Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Understanding Intermediate-Level Speakers' Strengths and Weaknesses: An Examination of OPIc Tests from Korean Learners of English

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Understanding Intermediate-Level Speakers' Strengths and Weaknesses: An Examination of OPIc Tests from Korean Learners of English

Article excerpt

Introduction

In a recent audit of oral proficiency test results from a large university that the author conducted, it was discovered that a single student had taken either the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) or the Oral Proficiency Interview-computerized (OPIc) nine times over a 3-year period. Further examination revealed that this student, a language teaching minor who needed a rating of Advanced Low for instructor licensure, was languishing at the Intermediate level. After an initial OPI score of Intermediate High (IH) in 2013, the next four tests resulted in ratings of Intermediate Mid (IM), while the final four tests were rated IH. Reaching the Advanced level is critical for those pursuing teaching licensure (Brooks & Darhower, 2014; Chambless, 2012), and this student's lack of progression toward higher proficiency on the ACTFL scale represented a real-world example of the importance of understanding the characteristics of speech and the types of tasks that are required to progress through the three sublevels that constitute the Intermediate level and move into the Advanced range. However, since the rating is holistic, information on the specific aspects of a test taker's performance that prevent that person from being rated at the next adjacent level is not documented, nor is it provided in the final rating. Thus, there can be a disconnect between what the examinees see as their rating, the information that instructors provide to students about the assessment and the rating system, and what raters are attending to when assigning ratings. The purpose of this study was to examine information that is not traditionally available to either test takers or instructors so as to provide more detailed information about the specific profiles of speakers who received the same proficiency rating within the Intermediate range and determine how a test taker's skills along four linear axes (function, text type, content, and accuracy) contributed to their final, global rating.

Background

The ACTFL defines proficiency as the "ability to use a language to communicate meaningful information in a spontaneous interaction, and in a manner acceptable and appropriate to native speakers of the language" (ACTFL, 2012d, p. 4). The proficiency guidelines (ACTFL, 2012c) have long been represented as an inverted pyramid, which illustrates that language learning is not linear but rather that the progression from one level to the next can be best represented as a pattern of geometric growth. When envisioning the inverse pyramid, the geometric area in the Novice and Intermediate tiers is much smaller than that of the higher levels. However, the skills that are acquired at those levels form the structural foundation upon which the higher levels are built. For example, while the ability to narrate in the past is a critical characteristic of Advanced-level communication, language learners usually first learn to report events that have taken place in strings of sentences using the simple past. However, the learner who does not develop the ability to use paragraph-length discourse will not be able to progress beyond the Intermediate level (ACTFL, 2012a). Communicative habits that seem to appropriately convey meaning but that are not corrected and extended become ingrained and thus impede progress into and beyond the Advanced level. These fossilized errors in essence become faulty girders and beams that are incapable of supporting the increasing communicative weight when learners are required to carry out more sophisticated functions and address more robust and varied content. Thus, understanding the developmental stages through which learners progress is vital in assisting students in their language-learning journey, both within a particular level but also from one level into the next.

Although the ACTFL guidelines were introduced in 1982 (Liskin-Gasparro, 2003) and the ACTFL recently certified the 1,000th OPI tester worldwide (ACTFL, 2016), it is quite likely that many foreign language educators may still be unclear about how exactly to use them to improve student learning outcomes. …

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