What are the ACTFL Guidelines?

At the Five College Center for World Languages, we talk about oral proficiency in terms of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines for Speaking, developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (also see: What is Language Proficiency?).  When a student does an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI), a rating is assigned based on this scale (also see: What is an Oral Proficiency Interview?).

The ACTFL Scale

With the ACTFL scale, we talk about four major levels

  • Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, and Superior.

The Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced levels are each divided into three sublevels

  • Low, Mid, and High.

So if you take an OPI, you might receive a rating such as “Novice Mid” or “Intermediate High.”  (ACTFL actually describes a fifth level called Distinguished, but the highest possible rating for an OPI is Superior since OPIs do not test for the Distinguished level.)

What the Guidelines Mean

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines describe what a speaker can do in the language at each level.  They are not based on a particular textbook, syllabus, or way of learning a language, so they do not list specific vocabulary terms or grammatical structures that students are expected to know.  Rather, they are concerned with how a speaker can use the language to communicate. For example: Are you limited to listing words (“apple, carrot, cheese”) and using memorized phrases (“How are you?”), or can you create your own sentences (“Apples are my favorite fruit. I don’t like carrots.”)? Can you ask simple questions and handle a straightforward transaction such as scheduling an appointment? What about a more complicated situation like returning or exchanging an item you purchased?

For details about what speakers at each level can do, you can read descriptions of the proficiency levels on ACTFL’s website.  They also have videos of English speakers at different levels, so you can get an idea of what a Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, or Superior speaker sounds like.

Another helpful resource from ACTFL is their Can-Do Statements for Interpersonal Communication. (Scroll down for can-do statements by level.) These are written in terms of simple “I can…” statements and give specific examples of what speakers can do at each level.  You can use them to help you better understand the proficiency levels.  You can also assess what level you think you are at now, and then think about what skills you should work on in order to move up to the next level (also see: Self-Assessment with Can-Do Statements).

You may also want to read How Long Does It Take? to learn about how long it can take to learn a language.