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92. Improving Teaching Effectiveness with Proficiency Level Descriptors (PLDs): A Discussion with Guest, Courtney Morgan
Episode 9215th September 2023 • Equipping ELLs • Beth Vaucher, ELL, ESL Teachers
00:00:00 00:25:14

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Are you an educator looking for a game-changing resource to assess and define your English Language Learners' (ELLs) unique language skills?

Join us in this enlightening episode as we welcome back Courtney Morgan from The All-Access Classroom. Courtney demystifies the role of Proficiency Level Descriptors (PLDs) in evaluating students' language proficiency and crafting improvement strategies. Discover the crucial importance of routinely incorporating PLDs to monitor student progress and tailor support. Gain practical insights into using language proficiency charts and harnessing PLDs for effective monitoring, peer education, and instructional enhancement. At Equipping ELLs, we love to empower educators with tools like these to make a meaningful impact in your ELLs' educational journey!



Hey, courtney. Welcome to the show. I'm so


So good to be here talking with you today.

I missed you. I know. This is your second time on the show, and

I'm going to tell you it's probably not going to be just your

second. I'm sure you're going to come back for third and fourth

because there's always topics that I'm like, I just won't have

corny on. And let's talk about this. Courtney is from the All

Access Classroom, and I am just super excited to have you here

today. Kind of breaking down. Something that I see as a really

powerful helpful tool. But there's a lot of hindrances and

barriers to figuring out how to use it. So today, courtney is

going to be sharing with us about how to use the proficiency level

descriptors from wiener. And I know those who are listening.

They're like, oh, I'm not a weed estate. I don't do a Tweeta.

Don't tune out. This is really helpful and really important to you

because these things you can grab them, they're free. And I think

after today's episode, you're going to see how useful they are. So

courtney, let's dive right in. Why don't you share a little bit

about what are these proficiency level descriptors and give us a

breakdown of what those

are. Yes, I know. It's a mouthful.

So you might hear

me say. I have found this to be an incredibly useful tool and

again it is free on wida's Resource Library website. If you want

t. The plds. It's part of the:

Development Standards that we'd have released, which is an

incredible, well researched, well organized tool. Resource that we

can use, whether we are language specialists, whether we are Gen

Ed content area teachers is just an incredible resource that we

can use to really help us assess. The proficiency levels of our

students. And make goals. To know what their next steps are. And I

think that's where the plds really can be helpful to us. It's an

incredible resource. It can be really complex and kind of

overwhelming upon your first initial introduction to it. But if

you just can learn how to navigate it and kind of understand the

components, it can become a really helpful tool.

I think I heard a hallelujah on what to do with the next steps,

because I know that that's a struggle of so many people of just

like, okay, I have the access scores. But now we're in the middle

of the year. And are these really valid and. Are they really this

level still? Or how do I check in on their language proficiency

level and do it really quick so I can have a good understanding

and I can plan what the next steps are for support. So that's why

I think these are

really helpful. Exactly. I remember when I taught third grade. My

multilingual learner specialist would bring. The wida Access Score

report, which is similar to those States that are not whita

States. I think everyone will receive at some point some sort of

report that indicates where our learners are in their proficiency

in different language


Right. Speaking, reading, writing, and listening. And. I remember

that sheet very quickly would end up at the bottom of some pile.

And I just would never


at again, give

it a

glance and be like, okay, cool. I've got 50. But jillian, other

things to do. Right? So this is the challenge. Is like, how can we

keep. Our students, levels and needs. On every teacher's radar who

works with that student. And enable this data this knowledge, this

understanding to actually.

Have meaning as part of the instructional process, right. That's

the whole goal is that we don't just do things to do them. We're

not just wasting time checking boxes just to say we did a certain

thing, right? The whole point. Of this tool of the proficiency

level descriptors. And really all the elements of the wida

Standards is that there is some kind of implication that we can

take on and recognize for our own teaching, right. And the pld. Is

really wida used to have what's called. Proficiency level

descriptors. I think that's what they call them. No, sorry.


the pld. Yeah.

They can do descriptors, I think right. Or is that something


I might need to pause here. What is it called. There's

so many terms. I get them. I know they had the candos. They had.

The. It was like, oh, performance definitions. Okay. All right.

We'll edit that part. Yeah. Restart right here. Okay. So we used

to have what's called. Performance definitions. And that was for

K, twelve, grades, K to twelve. And they helped us understand

what. Students language abilities look like. At different levels

of proficiency. Level one through level six. And those were great.

But I think many people recognize that sometimes. Those abilities

can really look different. Depending on what grade the student is

at. So what wida has done in the lovely plds is they've. Broken up

these performance definitions or a look at what students language

looks like at different proficiency levels. They've broken it down

by grade level clusters for us, which is so lovely, because if

you're teaching kindergarten, you have your own grade level

cluster resource to look at and refer to, versus if you're an 8th

grade teacher, yours might. Look different. So I really like that

they have kind of expanded and defined with a bit more clarity.

What students language looks like at different levels. And if you

want, give a little overview of once you're looking at your plds,

how to understand what do

I have

here in front of.

Yes, please, do

we'd love that. And if you're listening to this podcast, I really

encourage you to push pause for a minute and go to Google. And

just put Google Widow Resource library. Proficiency level

descriptors. It will quickly guide you to where you need to go. To

download this for free so you can look at what we're talking about

today. So if you're looking at let's say the grade level two and

three cluster resource for the plds. They have different criteria

of what comprises language, and they've broken it down. Into

discourse. Sentence and word phrase. Kind of modalities or not.

Modalities. But skills. So think about it like they're taking,

what do we need to identify or assess when we're talking about

language? For a given learner, we can break it down into these

three parts. So discourse. What does that mean? We're talking kind

of about how students organize their language. Let me back up.

See, this is

so complex. I'm like, just go, you just go with

it. Courtney,

you're doing a great

job. You're doing a great job. It's so much like I could do an



on this. So you'll need to cut out what I just


a little bit. To where I first start describing. The descriptors.

I am so sorry.

No. My brain is like in summer

mode, so


like, what am I doing.

Oh, my gosh. Okay. And I have. All my. All my things I'm like,

what do I want to say? And then what do I not need to really say.

Give me a second. You can go as in depth or as just a brief


as you want. It's. Really? Yeah. I think I don't need to tell

all the things. Yeah. I think if you just go into discourse,

what's discourse? Like

a brief step

like that, I think helps

people. Yes. Okay.

Sorry. No, you're good. You are so good.

So what we have done is for each grade level cluster. There's two

pages that you will find. One is for the expressive modality of

language, which includes speaking, writing, and representing. And

then the other page will be for the interpretive skills of

language, which is listening, reading, and viewing. And these are

really important to distinguish because. Students may be in a

different place as we know as they are on their journey of

learning language. They're not necessarily going to be at the same

exact proficiency level and in the same exact place in every

single language modality. So we need to be able to assess and just

have kind of a way of separating out those skills. So we know

exactly what. To target in our instruction. So let's say that you

are looking at the grade two, three. Page that grade level cluster

page. And you're looking at the expressive Communication mode

page. So if you have this in front of you, you will see that they

have broken it down into different criteria. So we have discourse,

which. Is basically just like thinking about how students are

organizing. The language that they're using so again. We're

looking at they're talking about the expressive. So mainly

speaking and writing. So how students are organizing what they're

saying or what they're writing around a topic. We're thinking also

about how they're using linking or connecting words to provide

some cohesion to that language production. We're also thinking

about how they might be elaborating. The language that they're

using to provide. More detail. And more information. Right. So

that's the discourse. Criteria. We'll also be looking at the

sentence level criteria. And this is really identifying how are

students using sentence structure or varied types of sentences. To

communicate. And then last we have the word or the phrase.

Criteria. And this is mostly just talking about how students are

using vocabulary to give their language more precision. And kind

of describe with more definition what they want to communicate.

Right. So those are our main criteria. And then next to each of

those criteria, we see a column for each of the language levels.

So, for example, if we're looking at the word or phrase criteria

next to level one, I'm looking at it right now. It says few

frequently used words with phrases, words and phrases with


precision. Versus if I scooch over to by the end of level four,

still talking about word or phrase Cr. Criteria. I see a growing

repertoire of words and phrases with growing precision. And they

have some examples next to each one. So this is kind of how it's

organized. It can look like a lot at first, but again, if you just

Zoom right to your grade level cluster that you're working with.

And make the selection what information do I need. To be

identifying my students, interpretive or expressive skills and

pick the page you need. Then you're really only looking at one

page. One chart. So if it seems overwhelming, just know that very

quickly. You can identify. The single page that you need. To do

what you're going to do. And we're going to talk about what

do you do with this? Yeah. No. Exactly. Because I think that's

such a good point, courtney, is it looks overwhelming. It can feel

overwhelming. But really, you just Zoom in and I think. It's

really that a vital piece to really decipher and decide of what

are you observing and seeing, if it is a listening and reading

skill or if it is a speaking and writing skill and not intermixing

that because I think when we're not clear on that and when our

students aren't clear out of what we're really assessing or

observing. Then that's when we really get kind of mixed results

because. We're not really defining what are we looking for. I

think if you don't have this pulled up in front of you, it might

sound like, okay, this looks like I'm not a chart person. I don't

know if I can handle it. You can because I think once you realize

you have these parameters and. You have these check in points.

Then you're going to be able to observe your students and assess

your students and see where they fall in that and have clear

expectations. I think that's one of the best things about these is

so often. It is so hard to pinpoint where your students are at in

their language proficiency. And so I think sometimes. We either

set too high of expectations and we don't provide the scaffolds

they need, or we over scaffold, and really, they're ready to keep

moving forward, and we're preventing them from


forward. And so having something like this. I'm even looking right

here. Like for grammatical complexity. Here for level one, it's

saying sentence fragments. For level two, it's saying sentence

fragments and emerging use of simple sentences for level three.

Simple sentences. Now, this has given me such a clear idea. Of

where should these students be at in terms of grammatical

complexity? And now. I can support them with what's expected of

them at that language level. So that's


I think these are so helpful in that

aspect. Absolutely. And just as a ml specialist. Especially the

past few years. I've had this kind of lingering sense of guilt in

the back of my mind that I didn't really actively recognize. But I

think it was there because. I always every year felt like I was.

Giving my colleagues that worked. With our multingol learners. A

sheatha had okay in speaking, they're level two. And. I wasn't

even fully knowledgeable about what that meant to explain it to my

colleague so that they could fully understand it. It was kind of

just like. This. Unfortunately, often these become labels like,

oh, well, she's a level two. But what does that mean? I think it's

the big question that we need to ask. And this resource really

helps. As you said, give that definition that we need. So we know

what we're talking about, and we can actually make productive

steps forward. In our instruction with

these students. Yes. And that is it right there. We don't want to

waste any more precious time. We want to have a good pulse on our

students and see when mid year. They're already showing there at

the end of level three. In speaking. Okay. Let's move them forward

instead of waiting for the access results. So that brings us right

into courtney. Why don't you share some ways that you could see

teachers practically using these as they lesson plan and teach and

provide support for their

multilingual learners. Yeah. So I've been thinking about this

quite a bit. Because. As a coach. As a teacher, I just want things

to be practical. And useful for whoever has this in their hands,

whoever is working directly with these students. I don't want

overwhelm to keep people from using this incredible tool. So I've

been thinking a lot about, okay, how can we put this to use. Day

to day in the classroom. So there's kind of three things that in

my mind, I've kind of broken it down to three uses for the plds.

And those are to help us monitor student growth, to help us to

educate our colleagues and advocate by increasing understanding of

students proficiency levels and also. Of course, to help us

differentiate instruction that's given to our students, helping us

define how much scaffolding, how much support are they needing to

provide both support and rigor? Right. So when we're talking

about, let's say, monitoring student progress, there's lots of

ways it could look. And what's important is that you utili.

Utilize it in a way that fits you. In your school context and your

colleagues needs and the way that your program runs. Right. So,

for example. If you are at the table. As part of the mts, or the

tier process. In supporting students. And one of them is a student

who is a multilingual learner oftentimes I think we sit at these

tables and have and I'm speaking for myself here somewhat vague

information to bring to the table. We don't have a lot of hard

data. And what this pld resource is giving us is a means to



data, right. So. We can help clearly demonstrate this student is

growing in language, and here are the areas in which they're

growing. It can help us to evaluate student work. We can use this

as a tool if we gather student. Work in a portfolio. We can use

this to help assess where they are in their growth. Maybe we have

even. As eld teachers or ml teachers if we want to ourselves have.

Some goals. That are specific to our learners. We can use this as

a tool to help us understand what those goals need to be. Instead

of just

she'll get better

at speaking. It will help give us some actual meat to our

instruction that is relevant and applies specifically to

individual students. Right. And something cool, too, is we can use

it depending on the age and readiness of our students to help


participate. In that process and understand their own growth goals

and self monitor. As they progress. So. That's kind of like how we

can use it to help them monitor.

I think that's a really great point, courtney, especially with

older students, of bringing them in on this because I think that.

It's so often felt, whether it's said or not, that. It's either

you're new to learning English, and then you're proficient. And we

don't really show our students all the steps it takes to continue

on the language journey. And I think when they can see okay, I'm

right here. I'm using fragments. I'm working towards using simple

sentences. Giving them modeling simple sentences, showing them

here's your expectation. Let's work on this. I'm going to support

you in this, especially those older students. It really helps them

have that next stepping stone. Instead of feeling like. I'm never

going to get there. I'm just not going to become fluent because

that's so far away from where

I am. Yeah. And something I think I would love to do in the future

if I have time is make kind of. A student

version of this.

That. Kind of pares it down to exemplars that we can show them.

Here's what a bit of language looks like when you're at this level

or here's what a sentence looks like when you're at this

proficiency level. Here's what your next step is. We want to start

writing sentences that look like this. Right. Or that include this

kind of phrase. Oh, guess what? We're going to learn about that

kind of phrase today. So we can elaborate your sentences even

more. It's hard to make the learning more

visible for them, right?



I love it. And then, of course. Using this to help build teacher

understanding around. Language acquisition. For a lot of teachers.

It's kind of this foggy, vague thing. And we're not all trained in

language acquisition. This is a way that. You can give people an

inside look at what that looks like, how language actually grows

across these proficiency levels. It could be used also to

communicate that to parents who are interested in being part

of that process.

And then, of course, differentiation of our instruction for our

learners. This is probably the one that could be the most

impactful. As I work with Gen. Ed teachers a lot of times. They

want more understanding of what scaffolding needs to look like,

rather than just saying. Use sentence stems or more visuals. These

are great things. But what if we could empower them. To be part of

that language acquisition process for their own students to know.

Okay, I am going to provide this or that scaffold, but I know this

about my learner, and so the scaffold needs to

be tweaked

a little bit. It needs to be leveled up a little bit or pared back

a little bit. So that that rigor can be maintained and we can

continue to help nudge our learners forward. Rather than as you

said like maintaining kind of this fallback. Easy level. Of

instruction that isn't challenging them to move forward in their

language growth.

Yeah. I love all of that. That's why we wanted to have this

episode. Because. These are really some incredible free tools.

That if you just take a little bit of time relisten this episode,

well, having it in front of you on your computer and then just get

creative and start to see how you can incorporate these in your

lesson planning, in your teaching, in your coaching. With your

students. And I think you'll really see a dramatic difference in I

think just as a teacher, I think so many of us when we don't know

exactly what they need. That's where the overwhelm comes in.

That's where we spend hours on the lesson plans because we're kind

of like, Well, wait, do they need this or this? There's so many

needs, right. When you're teaching students language and content

at the same time, there's a lot to cover. So this really helps to

clarify. And have a good pulse on what your students need, and it

gives you that opportunity. I think as a teacher. To again going

back to the same point, but just checking in on student progress.

We need to be doing more of that because our time is precious with

our students. And so we want. To be shifting our lessons with what

they need, and not just. Labeling them like you said of. Okay,

well, the student's a level three. But what does that mean? I

mean, that does nothing to have this label on the student if it's

not giving us some concrete things of how we can support them at

that language level.

Exactly. I love that. And I would say. Just if you're looking at

it and you're like, Overwhelmed, where do we even start. This

could potentially take a lot of time. I hear you,

my friend on

that. What I would recommend doing. If you're just dipping your

toes in this. Is start by maybe gathering a written


sample. Let's say from your learner, maybe make a plan. I'm going

to do this beginning of the year, middle of the year. End of the

year. Give them a prompt. Unguided unsupported. Just a raw sample

of what they can produce in writing. Then use the expressive

Communication Mode Chart in the plds. To kind of assess where they

are in the different criteria of writing. And pinpoint what some

specific goals might be for that student. Right then revisit. Mid

year. How are they doing? What are the implications for

instruction? And how can. We spread understanding of those

implications amongst all the teachers that work with the student

so that everybody's on the same page. This is a goal. These are

the needs. Here are practical ways we can support the student. In

this one particular area. And friends if it's too much to do with

every single one of the mls in your school. Start really small.

Start with what's possible and doable for you. I recommended to a

colleague. A couple of months ago is at a conference. And I said,

hey, how about this? Start with maybe those students who, you

know, are going to be part of the mtss process and coming to tier

meetings in discussion of some significant learning needs that

they have. And you're going to be at that table. You're going to

be problem solving. What value would it have to bring this data to

that table and say, hey, here's what we're noticing on the

language end of things. Maybe just start with those students who

you know are going to be discussed. Among several colleagues.

Because those are students that you're going to need that

information as part of those conversations. Right. So if it's too

much to start with every single student that you work with, which

would be great. But.

We got to be realistic too. Yeah, very minimal. A few is

better than none. Right. So just start with a few and then you can

build from there. But I think what's important is that. We don't

become so overwhelmed that there's kind of a shutdown. Or

significant resistance to utilizing what really is such a valuable

tool. So that would be my

encouragement. No, that's really helpful. Just some next steps to

take, I think. It's so good. Narrow in on your grade level. Narrow

in on. One expressive would be easier to do a writing or a

speaking sample. And start there. So I love that. Thank you so

much, courtney, for sharing this with us. Tell my listeners where

they can find out more about

you. So I am at the all, no dashes or

anything. I'm also on Instagram and Facebook at the All Access

classroom. I have an online course that I love to invite teachers

into that kind of equips them to know how to provide accessible

instruction to our MLS. I would love to share if I may. Beth. A

couple of tools that I made specifically to help us understand the

plds a little bit better, kind of like a cheat sheet, if you will

little chart that I made and also. A form for tracking progress

across the four quarters of the school year. So maybe we can put

some links to that in the show notes. And. I might share this as

well. It's a Language Objectives guide. I think the pld resource

really can help to inform the language


that we utilize that align with our content objectives in the Gen.

Ed classroom. And I want to help equip my colleagues listening as

much as possible, so I'd like to share that as well. Yeah. So

come find

me. Come hang out.

We have fun. Courtney is just an incredible at breaking things

down, making super complicated things. Like plds something really

manageable. And Action steps forward. So thank you so much for

your time. And we will post all those links in the show notes

below. So go and check her out. Follow her. Send her a message on

Instagram. And learn more from courtney. Thank you so much for

joining us

today, courtney. Thank you, beth.

It's been fun. We will hopefully see you again.


Right. A

yearly thing.

All right, bye. For now. Oh, you did great. That was

so helpful.

My gosh. I put you

on a challenging one. I was

like, oh, I do not know

how to explain

this without. Reading like here is the interpretive.

Here we go. Across. So many of the words that

are related

to. This topic are like. Saying them all and putting them

together. What was it rhetoric or something? I was like, oh, no,

what was the word that you said

that I was like, oh,

Wow. Something that was like, I haven't used that word

in a long

time. But here's the thing. This is why I think you have. A gift

because. It's like all of these policymakers.