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Don’t look now – the CEFR is in your classroom

Getting your exam results

Working in language education, it’s quite hard to escape from the CEFR, or Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. It crops up in courses at language schools and in publishers textbooks. International testing bodies label their products as suitable for levels called A2, B1+, or C1.

Ministries of education around the world are vying with each other to set the most demanding targets for the percentage of school children who will reach B2 in the languages they study by the time they graduate. People applying for a Tier 2 visa to do skilled work in the UK need a B1 level certificate in English in reading, writing, speaking and listening. If looking for work using their German language skills, applicants might be asked by their future employer to demonstrate at least an A1 level for unskilled work, B1 for a service role, or C1 for a professional level job involving meetings and negotiations.

Although it’s clearly important that people involved in language education should have a good understanding of such an influential object, there seems to be a lot of confusion around where the CEFR comes from and even about what exactly it is. Let’s start with the first of those points. The CEFR is not a product of the European Union, but was developed by the Council of Europe, an entirely different organisation which is both older (it was founded in 1949) and much bigger (it has 47 member states, many of which are not EU members, including Norway, Russia and Turkey). Its mission includes protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law, promoting diversity, and combating discrimination against minorities. It has carried out successful campaigns among its members to end the death penalty and to support the rights of people with disabilities. Its work in language education involves promoting linguistic human rights and the teaching and learning of minority languages.

The Council of Europe and language education

As part of this work, the Council of Europe was pioneering in promoting one of the most revolutionary ideas in language education: the communicative approach. Instead of focussing (as teachers usually did before the 1970s) on what learners knew about a language – how many words or how much grammar – the Council of Europe focussed attention on what learners might actually want to do with the language they were learning – the activities they might need to carry out, and the ideas they might want to express. In 1975 the Council of Europe published Jan van Ek’s Threshold Level. This book defined a level (to become “B1” in the CEFR) that a language learner would need in order to be able to live independently for a while in a country where that language is spoken. In 2001 (the European year of languages) twenty-five years of further work involving extensive consultation with language teachers and academic experts culminated in the publication of the CEFR. This year, the Council of Europe has published a Companion Volume, available online that updates and expands on the original publication.

It is part of the Council of Europe’s educational philosophy that learners should be able to move easily between informal learning, schools, universities, and workplace training courses to pick up the practical skills that they need. Of course, doing this is much easier if everyone shares the same basic terms for talking about teaching and learning. If a ‘Beginner’ level class in school A is like an ‘Elementary’ level class in school B or a ‘Preliminary’ class in school C, and the ‘Starters’ book in textbook series X is like the ‘Grade 2’ book in series Y, life in the English classroom can soon get very confusing for the uninitiated. The CEFR provides a shared language to make it easier for teachers, learners, publishers, and testers to communicate across languages, educational sectors, and national boundaries.

School A School B School C
Beginner Elementary Preliminary

Table 1 shows the need for a shared ‘language’ for talking about levels.

Language learning levels, activities, and contexts

One contribution of the CEFR has been to provide terms for levels – running from Basic (pre-A1, A1 and A2), through Independent (B1 and B2) up to Proficient (C1 and C2) – that are defined in terms of what learners at each level can do with the language they are learning.  For example, at the A1 level a learner, ‘can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where he/she lives and people he/she knows’, but at B2 ‘can present clear, detailed descriptions on a wide range of subjects related to his/her field of interest’.

CEFR level A1 CEFR level B2
‘can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where he/she lives and people he/she knows’ ‘can present clear, detailed descriptions on a wide range of subjects related to his/her field of interest’

Table 2 gives examples of what students ‘can do’ at two CEFR levels.

Although levels are important, they are only a small part of what the CEFR offers. In fact, the Council of Europe suggests that levels are too reductive and that it is better to consider learners and learning in terms of profiles of abilities. For example, learners may be very effective speakers and listeners (B2 level), but struggle with the written language (A2 level). The CEFR does not follow the traditional “four skills model” of Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking, but divides language use activities into reception, interaction, production and mediation. The framework also considers the contexts in which people use languages, recognising that learning a language to keep in touch with one’s grandparents is rather different (and suggests a different skills profile) from learning in order to pursue a career in Engineering.

Describing and explaining, not prescribing or imposing 

The CEFR is not a test or a syllabus, it is not limited to the learning of indigenous “European” languages and it does not set out what learners should learn. There is no consensus view on what should be learned or what methods should be used and the CEFR is not a recipe book that recommends or requires its users to adopt a certain teaching method. Educational objectives and standards will inevitably differ according to the target language and the learning context; teaching methods will vary according to the local educational culture. What the CEFR does offer is sets of key questions that encourage educators to think about, describe and explain why they choose to learn, teach or test a language in the way that they do. As part of this process, they are encouraged to question their current aims and methods, but selectivity, flexibility and pluralism are seen to be essential. Users choose only those parts of the CEFR scheme that are seen to be relevant in their context. If the illustrative descriptions in the CEFR are not suitable for a particular group, it is clear that they are free to develop alternative descriptions that work better for them – and the CEFR suggests ways of doing just that. Indeed, the new Companion Volume brings together many of the Can-Do descriptors that have been developed since 2001 to fill gaps and expand the scope of the CEFR descriptive scheme.

If you think it’s time you found out more about the CEFR and Companion Volume and how they affect your work, visit the CEFR website to learn more.


Professor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. He has published widely on language assessment and is a former President of the International Language Testing Association (ILTA). His most recent book Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (Routledge, 2014) provides trainee teachers and others with an introduction to this field. Professor Green’s main research interests concern relationships between language assessment, teaching and learning.


Further reading

Need further support, or just want to learn more about language assessment? We recommend that you take a look at these two titles: ‘Language Assessment for Classroom Teachers‘, and ‘Focus on Assessment‘.


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Getting more out of your classroom tests Q&A

English language testingThank you to everyone who attended the webinar ‘Get more out of classroom tests’! I talked about how teachers can make more effective use of tests in the classroom (as well as other forms of assessment) as ways of improving learning. I suggested that we need…

  1. to help learners to see the connections between testing and real language use inside and outside the classroom
  2. to explore why learners get some questions right and others wrong; how their current performance compares to successful performance; what they understand and what they need help with to improve
  3. to work with learners to improve their performance and make progress towards their goals

Some very interesting questions came up during the webinar and I’ll do my best to answer them here.

Caterina B asked about how we should pair or group students to work together to discuss questions: should they all be a similar level of ability?

This is a difficult question to answer without knowing the particular group of students. It can be good to group or pair students who are at a similar level. In this case, they may all tend to get the same number of questions right or wrong and it is unlikely that one student will know more answers than the others and do all the work for the group. If all the students feel they are at the same level, they may be more willing to discuss their answers. On the other hand, it can also be challenging for a more successful student to explain why a certain answer is correct – and motivating for the other students to learn from a friend. As with all the ideas I suggested, why not try different combinations and find the one that works best for you?

Maria A D O asked which age groups might be suitable for the teaching strategies I was presenting.

You may be surprised to know that many of these ideas come from primary school classrooms with children of five years old, or even younger. Of course, at that age, children may need more help with learning how to set goals and discuss answers. You might like to visit Shirley Clarke’s website to see some children from my part of the world getting involved in these kinds of activities. Of course, there is no upper limit. University students and other adult learners can also benefit greatly from setting goals, assessing themselves and each other, and monitoring their own progress.

Ruzanna V asked how we can teach classes where individual students all set different individual goals.

One possibility would be to ask the class to arrive at an agreed set of shared goals. This can be a good way of getting them to think about why they are learning a language and promoting discussion (especially if they can do this in the target language: maybe you could give them useful words and expressions to help). Another possibility, although more difficult for the teacher to manage, would be to allow different groups of students to work in class on different activities. One group chooses and reads one book; another group chooses a different book or does some writing instead; a third group practices giving presentations. It is a technique I’ve used often and it can work well with children of different ages, but the students usually need to be trained to do it in small steps.

I was also asked to recommend some further reading.

The British Council has a short article by Deborah Bullock on assessment for learning with links to more detailed resources: www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/assessment-learning


Professor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. He has published widely on language assessment and is a former President of the International Language Testing Association (ILTA). His most recent book Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (Routledge, 2014) provides trainee teachers and others with an introduction to this field. Professor Green’s main research interests concern relationships between language assessment, teaching, and learning.


Further reading

Need further support, or just want to learn more about language assessment? We recommend that you take a look at these two titles: ‘Language Assessment for Classroom Teachers‘, and ‘Focus on Assessment‘.


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Enabling students to become autonomous learners of vocabulary

Teaching words

I taught English as a Foreign Language for many years in Japan and also for a short time in China. During my time as a teacher I always tried to focus on teaching words. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, in my experience as a foreign language learner, I saw the value in learning vocabulary. Learning words helped me to communicate a little bit more effectively, and allowed me to understand a little bit more. Moreover, I found vocabulary learning to be motivating. I might not see the gains that I made in speaking, listening, and grammar, but I could see that I knew more words each week, and this encouraged me to keep studying. Second, I could see that my students always made an effort to learn vocabulary; in every class as I walked around the classroom I could see that students had written new words in their books.

Despite my best efforts to teach vocabulary, I was always a little disappointed by the progress of my students. However, now that I have a better understanding of the research on vocabulary learning, I realise that I was part of the problem; I could have done a better job helping my students to learn vocabulary.

There are too many words to teach!

In my webinar, I will talk about several issues that I believe are really important to teaching and learning vocabulary. The first and basis for the talk is the fact that there are far too many words to teach. Native speakers of English know about 15,000 words, and to understand books and newspapers, students need to know around 8,000-9,000 words. Students may only learn a small proportion of these words in the classroom, which means that if they are to be successful in their lexical development, they need to learn the majority of words on their own outside of the classroom. This means that one of the most important jobs for teachers is to help their students to become effective and efficient autonomous learners of vocabulary.

Vocabulary learning strategies

There are several vocabulary learning strategies that instructors can teach to help their students to become more effective and efficient autonomous learners. All of these strategies are fairly simple, which is perhaps why typically little classroom time is spent on mastering vocabulary learning strategies. However, because of their great importance, it is worth spending a great deal of classroom time ensuring that students can effectively learn words on their own.

I will touch on a couple of vocabulary learning strategies in my webinar. The most important one involves working with different types of input that students might encounter outside of the classroom to show students that they can understand and enjoy English on their own. Input that students might be motivated to learn from such as English television programs, YouTube videos, shopping sites, and songs. Initially a great deal of these types of L2 input may be too difficult for students. However, with support from teachers over a sufficient period of time, students may find that not only can they have reasonable comprehension of the input, but they might also see that they can enjoy learning with it. Essential to this strategy is showing students that there are opportunities to enjoy learning English outside of the classroom, and how making the most of these opportunities is fundamental to L2 development. With teaching vocabulary learning strategies, it is not what is gained during the classroom that is of greatest value, but rather what is gained when students are encountering and using English outside of the classroom that is key.

In my upcoming webinar, I look forward to discussing with you how to help students become autonomous learners of L2 vocabulary. I believe there are some useful points in my webinar that would have helped me do a better job of helping my students to learn vocabulary when I was an EFL teacher. Hopefully there will be some value in the talk for each of you.

Register for the webinar


Stuart Webb is a Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Western Ontario. Before teaching applied linguistics, he taught English as a foreign language in Japan and China for many years. His research interests include vocabulary, second language acquisition, and extensive reading, listening, and viewing. His latest book (with Paul Nation), How Vocabulary is Learned was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

 


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Myths and Legends EFL teaching resources | OUP

Myths and Legend resources

Inspire your students with our free Myths and Legends lesson packs

Wherever you travel in the world, you will find people telling stories of their homelands, families, landscapes, histories, and much more besides. They are a part of every culture on the planet and many of these stories have been passed down through many generations.

Nowadays, you’re more likely to find characters from old tales in a hugely popular blockbuster movie, than being told about them around a fireside. Indeed, they were originally told to entertain, but that’s not all. Myths and legends were used to teach lessons; often about dangers, different cultures, and deciphering between right and wrong.

As educational tools, they’re great for language learning! Thankfully there are plenty of them, as learners really do find them captivating and worthy of classroom discussion. It’s a great way to get students talking!

Don’t worry, you don’t have to go hunting around for some old myths or legends yourself, we’ve partnered with teacher trainer Charlotte Rance to do all of that hard work for you. Download your free Myths and Legends lesson packs, available now from the Oxford Teacher’s Club!*

Inside your free lesson pack, you’ll find:

  • Myths and Legends to contextualise language
  • Vocabulary organisers
  • Diamante poem outline
  • Reading activities
  • Mythology worksheets

Choose your lesson pack below to get started.

Young learner button

 

 

Teenage learner button

 

 

Adult learner button

 

 


Had a legendary lesson with these resources? Share your experiences with the teaching community by leaving a comment below, or by Tweeting us using the handle @OUPELTGlobal.


*Not a member of the Oxford Teacher’s Club? It only take and moment to join, and it gives you access to a wide range of free-to-use online teaching resources!


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Discovering IATEFL | Brighton 2018

 

Panoramic view of Signature talk at IATEFL 2018

From the moment I heard the heavy guitar intro to ‘Whole Lotta Loveit was obvious I was listening to something markedly different, a formidable rock band. But it wasn’t until many years later that I truly got into Led Zeppelin.

I don’t know why it took so long after those first notes, but my ears, indeed my soul, thanks me today for it. I listen to LZ now as if they are a new band. Such as it was for me at IATEFL 2018, because even though the conference is legendary, and despite my twenty-plus years in ELT, this year’s event was my first. I’m appreciative now that I hadn’t attended before as it was a ‘shot in the arm’ that revitalised my passion for education, and at times it felt like I was attending a live music festival.

This year OUP Turkey sent a team (including myself) over to Brighton for IATEFL 2018. Collectively we attended hundreds of sessions. In the evenings at dinner, and the following mornings at breakfast, conversations flowed fast and free about what we’d seen, and what the day’s coming plans were. Some of us ‘jig-sawed’ our schedules to cram as many of the seemingly endless selection of enticing sessions in as we could.

The presenters at IATEFL were great, I always left the room with a meaningful takeaway. In some cases, my own pedagogical paradigm shifted – that’s saying something for an ‘old dog’ like me. The SIGs were of special interest to me, and Monday’s tech group alone was worth the trip from Istanbul, providing those of us with a bird’s eye view (through Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift for example) into the future of education (which made clearer more than ever that the future is fast upon us). But to me, even technology could not reach as deeply to my educator’s core than the human value of the SIG SEN (Special Education Needs).

If you are like me, I would bet that within a few seconds of meeting its president Varinder Unlu you’d realise just how important this special group is. For example, on Tuesday I attended Marie Delaney’s presentation on Teaching Students with Behavioural Difficulties, when it was finished all I could mutter to myself was, “Wow”. We most certainly need more voices like theirs in education, and I hope future conferences will reflect this. In my job I work with teachers extensively and can unequivocally say there is a strong need and demand from them for expert assistance in ELT from groups such as the SIG SEN.

Christopher Sheen at IATEFL 2018Other IATEFL sessions were also impactful. It’s doubtful anyone can dispute the plenaries generated meaningful discussions that lasted well beyond their presentation time. Also impressive was the Pecha Kucha performances, those too were a first for me. The presenters were fantastic but the show-stopper was Lexical Leo – he brought the house down!

From the welcoming receptions at the publishers’ booths to the freely provided glorious black fuel (coffee of course!), the support staff were A+. It was also my first time in Brighton and I hope it’s not my last. A big thank you goes out to the host city, the organisers of IATEFL, and to all of our new friends who made this feel, at least for me in some way, like I had been to a Led Zeppelin concert.

See you next year in Liverpool!

Christopher Sheen, Teacher Trainer and PD Coordinator, OUP Turkey


Christopher Sheen is a full-time Teacher Trainer and Coordinator with Oxford University Press, based in Istanbul. For more than 20 years he has engaged in all types of learner profiles in the ELT field, in North America, Asia, and since 2014 in Turkey. Before joining OUP Turkey he was the lead trainer in Japan’s largest language company in addition to being a full-time English instructor in the largest university in western Japan. He has a keen interest in class dynamics, student ownership and CPD programs.