Spanish Language Proficiency at St. John’s

By: Senor Stone, 7/8th Grade Spanish Teacher

I’m excited to share results from last year’s benchmark Spanish proficiency testing.  A group of 8th graders (25 total) self-selected to take the Avant STAMP4s test.  (STAMP stands for Standards-Based Measure of Proficiency).  This test is a recognized reliable and valid tool which measures language proficiency based on our World Standards and the ACTFL guidelines.  The test measures proficiency in Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking.  It gives results which compare our students to thousands of students across the country and gives feedback to teachers as to the effectiveness of the methods they use to teach.  

Last year’s test group was special.  Due to changes in schedule, I had them for about 60 hours more than previous group.  Most of the groups take the test at 180 hours.   This group took the test at about 240 hours of instruction (that’s the equivalent in hours of Spanish 1 and Spanish 2 in high school. As well, this group is the first to have participated in Silent Sustained Reading for two years. 

The results were striking.  The group mean, across all four skills, was a 4.45.  The Avant company correlates a 4.45 to about 520 hours of study (comparing with students across the country).  That is almost double the amount of time this St. John’s 8th grade group had.  We had two students achieve a score of 5 in each of the four areas tested (at least 650 hours of study normally) qualifying them for the Global Seal of Biliteracy Functional Level (side note: the Global Seal is rigorous.  They require proof of proficiency in both languages and only accept specific, reliable tests.  STAMP4s is one, The College Board AP test is another.  The Functional level Global Seal is considered the equivalent of an AP 3 pass).  There were an additional 10 students who came within one or two points from qualifying for their Global Seals.    

Most significantly, these students achieved this level of proficiency without using a commercial book, without being given traditional grammar explanations (using linguistic terms such as preterit, imperfect, etc.—the AP doesn’t expect students know these terms).  As well they did no verb conjugation charts and did not fill in any vocabulary/grammar worksheets.  They did not take a single multiple-choice quiz.  How did they do it?  Simple: following the principles of proficiency and language acquisition research.  Students are given opportunities each day to interact with the language by focusing on content which is at least 90% comprehensible to them.  I work hard to keep the content engaging and repetitive in novel ways.  The repetition came from focusing on a limited amount of vocabulary and verbs from lists of the most frequently used words.  Because our brains are hard-wired to acquire language through story, the engaging contexts took the form of story co-creation with students.  The oral stories are linked to written stories which are in multiple versions designed to push their level higher with each version. Production activities (speaking and writing) are designed to help students to use circumlocution to make themselves understood.  The program is rounded out by Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) using novels based on most frequent words.

A shift from the outdated and inefficient grammar scope and sequences used in some high schools is taking place around the country.  The Denver Public School system shifted completely to proficiency teaching about 10 years ago and enjoy 92% pass rates on the AP tests.  Most of those students score 4 and 5 and never learned the linguistic terms “preterit, imperfect, etc” and did no motivation killing grammar worksheets!  If this interests you and you’d like to hear the expert’s opinions about what is going on in Spanish class at St. John’s and in other departments around the California and the country, I am attaching a link to a video.  It is one of the clearest examples of how the choice of method can make all the difference in the world.  You don’t have to watch the entire hour.  The first 20 minutes gets to the heart of what I am talking about here (and if your time is really limited, start at 4:00 minutes and stop at 18:00 minutes.)

Author: jhollatz

I am the principal of St. John's Lutheran School and a proud dad of two girls at SJLS!

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