I got a question recently from a colleague who was having trouble pinpointing the difference between novice high and intermediate low with her students, especially in writing.
When it comes to writing, here are some keys that I think mean a student is consistently performing at IL and not NH:
- Changing topics with relevance
A few weeks ago a student of mine wrote the same assessment everyone else did: invite someone to a party and talk about what’s going to be going on at the party. But in her (much longer) response, she talked about kids who weren’t coming to the party and what their excuses were, and whether the excuse was valid. In doing so she showed me variety of topics rather than just that she could talk about a party. In this case, the extra topics involved talking about school as well, but fit very well into the task.
- Deepening vocabulary
If students are stuck in “me gusta” and “yo quiero” then they’re in novice vocabulary. When my students start trading “me gusta” for “me encanta” and then throw in phrases like “detesto” and “me da asco” (we do a lot of work on giving opinions in Intermediate level), then I know their vocabulary is becoming more intermediate. More examples from my class are trading los dos for ambos and es de for se trata de. I circle words as I read through that show depth of vocabulary and use them as an example to show students of how to push their proficiency here.
- Sentence form
Intermediate students rarely if ever answer in fragments when they are not appropriate. My students often ask, because school trains them to, “Do I have to answer in a complete sentence?” The answer is not that simple. If I ask, “What’s that?” then the natural response is not usually a complete sentence. If I ask, “What did you do yesterday?” the natural response is often a complete sentence. Intermediate students more often than not do what would be natural for a native speaker as far as sentence structure. In presentational writing this usually means all complete sentences, unless, for example, you’re asking for something like photo captions, a type of presentational writing novices can typically handle better.
- Connections within sentences
IL students, especially in presentational writing, use more transitions between phrases and paragraphs: words and phrases like after, and so, and then, before, therefore, that’s why, also, besides, etc. Within sentences they connect phrases not just with ‘and’ and ‘but’ but also subordinating phrases like:
the boy [that was in the school] went…
[when I am sad] I go…
My sister [who is sometimes crazy] likes to…
Last month one of the topics for #langchat was how to set expectations for proficiency and communicate that to students. @crwmsteach added a comment that is relevant to this discussion: “The difference between NH and IL is that NH students reach for short pieces of IL; IL students maintain these skills and occasionally slip backward to NH.” (expanded because I’m not limited to 140 characters here).
Assessing proficiency is a subjective task but the more discussions we have like this, the more we’ll have interrater reliability and communicate well with our students about where they are and where they’re going.