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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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How 100 teachers helped to build the Common European Framework

Glyn Jones is a freelance consultant in language learning and assessment and a PhD student at Lancaster University in the UK. In the past he has worked as an EFL teacher, a developer of CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) methods and materials, and – most recently – as a test developer and researcher for two international assessment organisations.

One day in 1994 a hundred English teachers attended a one-day workshop in Zurich, where they watched some video recordings of Swiss language learners performing communicative tasks. Apart from the size of the group, of course, there was nothing unusual about this activity. Teachers often review recordings of learners’ performances, and for a variety of reasons. But what made this particular workshop special was that it was a stage in the development of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

The teachers had already been asked to assess some of their own students. They had done this by completing questionnaires made up of CAN DO statements. Each teacher had chosen ten students and, for each of these, checked them against a list of statements such as “Can describe dreams, hopes and ambitions” or “Can understand in detail what is said to him/her in the standard spoken language”. At the workshop the teachers repeated this process, but this time they were all assessing the same small group of learners (the ones performing in the video recordings).

These two procedures provided many hundreds of teacher judgments. By analysing these, the researchers who conducted the study, Brian North and Günther Schneider, were able to discover how the CAN DO statements work in practice, and so to place them relative to each other on a numerical scale. This scale was to become the basis of the now familiar six levels, A1 to C2, of the CEFR.

This is one of the strengths of the CEFR. Previous scales had been constructed by asking experts to allocate descriptors to levels on the basis of intuition. The CEFR scale was the first to be based on an analysis of the way the descriptors work when they are actually used, with real learners.

For my PhD study I am replicating part of this ground-breaking research.

Why replicate, you might ask?

Firstly, thanks to the Internet I can reach teachers all over the world, whereas North and Schneider were restricted to one country (for good reasons).

Secondly, my study focusses on Writing. This is the skill for which there were the fewest descriptors in the original research (which focussed on Speaking) and which is least well described in the CEFR as a result.

Thirdly, I am including in my study some of the new descriptors which have been drafted recently in order to fill gaps in the CEFR in order to scale these along with the original descriptors. In short, as well as contributing to the validation of the CEFR, I will be helping to extend it.

If you teach English to adult or secondary-age learners, you could help with this important work. As with the original research, I’m asking teachers to use CAN DO statements to assess some of their learners, and to assess some samples of other learners’ performance (of Writing, this time, not Speaking).

If you might like to participate, please visit my website https://cefrreplication.jimdo.com/ where you can register for the project. From then on everything is done online and at times that suit you. You can also drop me a line there if you would like to find out more.


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‘Mind the gap’ – Supporting students beyond Intermediate

Robin Walker, freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer, looks at ways of supporting students who are beyond Intermediate but not yet ready for Upper Intermediate level. Robin discussed this topic in his webinar on 20th February, entitled ‘Mind the gap’ – Helping your students to cross the intermediate threshold with confidence. View the recording here.

When I started teaching English in the early 1980s, adult coursebooks from all of the leading publishers ran to three or four levels – Beginner, Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced. This 4-level learning was a reflection of the limited strength of the then emerging ELT publishing industry, rather than the reality for the learner in the English language classroom, and inevitably there was a gap between what was available and what learners needed.

To bridge the gap that most students encountered between the four ‘official’ levels, one of the strategies we used as teachers was to change publishers. If a group was struggling at Elementary level and wasn’t ready to go on to Intermediate, for example, we would look around for an Elementary-level coursebook from another publisher. This worked up to a point, but often brought with it the disadvantage of changing from a style that learners had become used to, and which generated a sense of security, to a style that was new and that provoked different reactions from different students.

The new style was not necessarily better or worse, but it definitely felt different. For the more adventurous students this unfamiliarity often acted as a stimulus, and they took to the new book with few if any problems, and, initially at least, with genuine enthusiasm. But the learners in a group that were less sure of themselves (and who were usually the students that were finding it difficult to move up to the next level), would often tell you that they liked the old book better, and would even ask if it wasn’t possible to repeat the year with the same book.

Another problem with trying to bridge the gap with a coursebook from a different publisher was that the new book, quite correctly, assumed that the users were coming to the level for the first time. There is no reason to write a coursebook aimed at learners who have been using materials from a competing publisher. The only possible strategy is to assume that students adopting a coursebook at a given level, will be arriving at that level after successfully completing the previous one with a book from the same series.

The outcome of this situation in class was that material would, logically, be presented to learners as if they had never seen it before. This wasn’t the case, of course, and students often lost motivation when they embarked upon a unit that presented an area of language that they had already studied only the year before. I can clearly remember a strong sense of We’ve already done this! invading the classroom during these ‘repeat’ years.

As the teacher, I knew only too well that the group needed to go back to the language areas in question in order to, on the one hand, consolidate any previous learning, and, on the other, successfully cover what the class had demonstrably failed to learn the year before. In general, it takes a lot of skill to overcome the demotivating effect of going back in order to go forward, and often the new coursebook ends up being supplemented by original materials provided by the teacher. This is a solution that a) raises the question as to why the students have been required to buy a book they seldom use, and b) eats up serious amounts of a conscientious teacher’s free time.

Over the intervening 30 years since I began teaching, major coursebooks have expanded from running at three or four levels, to offering teachers and learners five or even six levels. The Common European Framework of Reference, whose influence has extended way beyond the shores of even the widest concept of Europe, started off with six levels, from A1 to C2, although the use of the ‘+’ sign to generate even more precise gradings is increasingly common. Theoretically, we can now talk about a 12-level system that progresses from A1 through A1+ to A2, and then on to A2+, and so on.

Although it is interesting to be able to refer to individual students with this almost mathematical precision, it is not feasible in practical terms to run a language school with as many as twelve different levels. In that respect, the six levels from Beginner to Advanced, the current default system in many private and public ELT institutions, constitute a strong basic structure. The progression from one level to another, whilst not without its problems, is realistic and generally motivating for learners.

There is, however, one level where again and again learners seem to struggle, and this is the step up from Intermediate to Upper-Intermediate. This is a critical step for many learners, and handled badly, it can lead to them becoming demotivated, and even abandoning their studies.

Learners abandoning English is a highly undesirable outcome. But as we saw at the beginning of this blog, neither changing publishers to repeat at the same level nor repeating at the intermediate level with the same coursebook, are very adequate solutions. Just as inadequate is the strategy of pushing Intermediate learners into an Upper-Intermediate class and hoping they’ll survive if we give them enough support.

The fact is that if we are really going to ‘Mind The Gap’ that Intermediate students face, what is needed is an Intermediate Plus coursebook. This will be a coursebook that:

a) is from the same publisher as the book the group used at intermediate level,

but that:

b) tackles material from this level in fresh and engaging ways.

This is precisely why OUP and authors Christina Latham-Koenig and Clive Oxenden and co-author Mike Boyle have created English File Intermediate Plus. In my webinar on 20th February I’ll be looking at this especially in terms of grammar, vocabulary, listening and speaking, four key areas for learners hoping to progress to Upper-Intermediate.


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Six levels, six stages – in sixty minutes

How is the ‘Can Do’ ethos of Headway linked to the aims of our students and the CEFR bands? Stacey Hughes will be exploring this question in the webinar: “Six Levels, Six Stages – in Sixty Minutes” on 28th November 2013 at 9:30 and 15:00 (GMT).

In the past, learning a language involved learning more about language than learning to do things with the language. What pedagogical issues does this shift in focus raise? How does it link to student expectations in the kinds of tasks we set for them?

The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) focuses on what students are able to do at different levels; in other words, what they are able to talk and write about and what they are able to understand from reading or listening. It is this focus on what learners can do with language – how they can effectively use language for communication – that Headway brings into its activities.

When aiming to help students achieve their learning goals, we also need to consider who our learners are and what are they learning English for. What kinds of activities and topics can course books utilize that will improve students’ ability to communicate effectively in a language? How can we extend this learning outside of the classroom?

These are some of the issues we will explore in the webinar. Using some of the CEFR level descriptors, we will identify language skills from six different level bands. We will also look at Headway’s approach to learning and see how it links to the practical application principles in these descriptors.

As teachers, we know that students gradually build up proficiency. However, students need frequent, reachable goals to see their progress. They also need to see the connection between what they are doing in a course and how it is useful for them in using the language. This webinar will show teachers how they can join the dots between activities in Headway with ‘Can Do’ objectives.

Register for the webinar now.

Webinar times


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Benchmarking your curriculum to the CEFR

Teacher and students in classMeghan Beler is a full-time teacher trainer for Oxford University Press in Istanbul, Turkey. In this article, she gives an overview of the Common European Framework of Reference and explains why it is useful as a benchmarking tool.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR) is a document created by the Council of Europe – Language Policy Division and has become the standard for measuring language competency in Europe and in many countries across the world. It has increasingly been used as a tool for benchmarking national curricula and language certificates1. The CEFR measures language ability at six levels: A1 (Beginners), A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2 (Language Mastery). It is designed to describe how language users communicate and how they understand written and spoken texts. Each level describes what a learner ‘can do’ in relation to a specific communicative competency and scales for each competency are broken down into individual level-specific descriptors, for example:

Overall Reading Comprehension, Level B2:

Can read with a large degree of independence, adapting style and speed of reading to different texts and purposes, and using appropriate reference sources selectively. Has a broad active reading vocabulary, but may experience some difficulty with low frequency idioms2.

How can the CEFR be used?

The CEFR is NOT a set of rules or a teaching methodology to be strictly adhered to. The scales and descriptors are designed to serve as a basis for curricula to be built upon and may need to be adapted and expanded upon depending on your unique teaching and learning context. The European Language Portfolio3, a useful tool for learners to record their language learning experiences and achievements, provides additional support for institutions benchmarking their curricula to the CEFR.

Why do we use the CEFR?

The CEFR was created for the purposes of having a universal scale with which to measure learners’ communicative competences. Throughout the world, educators may have different views about what an upper-intermediate student, for example, should be able to do. The CEFR helps educators to break down these boundaries and ambiguities between institutions and learning contexts. By benchmarking your own institutional curriculum to the CEFR, you are able to provide a clear set of standards for describing language ability that are mutually recognizable across time and contexts. It also serves as a way to plan transparent and realistic learning objectives and map learners’ progression.

1 The Council of Europe – Language Policy Division (http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/cadre_en.asp)
2Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment (CEFR), p. 69.
3The European Language Portfolio (http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/elp/)

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