After two days of wonderful workshops, I feel it is quite necessary to reflect upon and share some of the great ideas from our Arkansas Foreign Language Teachers Association District III conference (Northwest Arkansas & the River Valley).

All of the presentations were knock-outs! The fabulous Dr. Freddie Bowles presented about the “Three R’s of Common Core”- which was also a hit at ACTFL ’14; the amazing Amy Pierce presented about the flipped classroom and how to “cut the apron strings”; the incredible Abby Arriola presented about “Basque-ing in Spain”; and the marvelous Sheila Bayles presented about her interactive notebooks. Then something other chick talked some nonsense about ePortfolios and Twitter PLN’s 🙂

Prior to all of this awesomeness, we had a full day of OPI Familiarization with Lynne Overesch-Maister. For those of you who do not know, OPI stands for Oral Proficiency Interview. The OPI began in the 50’s with government testing of language proficiency. From there it grew into a tool of multiple uses, from program assessment to job qualification.

Let me just say, I think that this training (by a certified, ACTFL OPI trainer) should be required of ALL nacent teachers! It was just that powerful, and this is coming from someone who is already fairly-well versed in proficiency-based learning.

I AM NOT A CERTIFIED OPI ASSESSOR! This is no replacement for the workshop, whatsoever, but it is perhaps an attempt to get you to sign up for an OPI Familiarization as soon as possible!

Here are my takeaways:

Focus on speaking.
Speak more. Speak all the time. Yes, we teachers are aiming for 90% or more. But focus on your STUDENTS speaking, speaking, speaking. Writing will come with time. Worry about that later. Just speak. Make every class all about speaking (or mostly about speaking). Moreover, make every class about formulating questions and answering them!

Focus on listening.
A huge part of the OPI certification process is learning how to constantly listen. Then, of course, you can’t answer questions if you can understand the question. Teach your students to be good listeners.

Roll play is still important.
There is a lot to be said for the value of roll play. Many people think of roll play as reading lines from a piece of paper. This doesn’t have to be the situation. Give students a situation, on their level, of course, and see how they navigate. If you are working with novice-highs or intermediates, you want to give them a roll play situation that requires them to formulate questions. One example would be “You are calling about an apartment that you want to rent.” You can see that this requires the student to ask a number of questions to get the information s/he needs. Don’t worry about the number of questions! Just pay attention to how the questions are formed. An advanced roll play would be one that involves a complication. A superior roll play (do you really have “superior” level students? If so, I’m jealous!) would require the student (aka “candidate”) to hypothesize.

Sequence your lesson like the OPI.
The OPI follows a process that would work really well in the classroom.
-Begin with a warm-up: start your lesson with a casual conversation that is on or below your students’ level.
-Next, move to level checks: Ask leveled questions starting at the bottom (questions that require one word responses) and moving up to questions that require a sentence or more.
-Do some probing: Ask some questions and do a roll play that require your students to communicate on-level or slightly above.
-Wind down: Come back to the students’ comfort level with a comfortable conversation that leaves them with a feeling of accomplishment.

Doesn’t that sound nice?

We probably think our students are doing better than they are.
If you think your students are amazing and they are all on the Intermediate High level, the OPI offers an excellent format for testing your perspective. Disclaimer: I am NOT a trained or certified OPI assessor, so PLEASE do not accept my “takeaways” as pure truth or a replacement for the OPI course. So, if your students are performing 50% or more at the Intermediate High level, meaning they are not just saying discrete sentences, but rather connecting them together in paragraph form (remember: you cannot have incomplete sentences at the intermediate level), you can test that Intermediate High ability by doing a roll play like I mentioned above. If your student continues to maintain the use complete sentences and complete questions, and more than 50% of the time is using compound sentences and stringing them together, then you most likely do have an Intermediate High student. If they use disjointed sentences/questions, yet they are complete sentences, then you most likely have an Intermediate Mid. Discreet sentences with serious accuracy issues is most likely an Intermediate Low. If your precious angel of a student is still producing sentences with no verb, sorry, but you have a Novice High at best. Novices are awesome, I love working with them, but now I know- many of the students I thought were Intermediate Mid material, are in fact still at the Novice-High level.

A tree can exist without leaves.
This is a funny statement, I know. Picture this: a tree. The trunk represents the “functions” of the language. Everything about the tree comes out from the trunk. The trunk holds the tree together. The roots of the tree are the “contexts and the contents” of the language. They are the second most important part of a conversation. The branches represent the “text type”, or how we form the language: singular words, full sentences, paragraphs, and so-on. The leaves represent “accuracy”.
Now imagine a tree in winter. Is it still a tree? Absolutely. And by the same token, a person can still communicate without accuracy. Accuracy does, however, become more and more necessary as the levels increase.

Just a couple of other tidbits that I found interesting:
-You can’t get to the Superior level without a certain body of knowledge.
-Cultural contexts are very important. If someone says “snap, crackle, pop” to an American, what comes to mind? That’s right. I don’t even have to say the words. THAT is a cultural understanding that comes through lots and lots of time studying the language.
-You DO NOT have to have a perfect or native accent to be a Superior or even Distinguished speaker. Think about Henry Kissinger. He negotiated TREATIES! Entire treaties in other languages, and he had a very American accent.

This is only scratching the surface, peeps! You’ve got to do it! The OPI Familiarization is so worth every ounce of time and money.

Buena suerte,

Profe C.