Friday, October 19, 2012

Understanding Proficiency Levels Using an Ice Cream Cone Analogy


I suspect that proficiency levels are the “most talked about” of the scores provided by the ACCESS for ELLs score reports.  However, many of us have a hard time explaining the levels to people outside our field.  In today’s post, I will share with you my favorite analogy – the ice cream cone.  

During workshops, I have been known to actually draw this image free hand.  It isn’t very pretty! The “homemade” image of the ice cream cone diagram below is much nicer.  

As we all know, you don’t need a lot of ice cream to fill the bottom tip of an ice cream cone.  You also don’t need a lot of language to “fill up” the first level of English proficiency or to move from a 1.0 English language proficiency (ELP) level to a 2.0 ELP level.   Also, you need more ice cream to fill up the top part of the cone than you need to fill up the bottom part of the cone.  This is similar to how students’ move from  one ELP level to the next. That is, you need more language to “fill up” the levels the higher you go on the cone.  Let me explain.

According to the WIDA Performance Definitions  (see pages 8-9 of the 2012 Amplification), ELLs at a level 1 (Entering) can “produce single words, phrases and chunks of language” in English.  They can “process simple grammatical constructions, and comprehend and use general social and instructional words and expressions.”  Students at a level 2 (Emerging) can “process multiple related simple sentences and produce phrases and short sentences” in English.  They can also use “formulaic structures and understand repetitive sentence patterns across content areas.”  The amount of English language represented in those descriptions is similar to the amount of ice cream it takes to reach the lines I drew on our ice cream cone.    

Now let’s skip up to level 4 (Expanding).  Students at this level can “process connected discourse with a variety of sentences and complex grammatical constructions” in English.  They can understand and use “specific and some technical content area language.”  However, students at a level 5 (Bridging) can “process rich descriptive discourse with complex sentences and a broad range of sentence patterns. “ They can also “produce their ideas in an organized, cohesive and coherent manner using technical and abstract content-area language, including words and expressions with shades of meaning.”  To go from a level 4 to a level 5 represents more growth in English than going from a level 1 to a level 2.  

This is the key to understanding proficiency levels.  Each level represents more English language development than the level below it.  Therefore, it is common for students to move through the first levels of English language proficiency quickly.  But the higher you go (in grade level and in ELP level) the longer it will take you to move to the next level.  As Gary Cook says “lower is faster and higher is slower.”  If you would like to read more about this, check out WIDA's Focus on Growth bulletin. 

5/7/13- Updated second picture

Written by: Tammy King


  1. What a great analogy - I think this will help enormously when I am explaining to parents, as well as to my colleagues, why it seems to take so long for kids to reach level 6!

  2. Tammy King showed this @ a workshop and I have already used to explain why students who seemed to have been doing "just fine" in 1st grade are struggling in 3rd. Thanks Tammy for this useful tool!

    1. Dear VRG, I am so glad to hear that this was helpful. Let me know if there are other topics you'd like to see appear in a blog post.