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KU researcher develops low-cost, low-stress method for future foreign language teachers to test proficiency

Monday, September 25, 2017

LAWRENCE — In order to teach a language to students, one must speak it well. However, research has shown that foreign language teachers sometimes graduate and begin teaching without having the level of proficiency they should. A University of Kansas professor has developed a system students can use to assess their proficiency and identify language skills that may need improvement at no cost and lower stress level to the student.

The accrediting bodies for schools that prepare foreign language teachers allow the programs to assess their students’ language proficiency with a test known as the Oral Proficiency Interview. However, not all states and institutions require the test, known as the OPI, and when it is required, it can be expensive and a source of stress for future teachers. Manuela Gonzalez-Bueno, associate professor of foreign language education at KU, decided to develop a system that students could use to self-assess and teachers could use to help their students determine their language proficiency level.

In terms of language proficiency, the lowest level for a learner is novice. Above that is intermediate, in which a learner can read and converse, especially in the present tense; then advanced; and ultimately superior. Teachers of languages such as Chinese, Arabic and Japanese are required to have intermediate high proficiency, while teachers for languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and German are required to be advanced low. Gonzalez-Bueno and Luisa Pérez of Emporia State University decided to develop the Self-Evaluation Rubric for Advanced Low Level, or SARAL, to help students gauge if they are at the required proficiency level.

“I see many of my students when they are getting ready to student-teach the next semester and then become full-time teachers. Often they don’t have the advanced level. Taking the OPI is expensive, and students already have to pay a lot of fees,” Gonzalez-Bueno said.

The researchers developed SARAL by deconstructing the various criteria present in the description of the advanced level in terms of the skills and abilities speakers at this level should be able to demonstrate. The rubric can be used as a self-test or for teachers to administer to students to tell if they can master certain parts of speech. Over the course of 25 questions, it measures if the students can never, occasionally, sometimes, most of the time or always use proper vocabulary, grammar, express themselves, participate in conversation and a number of other skills. It provides a score and helps determine strengths and needs for improvement. Teachers can then make suggestions for how students can improve in certain areas, such as having conversations with native speakers, watching movies with subtitles in the language being learned and others.

To test the validity of the rubric, Gonzalez-Bueno and Pérez — both certified OPI testers — interviewed 32 students preparing to become foreign language teachers. The students all took both the OPI and SARAL. In 30 of 32 cases, the scores for the two matched, giving the rubric a high grade of validity. The interviewees also shared their experiences with and thoughts on the OPI, in which they cited stress of the test and concerns about its cost. The researchers published an article about the rubric in the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages journal. The article includes the rubric for any teachers, students or teacher preparation courses interested in using it.

“I tell my students, ‘You need to have this level of proficiency to be a foreign languages teacher, and you need to make sure you’re prepared,’” Gonzalez-Bueno said. “The rubric is an easy way for them to determine if they have the necessary proficiency level.”

The SARAL is not just a tool for students, however. Teachers can use it in their classes to help those training to become educators, or even to test their own proficiency, as even native speakers can sometimes fail to reach superior level status. The SARAL can help determine if a speaker has lost proficiency in certain areas through lack of practice, or if they are not proficient in some aspects and how to become so.

“If you’re a teacher, you need to maintain the language and be a lifelong learner who never stops,” Gonzalez-Bueno said. “Ultimately, it’s up to them, but one way to improve is to be aware. This can help students and teachers be aware of their language skills and what they need to improve.”


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