Putting Students “On-The-Spot”

Performance and Proficiency

A hard truth about our profession: How students perform in class is not an accurate display of their proficiency. Performance and Proficiency are different animals:

Performance is all about what happens in class. From ACTFL’s Performance Descriptors Document (pg. 4): “Coached by an instructor, whether in a classroom or online, or guided by instructional materials, performance refers to language ability that has been practiced and is within familiar contexts and content areas.”

Performance in the world language class is structured and it is scaffolded and practiced in class and then assessed at the end of a unit of study. Since they are with classmates and teachers, they feel a safety that they are not going to feel in the real world.

Proficiency is what the student can do without all of those safety nets. From ACTFL (pg. 4): “Proficiency is the ability to use language in real world situations in a spontaneous interaction and non-rehearsed context and in a manner acceptable and appropriate to native speakers of the language.”

In other words Proficiency is measured by what the students can do on their own – no instructions or structure or scaffolding; it is simply talking to another person in the TL.

Knowing this difference is the key to knowing how to drive our instruction so that students can actually become proficient when they are outside our classrooms.

So how can students’ performance in class help them learn the skills they will need to become proficient? And what kinds of things can we do to emulate spontaneous situations in our controlled and structured classrooms?

This is an enormous question with a mountain of potential answers – this post is focused on an adaptation to just one activity I used to do. More will come soon!

In the Not Too Distant Past…Making lists

Making lists can be a deceptively great measure of performance. The students are in the classroom and have access to notes and their classmates. And listing can seem like a great assessment tool and confidence builder: it shows me what the students can remember off the tops of their heads and it allows them to show what they know. It can look impressive when all the kids list the things they already know and we put it on the board.

I recently started a new unit about food with my 8th Graders and to create the preliminary vocabulary list, I had students list what they already knew how to say, leading to this rather impressive looking list (if I do say so myself).

Impressive. But … Is it enough?

I had a recent realization that it’s not enough. Listing alone is not communicating. It’s performance, but there isn’t really anything pushing the students towards being able to speak about this topic proficiently.

As I stated in my last post, I learned a lot of things during my ACTFL 2018 experience. The most significant have been:

  1. How to use Language Functions to guide my teaching.
  2. Learning that most of my “Interpersonal” activities are actually Presentational.

Up until the last few weeks, my “Interpersonal” activities looked like this:

  • Answer the question prompts / make a list of your favorite (whatever the topic of the unit or discussion is)
  • Go around the room and ask other students what their favorite things are
  • If they answer yes, write their name; if they answer no, move on to the next person.
  • Be ready to discuss what your classmates’ favorite things are during a class discussion
  • Conversation (in the TL)
    • Teacher: “Student A, who did you talk with?”
    • Student A: “I spoke with Student B”
    • T: “What does B like?”
    • A: “B likes x, y, and z”
    • T: “B, is this true?”
    • B: “Yes”
    • T: “Good. Now, B, who did you talk to?”
    • B: “I spoke with Student C”
    • And on and on and on…

I thought I was so awesome getting the kids to have this “conversation” with each other and then with me. But looking at it critically, there is not much interpersonal communication actually happening in this activity.

Thanks to Paul Sandrock and Donna Clementi for their presentation in which this slide appears: “Interpersonal Communication: Focus on Feedback”

The kids are using the language, but other than that, they aren’t actually doing what Interpersonal Communication actually is.

Looking at my activity and then looking at what Interpersonal Communication actually is and what it isn’t, I see that my activity falls well into the “Interpersonal is not…” category. Basically, in my activity, students present information to each other and then report that information to the class. There is no negotiation, no clarification, no turn-taking, and it is not a two-way exchange.

Introduce a little unpredictability: On-The-Spot Questions

The important thing that my original activity lacks is any opportunity to get students negotiating meaning, asking for/giving clarification, and generally allowing for unpredictability. The students are basically doing a presentation to an audience of one. And that is not a conversation.

My solution was to have the students prepare what I’ve started calling “On-The-Spot” questions. My students aren’t ready to spontaneously come up with questions during an interpersonal activity–their proficiency just isn’t there yet. But they can take a few minutes to prepare what they’d like to say (Basically, they have to create 3 secret questions related to our topic. They can be any questions, as long as they are a) secret and b) related to the topic we’re talking about).

They take turns doing an activity in which one is performing and the other is put “On the Spot” and has to answer and/or negotiate meaning with the other student. One is falling back on the written question (much like in the definition of performance written above) and the other is being made to answer spontaneously (similar to proficiency).

Allowing them to come up with the questions beforehand gets them started inching away from the structured part of the activity. The students who only read each other their questions and answers now have to actively listen to their partners and respond to questions that they don’t know beforehand. This controlled spontaneity allows the student who is answering the question to formulate an answer on the spot (hence the name of the activity) and answer it in the TL for their partner. They can then expand their conversation using other question frames and sentence starters that I have posted around the room.

They are actually communicating!

I have used this technique for a few different grade levels in a few different (formerly presentational, currently interpersonal) activities. It has been successful, especially with my older students. They were engaged in a different way than they had been before and when we debriefed about it (after doing the very first time), they were positive about the fact that they were now taking control of the conversation and could steer it in any way they wanted. They were supposed to stay on-topic, but some started talking about other things that came up during the on-the-spot questions and ended up talking about something entirely unrelated.  

These are my novice mid students and they are pushing into novice high. Is their grammar perfect? Not really, but does it really need to be? 

The more important questions are: are they able to understand each other? Are they using the TL to negotiate meaning? Are they learning how to speak to others in a spontaneous and more authentic way?




  1. Consider inviting students to solve a problem or have a goal other than simply “let’s talk so as to learn.” I think your and my idol BVP often rails on the need to move away from practice, and towards something with more meaningful context. It requires us to know our students so much more, but is so worth it. I just finished my level one (freshmen in hs) exams. Imagine this, they had to sit in a room with three other students and decide who would be their best exchange partner based on 8 profiles of students that they had never seen before. Admittedly that mostly sat on their presentational haunches (I am, I love, she goes to, she likes), but the more I can have them negotiating meaning to accomplish something meaningful, the better. Some groups made it to point where they were asking “is he good for you?” I felt like I was on the right track. That based on everything I’ve ever heard or seen from Sandrock/Clementi/VanPatten and company.


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