Transforming Language Instruction

Sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

In June 2016 the University of Chicago Language Center (CLC) received a $2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the project “Transforming Language Instruction at the University of Chicago and Beyond: Collaborative Curricula and Professional Development.” The grant, initially awarded for five years but now extended until June 2025, began as a way to increase learner access to less commonly taught languages (LCTLs) and support those language instructors through professional development.


The professional development we have undertaken with so many LCTL instructors is having a profound impact on their assessment and teaching practices. Pairs (two or more instructors of the same language on different campuses) and cohorts (instructors of different languages on the same campus):

  • set end-of-year proficiency levels, based on the ACTFL Guidelines
  • use end-of-year proficiency tests as an integral part of curriculum
  • collaborate on development and realignment of curricula and materials
  • incorporate these materials into their teaching
  • engage in iterative re-evaluation of assessments and curricula on a regular basis
  • share students when and if necessary and feasible

The Chicago Approach to Assessment-Driven, Reverse-Designed Language Pedagogy

In the first year of the project we strove to offer what our LCTL colleagues needed, based on our expertise and the design of the project. Armed with knowledge from our workshops, those instructors soon began to define their own needs. As a result of that feedback, in the grant’s second year we witnessed curricular transformation in assessment and course design, and were able to establish an innovative, transformational model of professional development that enables language instructors to be the informed agents of curricular reinvention, implementation and evaluation: the Chicago Approach to assessment-driven, reverse-designed language pedagogy.

Step 1: Familiarization with Proficiency-oriented Instruction

Acquire deep assessment literacy through participation in ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview workshops. These deliver comprehensive, functional comprehension of the levels and sub-levels of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, and jump-start the creation of a cohort of assessment experts. Participants use the Guidelines to identify proficiency-oriented learner outcomes at different points in the curriculum.

Step 2: Build Assessment Literacy and Design an End-of-Sequence Assessment

Attend Test Design and Development workshops designed by professional staff in the CLC. These focus on reverse design, the impact of testing on teaching (i.e., washback), the operationalization of language skills at different proficiency levels into highly-reliable performance-based authentic assessment tasks. Upon completion of this workshop, each participant has designed a four-skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) end-of-sequence test (for example, end-of-first-year).

Step 3: Develop an Assessment

Fully develop the designed test. Participants write prompts, find or create reading and listening inputs, finalize response formats, and create scoring rubrics. This work is done in close cooperation and collaboration with CLC staff to develop reliable tests that result in scores that help make valid inferences and decisions about students. Positioning ourselves as testing experts, we exert rigorous standards for both design and development, and walk each participant through rubric development and rater training.

Step 4: Connect Assessment to Curriculum

Attend Curriculum Design workshops designed by professional staff in the CLC. Once a newly developed assessment is in place, and in adherence to a reverse design model, instructors reexamine all aspects of their curriculum. This workshop uses a set of principles to guide instructors in this process. We encourage them to assume accountability for their learners to be successful with the assessment they themselves have designed. In contrast to the “hands-on” approach we assume in the test design and development phase, we rely on the instructors as experts in the teaching of their language – through the transformative impact of their having defined outcomes and designed and developed assessments to measure them.

Step 5: Realign Curricula

With support and feedback from CLC staff, instructors work independently to revise their curricula, depending on the needs they themselves have identified. Projects range from creating or locating new listening inputs, to integrating new speaking and writing activities, to the creation of entirely new courses or course sequences. Instructors share their work with each other in online symposia, and in the process share ideas, activities, and content-based units.

Step 6: Program Evaluation

Attend the Program Evaluation Workshop, designed by professional staff in the CLC. This final step prepares participants for the iterative, multidimensional process of teaching and testing, then reviewing and revising curricula. As instructors administer real-world proficiency assessments, they measure how well their learners can function in the real world as defined by the identified outcomes. If learners are not reaching these outcomes, instructors must deploy strategic interventions in curricular practices. The Program Evaluation workshop prepares the participants to analytically review the process with all of its components and key stakeholders to ensure scalability and sustainability.