OPI Strategies in the World Language Classroom

Whoever said teachers have three months off every summer has never been friends with an actual teacher. You only need to check out #langchat on Twitter to see just how involved my world language colleagues are attending conferences and workshops, teaching at camps or in summer classes, reading books and current research, viewing webinars, or catching up on their favorite blogs.

July was a whirlwind of new learning for me as I bounced around the country attending and presenting at different conferences and workshops — and It’s my goal to share with you my takeaways from each of these experiences.

OPI Strategies

Most recently, I attended ACTFL‘s first ever K-12 Modified Oral Proficiency Interview (MOPI) training in Glastonbury, CT. In a nutshell, this two day workshop

introduces the ACTFL rating scale, the structure of the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) and techniques of administering and rating the OPI from the Novice to the Advanced levels. Participants observe and conduct live practice interviews. They critique and discuss interview elicitation, structure, and rating. -actfl.org

While (at this point in time) I have no interest in becoming a certified OPI tester, this workshop gave me plenty of strategies and practical ideas to use in my classroom. Among the lessons I learned, the most important was being deliberate in the kinds of questions I ask my students. It seems like a no-brainer, but the kinds of questions we ask our students directly impact the quality of the answers they give us in return. With this in mind, before we even ask a question, we should think about what level of response we are trying to elicit. Are we expecting a single word? List of words? How about a full paragraph? Now consider how these two seemingly similar questions would elicit two very different responses:

  • Why do you like soccer?
  • Who do you play soccer with?
  • What do you to get ready for one of your soccer games?

The first two questions are examples prompts that invite students to give novice level responses. Although we would love our students to answer those questions in beautifully eloquent complete sentences, a simple “it’s fun” or “my friends” is a natural way to answer those questions. The third  question, on the other hand, is more naturally answered with a complete sentence or even series of sentences. As language teachers, we have to make an important choice between constantly reminding our students to “please answer in a complete sentence… and with as much detail as possible!” or to design questions that make it natural for a student to do so without our prompting. And, while the OPI focuses on oral production, the same can be said about eliciting language in written responses as well.

The kinds of questions we ask our students directly impact the quality of the answers they give us in return.

Now, just because we want our students to reach a certain level of proficiency before leaving our classrooms, it doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate to be asking questions at that level. The second most important lesson I learned during MOPI training was how crucial it is to put students at ease by asking them questions at their established comfort level before pushing them to the next level. At the same time, it does no good to ask our students to perform only at their established proficiency level, never providing them opportunities to reach to then next. Take a moment to reflect:

How much time are students in my classroom spending doing things they’re comfortable with versus stretching and reaching to the next level?

In good language teaching, there should be a balance. Always allow your students to begin producing language where they are comfortable, but never leave that topic without providing your students with an opportunity to test out the next level. Language progression is developed through struggle and it’s our responsibility to help coach our students through those awkward feelings of learning. Speaking at a level above one’s comfort is uncomfortable, to say the least, but the best language students are those who learn to embrace the feelings of discomfort – and we can help them do that through well designed lessons. This is where we can learn a lot through the structure of the OPI.

The has a specific structure that allows interviewers to establish a speaker’s comfort level (known as the “floor”) and how far their language can be stretched (know as the “ceiling”). Through this process of eliciting responses at the speaker’s comfort level and probing them at the next level over a variety of topics, the interviewer can then assess the speaker’s proficiency level. As teachers, we are generally assessing a student’s performance, rather than proficiency, but the process of level checks and probing can still help us design units and lessons that provide the balance we need in the classroom.

As a visual person, by the end of day 1 of the MOPI training, I designed a flowchart to represent the structure of the OPI which I plan to use to help provide the balance between comfort level activities and reach activities in my classroom. An important note before introducing it: the OPI assumes that most speakers can perform at the intermediate level. That’s why this flowchart begins each new topic at the intermediate level. If an interviewer establishes a speaker’s comfort level is different than intermediate, they would adjust the flowchart accordingly and begin each new topic at the established comfort level. In my case, majority of my students at the elementary school level fall in the Novice Mid to Intermediate Low range. That means my flowchart would have the students begin each new topic at Novice level rather than Intermediate.

OPI Questi

Infographic by Dorie Conlon Perugini based on ACTFL MOPI Training. May be used with attribution in educational settings. Additional versions available for download at the end of this post.

Of the entire OPI structure, the wind down may be my favorite part. Regardless of how the speaker performed at their interview, the interviewer always closes the conversation with an opportunity for the speaker to leave feeling accomplished. What a great reminder for our own classes! Rather than jamming in a few more minutes of instruction, or shouting reminders for that night’s homework assignment, let’s use the last few minutes of class for students to do something they love with the language. Let’s help them feel empowered and perhaps even catch a little bit of the love for the language that made us become teachers.

Join the conversation below! Is there any aspect of the OPI you can imagine using in your own lesson planning? Have you tried OPI-style activities in the past? How did it go? Is there anything about the OPI you would change to make it more appropriate for classroom use?

Would you like to use the flowchart in your classroom or presentation? Great! Please remember to give credit and I would love for you to leave a comment below on how you used these materials so we can all learn from each other. Thanks! Download alternate versions for print: High Resolution PDF for Print (full color),  or Black and White for Print on 8×11 Paper.

Join the conversation!