Using Simplified Second Language Proficiency Levels To Inform Online Instructional Conversations

Virtual learning is not a new concept; but for many teachers in 2020, it is something entirely new. Learning a second language in a virtual environment is also not a novel idea. With the inception and necessity of some K-12 school platforms, learning a second language in this arena has evolved and continues to grow at a rapid pace due to the current Pandemic situation in the U.S. This new urgency in the online arena requires the quick adoption of virtual teaching strategies, which may be new to some educators. Effective online teaching strategies are necessary to successfully instruct, assess, and assist students in an online teaching model. These strategies should maintain the rigorous standards set for each curriculum area. This article will address a specific tool which will enhance the learning of a second language in a virtual setting.

Teacher’s Role

Traditional online instruction involves utilizing curriculum constructed by a team of developers. Teachers typically deliver portions of the content through live, synchronous interactions. The teacher becomes a facilitator of the instruction, an assessor, and assists through instructional conversations all aspects of the curriculum. 

Instructional Conversations In Second Language Learning

Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language - natural communication - in which speakers are NOT concerned with the form of their speech, but with the messages they are conveying. “ (Schutz, 2007)

In the second language learning class, the teacher should focus on three types of instructional conversations. Ideally these conversations should be delivered in the target language. The first is based on relationship building. For example, the first conversation often includes topics such as their goals, family dynamics, hobbies, preferred name, and extracurricular activities. The second conversation centers around the layout of the course. Topics in this conversation will be based on how to navigate the course, course specifics, management strategies, course expectations, and course etiquette. The third type of conversations are instructional based and include informal and formal assessments. The teacher has the opportunity in these conversations to assess not only the understanding of the content, but also the proficiency levels in the target language.

Issues With Instructional Conversations

While research informs us that second language acquisition is enhanced when students have opportunities to practice speaking and listening in the target language. Often this practice is not followed. Teachers might provide plenty of opportunities to practice speaking and listening but might find that the students are not willing to engage for a variety of reasons (i.e. confidence in their abilities, course language levels are too high or teacher speech is too advanced). Therefore, it can become difficult for the teacher to accurately know the student’s proficiency level in the target language. Thus, during assessment instructional conversations, if the student is struggling to understand the teacher, does this mean they did not complete their lesson work or is the teacher speaking at a level of proficiency the student does not comprehend or is the course content above their comprehension? Without using a proper measurement to understand the current proficiency level of the individual student the teacher is conversing with, the teacher might find it difficult to adequately assess the work of the student, and prescribe appropriate interventions to assist the student in their second language growth.

Using Simplified Version Of Proficiency Levels

Ideally, standards should help teachers inform their instruction, assess student’s abilities during the instructional conversations, and assist with meaningful communication understandable to the student. The language standards needed streamlining for teachers’ ease and use during instructional conversations. The authors observed this critical need to assist teachers by providing user friendly proficiency level descriptors.

Listening Proficiency

The proficiency descriptor the authors created for listening was simplified to state that at the intermediate level, the student should be able to understand some basic phrases, simple sentences in a variety of contexts, and at the higher end, sentences in basic context. During the instructional conversation, if the student does not understand what the teacher is saying, then the teacher can use the simplified proficiency levels we created to adjust their speech for the student to better comprehend. For example, the teacher can speak using basic phrases with high frequency words to help the student understand the critical objectives of the lesson.

Speaking Proficiency

The teacher can use the authors’ simplified speaking descriptors to identify the students’ current speaking proficiency level. The descriptor for intermediate proficiency states that the student should be able to speak in simple sentences or phrases. To illustrate, during the instructional conversation the teacher notices that the student is using only basic phrases with some high frequency words. These descriptors are characteristic of a novice language learner instead of an intermediate level. This awareness can now inform the teacher which appropriate, scaffolded interventions are needed to help the student grow from one level, or sub-level, to the next.

The proficiency levels, as valuable as they are, need to be teacher, user friendly so instructors can have them readily accessible to use in the moment during instructional conversations in the virtual environment. We encourage our virtual teachers to use these proficiency levels to guide them in their instructional decisions to see our students grow in their second language acquisition process.


Schütz, R. (2007). Stephen Krashen's theory of second language acquisition. English made in Brazil, 2(2), 2007.

Insights By

Donita Grissom & Amy England-Aglio

Dr. Grissom’s teaching experience includes K-12 classrooms, high school Language Arts through ESOL, and adult ESOL classes. She is a former ESOL Curriculum Specialist for Seminole County Public Schools, one of the highest achieving districts in Florida. Dr. Grissom now teaches graduate and undergraduate English as a Second Language methods and culture courses at UCF. Dr. Grissom is also a professional educational consultant, coach, and curriculum developer, training teachers in methods of teaching English to speakers of other languages nationally and internationally. Amy England-Aglio is a global citizen with diverse educational and instructional experiences. Her passion for helping students of all ages is demonstrated in her latest venture: Ladybug Learning Center. Ladybug Learning Center is a nonprofit educational institution focused on helping all families succeed with new learning trends; the main focus of this organization is to coach families that are transitioning from brick and mortar to virtual.

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