Resources for Teaching Languages to Children


How I've Broken Down Novice Low & Mid into Sub Categories-and Why

LAST SUMMER I WROTE OUT MY INTERPRETATION OF THE ACTFL NOVICE LEVELS WITH AN ELEMENTARY PERSPECTIVE, which has really helped me view my students and their interactions in class more clearly. (Read them here) However, this has also prompted me to get more serious about my desire to change how I assess and grade my students, which is to say, along proficiency lines rather than discrete assessments at any one point in time. In some ways, I am already doing this, having identified what my expectations are for each grade level, but I am looking to take it further to define it as a proficiency level for each grade level. But, this brings with it significant challenges-for ex, my kiddos, over the course of their five years with me, mostly fall in Novice Low and Novice Mid for the bulk of our time together, with movement into Novice High for a portion. This means assigning Novice Low for 2-3 grades levels, which honestly doesn't help me if I am trying to identify whether a kiddo is 'On grade level' or not. Contemplating this nugget brought into focus the fact that even within each of these sub-categories (Low, Mid, High) there are gradations-not all Novice Low looks the same, especially if you are looking at a kiddo over the course of a couple of years. A Kindergartner in September is a different Novice Low than a First Grader in June, after having two years of class. So....

Breakdown of Novice Low & Mid Utterances into Sub Categories

TO DELVE INTO THIS MORE, I DECIDED TO TRACK STUDENT UTTERANCES & INTERACTIONS so I could get a clearer sense of what is actually happening. To that end, last November, I started writing down verbatim what my students are saying, and roughly placing them on a continuum from Novice Low to Novice High. I continued this process all the way to June, using a closet door in my room and sticky notes. What became readily apparent was what I suspected- lots of gradation, but patterns began to emerge within those gradations where I have been able to lump utterances together. So, for example, within what I am terming Novice Low, there are these:

"Green and blue!"

"It's verde and azul."

"Verde y azul."

These are all in answer to the question "¿De qué color es ____?". Note the progression from English, to a mixed bilingual sentence, to a completely target language response that would be a typical response from anyone, even a native speaker, when answering this question (I say this because, as we all know, it is common to answer questions of this kind without using a full sentence-What color is the ___? Green and blue.)

OK, SO NOW WHAT? As the year progressed and I had more and more utterances documented, I began thinking about what to term these sub-sub categories, and/or how I could present them visually. My internal metaphor for learning another language has always been to liken the process to climbing a mountain, with dips and plateaus, switchbacks and get the idea. I began playing around with a representation inspired by this metaphor that would be readily understood by a 5 year old, and came up with the below concept for Novice Low (for the PDF version of this click here):

Novice Low Break down of Utterances as a Progression

AS YOU CAN SEE, I'VE USED THREE SIMPLE WALKING PATHS, a sidewalk, the lawn, and an easy nature trail to visualize the progression, with the sidewalk being of the shortest duration, the lawn being a little longer, and the nature trail being the longest of the three, reflecting what I observe in my classes-kids move pretty quickly from the "sidewalk" to the "lawn", and from the "lawn" to the "nature trail" where they spend a fair amount of time. Imagine sharing this with your early elementary students-or your middle or high school students for that matter! The "sidewalk" is an easy walk, no special clothing or equipment needed. The "lawn" needs sneakers or flip flops, and might house some things to take into consideration, like flowers, bugs, or small stones. An "easy nature trail" requires sneakers and probably some bug spray, and perhaps a granola bar along with a water bottle since it could be a bit of a walk. It's highly evident the progression of "difficulty" from one to the next, which I think is also appealing to kids AND has the benefit of showing said progress over time, which a designation of just 'Novice Low' cannot do.

OK, ONTO NOVICE MID... I find this one a little harder to break down, in large part because I see kids mixing and matching utterances, with a lot of fluidity and gray area. I've decided, at least for the moment, to only have two sub-sub levels here (this is definitely a work in progress!) that flow back and forth-so, envision less precise categories, and kids' utterances moving back and forth along the progression as they integrate new content and fall back before moving ahead again. (The PDF version is here)

Novice Mid Break down into Sub Categories

CONTINUING THE TRAIL METAPHOR, I have two trails, one termed 'Nature Trail' which has a few rocks but otherwise smooth- one would need sturdy sneakers to successfully navigate the terrain. At the other end, 'Nature Trail with Hill' with more rocks, a slight incline and more trees, with one needing to pay more careful attention to the terrain and any obstacles, as well as put in a bit more energy to climb the hill. As a continuum of "difficulty, as kids gain more content, they are able to integrate this in more varied ways, such as stringing together vocabulary, adding modifiers as desired, and personalizing some of the practiced phrases they are learning, which takes on the aspect of original expression. Kids still rely on well learnt words, chunks and phrases and I still see a lot of English interference, both in terms of word order, etc and using the L1 to fill in the gaps for what they still don't know but want to express. Language is still rudimentary in nature, and sticks closely to the familiar topics from class, which makes sense given they still have a very small vocabulary set, though it is growing :)

I WANT TO ADD, THERE IS SOOOO much more to these charts-my goal is to continue to flesh out my observations and ideas over the course of this summer, getting them out of my head and onto virtual 'paper' :)

CAVEAT: All of the above is based on my experience with my resources and my method of teaching, which is 90-100% in Spanish, and incorporates a lot of conversational back and forth, encouragement and support of spontaneous interaction, and lots of scaffolding, all of which may affect what I see in my kiddos and may not be what your students output looks like- because of this, I would LOVE to hear your thoughts and experiences-please share in the comments below!

PSST: I am working on a kid-friendly printable of these so they can track their progress for those of you who incorporate this in class-should be finalized soon!


  1. Hi Julie, I LOVE this! It is sooo true that there are multiple levels within each Novice Low thru Novice Mid on to Novice High. I love the charts. I would like to know what your sticky note door looks like. Did you write down the student utterances on the sticky notes and track them throughout the school year? Did you put a student name on the notes or was it all anonymous ? It sounds like a great idea and tracks progress not only for students but for teaching techniques used also. I never really looked at the phrase "L1 interference" as being considered to be OK. I think I need to give students and my techniques more credit when I consider the breakdown you have created here. My kiddos really love Spanish and have learned so much but this really helps me to get a clearer picture of their progress in true elementary terms more defined than just Novice Low-Novice Mid etc. Thank you so much. I look forward to what you flesh out over the summer and would love to be able to print these posters out for the classroom. I think the kiddos could really relate to the metaphor you created. bravo Pepita! I love it and look forward to hearing from you. Have a great summer, Cheryl

    1. Dear Cheryl,
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and insight. In terms of sticky notes: I used a closet door at the back of my classroom, and small stickies. I arranged them vertically, placing them along the continuum where I felt they belonged, often re-arranging as new ones have been put up. I noted the grade level, and sometimes student names, but I haven't talked about them with kids since this has been, in essence, data collection for me this year. Next year I would like to involve the kids more so they can see what they are saying. I also have a side for listening comprehension, but that was far harder to track. I wonder if it would be helpful if I entered all of them in a google doc so people can read them (without names)?
      In regards to the use of L1, I think we, as teachers, have to acknowledge that, particularly at Novice levels, it is still their primarily mode of communication, and frequently appears in their speech. During a presentation last year, I described the process as: English>A lot of English w some Spanish/French or Spanglish/Frenlish>Fair mix of English and TL>Mostly the TL but some English>Target Language. This is in reference to Novice learners, in very basic, concrete activities, but I think it holds up for the language learning process overall.
      I would love to hear more about your reflection on your practice and student achievement!
      :) Julie

  2. Dear Julie, this is fantastic. I am moving from teaching Spanish to seniors to pre-k through 5th grade Spanish and this is very helpful. Thank you for shaking it. ¡Mil gracias!

    1. I am so thrilled this is useful for you! And how exciting, please don't hesitate to reach out with any questions regarding teaching the littles, I am super happy to help out! :) Julie

  3. Hi Julie, I love this. Thank you! What do you think about the Novice High level?

  4. This is gold!! Any updates for 2020? I can see using this in my middle school!

    1. Thank you! I have some additional thoughts and observations, but just haven't gotten to them yet-will let you know when I am able to update this! :)