Characteristics of Proficiency-Oriented Language Instruction

Proficiency-oriented language instruction is a general framework for organizing instruction, curriculum, and assessment, rather than a method or a theory. Within this framework, language learners practice the four modalities (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) in order to communicate meaningfully, effectively, and creatively in their target language for real-life purposes. A proficiency orientation promotes intercultural communication by exploring the mosaic of language and culture, so that students can communicate appropriately and accurately in authentic contexts in the foreign language. Proficiency-based instruction is student-centered and builds upon what students need, already know, and can do, and it respects diverse learning styles, while encouraging the development of a wide range of skills and learning strategies.

Principal Implications for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

General Principles

  • Proficiency is a goal of language teaching rather than a methodology. Teachers can help learners achieve proficiency while using methods, strategies, and activities suited to their particular teaching styles and instructional situations.

  • Teachers take into consideration that learners may show proficiency at different levels in different modalities at any given time. Language learning is not a linear process.

    Curriculum and Instruction

  • Teachers design curriculum and instruction specifically for proficiency outcomes by balancing the three components of proficiency: content (the topics of communication), function (a task; the purpose of a spoken or written communication), and accuracy (correctness or appropriateness in pronunciation, writing, grammar, culture, and vocabulary choice).

  • Teachers design activities that allow learners to practice single modalities (listening, speaking , reading, writing) as well as linked modalities (e.g., listening and speaking, reading and writing).

  • Teachers should incorporate both achievement-oriented tasks (i.e., those reflecting a specific skill component) and proficiency-oriented (i.e., Communicative) tasks into the classroom.

  • Learners need to develop a certain level of grammatical control to communicate in the language; thus, teachers continue to include grammar practice in their instruction while working toward the goal of global proficiency.

  • Teachers select authentic texts for practice and evaluation of listening and reading from the beginning of instruction. Teachers may substitute texts created for specific classroom tasks, provided that the language is linguistically and culturally appropriate. Learners also need opportunities to practice speaking and writing in meaningful contexts.

  • Cultural awareness is an essential component of language proficiency. Therefore, teachers should integrate culture into all levels and aspects of instruction.

    Classroom Management

  • Learners are the center of the proficiency-oriented classroom in which teachers respect individual learning styles and create/select guided student-to-student activities to maximize proficiency-oriented practice. These activities take into account the affective component of learning, which includes such factors as student motivation, attitudes, anxiety and specific interests.


  • Language proficiency is more than time spent in the classroom or grades earned. Current secondary school or college/university level and course designations need to correspond more closely to functional proficiency levels.

  • When giving feedback to students, teachers take into account the objectives of the tasks in question and feedback should match these objectives. That is, teachers typically focus on correction of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation items when students perform achievement-oriented tasks, and provide more global feedback for proficiency-oriented tasks.

  • In developing tests, teachers consider classroom practices. Since students perform both achievement-oriented and proficiency-oriented tasks, both need to be assessed and evaluated appropriately.

    Based on UMN-TC work in the mid-1980's, this document was developed to guide the work of the Pilot Cluster in the FIPSE/NEH Articulation Project for K-16 Education in Minnesota, entitled "Articulating Language Instruction Across Educational Systems" which was funded from 1993-1997.

    NOTE: For a previous version of these principles, see "Strengthening the Language Requirement at the University of Minnesota: Initial Report" by Jermaine D. Arendt, Dale L. Lange, and Ray M. Wakefield in Foreign Language Annals, April 1986 (Vol. 19, No. 2), pages 149-157, or Appendix B in Model Learner Outcomes for World Languages Education, Minnesota Department of Education (1988).

    For More Information Contact:
        The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA)
        140 University International Center
        331 17th Ave SE
        Minneapolis, MN 55414

        Phone: 612-626-8600
        Fax: 612-624-7514


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    Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) • 140 University International Center • 331 - 17th Ave SE • Minneapolis, MN 55414