standards do not dictate method

Importantly, the NYS Standards do not tell teachers what methods they must or must not use in class in order to foster the growth of proficiency in their students. We love this because one of our core beliefs is that Teachers are the experts in their classrooms, and Teachers should be empowered to make principled instructional choices for their own classrooms.

Surprisingly, despite the vast amount of high quality training and materials that have been provided to teachers to support their implementation of the revised standards, there is virtually NOTHING that helps teachers understand what it actually takes to build proficiency. Teachers are told that they need to use authentic resources, they need to create thematic units with meaningful, communicative goals, and their students need to be able to communicate at certain levels of performance by certain points in the journey. The state implementation team has also provided many exemplar unit plans in supporting documents and in webinars. These are useful, but aside from suggesting the I do / You do / We do explicit instruction model, little guidance is provided about what activities teachers can do in class that will result in growth in proficiency. 

How does proficiency develop?

Fortunately, this is our specialty. Five decades of research in the area of Second Language Acquisition support that, in order to prepare students to communicate effectively about things and for purposes in the target language, we must focus classroom instruction on communicating effectively with students about things and for purposes. Meaning, if we talk to and read with our students about all kinds of topics; for psycho-social, informational, and entertainment purposes (While We're on the Topic, VanPatten, 2019); and we ensure that students are understanding the communication; they will develop linguistic proficiency. 

All of our training and curricular materials are designed to help teachers understand what proficiency is, how it develops, and what teachers can do in class to foster that growth.

Here are some trainings and resources to explore:

Teaching and Assessing for Acquisition

Ballston Spa, NY | August 2023

Acquisition Boot Camp

Online Course | August 2023

The NYS Standards DO dictate a timeline 

The Checkpoints document sets up a timeline for performance toward proficiency for language students in NYS. A typical student will take the Checkpoint A exam at the end of 8th grade, after a full year of study (or possibly two years of middle school). Checkpoint B exams are developed by different regional consortiums in the state, and they are typically taken at the end of 10th grade, or after 3 years of language study. Checkpoint C is an additional benchmark that is not attached to any specific graduation requirements.

While two performance indicators are listed for each Checkpoint, students are considered ‘passing’ if they meet the lower performance indicator at each Checkpoint. These indicators are:

Checkpoint A

1 year

Novice Mid

Checkpoint B

3 years

Intermediate Low

Checkpoint C

4+ years

Intermediate Mid

What’s good about the Checkpoints

The value in establishing benchmarks or checkpoints is that it creates a common expectation for placement in world language classes across the state. Teachers can examine their students’ performance and determine whether their instructional choices are resulting in gains that are similar to colleagues throughout the state, and if they might need to take a different approach to get better results.

Checkpoints have value for students in that a newcomer to a district can be confidently placed in a language class that is appropriate for their level of performance and have a reasonable chance for success. As Paul Sandrock expressed in Keys to Assessing Language Performance, “What students need to have in common in order to progress to the next level is not the exact same vocabulary or irregular verb forms, but rather a common level of performance.” Checkpoints--as a form of assessment--are not inherently problematic. They can provide valuable information to stakeholders about students’ progress toward proficiency.

What checkpoints are reasonable for language learners?

If we desire to build language programs in which all students can experience success, we must establish benchmarks that are easily attainable for all learners.

As Joe Feldman stated in Grading for Equity (2019), “The way we grade should increase a students’ confidence so that each student feels that she is equally eligible for academic success- even predestined for that success- regardless of circumstances or educational background.”

We have jumped into the available research and recommendations at a national level to try to come up with some suggested benchmarks for each level, and you can read our findings in this linked blog post. What you will find is that the first two Checkpoints set by NYS largely match data from national assessments.

Will Somos prepare students to meet the Checkpoints?

Teachers that are using or considering The Somos Curriculum® will be encouraged to learn that anecdotal evidence suggests that your students will meet the various Checkpoints ahead of schedule. Teachers report that their students are achieving 3s and 4s on the STAMP assessment (the equivalent of Novice High/ Intermediate Low) after as little as 1 year of instruction, and 5s and 6s (Intermediate Mid/High) after just two years in all modes. In the Interpretive mode, students have achieved 9s (Advanced High) after just two years! After three or four years of language class with The Somos Curriculum® and other acquisition-focused materials, students are solidly performing at the Intermediate or Advanced range in all communicative modes. 

Concerns with the Checkpoints

We do have some concerns with the Checkpoints. However, we acknowledge that the Checkpoints have already been set and the implementation timeline has begun, and so the situation “is what it is”. We do not wish to provide unproductive criticism, and so our purpose in sharing these concerns is to consider in which ways teachers might need to get strategic to help their students meet the Checkpoints on schedule.

The Checkpoints are mandatory deadlines

The thing about the NYS Checkpoints is that they are not just used to provide information; they are tied to formally graded assessments. In and of itself, assessment is not a bad thing: it is an important tool that educators use to support their students. However, when assessment is done formally and tied to grades (summative assessment), it can very quickly become problematic. 

Note to the reader: the following paragraph, which we wrote based on information found on the NYS website (here and here) has been flagged as potentially inaccurate by the NYSED OBEWL. We are currently awaiting clarification on the true relationship between the Checkpoints and graduation and diploma requirements. In the spirit of transparency and the desire to provide accurate information, we are leaving the paragraph here but flagged until we have the information to correct it.

The Checkpoints are not just performance levels that students pass along the way to their goal of becoming proficient; they are performance levels that students are required to meet by specific deadlines in order to graduate and/or earn specific diplomas. This is what makes the Checkpoints messy and potentially problematic. Especially because most students are expected to pass the first Checkpoint before high school even begins, they do not set up all students in New York State for success. In fact, they set up some–possibly many–students for failure. 

Many students come to world language classes with identities such as “I can’t learn language” or “I’m not the kind of person who learns languages”, or even “I’m not smart enough.” Ironically, all of these students have already learned a language, and many are already bilingual or multilingual. Traditional grading practices, which reward students for test taking skills, memorization, and strong short term memory, tend to reinforce these narratives. For students to see themselves as successful language learners, it is imperative that teachers set reasonable goals and celebrate what students can do in the target language.

Imagine an 8th grader who struggles with various life events and/or mild learning differences. At the end of 8th grade, if this student doesn’t meet the expectations for Novice Mid across all three modes of communication, they will have so-called “proof” that they aren’t capable of success. Their false narrative will be confirmed! What identity will they carry forward into 9th grade, and what is the likelihood that that identity will change as they start high school repeating a Checkpoint A course? The outlook is bleak.

Imagine how differently that student would see themselves if they were celebrated for their success- for what they can do in the target language at the end of the first year of language study!

What can teachers do?

Since the checkpoints are already in place, we see two major teacher moves to be made. The first is this: use every moment that students are in class to develop linguistic proficiency by engaging students in communicative events. Remember that “communicative events” does not necessarily mean that students are speaking. It means that learners are listening to, viewing, or reading input–and they are understanding that input. Additionally, they are given opportunities to express themselves in speech and writing at a developmentally appropriate level. This could mean responding to questions with thumbs up/thumbs down, yes/no, short phrases, or paragraph length discourse. The key here is that the expectation for output (or expression of meaning) is developmentally appropriate based on the students’ acquired language. 

In order to ensure that class time is spent engaged in activities that build proficiency, we must critically examine what we do in class and ask ourselves: Will this activity build linguistic competence? If not, is there a very good reason for doing it anyway? Many of the activities that we grew up doing in language classes are not proficiency-builders, and teachers in NYS may decide that it is time to let go of projects, vocabulary practice, grammar drills, and more in order to devote more class time to proficiency-building activities.

The second important move for teachers is to have a clear understanding of what proficiency descriptors mean, especially when it comes to writing, speaking, and signing. We need to manage our own expectations and then help students manage theirs. Learning about the proficiency descriptors will reveal that for most of a student’s first year in class, they will be producing lists of words and phrases. By the end of the year (at Checkpoint A), they are expected to produce simple, repetitive sentences with basic errors in grammar, word choice, and more. They need time and exposure to input to grow from Novice Low to Novice Mid, and teachers need to consider how to grade assignments during the year in order to celebrate what students can do, and not punish them for not yet meeting a future deadline.

Not all modes develop at the same rate

Another concern that we have with the Checkpoints is that they establish the same benchmark performance level for all three modes of communication: Interpretive, Interpersonal, and Presentational. This seems to imply that students develop proficiency in all three modes at the same rate, which is not supported by data. 

After as little as one year of language study, students in NYS are evaluated on their presentational and interpersonal speaking ability. Let’s remember that students may spend from six months up to two years in a “silent” period when encountering a new language in an immersion-type situation, such as study abroad or moving to a new country with a new language. Consider how long that silent period might last for students who are only being exposed to the target language for 2 to 3 hours per week (since class time does not equal target language exposure time). It is reasonable to assume that students will be forced to perform speaking tasks for the purpose of evaluation before they are developmentally ready. What that means is that the assessment is not evaluating performance toward proficiency; it is evaluating something else. It seems like this assessment might be evaluating a mixture of social skills and memorization, of which neither are language proficiency. 

Furthermore, Novice learners are commonly known as “parrots.” This means that, by definition, they are using memorized chunks of language and parroting back what they have been able to memorize. One indicator of an intermediate user of language is being able to create original sentences with the language that they know. Checkpoint A, which includes a speaking component, is really just testing for memorized language, which is not proficiency-oriented.  

What can teachers do?

Although the Checkpoints seem to imply that students will develop all three modes at the same rate, teachers should not feel discouraged if their students’ Presentational and Interpersonal performance is lagging behind their Interpretive performance. If this is what you are observing, fear not! You are not doing anything wrong. Students need language in their heads before language can come out. Focus on providing your students with highly processable input, and they WILL begin to develop in the other communicative modes. Devoting class time to presentational and interpersonal practice will take time away from the activities that will result in the greatest gains in these modes: engagement in comprehensible, communicative exchanges.

Interpersonal benchmarks

We especially have concerns that it is not reasonable to evaluate Interpersonal communication at all of the Checkpoints. This is not to say that Interpersonal communication is not important; in fact, one of our guiding principles at The Comprehensible Classroom is “connect with students through communicative interactions”. Essentially, that IS interpersonal communication! 

Interpersonal Communication becomes complicated when we consider these other factors:

  • Caregivers and other stakeholders want to know what students can do. Reporting on speaking, reading, writing, and listening (or receptive/productive for our ASL colleagues) communicates this clearly. The term “Interpersonal”, however, doesn’t mean much to people other than language teachers.
  • Interpersonal skills are often informed by the cultural norms of the students. Consider a student who comes from a community where speaking to elders (or people not in their family/community) is considered inappropriate or rude. How will that student be assessed equitably? How will teachers assess students from communities where words of affirmation that are interjected into conversation may be seen as interruptive? 
  • It is exceptionally time consuming and challenging to assess and grade Interpersonal Communication. Especially because of the social, emotional, and cultural factors influencing Interpersonal performance, great care must be taken in developing and administering a summative Interpersonal assessment. We do not believe that any potential value that could come from evaluating students’ Interpersonal performance justifies the demands placed on the teacher.
  • Novices are, by definition, parroting information and drawing on memorized chunks of language. Novices are not yet creating original language: if a learner is creating original language, they are not a Novice (see page 3 of this document from the State of Ohio). With that in mind, evaluating Novice language learners on something they can not do doesn’t make a lot of sense. A case could easily be made for the elimination of the Interpersonal requirement at Checkpoint A.

Interpersonal communication is fundamental in world language classrooms. Assessing and formally reporting interpersonal skills is not a great use of limited class time and resources. 

What can teachers do?

Consider what kind of interpersonal communication is developmentally appropriate for the levels that you teach. Remember: students nodding, using thumbs up/thumbs down to answer questions, responding to target language questions in English, answering questions with simple, one-word-answers… all of this is an indication of interpretation. If students are understanding and responding, then the conditions for interpersonal skills to develop are there. It just takes time! 

Keep in mind that forcing students to produce before they are ready, whether as a “practice activity” or as an assessment, is unlikely to support them in developing their interpersonal skills. It *is* likely to raise their affective filter and/or allow the narrative of “I can’t do this” to persist. 

What it will take for students to meet the Standards

Preparing all (and we mean all) students to meet Checkpoint A and Checkpoint B on a typical schedule will not be an easy feat for language educators; not because the Checkpoints are unreasonable, but because language teaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In order to make the necessary gains in proficiency, students will need to be (a) in class regularly, (b) engaged communicatively in the target language when they are in class (interpret, express, negotiate meaning), (c) be able to process the target language to which they are exposed during class, an (d) motivated to engage in the whole experience.

This is another way of saying: we need to provide input that they can understand, and they need to receive it! Attendance and motivation to engage are largely out of the teacher’s control! The best that we can do is create an environment in which students experience success, feel belonging, and are motivated to attend and engage. Then, when we have those students in front of us, we capitalize on those precious moments by maximizing our target language use and optimizing the processability of the language to which they are exposed. 

It is very good that neither the standards nor the checkpoints dictate content, because there is no extra class time to devote to the memorization of long topical vocabulary lists nor to the practice toward mastery of discrete grammar rules. Class time must be spent engaged in activities that develop proficiency, which means that class time must be spent engaged in communication in the target language.

Language teachers everywhere are dissatisfied with programs that are backwards designed for the success of a small percentage of their students. Those days are gone. As a profession, we know that all students are capable of acquiring language, and it is our ethical responsibility to make instructional choices that allow students to step into that success for which they are predestined.

We look forward to supporting teachers in New York State--and everywhere--in making it happen.

*When we first published this blog post, we stated that the Checkpoints "are tied to graduation and diploma requirements". This is based on documentation from the NYS website (here and here), and the OBEWL has informed us that this is not true. We are currently awaiting clarification so that we can accurately represent the relationship between Checkpoints and graduation and diploma requirements in NY.

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