How to Liberate Your Language Department Using ACTFL Can-Do Statements

Yesterday, I attended an informal workshop about Can-Do Statements, which were written and then revised by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The Can-Dos are divided into three communication categories (Interpretive, Presentational, and Interpersonal) and two intercultural categories (Investigate and Interact) and describe what language learners should be able to do with their acquired second language based on their proficiency level (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Distinguished, and Superior). For example, some of the things that learners at an Intermediate level should be able to do include the ability to:

  • understand the main idea and some pieces of information on familiar topics from sentences and series of connected sentences,
  • participate in spontaneous spoken, written, or signed conversations on familiar topics,
  • communicate information, make presentations, and express my thoughts about familiar topics, using sentences and series of connected sentences,
  • make comparisons between products and practices, and
  • interact at a functional level in some familiar contexts.

Then based on the category and the proficiency level of the language learners, a series of sample Can-Do Statements are offered for teachers and students to use as a model and alter as necessary. For example, based on what Intermediate language learners can do, sample Can-Do sentences include the following:

  • I can understand essential information in a feature story in a magazine.
  • I can understand some basic facts reported by a witness regarding an accident.
  • I can understand most of what is said in a conversation among characters in a familiar play.
  • I can understand a written apology where a someone explains why he couldn’t attend party.
  • I can understand diners discussing what to order at a restaurant.
  • I can exchange blog posts about raising money for a cause.
  • In my own and other cultures I can compare and contrast how people label nationalities and why they do so.
  • I can choose an appropriate means of transportation based on my location, needs, and local options.

Then, by using the Can-Do Statement as the desired end result of instruction, teachers can determine what vocabulary, structures and cultural products or practices they need to teach in order to reach those results. For example, if my Can-Do Statement is “I can understand diners discussing what to order at a restaurant,” a teacher would have to make sure than students have had instruction about different types of foods and drink, words needed to describe food and drinks, structures such as “I want to order,” “I would like,” and “I don’t like,” interrogatives, and so on. Instruction might also include information about traditional meals in the country or countries where the target language is spoken. All of these lessons can play a role in helping students meet the goal of understanding a restaurant conversation.

I am lucky enough this year to be the only French teacher at my school, so I do not have to worry about staying “on the same page” with other teachers. This is something that I have to do, however, for my Spanish classes. When I started at my new school I was handed a curriculum and lessons to teach complete with worksheets and assessments to use in class. All year I have been having issues. Using lessons, worksheets, and assessments made by someone else feels kind of like walking around wearing someone else’s clothes. As the newest of three Spanish teachers, it sometimes takes me longer to get through a unit than it takes the other Spanish teachers. In addition, I wanted to use comprehensible input (CI) in my classroom, which doesn’t appear in the curriculum as often as I would like, so I spent some time altering lessons and units to do that. And finally, I wanted to be able to use my own materials and approaches, because that is what I am comfortable doing and what I think is the most effective approach to facilitate second language acquisition.

It was after this workshop that I had what I think is a fantastic idea. Instead of writing common curricula, lessons, worksheets, and assessments, what if the three Spanish teachers sat down together and came up with a set of Can-Do statements for our common classes, and then leave it up to the individual teacher to determine how to meet those Can-Do statements? Then if Teacher A wants to use a traditional curriculum to teach descriptive adjectives, for example, but Teacher B wants to do it using CI, both teachers are actually addressing the goal set by the Can-Do statement (Which might be something like, “I can describe myself and my family”) without having to do exactly the same thing (although due to my love of all things CI you all know that I would bet that the students taught traditionally wouldn’t make as much progress as the students in the CI class). Then teachers could concentrate on what they do best, which in my case is delivering input, and not have to worry that they have to catch up to the other teachers and do that worksheet or that assessment they haven’t done yet.

Naysayers may say that this won’t work because of the possibility that students may switch from one class to another due to changes with their school schedules. And while I know that this is a possibility, after the first month of September these types of changes are rare. I really don’t think it is fair to force a teacher to do exactly the same thing as every other teacher of the same level and subject due to the remote possibility that someone may switch from one class to the other during the school year. In high school classes where students need to take a common final exam, that new student can be given extra study topics to close any gaps s/he may have due to a change of schedule. In a class where no comprehensive final is given, I’m not sure it really matters if a new student misses a certain unit. Good teachers (and especially CI teachers) know how to reuse and recycle important elements throughout the year, ensuring that the new student will get those important structures elsewhere.

CI teachers have a special advantage when using Can-Do statements to plan instruction, which is that it eliminates the friction that may surface in a department where only some teachers use CI. In addition, Can-Do statements are not grammar based, so the pressure to teach students to conjugate verbs is virtually eliminated. We CI teachers know that we are not going to be able to convince every other second language teacher to convert, for whatever reason. But, at the very least, structuring instruction around Can-Do Statements should reduce the chances that CI teachers will be vilified for their teaching approaches.

I am going to suggest this when the Spanish teachers in my department meet again, which is tomorrow. I will let you know how it goes.

2 thoughts on “How to Liberate Your Language Department Using ACTFL Can-Do Statements

  1. senordineroman says:

    I think that you’re right on the money in terms of building the curriculum around ACTFL Can-Do statements! That is something necessary for any department to do. If you encounter any resistance to that, that will be sad. A few things to keep in mind:

    1) The examples used in the Can-Do statements are just that = examples. There are many other topics and tasks that can fall under a given proficiency category. My Spanish 3 students have a ‘Mean Girls’ competition in Unit 4 and act out celebrity break-up’s in Unit 6. All depends on what will catch your students’ attention in your context.

    2) Coming up with Can-Do statements for a course, and a whole language program, is a lot of work. That presupposes that you have an idea of what proficiency level(s) are targeted by each of your language courses– something that isn’t always an easy decision to come to. That will definitely take some conversation. I think that you all can indeed arrive to a conclusion, but you may encounter more difference of opinion than you are currently anticipating.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. sraarch says:

    The Spanish teaching team met on Friday and decided that we would go ahead and incorporate Can-Do Statements instead of our traditional curriculum. So I count that as a victory, even though I have a feeling I will be writing most of the Can-Dos myself!


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