The introduction to the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements, increasingly used in U.S. schools, features this helpful clarification:
These Can-Do Statements describe the specific language tasks that learners are likely to perform at various levels of proficiency. (p. 2)
What this means is that, if you tell me Kendra is an advanced speaker of Polish, I can reasonably infer, “Kendra’s Polish is probably good enough that she ‘can resolve an unexpected complication that arises in a familiar situation.'” (See Advanced Low Interpersonal Communication, p. 9.)
I cannot, however, conclude the following on the basis of the Can-Do Statements: “If I want to become an advanced speaker of Polish, I need to practice resolving unexpected complications that arise in familiar situations.” Rather, I need to acquire enough Polish that, if an unexpected complication arises, I have the language at my disposal to say whatever I think needs to be said and to understand what other people are saying in that situation. (Note that ACTFL defines proficiency as functional linguistic ability “in a spontaneous and non-rehearsed context” [ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012, p. 3].)
If you tell me Dante is a Novice High speaker of Italian, I can reasonably infer, “Dante’s Italian is probably good enough that he ‘can exchange some personal information.'” (See Novice High Interpersonal Communication, p. 7.)
I cannot, however, conclude the following on the basis of the Can-Do Statements: “If I want to become a Novice High speaker of Italian, I need to practice exchanging some personal information.” Rather, I need to acquire enough Italian that, if the opportunity to exchange some personal information arises and I want or need to take it, I have enough of the language at my disposal to do so.
See the difference?
How does this relate to planning instruction?
The fact that Can-Do Statements simply describe tasks that learners at different stages are likely to be able to perform does not mean that we can’t use them to plan instruction. But our instruction needs to be guided first and foremost by foundational principles of second language acquisition. For instance, meaningful target-language input that learners can understand will be the means of long-term acquisition of any of the language needed in order to accomplish any of the tasks in the Can-Do Statements, in any mode (Interpersonal, Interpretive, Presentational), in the “spontaneous and non-rehearsed contexts” that are part of ACTFL’s definition of proficiency.
The high-frequency language that is part of talking about almost anything–and which is therefore most essential to proficiency as defined by ACTFL–comes up naturally in interactions, texts, and other target-language media. Time limits, the classroom setting, too-specific common assessments, mean that we might sometimes also choose to plan for the provision of targeted input (still matched to students’ interests and competence) in hopes of students’ acquiring language that doesn’t naturally come up often. For example, people don’t usually buy and sell stuff in class, so, if we want students to acquire language that is unique to buying and selling, we’ll want to make sure the input they receive contains that language. (Note, though, that most language involved in buying and selling is not unique to that context. Actually, vocabulary is rarely unique to a certain setting, and the structure of a language is never unique to a certain setting. The vast majority of language is transferable from one setting to another. If you’ve acquired the structure of the language and a very small amount of topical vocabulary, you can participate in buying and selling.)
Ironically, the dearth of time is one of the best reasons not to target many specific tasks listed in the Can-Do Statements, and especially not to spend much class time having students simulate interactions such as meeting-and-greeting, shopping, etc., or creating products. Why? While doing these things, students are missing out on receiving the huge amount of input that would allow them to acquire the overall structure of the language that they will need in order to communicate about almost anything. (This does not mean that class won’t be interactive. There are lots of ways students can interact while encountering meaningful input that they can and want to understand and while taking meaningful opportunities to use the language.)
So, teachers and students can use Can-Do Statements to estimate the learner’s proficiency and especially to celebrate progress. But it’s not the case that practicing the individual acts referred to in the Can-Do Statements causes the language to be acquired long-term, nor is it the case that one can’t do the acts referred to in the Can-Do Statements unless one has had targeted practice. Again, acquired structure of the language transfers to every situation.
Three things that muddy the waters
1. Academic Can-Do Statements
Some of the Can-Do Statements include academic or professional skills that rely on, but are not themselves part of, second language acquisition: skills such as interviewing, identifying main points of an argument, and making inferences. The teacher needs to decide how much time to spend teaching these skills, knowing that any explicit instruction in such skills, unless this instruction takes place in the target language and is understood by students, will be a timeout from students’ acquiring the language.
2. The suggestion that learners use Can-Do Statements to set goals
ACTFL suggests that learners look ahead at Can-Do Statements to set language-learning goals (NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements, p. 1). This is fine, as long as we make clear to students that (a) the way to meet those goals isn’t to spend a bunch of time practicing the tasks (see above for reasons), and (b) the mere fact of accomplishing the task–say, on an Integrated Performance Assessment–does not necessarily mean one has advanced in proficiency. These caveats will apply even if students create their own Can-Do Statements based on the Global Can-Do Benchmarks.
3. This mysterious comment
These targets can help drive your instruction to be more performance-oriented and provide more opportunities for your learners to produce language.
This observation on how “Learning Facilitators” might use Can-Do Statements (NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements, p. 2) has so many crossed wires that I can’t do it justice in this post, though I’ve made a start in my reply to Lance’s comment below. But the crossed-ness of the wires can really confuse teachers who are trying to take the Can-Do Statements seriously, to say nothing of teachers who are trying to take seriously how humans acquire languages.
This post is jam-packed with talking points. Feel free to take them up, here or elsewhere!