Use Can-Do Statements–just not like this.

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)

SONY DSCWhat 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].)

Another example:

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!

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  1. Pingback: Use Can-Do Statements-just not like this. – Indwelling Language – Cymraeg Cyfrwng Saesneg

  2. Well-done! This analysis of the Can-Do Statements is on point. About that #3 mysterious comment…

    The targets DO drive instruction to be more performance-oriented, but as you correctly note, that’s not the same as proficiency. Many teachers incorrectly implement the Can-Do Statements and have students who might perform well on a practiced task, but whose ability is lost after a few months. These students end up with no ability to use the language spontaneously!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Lance.

      I agree that heavy attention to the Can-Dos is likely to make instruction more performance-oriented. Here are some ways I think the wires are crossed:

      1. ACTFL defines performance as “the ability to use language that has been learned and practiced in an instructional setting” (ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners, p. 4). The suggestion, then, that targets inspired by Can-Dos can drive instruction to be more oriented to “practiced” language feeds the idea that “practicing” the tasks described by the Can-Dos is an efficient and therefore desirable use of class time.

      2. Even if one wants to give a lot of attention to performance in the ACTFL sense, I don’t like the idea of “orienting” one’s instruction to performance, which could lead an under-informed teacher or learner to think that “learned and practiced” language is the main, only, or optimal language that learners have at their disposal. So the targets may well drive instruction to be more performance-oriented, but I don’t see this as a desirable outcome.

      3. I might be willing to concede that grading should be “performance-oriented,” in the sense of acknowledging what students can do with the language, but not that “instruction”–i.e., how we spend practically all of class time–should be.

      4. What does it mean for Can-Do-inspired targets to “help…provide opportunities for…learners to produce the language”? What sorts of opportunities would these be? Are they genuine, meaningful opportunities, or are they exercises or simulations? (I can see how the Can-Dos might help one think about what sorts of opportunities to seize or create.)

      5. Why single out production in a summary statement about the role of the targets in planning units and lessons, when the targets themselves are far from limited to production?

  3. Pingback: Task or Text: the aftermath – The Comprehensible Classroom

  4. I love this discussion! And I still don’t understand how to make Can-Do statements to assess kids in a CI context? And I really don’t get how it correlates to a grade. Help!

  5. This is a very helpful post for me to re-read as the school year wraps up. With a little more distance from my teaching, I can see that I have been devoting too much time to getting my students to perform well on specific Can-Dos. We ended up practicing the tasks A LOT – because I put great emphasis on mastering the thematic units’ Can-Dos, and my obedient students were trying to do what I’d asked. I guess my quandary now is, what IS the role of Can-Dos if I do not assess them individually nor count them as part of my students’ term grades? Just a sheet for them to look at and use for self-assessment from time to time? Historically I haven’t found that my weaker students are effective self-assessors. Do I focus on getting Can-Dos into my IPAs or other summatives? Letting Can-Dos go may be my way to finally dive into the 90/10% grading scheme described by Lance.

  6. Pingback: Where are the points of agreement in language teaching? | Musicuentos

  7. “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”

    Hi Justin, Thanks for sharing. Above you seem to be advocating for backwards planning from the Can-Do statements. How exactly do you “use them to plan instruction”?


    • Thanks for checking this, Claire. I don’t use the Can-Do Statements in my planning, and I think backwards planning from the Statements is generally unlikely to lead to effective class sessions–if such a session ends up being effective in some way, it won’t be because the teacher started with the Can-Do Statements. The sentence you quoted is just there to acknowledge that the fact that Can-Do Statements are descriptive doesn’t inherently mean it’s impossible to consider them in some way during planning. If a teacher isn’t sure what to do on any given day and decides to pick a Can-Do Statement and come up with some stuff to do in class that may help students acquire language involved in the task described by the Can-Do Statement, the option is there, even if I think there are better ways of planning. And some of the Can-Do Statements might spark ideas for interactions or assignments, e.g., “I can understand questions about my likes and dislikes” (Intermediate Low Interpretive Listening, p. 29) might remind a teacher who hasn’t already thought of doing so to actually ask her or his students about their likes and dislikes. Ideally, of course, the teacher wouldn’t need Can-Do Statements to think of this!

      I should probably clarify all this in the post, and maybe even change the heading of that section. Thanks for pointing out the fuzziness.

  8. Pingback: Best of 2016, #4: Where’s the agreement? | Musicuentos

  9. I am very happy to read this. I think the clarification that ACTFL has given in regards to the Proficiency descriptors is much more relevant to classroom instruction than the can-do statements. Guiding your students to the next level can be done when you know what their language strengths and weaknesses are. I can teach a variety of students in my class and all can meet the same goal of the unit but their production of it will differ. Some can give more language, with more control of grammatical structures and use complex sentences bc they are working in an intermediate mid range while another student can complete the same task but can only produce string of sentences with reliance on present tense because they are intermediate low. It’s the same task. The same input and experiences…but you can’t produce out of your ability.

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