Honesty About Levels of Proficiency

By Robert Patrick posted 06-17-2010 10:01


I think an important issue for every Latin teacher is how realistic our expectations are for the different levels of language study that we teach.   We call them “Latin 1, 2, 3 and 4” with additional labels like “college prep, regular, honors” and then there’s AP Latin.  We know where our textbooks take us in these levels.  We know where we aim to take students through those textbooks in those levels.  We know what our school system and state standards require for those levels.  The nagging question for me, especially as a teacher who is attempting to teach Latin as a living language is this:  how does any of that interface or correlate to what students are REALLY able to do with the Latin language at any given point? 


I’ve been looking at two systems of language proficiency rating, and they both offer commendable and helpful aspects to me as I ponder and plan this summer.  The first is the European Language Levels and the second is ACTFL’s Language Proficiency Guide.


You can find a very helpful article on the ELL here, with a chart of the levels:


If you scroll down to “levels” in the article, it gives a good description of each of the 6 levels. I find myself fairly able to identify where I think Latin students could be at given points of study.  I think that we talk about AP students as if they are at a B2 and C1 level of language proficiency, but of course, they don’t speak Latin in the typical AP course and those who might aren’t anywhere close to this level in Latin.  In other words, they can only demonstrate the kinds of skills needed for B2 and C1 levels in English.  By that fact alone, AP students are nowhere near the B2 and C1 levels in Latin.


I can see 4 years of high school, where the focus is on acquiring Latin without relying on translation for understanding bringing students to a level B1.  See what you think.  I think that these descriptors are extremely helpful for us to examine for our work with Latin students.  In the past, I think most folks in and outside of Latin teaching have dismissed "levels of proficiency" because, well, Latin is no longer spoken.  But, that's changing--at least in many of our classrooms.


Here are the ACTFL proficiency levels.


The structure here is much more complex and specific than the ELL.  The ACTFL proficiency guidelines separate various skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing), which can be helpful.  With this order, ACTFL implies a natural progression of acquiring language.  Passive listening and understanding comes long before speaking, reading and writing.   And there must be time in the curriculum for that to happen.  That kind of time and that kind of natural development of language skill is largely missing from our traditional programs and approaches.


Again, I don’t see four years of high school or college work where speaking and acquiring the language in general is the goal advancing much past ACTFL’s advanced levels in any area.   But, if they were actually speaking at an advanced level, or reading in Latin (without translating) at an advanced level, that would be wonderful.  Notice where that puts us, if we are being honest.  It means that students would be:

  1. Able to sit and listen to a teacher lecture in Latin on themes of Roman history, culture, mythology or even current events and understand most of it.
  2. Able to actively participate in any discussion in Latin; fully participate in and complete school related tasks in Latin; carry on paragraph length discourse in such conversations in Latin.
  3. Able to read extended prose of several paragraphs and understand most themes, especially if sentence structure is familiar and underlying context is clear.  Includes things like short stories, news items, biographies and routine letters. (All of those thing, including current news items, exist in Latin today).
  4. Able to write routine social correspondence including note-taking, and self expression with simple circumlocution.  Able to write simple sentences in connected style for length of several paragraphs.  Has good control of basic morphology but still makes mistakes of spelling and grammar.


I think that if we are honest, this is what students in high school (or college equivalence) should be able to do after four years of study with a language acquisition approach—working in Latin and not depending on translation for understanding.  

In Latin teaching from a traditional standpoint, we have not expected students to do much listening (for comprehension) in Latin because most of what they have heard us say was in English, excluding the occasional oral reading of a story, or more often, a sentence that was being dissected.  We have not expected students to speak much at all in Latin for communication as we have done most of our communicating in English.  We have thought that they were reading on a much, much higher level than this advanced level because, after four years of Latin, we expected them to read and understand the highest and most acclaimed of Latin literatures which is often epic and elegiac poetry or some of the grandest rhetorical speech and philosophical discourse.  What we have not talked about very much, out loud, is that our students were and are not reading these great literary pieces in Latin.  They are at best tediously translating them into English so that they can understand them, or, they are more often looking at the Latin and reading the many English translations already available.  We have not cared much about their writing abilities except as a way to practice grammar constructions and so almost none of our students even approached the advanced level of writing.


Many Latin teachers today, mostly at the secondary level, are beginning to re-evaluate how they teach this language, and are seriously entering into a new day of teaching Latin as a living language.  Where we are doing that, I think we will find these levels of proficiency, both the ELL and the ACTFL levels sensible.  They give us honest and achievable goals to strive for with out students.  More importantly, teaching this way slows down the process making it possible for any kind of learner to make progress in the language. 


I teach in the metro-Atlanta area. This past year, one of my students who lives in a more rural neighborhood served by my school charged into my classroom one day speaking to me immediately in Latin about the new pig he and his family had bought, how he was now a pig farmer (he had found the word in the Oxford Latin Dictionary in my room without my knowing it the day before--in fact, I had to ask him what it meant!).  He carried on conversation with me for the five minutes or so that it took the class to assemble, and then it became class conversation for a moment.  This was a Latin 2 student. The conversation was about his life, his interests, and it spilled over into the first 10 minutes of class.  He was actively engaging the language, communicating, and not to be overlooked—excited about being in Latin class!  The “A” he earned in Latin was his highest grade out of all his coursework.  He will tell you that he’s no good at grammar.  When attempting to write something in Latin, he labors over his sentences because he know when what he knows isn’t quite right, and he asks for help.  In terms of composition and student work, it doesn’t get any better than that!


The levels of proficiency that are afforded us as teachers can be a very helpful guide and even very encouraging to us.  But, as Latin teachers, I think we have to be honest about what we are really doing and the kinds of changes we can make to let students make real progress in Latin (and not Latin translated into English) in all four areas: listening, speaking, reading and writing.  We have for many years now made ourselves feel better by focusing on “the reading approach,” but if we are honest, we know that students do not achieve a genuine ability to read in any language (translating into English is not reading) without the experience of listening and speaking first.  And for that, we need time.  We have to make the time and realign what it is that we think we are doing with what it is that can really happen in our Latin classrooms.