Listening and Reading Proficiency Levels of College Students
Abstract: This article examines listening and reading proficiency levels of U.S. college foreign language students at major milestones throughout their undergraduate career. Data were collected from more than 3,000 participants studying seven languages at 21 universities and colleges across the United States. The results show that while listening proficiency appears to develop more slowly, Advanced levels of reading proficiency appear to be attainable for college majors at graduation. The article examines the relationship between listening and reading proficiency and suggests reasons for the apparent disconnect between listening and reading, particularly for some languages and at lower proficiency levels.
Despite the fact that the foreign language teaching profession has focused on oral proficiency for decades, reaching the Advanced Low (AL) level [ILR 2/CEFR B2] in oral proficiency has remained “an elusive endeavor” for many college graduates majoring in foreign languages, including prospective foreign language instructors (Brooks & Darhower, 2014, p. 593). According to Swender (2003, p. 523), only 47% of graduating majors at prestigious liberal arts colleges, many of whom spent an academic year abroad, were at the AL level or higher, 35% were Intermediate High (IH) [ILR 1+/CEFR B1], and 18% were Intermediate Mid [IM Survival proficiency/ILR 1 – CEFR A2] or lower…
The mean reading proficiency in English cognate languages such as French and Spanish was NH (Novice High) in the third semester, IL or IL in the fourth semester, IM (Intermediate Mid) in the fifth semester, IH [Intermediate High – ILR 1+] or IH+ in the sixth semester, and IH or AL [Advanced Low – ILR 2//B2] in the fourth year. These proficiency levels were considerably higher than the ones reported previously. If one looks at the top 84th percentile of students, they were even higher: Both French and Spanish students were IM in the third semester, AL as early as the fifth semester and AM or AM in the sixth semester. In the fourth year, they were AM [ILR 2] in French and AH in Spanish. Despite the limited amount of data for Italian and Portuguese, their proficiency levels were similar to those reported for Spanish, while proficiency levels in German appeared to be similar to French.
Listening proficiency, however, seemed to be a different matter entirely. One of the most significant findings of the present study was the fact that listening proficiency was lower than reading proficiency at almost all levels of instruction and across all languages. The mean listening proficiency in French and Spanish was generally one sublevel lower than the mean reading proficiency in the second and third year, and it was two sublevels lower in the fourth year.
This may be a reflection of what the profession considers important in foreign language education. As a panel of experts noted in a recent accreditation procedure in which the present author took part, listening proficiency is not considered important enough for college credits to be given on the basis of an examination. While the literature faculty in foreign language departments may still focus on reading, the emphasis on input and listening comprehension that characterized the early years of the communicative competence revolution in the late 1970s and 1980s appears to have all but disappeared. The focus on speaking, and particularly on interpersonal speaking, ushered in by the proficiency movement in the late 1980s and 1990s and the fact that the first ACTFL assessment that was made available was the OPI may have contributed to the neglect of listening comprehension even at the lower levels of language instruction....
Taken together, the studies that are summarized above, based on ILR or ACTFL proficiency assessments, indicate that proficiency levels in the interpretive modalities generally appear to be lower than in the productive ones and are lowest for listening ability, especially in instructed foreign language learning. The typical reading proficiency of foreign language students in the United States appears to be between NH and IL after four high school years (Davin et al., 2014) or three college semesters for closely related languages such as French or Spanish (Schmitt, 2016). Third- and fourth-year students seem to be IM to IH in both reading and listening in such languages (Watson & Wolfel, 2015). In more distant languages such as Russian, students appear to be NH to IL in reading and listening after 2 years of college instruction, IL after 3 years, and IM [ILR 1] after 4 years (Rifkin, 2005). In intensive foreign language programs such as The Language Flagship (National Security Education Program), learners may reach IH in reading and IM in listening after 2 to 3 years of college instruction (Davidson, 2010).
While preimmersion students may be stronger in their productive modalities, postimmersion students seem to be stronger in the interpretive modalities (Rifkin, 2005). Even in study abroad contexts, learners appear to make gains more easily in reading than in listening, with students in 2-month and 4-month study abroad programs lingering in the Intermediate range and only students who study abroad for longer periods, e.g., students in 9-month programs, advancing to AL.
The focus on speaking, and particularly on interpersonal speaking, ushered in by the proficiency movement in the late 1980s and 1990s and the fact that the first ACTFL assessment that was made available was the OPI may have contributed to the neglect of listening comprehension even at the lower levels of language instruction. This may explain the finding in the literature review—the productive skills appear to be stronger at the lower levels of foreign language instruction (Davin et al., 2014; Rifkin, 2005; Schmitt, 2016). Listening proficiency was lower in French than in Spanish at all levels of instruction except in the second and third semesters. The discrepancy between listening and reading for French may be due to its deep orthography (Frost, 2012). Deep orthography languages have an opaque writing system, in which it is not easy to infer the pronunciation of a syllable or word by the way it is written. Words, therefore, need to be learned twice, as visual and aural entities, and words learned visually are not easily accessible when listening. Listening and reading proficiency, therefore, diverge, and gains made in reading may not translate to listening. The lack of continued development of listening proficiency in French beyond the second year may have also been due to upper-division courses being taught in English. This, of course, may be exactly the kind of vicious circle that solidifies the status quo…
Moreover, stagnating listening proficiency development as students enter upper-division courses may be a contributing factor to the often noted Advanced barrier in oral proficiency, a level that appears to be very difficult to attain for students who do not spend a significant amount of time in the target country (Davidson, 2010). As Rifkin (2005) found, postimmersion students showed greater ability in listening and reading, contrasting their stronger skills in speaking and writing prior to the immersion experience. Davidson (2010) found that attaining Advanced-level listening proficiency took the equivalent of a 9-month study abroad period. Moreover, it may be important to distinguish between local and global comprehension, and between careful and expeditious reading and listening (Weir & Khalifa, 2008). While global and expeditious reading—and listening, for that matter—may be the kind that is most valued in literature classes, and even in lower-division language courses, it may be the local and careful reading with its attention to detail, including lexical and grammatical detail, that may be required to develop higher levels of proficiency.
This seems to call for a renewed effort to better understand the relationship between vocabulary breadth and depth and reading and listening proficiency, including the ability to parse incoming information grammatically. A number of textual features have been identified as crucial to text comprehension, including vocabulary load, syntactic complexity, domain, and genre, among others (Bernhardt, 2011; Jeon & Yamashita, 2014; Vandergrift & Baker, 2015; Van Zeeland, 2014). While there may be some overarching principles that relate to all languages, many of these features may be language specific and thus may need to be examined language by language.
Still, the data presented offer a first comprehensive picture of the reading and listening proficiency levels of U.S. college students at major milestones and raise a series of tantalizing questions, answers to which may reshape the way foreign languages—in particular, reading and listening—are taught and learned.
Conclusion The data presented in this article suggest that it may be time to rethink the role of foreign language education for academic purposes in the United States and the role of foreign language proficiency within a liberal arts curriculum. In particular, there seems to be increasing recognition of the need to develop principled approaches toward improving listening proficiency, and to a lesser extent reading proficiency, throughout the undergraduate foreign language experience. A focus on listening proficiency may not only help the profession succeed in providing students with useful, professional academic foreign language listening skills, but may even be key to developing professional speaking skills as well. While reading proficiency levels, especially for cognate languages, appear to be much higher than speaking levels and close to what one might expect at various points in a postsecondary program, more principled approaches to reading proficiency may allow learners to reach what Carroll (1967) thought he discovered 50 years ago, i.e., Advanced High [ILR 2+] and Superior levels [ILR 3].https://www.languagetesting.com/pub/med ... Annals.pdf