“Can Do” Statements for Better Language Learning

Between 2010 and 2015 the number of US job postings geared toward bilingual candidates more than doubled. Yet, fewer than 1 in 10 Americans are able to speak a second language. That’s why ACTFL launched their Lead with Languages campaign. Their goal is to create a new generation of Americans competent in multiple languages and equipped for success in a global economy.

Paul Sandrock, Director of Education for ACTFL, explains that the Lead with Languages campaign is all about making the case for what becomes “available to someone who has more than one language on their resume.”

In an effort to figure out how this campaign ties to the classroom more directly in terms of its pedagogical impact on teaching, I sat down with Paul and asked him to give me some concrete examples.

First, Paul was quick to point out that the Lead with Languages website offers a toolkit of activities where teachers can get their students involved. Beyond this, there’s an increased emphasis valuing what students CAN DO with the language they are learning.

ACTFL Can Do Statements


George: Can you explain how the push for “Talk for a Minute” and “Can Do” Statements play a role in this campaign? I really love framing the learning of a language in this way because it puts a big emphasis on active “use” rather than just knowing. I’m wondering if you can ‘talk for a minute’ about the connection between those two concepts and the LwL campaign.

Paul: The whole idea we started with was “why am I learning this language?” And, as a consequence of that, “how do we get students engaged enough that they want to interact?” I would say it’s more than “talk for a minute,” it’s “interact” for a minute. That can manifest in a video chat or a face to face conversation, but it’s all about engaging and reflecting on the conversation. It’s that kind of interaction that’s really critical.

The “can do” statement, is for demonstrating and measuring what it is you can do with your language. While always helping you launch upwards towards being able to express more complex thoughts.

George: Let’s get even more concrete. Every textbook has a unit on learning clothing, right? How would the LwL campaign restructure a lesson on learning the articles of clothing?

Paul: You’re right, everyone teaches clothing vocabulary and students get excited when you do a fashion show or an activity in class where you describe your clothing to the person next to you. But, when you reflect back on that, it’s kind of weird because these are my peers. Just walking up to them and saying “I am wearing this today. Don’t you like my yellow shirt and my blue jeans?” it’s odd.

George: True. Me gusta tu camisa roja! Coming to class to have a conversation about the colors of our shirts is weird.

Paul: So, instead of describing what I am wearing, what if instead, we give a real task like:

Here’s an invitation, figure out what to wear to this event.  

You’re getting them more into cultural expectations. Is it formal or informal? Is it inside or outside? Does it matter the time of day? Wait it’s not in my community, it’s in Beijing. What do I wear to this kind of event? Ok, let’s discuss. Let me research.

So even with simple, novice vocabulary, my brain doesn’t have to be limited to simple, novice tasks. There can be very complex, interesting, engaging tasks catered to the learner’s skill level. “Can do” statements help the educator and the learner understand what needs to be demonstrated in order to show evidence of functioning at a specific level of proficiency.  Can I negotiate what to wear for a specific event like a Novice with practiced words, phrases, and sentences or can I negotiate more like an Intermediate using a variety of appropriate follow-up questions?

George:  I would summarize this as saying that the “Can Do” statements shift language instruction to a more Challenge Based learning model. Students have to design an answer to a complicated scenario, requiring them to work collaboratively to address a challenge. In support of this, the Lead with Languages public advocacy campaign positions learning a language as an essential skill for success in the 21st century.

Paul: On there is an updated version of the “can do” statements for each level of the language you are teaching. There are clear definitions for what it takes for a student to move all the way from Novice Low to Distinguished. Teachers are able to zoom in on any given level and say, “what do I have to do to get my students to this point?” The statements are broken up into categories such as narrating, informing or describing, and expressing opinions.

George: I think the difference here is that rather than moving from chapter to chapter in a traditional textbook, you’ve created real-life challenges in the form of “can do” statements that allow a student to know exactly what they need to be able to do in order to move to the next level, right?

Paul: Right, and of course, the teacher now also knows. Under each level, there are examples of what a student needs to be capable of in order to meet expectations.  I can make sure I’m guiding students towards that next level and help them track their progress. We don’t need to teach people how to get to Novice Low, they’re already there. It’s all about how do I continue to get you to that next level.

George: What advice would you give teachers as they kick off the school year?

Paul: When I was a teacher, my task at the start of school was to set the stage for what language learning was going to be like that year. Rather than talking at students, I got them engaged right away in some activity. I wanted to make sure they walked away that day with the confidence that “wow, I can do this, in the target language! Give me more! I’m coming back tomorrow!” rather than “oh I could never do that, or oh that’s too hard.”

George: Thank you, Paul!

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George Stewart

George is currently Head of School at EF Academy. As an educator, learner, and entrepreneur, he endeavors to bridge the gap between schools and businesses to best serve the needs of students and teachers in the modern classroom.

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