George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I am embarrassed -- no, actually I would go as far as to say horrified -- that I spent ten years of my career teaching students about the Spanish language. I actually felt proud when they could fill out grammar worksheets with precision. Now, you may be thinking that, as a Spanish teacher, this is my job, but since my enlightenment, I understand that it decidedly is not. I am now certain that teaching them to communicate well in the language is my job. Honestly, who cares whether students can conjugate verbs correctly if they can't tell someone what they need? Getting to this point has required a colossal teaching philosophy transformation, but I've never been more proud of the work that I'm doing.

Starting down this road can be wholly overwhelming. You will need professional development, your colleagues should be on board, you have to exchange textbooks for authentic materials, and the target language must be used in the classroom 90 percent of the time -- at the very least. However, what I can assure you is that once you get your feet wet, there will be no turning back. You'll begin to feel inspired, your students will show progress like you've never seen before, and most importantly, you will no longer be faced with teaching verb conjugations ad nauseam. Honestly, how boring!

Here are some essential terms that I desperately wish I had known earlier.

1. Proficiency Levels/Guidelines

These guidelines are important to consider when planning curriculum because they help you determine what students at certain levels can handle linguistically. According to the American Council on Teaching Foreign Language (ACTFL), there are five key stages of proficiency:

  1. Distinguished
  2. Superior
  3. Advanced
  4. Intermediate
  5. Novice

Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice are further divided into High, Mid, and Low sub-stages. Realistically, the students we teach will be in the Intermediate or Novice range.

2. The Three Modes of Communication

These show how well students demonstrate competencies and are at the core of student communication in the language. Here are the three modes in a nutshell:

  • The Interpretive Mode is characterized by a student's understanding of written and spoken language.
  • The Interpersonal Mode is characterized by person-to-person, "two-way" communication either through a conversation or in a letter or email exchange.
  • The Presentational Mode is characterized by the creation of "one-way' written and spoken language.

3. "Can Do" Statements

These are checklists that allow language learners to self-assess what they can do with the language within the three modes of communication. "Can do" statements are the stepping stones of learning. They should reflect the proficiency level of the learner. "I can say my name and ask someone else's name" would be an example of an ideal statement for students in the Novice range. "I can talk about my daily activities and personal preferences" would be realistic for someone in the Intermediate range. The ACTFL provides additional information on "can do" statements.

4. Integrated Performance Assessments (IPAs)

Say goodbye to traditional quizzes and tests. IPAs are the evaluations you should create at the outset of a unit. Here are the characteristics of a well-devised IPA:

  • Begin with a general introduction or overview that describes the context and purpose.
  • List the "can do" statement(s) you will assess.
  • Create evocative, inspiring and age-appropriate tasks.
  • Indicate the proficiency level.
  • Use authentic materials.
  • Base the IPA on one or more of the three modes of communication and list them.
  • Make the IPA reflect what and how you will teach within the unit, taking into consideration that students will need practice activities in preparation for the assessment.

Click the link above to download an example of a presentational speaking assessment.

5 Steps for Planning Your Next Unit

Following is some practical advice you'll need to plan your next unit:


Click to download a PDF of Unidad 5 - Vamos de viaje. (275 KB)

Credit: Sarah Wike Loyola, Providence Day School
  1. Choose a theme based on the proficiency level of your students.
  2. Create your IPAs based on the three modes of communication. You may have a reading comprehension, a conversation, an email response, a spoken presentation and a listening comprehension all within one unit.
  3. Create "can do" statements within the three modes of communication and an accompanying vocabulary list based on the theme. Click the following link to see one of my Spanish III units:

  5. Create activities that will help get your students where you want them to go. You will need to teach toward success on your IPAs.
  6. Teach them grammar if it helps get them where they need to go, but grammar should not be assessed. Trust that they'll learn what they need to accomplish the communicative tasks.

Two years ago, I didn't comprehend most of this and, to be honest, still don't fully understand all of it. So do not despair if you're feeling lost, or even resentful about having to change -- that feeling is completely normal. But unless you want to teach students who will forever say that they took two, three or even four years of a language and don't remember a thing, you must adapt.

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jenc's picture
spanish math tutor

great article! I especially like the "I can" statements idea. I have been working with similar methods in a tutoring environment for years and it always gets to me when students are able to complete worksheets, flashcards, and get "As" in an advanced class. but cannot express their ideas or answer questions with any degree of complexity. I have to wonder what is the point!--why study Spanish (or any language) for 3, 4, 5, years if you are unable to communicate with it?

Madame Aiello's picture
Madame Aiello
French Teacher & Curriculum Developer - Ontario, Canada

Great article... I find it really interesting to note th differences between the ACFLT terminology & "ratings" (for lack of a better word) and what the CEFR uses, with levels A1 through C2. The "modes of communication" are similar but with completely different names, yet the "I can" statements are standard.

AlikeLast's picture
TPRS specialist and teacher french

Could you indicate what exactly you do at point 4: "Create activities that will help get your students where you want them to go."? Tnx!

Janice Holter Kittok's picture
Janice Holter Kittok
World Language Education Specialist, Consultant, Speaker

A new mindset in language teaching/learning has been brewing for more than a couple of decades. It takes professional development to see models of different ways to go about the business of teaching languages, reflect, network, and support each other through change. The Redefining Possibilities for Learning Languages seminar is a good start. Contact me for information or browse Teacher Seminars and For Further Study tabs on

Madison's picture

"...grammar should not be assessed." really ? A case to the contrary: I have a student who says and writes in a single writing task, 'en Belgique, a Belgique, au Belgique, dans Belgique' after SIX years of French study. Only one of the 4 is correct. Yes, he is communicating. To the ear of the listener who speaks his L1 as their own L1, there is an automatic synchronization of L1>L2>L1 for understanding. We L2 speakers who teacher our L2 are at a disadvantage. When you confront the Native Language speaker with an L2 speaker making all sorts of grammar mistakes and translation errors, the Native speaker really has a difficult time understanding the content of the message. The native language speaker is being forced to decipher, to guess and to translate what he reads and hears. To him it is gibberish. To us and me, we can decode the L2 output using our L1 filter. So, we DO understand it. This is where the hypothesis falls apart concerning grammar teaching and assessment. L2 speakers who teach their L2 are not able to turn off their L1 filter. The simple incorrect use of "le" for "la" as an article or object pronoun throws off the flow of understanding by the Native language speaker. Balance in assessment is the issue at hand.

Janice Holter Kittok's picture
Janice Holter Kittok
World Language Education Specialist, Consultant, Speaker

I believe the goal should be communicative fluency AND accuracy, not either/or. It's possible. We need to know that both progress in stages and acknowledge that in instructional planning and assessment. The previous paradigm had us drilling for accuracy before learners moved forward. Many never moved forward (or stayed long enough) to attain communicative skills. Comprehensible Input of the target language and opportunities to use the language in meaningful and creative ways can lead to both fluency and accuracy.

Ms. Douce's picture
Ms. Douce
French HS Teacher from NY

It's my first try and I am really enjoying the conversation. I am actually a Doctoral student very interested in the communication skills of my students especially at level 4/5, where I think they should be able to possess at least an intermediate level of proficiency. I do understand the need for the grammar. By the same token, I've seen teacher stressing so much on grammar that they loose touch of the main goal of learning a language. I do believe in the global world we are living in, we need to stress on the communicative skills and ensure that our students possess that minimum.

Virmared Santiago's picture
Virmared Santiago
A happily ever after story of a Spanish teacher working on her masters on Curriculum and Instruction.

That's me right there. The only difference is that I am not embarrassed at all. I have given to my students my best or very close to my best based on what I knew at a moment in time. Now I know even better, so watch out because here I come. :) Truly appreciate this article and the sample unit plan.

Gary's picture

I second the question raised above, where the commenter asks for specific examples of activities in #4. The answer to that question is as important if not more important than the planning and can-do statements that guide the activities, and worthy of an article all its own!

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