October 2015
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Sarah Elia, State University of New York at New Paltz, New Paltz, New York, USA

Recently, I attended a workshop on the American Counsel for the Teaching of Foreign Languages Oral Proficiency Interview (ACTFL OPI), a “standardized procedure for the global assessment of functional speaking ability” (ACTFL, n.d.). Skills acquired from the workshop have transferred seamlessly to my current role as an English tutor in Beijing, China. Students here are well trained in reading and writing, but many require more speaking practice.

Although I do not follow the formal OPI in my lessons, I do employ some of the techniques in a modified form to fit my students’ needs. For example, as part of the OPI assessment process, the interviewer focuses on a single topic and asks questions of increasing difficulty. The following is my own version of this technique of developing a topic by levels.

First, begin by eliciting information from your student. For example, ask about his or her hobbies and interests. It is important to remember these responses so you can draw from them in subsequent discussions.

Choose one topic that your student expressed interest in. Request more detail using Yes/No questions. Then ask WH-questions based on his or her responses to encourage the ELL to speak in complete sentences.

Next, progress to storytelling on the same topic. The goal is to elicit detailed explanation of an event in sequence. This is a good opportunity for the learner to practice the past verb tenses and to develop their descriptive speaking.

Toward the conclusion of the conversation, seek to discuss global events on the same topic. This task would be for an academic level speaker with mature thoughts and a broad knowledge base.

Questions in a typical conversation would progress like this:

Topic of interest: Dogs

Level 1: Yes/No questions related to dogs. (Do you have a dog? Do you walk your dog frequently? Do you take your dog to the dog park?)

Level 2: WH-questions about dogs. (Where is the dog park? What do people do when they are at the dog park? What does the dog park look like?)

Level 3: Storytelling. (Tell me the story about the time when your dog got loose at the dog park.)

Level 4: Analytical and hypothetical questions. (What are your thoughts about the Yulin dog festival and the current conflict with animal rights groups? What does this imply about Chinese society? What do you see in the future for animal rights in China?)

Throughout the conversation, new vocabulary will emerge. Have your student record new words in a notebook and review them at the end of the conversation.

As the instructor, your role is to lead the conversation, but after a few sessions, encourage the student to take more initiative in developing new topics and directions. This transition will be a challenging and positive process for your student.

Conclude the session on a positive note. Compliment your ELL on competence wherever you have observed it during the interaction. Remember, he or she has been struggling to perform at his or her best.

This teaching method does not follow the flow of a natural conversation. However, such structured conversation provides opportunity to develop new vocabulary in meaningful contexts, allows for extensive exercise in circumlocution, and helps the teacher easily identify the needs of the learner. Ultimately, this improves the ELL’s conversational skills.


ACTFL. (n.d.). Testing for proficiency. Retrieved from http://www.actfl.org/professional-development/certified-proficiency-testing-program/testing-proficiency.

Sarah Elia is a lecturer at the Haggerty English Language Program at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz. She has a BA in music from Bard College and an MS in TESOL from SUNY New Paltz.

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