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Language Standards：An International Perspective，Part 1
Lucilla Lopriore, and Deborah Short
Editor's note: Part 1 of this discussion introduces standards, the reasons for their development, and the way they are developed, based on the experience of the five colloquium presenters. Part 2, in the next issue of TM, will look at successes and challenges in implementing standards and assessing their impact.
Language standards (also called benchmarks, bandscales, or curriculum frameworks) have been developed around the world to both guide and measure language learning. This article grew out of a colloquium organized by Kathleen Graves at the 34th Annual TESOL conference in Vancouver, Canada, in March 2000. Penny McKay from Australia, Paolo Coppari and Lucilla Lopriore from Italy, Alister Cumming from Canada, and Deborah Short from the United States described examples of language standards for secondary-level students from their countries, and discussed issues underlying the conceptualization, construction, and use of these standards.
Why Are Language Standards Developed?
Language standards provide a comprehensive description of what language learners know and are able to do in the target language at various levels of proficiency, at various grade levels, or both. Standards have been developed for a continuum of reasons ranging broadly from professional development and teaching guidance (pedagogical purposes) to curriculum direction and accountability (administrative purposes). In reality, because there is often a political dimension to standards development and implementation, particularly in the case of minority language learners, these two purposes combine in most standards. In the development phase, however, one or the other is usually emphasized.
Language standards provide a comprehensive description of what language learners know and are able to do in the target language at various levels of proficiency, at various grade levels, or both.
The U.S. ESL standards (TESOL, 1997; see Figure 1) and the Australian ESL bandscales (McKay, Hudson, & Sapuppo, 1994; see Figure 2) were developed to ensure that the needs of English language learners in mainstream contexts would be met. They sit on the pedagogical end of the continuum, as their main purpose has been to influence teaching and learning by describing what learners need to learn and how they learn in classrooms. However, the developers of each set of standards achieved these purposes in different ways. The Australian ESL bandscales present detailed descriptions of ESL learners’ progress as they develop English proficiency in each of the four skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking in the context of mainstream classroom learning. Rather than describe explicit performance levels, the U.S. ESL standards focus on a more holistic approach with three main goals and nine standards for all grades. This approach was adopted in order to fit in with the voluntary national standards developed for other subjects and to provide guidelines at the state and local level. The European framework (Council of Europe, 1998; see Figure 3) was developed for English as well as other languages to promote communication among European nations and peoples. It provides a common set of descriptors that individuals or organizations can use to determine language proficiency and needs, irrespective of language or learning background. It falls in the middle of the continuum as it provides both guidance for learners and teachers and a means to develop common European criteria for curriculum evaluation. The Ontario curriculum (Ministry of Education & Training, 1999; see Figure 4) sits toward the administrative end of the continuum. It was designed to assist the government in setting policy-based directions for what is taught and learned in secondary schools and to ensure that teachers enact a uniform curriculum. Not surprisingly, the way language standards are structured and presented is strongly influenced by their purpose and is very likely to have a backwash effect on teaching and learning. For example, language standards that are intended for administrative purposes might not have the richness of detail that would help teachers make explicit links between what they teach and how learners learn. (Compare the Ontario standards with the Australian bandscales or U.S. standards.) Language standards that are developed according to proficiency level and geared primarily toward adult learners (as the European framework is) will have to be adapted by teachers of younger learners. Teachers who use language standards must therefore be aware of the purposes that shape the standards they are using in the classroom and should not expect the standards to meet different purposes without adaptation.
Who Develops Standards?
The answer to this question depends on the purposes of the standards. Ideally, the authors should be knowledgeable about second language learners and how they acquire languages, about language assessment, and about language teaching. The process of development should be consultative so that those who are affected by the standards have a voice in them. Pedagogically oriented standards such as the U.S. ESL standards and the Australian ESL bandscales have tended to involve more consultation with the language teaching profession, as their primary purpose is to improve teachers’ understandings and to inform their practice in ways that reflect best practice. The European framework was developed by a group of experts working for the Council of Europe, although a network of people and institutions throughout Europe were involved in their revision. Because the Ontario curriculum was based on an overall framework encompassing all school subjects, it was developed by curriculum experts with some consultation of ESL specialists.
What Do Standards Describe, and Why?
Language standards vary in what they describe, reflecting their purpose and the conceptual views of those who develop them. Most language standards describe what learners know and are able to do at various levels. However, how this knowledge and these skills are conceptualized may vary. For example, the Australian ESL bandscales and the Ontario curriculum address the four skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening separately whereas the U.S. ESL standards address them in an embedded, integrative fashion. The European framework focuses on the interaction of the receptive and interactive modes, particularly for speaking.
Language standards vary in what they describe, reflecting their purpose and the conceptual views of those who develop them.
The continuum of pedagogical and administrative purposes generates a range of other features. For example, standards developed for pedagogical purposes include information about process, that is, information for teachers on how to teach and how students learn, whereas administrative standards do not. Pedagogically based standards tend to be more detailed, whereas administrative standards tend to present concise and less pedagogically informative bullet points listing what students should be able to do. Although their formats are quite different, the U.S. ESL standards and the Australian ESL bandscales are detailed, classroom-embedded descriptions of ESL teaching and learning. The Ontario curriculum provides concise bullet-pointed outcomes- based statements of what students will do and learn in a given course to ensure that the content is taught and measured and standards achieved. The European framework provides concise, transparent “can do” statements to help learners understand and monitor their own progress. All writers of standards need to be concerned with the validity of what they describe; therefore, what they describe has to be open to scrutiny by teachers regarding how well it reflects their learners’ language development and their opportunities for learning. Teachers need to be constantly ready to question the way standards present the picture of what is to be learned and how learners progress
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