A Scoop of Performance Ice Cream

Have you ever had an entire class of students perfectly content to sit there and not say a word? You know what I’m talking about. You spent all this time creating the most engaging lesson, a lesson with the things you just know your students love, only to have them sit there with empty expressions on their faces with each attempt you make to connect with them.

I had that class last year. Ugh, I hate even thinking about that fourth grade class. My three other sections of fourth grade would be so much fun to teach. Walk into those classes on any given day and you could find students excitedly participating or conversing with friends. But this class was like pulling teeth to get them to say anything at all.

Out of desperation I decided to do something I had never done before. I planned an entire lesson in English (gasp! I know!) to explain to them the ACTFL proficiency scale.

After describing each of the levels, I explained to them, using the most fourth-grade-friendly language possible, how “scientists have actually studied this! And the only way to move from one level to the next is with practice! You need to practice hearing, reading and even speaking Spanish in order to improve.” Then I asked them to reflect on their own language use and to write down which level they would be in based on their classroom performance. Underneath that, they had to write down which level they thought they needed to show in class in order to “meet expectations” on their report cards.

The results really surprised me for two reasons

  • Students were very honest rating themselves. Most knew exactly where they were on the proficiency scale based on their classroom participation.
  • Students had no idea what my expectations were. And rightfully so, considering I never outright explained it to them in this way before.

It’s not that it never occurred to me to share what proficiency level I expected my students to have, it’s just that I am I big proponent of 90%+ target language use and couldn’t imagine how to explain this philosophy in a student-friendly way. Finally, having hit a wall with this one fourth grade class and having nothing to lose, we spent the entire day speaking English on this one topic.

The conversation was rich and extremely valuable.

At the end of class, I introduced the students to a new tool we would be using. The language performance ice cream cone!

Each student has their own clothes pin to track performance. The white speech bubble examples are affixed with velcro so they can be changed with each new unit. The red magnet is the “cherry on top”. I place a student’s name clip near the cherry if their sentence included a lot of detail, or they used a series of sentences.


A quick and easy way for me to track the students’ language performance throughout the week, the performance ice cream cone quickly became a staple in my classroom. Each time a student gave an answer, I simply moved the clothes pin with that student’s name to match their performance. Within a week, my class of reluctant students were now eager to participate. When a student would see me move their name to yellow (I said a phrase), s/he would quickly change their answer, often times adding more detail, so their clip land on green. Before I knew it, my dull class became one of my most exciting ones. Students were more engaged in the lessons and their language was certainly improving!

It was a no brainer to roll this out with my other classes. Now all my students grades 1-5 know about ACTFL’s proficiency scale and what my expectations are.

Since initially introducing the ice cream cone in my one fourth grade class two years ago, I have made a few changes:

  • Descriptions of each level are now written in the target language.
  • I changed the language a bit. The scoops now say “I used a sentence”, for example, rather than “I said a sentence” so that students can get credit for written language as well.
  • Students are expected to keep track of their daily performance in a log kept in their Spanish class folder, which makes it a lot easier for me to keep track of their participation grade!
  • I added a cherry on the top for when students add detail to their sentences or use a series of sequential sentenced.
  • For days that conversation is happening quickly or students are working in pairs/groups, I hand the students a PostIt note that corresponds to their ice cream level. That allows us to continue the conversation naturally without stopping to move clips. At the end of class they can move their own clip based on the color they received.
  • Each month one student is assigned the job of resetting everyone’s clip back to the bottom after each class ends.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you have a method for tracing performance/proficiency in your classroom? How would you build upon, adapt or modify my idea? Let me know in the comments below!


  1. I love this! I have used the ice cream cone the last two years with my 2nd and 3rd graders (and explained it all in English) so they understood the method behind my madness, but I hadn’t figured out how to take it farther and give them more ownership over their progress. Clothespins, post-it’s, records in folders, and a student in charge of moving all clothesoins to the bottom at the end of class are great ways to do this and relatively easy. Unfortunately I don’t have a classroom and have almost 400 students so I will still need to wrap my head around some logistics, but it is totally doable. Thanks so much for the inspiration.

    • It seems like we are in similar situations! I’m also a traveling teacher with hundreds of students to manage.

      I talked with the classroom teachers who each agreed to allow me to keep the ice cream cone in their classrooms. That way I don’t have to remember to bring them to and from class or deal with loosing the clothes pins. Some of the teachers keep it on their whiteboard (because some classes have ginormous boards) and others have a designated spot where it stays in between classes (in which case, I assigned a student to move it from the spot to the board a minute before class begins).

  2. As a colleague of Dorie’s, I too am using the Ice Cream cone. And like Dorie, I travel from room to room. In my grade 5 classes, I gave them a personal paper version of the original. They keep it in their 3-ring binder and I ask them to rate themselves at the end of a three-day teaching cycle. They simply jot down the date wherever on the ‘cone’ they feel they participated. I do love the addition of “I have not participated yet” and it is something I am going to add soon.

    • Thanks Patty! It’s interesting to see all the different ways people adapt it to meet the needs of their own students. I really like the idea of students reflecting and choosing their own level. I may have to give that a try. ☺️

  3. Dorie, we are seeing amazing results from the implementation of the ice cream cone idea. It has generated a lot of enthusiasm, and language, among our youngest learners.

    • Thanks Rita! I think it’s so important for younger learners to have the visual and it helps give quick feedback without switching to L1 or derailing the conversation.

  4. Thank you for this article! I have never thought to use the proficiency guidelines as part of my conversation with my K-4 students regarding goals or achievement; the ice cream cone is such a cute idea and visually appealing for little kiddos. I do however, share ‘I can’ (or ‘I will be able to’) goals based on ACTFL’s ‘can do’ statements with my students each class (the 1 minute they get in English out of 30 lol) which greatly increases motivation and gives them a sense of purpose and meaning behind what we are learning. The buy in is huge when they know why we are learning what we are learning, or what they will be able to do at the end of a theme. I do check ins periodically through the themes to see how they are doing meeting our goals, and use a taco rubric to talk with them about where they are in terms of meeting expectations. (I wrote a blog post on my taco rubric- you can see it here: http://elmundodepepita.blogspot.com/2014/07/taco-rubric-standards-based-grading.html )

    • Thank you so much for your comments. I finally got a chance to check out your post on your Taco Rubric, and I love it!

      I also started sharing Can Do’s with my students at the beginning of each class. In the beginning of the year I shared them in English (I wrote them in English, but when I pointed them out to the students I read them in Spanish), but I’ve since made the switch to Spanish. I like that my students now say “YO PUEDO!” (while showing off their muscles) when we read them, but it is such a struggle to make them comprehensible, especially at the beginning of a new unit. I haven’t decided if I’ll keep writing them in Spanish or switch back to English. So many pros/cons to each way!

  5. Nice article, Dorie. Great job explaining this concept. I really like the addition of the stickies when the convo is flowing!

    • Thanks Colleen! If you decide to use the stickies, let me know how it works out for you! I definitely need to make a laminated set so I can cut down on waste.

  6. Dorie, This is awesome! I could not find my ACTFL Educator Magazine after moving, and I wanted to read the complete article. I will definitely implement your idea or a similar idea.

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