Proficiency: "The ability to use language in real world situations in a spontaneous interaction and non-rehearsed context and in a manner acceptable and appropriate to a native speaker of that language."
Performance: "The ability to use language that has been learned and practiced in an instructional setting".
ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners
While it is essential to set high expectations for our students, those expectations must be attainable. and developmentally approriate If not, we risk pushing our students away from language learning.
My class is divided into three units - one per trimester. Each of the units involves a set of questions and answers to facilitate conversation and oral practice. At the elementary level, I want my students to feel like they can use their language, no matter how much they actually know. After a trimester's worth of work, students' reach novice high, maybe even intermediate low, in that content unit's work. They are not, however, at a novice high proficiency level. Is that acceptable? Of course!
After each unit of study, it makes sense that students find themselves higher on the ACTFL proficiency scale. If they were thrown in a foreign country, however, would that be enough language to survive? Does a 3rd grader really need to do a lot of question asking? While students may rate at an Intermediate low at the end of the unit, it is not their TRUE proficiency level. It is a practiced set of questions and answers. While that may be disappointing to some, it makes total developmental sense. In elementary school, students are still trying to get it all together. They respond in one word answers in their native language, so why would they respond in full paragraphs in their new language? Elementary school students are still generally self-centered. Unless forced, question-asking is not a skill many of them have. If this is the case in the native language, how could we expect something different in a new language.
As students move forward in their academic careers, it makes sense that we would expect more of them. While an elementary school student most likely won't be in charge of the family vacation, a middle school or early high school student might. It is, therefore, developmentally appropriate that these students should fall in the Intermediate level of language learning.
Although a shift, it is essential to be realistic about what our students should and can be able to do in the target language. Our goals as language teachers and parents should be for them to use the language at a level appropriate to their age and development, as well as the amount of years they have studied a language.