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Listen and Read to Achieve

Erwin Tschirner explains the rationale behind an important new study to determine proficiency-level expectations for advanced learners in listening and reading

Last year, the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) decided to embark on a major study to determine realistic proficiency-level expectations for listening and reading in college foreign language programs. While much is known about realistic proficiency levels for speaking, and to a lesser extent for writing, there is very little data on the interpretive modes, even though these skills are fundamental to success in the workplace.

“Listening is perhaps the most critical element in language and language learning, for it is the key to speaking, and beyond that, reading and writing. Particularly in the workplace, listening is used at least three times as much as speaking, and four to five times as much as reading and writing. At all levels—from entry level to managerial—listening is perceived as crucial for communication. Yet listening remains one of the least understood processes in language learning.” (Grognet & Van Duzer, 2002).

Reading is becoming more and more important at work and at leisure. The ability to process vast amounts of written information accurately and quickly has become a vital workplace skill thanks to the abundance of textual information that we now have to decipher every day.

When ACTFL revised its Proficiency Guidelines in 2012—listening and reading, for the first time since 1986—it also developed Listening and Reading Proficiency Tests (LPT and RPT) to add to its suite of proficiency tests. This made it possible to investigate current proficiency levels of college students to assist foreign language departments interested in revisiting the role of proficiency, especially listening and reading proficiency, in a foreign language program and in setting proficiency goals in the interpretive modes.

The guidelines describe five major levels of proficiency: distinguished, superior, advanced, intermediate, and novice. The description of each major level is representative of a specific range of abilities. Together these levels form a hierarchy in which each level subsumes all lower levels. The major levels advanced, intermediate, and novice are divided into high, mid, and low sublevels. The subdivision of the advanced level into high, mid, and low is new. This makes the listening descriptions parallel to the other skill-level descriptions.

According to ACTFL, “Listening is an interpretive skill. Listening comprehension is largely based on the amount of information listeners can retrieve from what they hear and the inferences and connections that they can make. By describing the tasks that listeners can perform with different types of oral texts and under different types of circumstances, the Listening Proficiency Guidelines describe how listeners understand oral discourse. The guidelines do not describe how listening skills develop, how one learns to listen, nor the actual cognitive processes involved in the activity. Rather, they are intended to describe what listeners understand from what they hear.”

Reading is also an interpretive skill. Reading comprehension is largely based on the amount of information readers can retrieve from a text and the inferences and connections that they can make within and across texts. By describing the tasks that readers can perform with different types of texts and under different types of circumstances, the Reading Proficiency Guidelines describe how readers read texts and retrieve information.

At about the same time, the Language Flagship launched the Language Flagship Proficiency Initiative to demonstrate the value of proficiency assessments in guiding college foreign language teaching and learning, with the hope that a focus on proficiency will allow colleges to graduate students with professional levels of language proficiency. When the Language Flagship learned of the benchmark study, they agreed to allow the three Language Flagship Proficiency Initiative universities: Michigan State University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Utah to share their data with ACTFL.

Proficiency assessments in higher education, as well as at other levels of education, provide feedback for students, instructors, and departments and allow departments to align goals and curricula. The advantage of a proficiency scale such as this is that it provides a developmental perspective. Tests based on a proficiency scale provide evidence of what a student is able to do and indicate the next steps in his or her proficiency development. The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines define levels of proficiency, and they provide information about the kinds of written texts and oral discourse students are able to understand, with what kind of understanding, at what level.

In addition, being able to compare listening and reading results, departments will get a better understanding of the roles of listening and reading at various major thresholds in the undergraduate curriculum, such as a foreign language requirement, declaring a minor or major, and moving toward graduation. Together with information about speaking and writing proficiency at the same levels, these guidelines may give departments a better understanding of how listening and reading proficiency influence and are influenced by each other, as well as how they may influence and be influenced by speaking and writing. This, in turn, allows departments to develop principled approaches to listening- and reading-proficiency instruction across the complete undergraduate experience.

A total of 22 universities participated in the study, and 3,000 Listening and 3,300 Reading Proficiency Tests were administered. Approximately 50% were Spanish, 25% were French, and 10% were German tests. The remaining 15% consisted of Russian, Italian, Japanese, and Portuguese.

One of the most encouraging findings was the fact that graduating seniors were, on average, advanced in reading in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and German. The study, therefore, provides evidence that professional (advanced) competences are commonly acquired in reading, even as early as the third year, in the most commonly taught languages. For a profession that has gotten used to accepting the fact that in speaking, intermediate mid seems to be the threshold that is all but impossible to get beyond without a significant period abroad, this is good news indeed.
Listening proficiency, however, seems to be a different matter. For languages like Spanish and German, and even Russian, the mean difference in proficiency level is one sublevel lower than for reading. The mean in Spanish, for example, is intermediate low in reading and novice high in listening at the end of the second-year sequence. For languages like French and Portuguese, languages where the spoken language is very different from the written one, the difference is even larger, i.e., close to two sublevels.

These results in listening proficiency may point to a need to revisit current approaches to teaching listening, especially interpretive listening. Moreover, there may be a connection between listening and speaking, and the uninspiring results with respect to speaking could be due to a lack of progress in improving students’ listening proficiency.

The complete results of the ACTFL Listening and Reading Bench­mark Study 2014–2015 will be available by the end of the year.

ACTFL’s written descriptions of listening proficiency are accompanied online by authentic speech samples and the functional listening tasks associated with each major level. See more at:

ACTFL’s written descriptions of reading proficiency are accompanied online by authentic text samples and the functional reading tasks associated with each major level. See more at:

Participating universities: University of Minnesota, Utah University, Michigan State University, UC Berkeley, University of Southern California, Yale University, University of Delaware, University of Maryland–College Park, University of Pittsburgh, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, SUNY Plattsburgh, Middlebury College, Hunter College, Bowdoin College, Loras College, San Diego State University, Georgia Southern University, Lee University, North Carolina State University, Eastern Washington University, Grand Valley State University, and Old Dominion University.

“Listening Skills in the Workplace,” Allene Grognet and Carol Van Duzer, Center for Applied Linguistics

ErwinTschirner (Ph.D. UC Berkeley) is Gerhard Helbig Professor of German as a Foreign Language and Applied Linguistics at the University of Leipzig and President of the Institute for Test Research and Test Development in Leipzig, Germany. Before joining the University of Leipzig, he taught at the University of Iowa, Iowa City (1990-1998) and at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1988-1990). His main research areas are: second language acquisition, corpus linguistics, language testing and assessment, and language policy. He is (co-) author of over 150 books, book chapters, and journal articles. He has extensive experience in test research and development for all language modalities (speaking, listening, writing, and reading).

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