In proficiency circles, I'd heard that ACTFL's OPI training was a game-changer. Since I've devoted the past four years to changing up my teaching game, I desperately wanted to do an OPI workshop to make sure I knew my proficiency levels backward and forward. Although I'd spent time learning about proficiency from Chantal Thompson and reviewing OPI interviews with experts like Greg Duncan and Thomas Sauer, I needed to see and process more examples in French for the levels that I target and teach: Novice High through Intermediate Mid.
Through a series of minor miracles and some heavy lifting by my department head, I was able to get funding and permission to fly across the country to attend a 2-day French MOPI workshop in Seattle at the very end of the school year. I got my classroom packed up before school closed, submitted my grades early for the first time *ever*, signed my husband up for a series of complicated drop-offs, classroom performances, and pick-ups at our kids' elementary school...and off I went to pursue my proficiency dreams!
The learning began right away:
As much as I've worked to align my curriculum with proficiency targets, I still have room to grow. For example, this tweet about the use of register in relation to the speaker's proficiency level points out that my students may not be accurate with vous and tu for years to come. Yet this topic often comes up in the first chapters of French 1 textbooks. Over and over again, I have to comb through my curriculum and consider how what I'm teaching compares to my learning targets for students. If I want to get my French 8 students to Intermediate Low, I need to hone in on those structures and prioritize them. Getting distracted by Advanced skills won't help anyone.
We revisited the famous proficiency tree and its component parts early on in the workshop. I loved the presenter's reminder that an autumnal tree sans leaves is still a tree! Later on, ACTFL presenter Ryan Rockaitis asked us how much grammar is essential for a learner to reach Novice (eg to make lists and speak at the word level). The answer? NONE. But how much grammar do we teach in introductory courses? Quite a bit, it would seem. This takeaway made me, yet again, want to revisit the structures I currently teach in a systematic and intentional way, in order to see how they align to proficiency descriptors. I think I can get rid of more than just direct and indirect object pronouns by using this standard! And, I'd like to focus more on those key structures that allow a learner to reach Intermediate, especially question-asking. I interviewed a really solid questioner for my practice OPI, and that skill added so much to his proficiency.
Comprehensibility was a big focus of the workshop. Since I can get tripped up by expressions like "accustomed," "unaccustomed," "native," and "non-native," I found it helpful when the presenter simplified things a bit: Novices are understood with difficulty, even by their teachers. Intermediates are understood by their teachers. Advanced speakers are understood by monolinguals. In a department meeting earlier this year, a French native colleague said about a student's use of circumlocution, "My mother wouldn't understand that." So I imagine Christine's monolingual mom now when I consider if my students meet the Advanced standard for comprehensibility. False friends? Incomprehensible. Anglicisms? Incomprehensible. And so on...
Learning to be an OPI tester involves knowing when to ask which sort of question, as I wrote in this tweet about the general logic of question-asking and proficiency levels. Dorie Conlon Perugini does a very nice job summarizing the order of an OPI here, and you'll see from her infographic that once you've figured out what to discuss with your interviewee, the major focus becomes which questions to ask him or her. One helpful pointer from the workshop was to either change topic or level when asking a new question, but never both at once. So if you're asking Intermediate questions about vacations, you can go on to ask Intermediate questions about sports for instance, OR you can stick with vacations and move up to an Advanced question. But no jumping to Advanced questions about sports - that's just too much all at once.
I found it hard to get out of asking yes/no and either/or questions during my interview, and I saw some of my colleagues struggle with this, too. I'm hoping that watching and analyzing more recorded interviews will help train me to ask the bigger, deeper questions. One tip from our French trainer was to ask "Quels sont les avantages/désavantages de...?" instead of asking if the interviewee likes something. I never use this chunk with my students, but you can bet I'm adding it to my repertoire for September! Open-ended questions like "Comment est...?" and "Parle-moi de..." were winners for eliciting answers from Intermediates, but we had some tight-lipped interviewees who did not bite. You can bring a horse to water, my friends, but ...
When it came time to "probe" (aka see how much further one could push up toward a higher level) and find out if an interviewee were Advanced, narrations were the top priority, hands down. We were told to elicit two to three extended narrations from a speaker, mostly in the past but sometimes in the future. In one interview that I observed, a speaker was able to narrate in the past but not in the future - which I found shocking! All to say that you need to elicit evidence of both in order to be sure: hearing is believing. Another suggestion from our trainer was to ask for cultural comparisons as a way to elicit Advanced speech (see tweet above). I am constantly asking my middle school students to make comparisons, and I was thrilled to see how these concrete, simple comparisons are putting them on the road toward Advanced.
Perhaps my biggest takeaway was the role of evidence in determining a speaker's proficiency level. Having recently become a National Board Certified Teacher, I have spent the last few years collecting evidence of my students' learning. I also just finished my first year using standards-based grading, so I have studied student work for evidence of various rubric descriptors on many occasions. But this is new stuff for me - documenting and studying evidence was just not part of my practice until very recently. And yet, it is so important to our work as teachers! At times during our practice interviews, participants would say, "Well, he was so shy, that's why he didn't give longer answers" or "She didn't like France, you could just tell. That's why she didn't say much." But we didn't know any of that for sure...all we knew is what we heard. We can and must assess a speaker's proficiency based solely on the evidence we can elicit. When we stray from evidence, we risk misjudging a speaker. Before hearing some of the practice interviews, I would not have thought it possible for a speaker to ask interesting questions yet speak in less than full sentences. I had to hear it with my own ears to believe it.
The MOPI workshop concluded with a rich presentation by Ryan Rockaitis about applying proficiency principles to classroom instruction. Here are three great takeaways from his talk:
I'm sure I'll be digesting my MOPI takeaways further in the days and weeks to come, but I can say that the training met my expectations and gave me lots to consider as I contemplate my teaching for proficiency. Have you attended MOPI training? What did you learn and how have you applied that learning to your classroom setting?