The disaster of Intermediate Proficiency

For many years, our US language programs were producing 4 year graduates who never emerged past Novice High communication ability.  Now that we are seeing so much comprehensible input in action we are seeing MANY intermediate students and we are faced with a new set of challenges.  Please honor your intermediates by thinking of my “Big 3 intermediate struggles” as you try to give appropriate feedback that will help them grow!

  1. Intermediate is messy!  Novices stick to safe language but intermediates are brave enough to CREATE!  When you create, you make mistakes… but which is worse??? A student who never shows emerging language or a student who communicates with errors in a variety of situations??  I got to watch this very thing in action here in San Diego with my daughter.  Aly was SO excited after her first venture out sola in the city.  She had gone to a store, shopped, and had a great conversation with one of the employees ALL IN SPANISH!  What a proud mom moment, right?  She wanted to show me, so later in the day we went back.  They struck up another conversation and I listened in awe.  Her language was a mess!  She mismatched noun/adjective agreement.  Threw in a few wrong verb endings!  She even used a dreaded word or two of English as she talked but for 35 minutes,  I watched her USE what she had learned in my classroom.  The native speaker didn’t correct her once, she was so thrilled to see Aly try.  As a matter of fact, she thanked me for teaching her to speak Spanish.  She is a true intermediate, a messy intermediate, and that is awesome!
  2. Error correction is like saying “I don’t honor what you can do!” How often do we think about it that way?  If we go through every item our students hand in and mark every error they make, what we have said is that they tried but they were not good enough to make us happy.  The worst part is that this makes them stick to safe language that won’t lead to mistakes… which sticks them in the novice level because they’ll always be afraid to apply what they know to new situations!  In order to take risks, they need room for errors.  Making errors is against what we are accustomed to as teachers!  Let them be free to try and fail and try again to use their blooming language in new and interesting contexts!
  3. Perfection takes time! In 4 years of language, aside from a rare anomaly  (or a few) of a student who acquires ahead of the curve, our students are not going to make it to the Advanced level of proficiency.  This is a struggle even for language majors finishing university programs without a study abroad!  Look carefully at ACTFL proficiency levels to see what is expected of intermediates… You may be surprised at how high our grammatical standards are in comparison with the reality of what a student can do in 4 years.  As advanced low speakers, they have to be able to comfortably and confidently speak about things that have happened in the present, past, and future (without complete control of aspect) and be understood by a native unaccustomed to a language learner (although it may take some repetition on both parts)… Are we expecting that of our seniors in high school when college seniors need a study abroad to achieve it?

Take a moment to look at your students’ work.  Are they intermediates?  Are they creating with language?  Do their creations up their number of errors?  Does this show that they are growing and stretching?  Is that what we want them to do??  Love those intermediates and honor who they are today.  Dr. Krashen said on Friday that if we can get them to Intermediate, they are in the perfect position to improve on their own!  Lets push them high into that intermediate level and see how far they can travel with college and personal language learning experiences!



  1. This post could not come at a more perfect time!

    I began my TPRS/CI journey three years ago, so my level 3s are my first batch to receive instruction primarily using this method and wow! They never cease to amaze me as a cohort. In my opinion they’re the best group to come through the program in my four years. They’re participating more orally in level 3 (Felip Alou’s discussion questions were perfection! Inspired so many discussions – some basic answers and inspired some debates) then I ever did in 4, and they’re frequently creating with the language. My mentor has told me he is retiring, and I’m excited at what I will be able to do with this group for an additional two more years. It’s new territory for me so it’s hard to vision what that will look like.

    Despite how awesome my level 3s are, I have noticed many of the issues you’ve addressed and I’m still working to discern what my own answers are. I’m in aww when students self correct for por and para outloud and I just had one boy this past week offer different verb conjugations (although, we don’t do verb charts, so it was kind of weird!) until he got the right one for the sentence that he was in the middle of speaking. Of course, present and past tense needs refinement, too, amongst other errors.

    I’ll be interested to see what others have to say!

    PS: Kudos to your daughter! I’m sure it was exciting and validating for her. I hope my students would do the same if they were in the same situation.

  2. OMG! Gracias!!!!! This is what I have been trying to get the rest of my department to understand for years now. I am printing this and sharing it. I can only hope that one day it might sink in.

  3. This is SUCH a GREAT reminder!! I try and tell my intermediates all the time how its a messy and sometimes frustrating but amazing journey to be on. Thanks for sharing!!

  4. Hola! I remembered reading this blog post last year and had to go back and find it today. I was reading through some written answers for post-reading questions for a novel and it was a bit rough! Then I remembered I’m working with intermediates and I should celebrate the fact that they could write so much about the topic and get their ideas across! The different questions had them switching tenses between the past, present and future, which we all know is no easy task. Re-reading your post makes me so proud of them! Gracias!

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