How to Unlock the Mysteries of L2 Growth with Outstanding Class Conversations

I took two semesters of French. In one class, the teacher forced us to talk a lot. We spoke in pairs or small groups and performed skits. In the other class, the teacher sat in front of the class and talked to us a lot, but rarely let us talk to each other. My French speaking abilities stalled.

Don’t be that teacher.

To develop speaking proficiency, learners must practice speaking. So how do you know what speaking activities will work with your students? Many of you have a decent textbook, which can be useful.

However, teachers who want to provide speaking practice beyond textbook exercises face a dilemma. If you design speaking tasks that are too easy, you will not challenge your students. Likewise, if you design tasks that are too difficult, you will effectively mute your students into stunned, disparaging silence. Your goal in speaking practice is to encourage your students to speak as much as they can (quantity) and as well as they can (quality).

Think about it. We want students to have opportunities to notice the gap between their current knowledge and what they need to know—and yet, we do not want the gap to be so large that students feel embarrassed to speak.

How can teachers design good tasks that target students’ proficiency levels? Below I discuss how speaking proficiency develops using easy-to-understand proficiency guidelines from the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Then I discuss how to develop tasks that elicit speech at the different levels.

1. Warm up!

To begin today’s activity let’s take a look at prompts that encourage student discussions.

DO THIS: Check out this link of conversation questions (

English teachers from around the world developed and submitted the questions. But be warned, the last time I tried to submit my own questions, I could not. It looks like the site’s funding dried up in 2010, so now they just preserve what they already have. All the same, iTESLJ is a great resource.

2. What does speaking proficiency sound like?

Knowing what speaking proficiency sounds like will change your life. Speaking abilities grow from small units to big units. A quick rule to remember is that learners progress from words to sentences to paragraphs to extended discourse. See the chart below.

How language grows

Next, we have placed a chart from ACTFL that sums up the development of speaking proficiency.

Click on the link:

ACTFL Guidelines Chart

In the chart, notice that each row belongs to a level of proficiency (intuitive), and the columns each pertain to different aspects of proficiency. Let’s discuss the latter.

  • Global Tasks and Functions. This is what learners can do with language. So, don’t expect a Novice speaker to tell stories; but an Advanced speaker will be able to.
  • Context/Content. These are the kinds of things learners talk about. Like infants, at first it is easiest to just talk about themselves and their basic needs. Intermediate should be Inter-ME-diate, because, at that stage, it’s all about “me.”
  • Accuracy. How well can listeners understand speakers based on the types of errors they make?
  • Text Type. Learners begin with words and, usually years later, end with extended discourse.

The following images depict the kinds of things speakers say at different levels. The images feature artwork by Salvadoran artist Luis Cornejo.

ACTFL Beginner

ACTFL Low Intermediate

ACTFL High Intermediate

ACTFL Advanced

ACTFL Superior

Another way to look at proficiency is through Can-Do statements, which are sentences that tell what a person “can do” with language.  Check these out.

Now let’s listen to some speaking samples, so you can hear what speakers sound like (Spanish).

Listen again. can you hear the progression from words to sentences to paragraphs to extended discourse?

If you want to hear more samples, I encourage you to check out ACTFL’s website.

3. Different tasks elicit different levels of speech. 

Notice in the speech samples above how the tasks changed. First, the learners responded to a task about directions. That’s because stating directions is typically a sentence-level task. The Novice could not state sentences yet, but repeated words to express herself. The Intermediate used sentences on the task. The Advanced speaker provided a paragraph of speech about losing an umbrella. Finally, the Superior level speaker had to deal with a complicated situation involving persuasion. She used several connected ideas and communicated with accuracy.

Let’s take a look at the following tasks. What kind of speech would these tasks elicit?

  1. List the items in your closet.
  2. Name the members of a family.
  3. Propose a solution to help with climate change.
  4. Describe your favorite meal.
  5. Describe how obesity harms someone’s health.
  6. Describe your job.
  7. Describe the perfect job.
  8. Discuss how crime affects the economy.


  1. Lists of clothing, etc. = Novice.
  2. Lists of names = Novice.
  3. Propose a solution  =Superior
  4. Describe a meal = Intermediate
  5. Describe how obesity harms health = Advanced
  6. Describe your job = Intermediate
  7. Describe the perfect job = Advanced
  8. Discuss how crime affects the economy = Superior

DO THIS:  Now go back to this link of conversation questions ( Take a look at different questions. Try to figure out what kind of language a speaker needs to produce in order to answer the question. Try to imagine what levels different questions might target.

4. Can you create a few questions of your own? Make one each that targets Novice, Intermediate, Advanced and Superior levels of proficiency. Practice answering the questions and verify that they elicit the quantity and quality of speech you want.

© 2016 H. Stewart Carpenter


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