Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

The Development of Oral Proficiency during a Semester in Germany

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

The Development of Oral Proficiency during a Semester in Germany

Article excerpt

Abstract: This study measures and analyzes improvements in students' oral proficiency during a study abroad semester in Germany. Oral proficiency interviews were conducted with participants before and after the program during three consecutive years. All interviews were assigned official ratings. Usage of two specific grammar structures associated with the Advanced level was also tracked. Before the program, most students were at Intermediate Low, even those who had completed 5th-semester German courses. Although 80% completed the program with improved proficiency ratings, very few reached the Advanced level. Internal analysis of speech samples did reveal that the post-program Intermediate Mid performances were much closer to the Advanced level than pre-program performances with the same rating. The study concludes with an assessment of curricular implications for post-program courses.

Key words: German, grammar and proficiency levels, OPI as research tool, oral proficiency development, study abroad program assessment


Language educators and program administrators agree that studying abroad is beneficial, and perhaps even essential, for students who want to improve their oral proficiency in a foreign language. This judgment is often based on intuition or subjective observation, such as informal conversations with students before and after their study abroad experiences, or comparisons of student performance in courses. Still, reliable studies that actually seek to measure and analyze the suspected linguistic gains made during study abroad semesters are relatively rare. Those that exist provide inconsistent results.

Attaining a specific proficiency level, as defined by the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines for Speaking (Breiner-Sanders, Lowe, Miles, & Swender, 2000), can be crucial for the future careers of language learners. The question of whether students actually reach a measurably higher level of proficiency as a result of studying abroad for a semester is therefore an important one. For instance, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education Programs (NCATE) Standards expect teacher candidates to demonstrate oral proficiency at the Advanced Low level. The teacher certification boards of 16 states currently require their candidates to prove that they have reached an Advanced Low or Intermediate High rating by taking an oral proficiency interview (OPI) conducted by the ACTFL testing office, Language Testing International (LTI). Other states permit individual institutions to decide how they will determine that their teaching candidates have met the required standard.1

Any attempt to assess the role of a study abroad semester in the development of oral proficiency will need to answer the following questions:

* At what proficiency level do students enter the program?

* Are students returning from their semesters abroad at a higher level of proficiency?

* Do students' initial proficiency levels influence the improvement rate during the semester abroad?

* What are reasonable expectations for improvement?

ACTFL Guidelines

The ACTFL proficiency guidelines and the OPI have practical implications for language curricula: They are nationally recognized measures of functional ability in a language.

The ACTFL rating scale comprises four major levels (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, and Superior) that are delineated according to a hierarchy of global tasks. The Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced levels are further divided into sublevels: Threshold performances are indicated as Low and High; solid performances, in both quality and quantity, are indicated as Mid. The ACTFL rating scale therefore measures 10 different proficiency categories. It is often depicted as an inverted pyramid to represent the exponential increase of facility with language throughout and within the major levels (see Figure 1).

It is crucial to point out that the ACTFL guidelines define the High sublevel as a "fall from the next higher level rather than a strong ability demonstrated at the general level. …

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