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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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Making Good Tests

Teacher and two students

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Larry Zwier shares some thoughts about his upcoming webinar, Making Good Tests. Larry is a series consultant for Q: Skills for Success, the author of Inside Reading 2, and an Associate Director at Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan, USA), where many of his duties involve making tests, administering them, and evaluating their effectiveness.

Students often talk about test anxiety. Some say they freeze up and can’t show what they really know because they’re “not good at taking tests.” Teachers may experience their own form of test anxiety. A teacher may feel completely confident in handling a classroom, presenting material, directing students in individual and group work, and so on, yet that same teacher may freeze up when assessment time rolls around. On February 6, I’ll present a webinar about getting past that freeze-up stage and writing good tests.

Specifically, I’ll make reference to using material from OUP’s series, Q: Skills for Success. I know that series intimately. I am one of the series consultants, and I was in on the discussions from the very start about what Q should be and how it should play in the classroom. Part of that “classroom role” aspect involves testing. How should we assess whether students are understanding the passages (reading or listening), picking up the vocabulary, and developing the language skills we practice? What feedback can we give students that will boost their performance in the future?

In the first part of the webinar, I’ll tell participants how to take advantage of testing materials already prepared for Q by Oxford University Press. These come in various packages – via CD and online – and I’ll explain how to get them and use them. In the second part of the webinar, I’ll approach a somewhat tougher topic: How to write good tests on your own.

Of course, testing is a huge topic and we could spend dozens of hours discussing it. I’m going to keep the webinar basic and practical. Issues I’ll address include:

  • What’s my testing goal (fluency/accuracy, syntax/lexis, main ideas/details, etc.)?
  • What are the stakes?
  • What format will work best in my classroom circumstances?
  • How can I identify good points to test in a reading / listening passage
  • I’m a teacher, not a cognitive scientist. How can I know whether a test is good?

I look forward to the webinar—a great chance for me to interact with colleagues from around the world.


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Designing Good Tests: Principles Into Practice

Keith Morrow is the editor of ELT Journal and has worked in language testing for many years. He was involved in developing some of the first ‘communicative’ language tests, and is currently working as a consultant to testing projects in Austria and Luxembourg. Keith hosted a Global Webinar ‘Designing Good Tests: Principles Into Practice’ on January 12th and will be repeating it on January 31st. You can find out more information and register to attend here.

Testing goes on in almost every educational institution in the world, and is familiar to both teachers and students. “On Thursday we’ll have a vocabulary test”.  “I want to get good marks in the end-of-year exams”.

Despite this, teacher training programmes often pay very little attention to the role, purpose, and nature of testing in the classroom. As a result many teachers feel insecure about the principles and practice of testing, and so they put together tests based on what they have always done – or just use tests from published sources.

Do you see a little bit of yourself in this description? Would like to find out more about some background ideas in testing?

For example, what is testing? Is it the same as assessment)? Why do we test? To help the students or to frighten them? Is it a carrot or a stick? How is a test made? What are the different forms a test might take? What are the different focuses a language test might have? And most importantly, of course, how can we design better tests in our own context and for our own purposes?

These are some of the areas we will be looking at in my webinar on 31st January. Please come and join me, to meet colleagues from all over the world online, and to have a chance to share ideas and insights about testing.

After the webinar on this topic that I gave earlier this month, there were a lot of questions that I didn’t have time to answer online. So here are some quick thoughts on some of them.

Can the selected response task test both elements of language and communicative skills?

A multiple-choice test can be a good way of finding out what students know. But finding out what students can do is rather more difficult. If you are thinking of communicative skills in terms of production (speaking and writing), I think you have to see how well they can actually speak or write. And you can’t do that with multiple choice.

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