The ACTFL Scale
Part I. Using the Superglue
Section Two –The ACTFL Scale
Why use the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Scale?
How well do you know the ACFL Scale? A Quiz to Test Yourself!
The ACTFL Scale
The ACTFL Scale
Why use the ACTFL Scale?
The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines were developed as a result of a 1979 U.S.
government commission entitled the “President’s Commission on Foreign Language and
International Studies”. This commission turned to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and
Educational Testing Services (ETS) for a valid and reliable format to assess speaking
proficiency in a second language for the academic community. With federal funding, ETS
and ACTFL collaborated to “Common Yardstick Project” that revised the scale used by
the government since World War II and articulated the ACTFL Provisional Proficiency
Guidelines. The new guidelines defined language performance according to language tasks,
content and accuracy structures used by novice, intermediate, advanced and superior
language speakers. The resulting Scale and Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) procedure
provide a format for collecting and rating student speech samples that has been
proven valid and reliable.
It is recommended that the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Scale be used in all standards-
based foreign language programs as the framework for curriculum design.
• The ACTFL Scale provides a common yardstick (a nationally recognized
measurement tool) for assessing the Interpersonal Mode of the Communication
Standard. In order to be useful in measuring student attainment of this standard, the
assessment tool should enable comparisons across languages, schools, school
districts, and states. The ACTFL Scale meets this criterion.
• The ACTFL Scale provides a common language with which to describe what
students can and cannot do in the target language. It can be used to coach students to
advance from one level to the next, with very specific and clear descriptors (helping
students to become more independent in their learning). It can also be used by
teachers across the country to talk about proficiency using a common vocabulary.
• The ACTFL Scale can be used to articulate foreign language programs from
kindergarten through graduate school (K-16). For examples of how this may be done
please see the two curricular guidelines in Part II. What to Teach, p.16)
• The ACTFL Scale can be used to facilitate district-wide assessment in all modern
languages to provide data for program evaluation as well as student evaluation.
• The ACTFL Scale and Interview process transcends any set textbooks and/or
methods of instruction and thus can be a useful tool for any school district.
The ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) format has been used as a basis for
various speaking tests. The MOPI (Modified Oral Proficiency Interview) is used for
candidates who have novice, intermediate, or advanced level of proficiency. Contact
ACTFL for more information regarding OPI or MOPI testing and/or training.
The SOPI (Simulated Oral Proficiency Interview) is a semi-direct, tape-mediated
performance test of oral proficiency. Please contact the Center for Applied Linguistics
(CAL) for more information.
The ACTFL Scale
It is for all of the above reasons that this Guide uses the ACTFL Scale as the glue that
connects all of the various components. How familiar are you with the ACTFL Scale?
Take the quiz on the following page. (Answers are on p.166.)
The ACTFL Scale
If a student speech sample has the following characteristics—what N N N I I I
rating might be considered? L* M H L M H
Sample: demonstrates paragraph level speech (60%)?
uses 3-4 different types of questions?
uses mostly lists of words?
uses mostly memorized phrases?
uses mostly memorized sentences?
uses some future tense ( a few spikes)?
can be understood by a native speaker used to dealing with language
answers only in the present tense?
demonstrates a variety of simple sentences that show creativity?
uses 15-20 vocabulary words?
uses 50- 60 vocabulary words?
demonstrates greatly expanded survival language?
demonstrates past tense (60%)?
asks few or no questions?
accomplishes survival tasks?
gives simple directions?
uses only infinitives?
cannot or can hardly be understood by world language teacher?
can generally be understood even by those not accustomed to dealing
with language learners?
shows strong evidence of future tense?
includes a simple description?
can be understood by sympathetic listener (teacher)?
uses some past tense (a few spikes)?
demonstrates connected discourse?
completes basic communicative tasks?
speaks with errors?
states many sentences in list form ?
cannot give directions?
* Novice Low (NL), Novice Mid (NM), Novice High (NH), Intermediate Low (IL), Intermediate Mid (IM), Intermediate High (IH).
Bonus question: What are the 4 main components of a face-to-face Oral Proficiency interview?
(Please note: Multiple indicators must be kept in mind when rating an actual speech sample; a rating cannot be given
based on just one or two indicators. Each ACTFL level subsumes indicators from previous levels.)
For an overview of ACTFL Scale see the following pages. For answers to the quiz, see p.166.
The ACTFL Scale
Underlying the Curriculum Framework and Assessment
— The ACTFL Scale and Interview
What is ACTFL?
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) is a national
membership organization dedicated to promoting the study of languages and cultures as
an integral component of American education and society. ACTFL seeks to provide
effective leadership for the improvement of teaching and learning of all languages at all
levels of instruction. It was established in 1967 by the Modern Language Association.
Prior to that time, there was no single society representing teachers of all foreign
languages at all educational levels. ACTFL was organized to fill that need.
What are the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Guidelines?
The ACTFL Provisional Proficiency Guidelines were developed in 1982 and were based
on the language skill level descriptions for oral proficiency as used by the Foreign
Service Institute (FSI) and the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR). The ACTFL
Provisional Proficiency Guidelines, as opposed to the proficiency guidelines developed
by the government, were designed for use in academic environments where distinctions
at the very highest levels of proficiency are irrelevant. As a result, the 11-point (0-5)
government rating scale was adapted to a 9-point scale, and language skill level
descriptions were rewritten.
In 1986, after four years of use and study of the provisional guidelines, the ACTFL
Proficiency Guidelines were published. These revised guidelines present global
characterizations of integrated performance in each of the four skills – speaking,
listening, reading, and writing, arranged in a hierarchical order. Each description is a
representative, not an exhaustive, sample of a particular range of ability, and each level
subsumes all previous levels.
Because these guidelines identify stages of proficiency*, as opposed to achievement, they
are not intended to measure what an individual has achieved through specific classroom
instruction but rather to allow assessment of what an individual can and cannot do with
the language, regardless of where, when, or how the language has been learned or
acquired. These guidelines are not based on a particular linguistic theory or pedagogical
method, since the guidelines are proficiency-based, as opposed to achievement-based,
and are intended to be used for global* assessment.
What is the Oral Proficiency Interview?
The ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview, or OPI, as it is often called, is a standardized
procedure for the global* assessment of functional* speaking ability, i.e., it measures
language production* holistically by determining patterns of strengths and weakness. It
also establishes a speaker’s level of consistent functional* ability as well as the clear
upper limitations of that ability. This means that an OPI is a testing method that
measures how well a person speaks a language by comparing that individual’s
performance of specific language tasks, not with some other person’s performance, but The ACTFL Scale
with the criteria for each of the nine proficiency levels described in the ACTFL
* See ACTFL Glossary, pp. 170-171 for an explanation of terms marked with an asterisk.
The ACTFL Scale
Proficiency Guidelines – Speaking. Since the OPI is an assessment of functional*
language skills, it is irrelevant to the tester when, where, why, and under what conditions
a speaker being tested learned the language.
Even though performance on the ACTFL OPI is holistically rated, there are five major
categories of assessment criteria on which ratings are focused:
Global tasks* or functions* performed with the language; for example, asking and
answering simple questions, narrating, describing.
The contexts* or sets of circumstances-linguistic or situational-in which these tasks
are performed, for example, in a restaurant in Mexico.
The content* areas or topics that relate to these contexts*, for example, ordering a
The accuracy* with which the tasks are performed. Factors included in this category
include grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, fluency*, socio-linguistic*
appropriateness or acceptability of what is being said within a certain setting, and the
use of appropriate strategies for discourse* management.
The oral text type* that results from the performance of the tasks, i.e., discrete words
and phrases, sentences, paragraphs*, or extended discourse*.
The ACTFL OPI takes the form of a carefully structured conversation between a trained
and certified interviewer and the person whose speaking proficiency is being assessed. A
ratable speech sample is elicited from the interviewee by an individually determined
series of questions, which follow the established ACTFL protocol of “level checks*” and
“probes*.” Test candidates are also asked to take part in a role-play, which presents an
opportunity for them to perform linguistic functions that the conversation portion of the
interview would not permit. The tape recording of the interview is then independently
rated or (evaluated) by the tester and another ACTFL-certified tester before a final oral
proficiency rating is assigned.
In summary, the OPI assesses language performance in terms of the ability to use the
language effectively and appropriately in real-life situations.
What is the Rating Scale Used for the OPI?
The rating scale used for assessing how well a speaker performs on the ACTFL OPI
spans a wide range of performance profiles-from those beginning learners to those who
are able to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical,
social, professional, and abstract* topics.
The criteria on which ratings are based are arranged hierarchically. There are four major
levels of performance on the OPI rating scale, ranging from the lowest (Novice) level to
the highest (Superior). Following are the characteristics of each of these four levels.
Novice Level - characterized by the ability to communicate minimally with learned
(memorized*) material. Novice-level speakers tend to speak using isolated words in
lists or in “chunks.”
The ACTFL Scale
Intermediate Level – characterized by the ability to maintain simple face-to-face
conversations in highly predictable settings. The intermediate-level speaker can
create with the language by combining and recombining learned elements, although
basically as a reaction to what has been said; can initiate, minimally sustain, and
close basic communicative tasks in a simple manner; and can ask and answer simple
questions. Intermediate-level speakers tend to speak in sentences.
Advanced Level – characterized by the speaker’s ability to narrate and describe using
connected discourse* of paragraph length in major time frames – past, present, and
future. Advanced level speakers can converse in a clearly participatory fashion;
initiate, sustain, and bring to a close a wide variety of communicative tasks, including
those that require an increased ability to convey meaning with diverse language
strategies due to a complication* or an unforeseen turn of events. Speakers at this
level are able to satisfy the requirements of many general school and/or work
Superior Level – characterized by the speaker’s ability to participate effectively in
most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, professional, and
abstract topics; and to support opinion and hypothesize using native-like vocabulary
and discourse* strategies.
It is extremely important to realize that this rating scale presumes that facility with a
language increases exponentially, and that each major level subsumes the criteria of the
level below it. Being rated at a given level requires sustained performance of the tasks
required at that level. Strong Intermediate level speakers are often able to include some
description* and narration* in their speech, but only speakers who can sustain
description* and narration* on a number of topics involving different time references can
be rated at the Advanced level.
Permission to reprint from:
National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project (1999). Standards for
Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century.
Please contact ACTFL for more detailed information about the ACTFL Scale &