Assessing Literary Interpretation Skills
Sylvie Debevec Henning
Along with other foreign lan-
guage colleagues, the author has been par-
ticipating in a comprehensive assessment proj-
ect. Having accepted the principle of assessment
based on proficiency rather than fact-acquisition
for the four language skills, the group tried to
apply the same principle to literary interpreta-
tion. ACTFL has no rating scale in this area, so
the author undertook to elaborate one.
The four levels of the author's scale are based
on a graduated arrangement of interpretive ac-
tivities, each composed of an action and a textual
or contextual component. Since literary inter-
pretation requires strong reading comprehen-
sion, the novice level presupposes an intermedi-
ate-high level of reading comprehension. The
notional components are sequenced from the
specific and concrete to the general and abstract
(e.g., from plot events to temporal structures).
They are also arranged to move readers out of a
self-oriented (biographical) perspective into a
more world-oriented one (e.g., from character
description to the work's relation to its socio-
cultural or historical contexts). Finally, the com-
ponents are increasingly self-conscious. The
functions progress from recognizing and distin-
guishing through describing to understanding
and finally to analyzing critically. The same
textual/contextual component may appear at
several levels, each time, however, matched with
a different action.
The group is here concerned with the assess-
ment of interpretive proficiency, not coverage.
Consequently, the focus is on literary com-
ponents that can be used to interpret any work,
both as a coherent textual structure and as an ele-
ment in larger contextual frameworks.
Along with other foreign language colleagues
from five branches of SUNY, I participated in a
project,' 'Comprehensive Assessment in Discip-
lines," headed by E. Thomas Moran of SUNY-
Plattsburgh and funded by FIPSE. Our goal, as
stated by Moran, was to "devise assessment
strategies that identify comprehensive learning
and development" for students majoring in
foreign languages and that could serve as' 'alter-
natives to existing nationally standardized tests."
The project considered' 'student assessment not
in a narrow and technical sense that simply
denotes testing," but rather as "any methods
that provide educationally relevant informa-
tion" about student learning (6, pp. 6-7).
Sylvie Debevec Henning
(Ph.D., Case Western Reserve
University) is Professor of French and Chair of the Depart-
ment of Foreign Languages and Literature at State Univer-
sity of New York, Plattsburgh.
We decided to assess six skills fundamental to
foreign language study: oral proficiency, writing,
reading comprehension, listening comprehen-
sion, cultural awareness and literary interpreta-
tion. Our emphasis on skills does not mean that
we neglect content; content "mastery" is
measured within the context of skills. It does,