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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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Assessment for the Language Classroom – Q&A Session

proofreading for English language students in EAPProfessor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. He is a Past  President of the International Language Testing Association (ILTA). He has published on language assessment and in his most recent book Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (Routledge, 2014) provides teachers with an introduction to this field. Professor Green’s main research interests are teaching, learning, and assessment. Today, we share some of the questions and answers asked of Tony during his recent webinar, Assessment for the Language Classroom.

 

Should placement tests be given without students’ doing any preparation so that we can see their natural level in English?

Ideally, placement tests should not need any special preparation. The format and types of question on the test should be straightforward so that all students can understand what they need to do.

How should the feedback from progress tests be given? Should we give it individually or work with the whole class?

It’s great if you have time for individual feedback, but working with the whole class is much more efficient. Of course good feedback does not usually just involve the teacher talking to the class and explaining things, but encouraging students to show how they think. Having students working together and teaching each other can often help them to understand concepts better.

Besides proficiency exams, are there any tools to compare the students’ level to the CEFR? How I can evaluate them according to the CEFR? For example, a B2 student should be able to do this and that.

One of the aims of the CEFR is to help teachers and students to understand their level without using tests. Students can use the CEFR to judge their own level, to see what people can use languages for at different levels of ability and to evaluate other peoples’ performance. The European Language Portfolio (http://www.coe.int/en/web/portfolio) is a great place to start looking for ideas on using the CEFR in the classroom.

Practice tests can be practice in class, where students are asked to practice with new points of language…right?

I think this kind of test would be what I called a progress test. Progress tests give students extra practice with skills or knowledge taught in class as well as checking that they have understood and can apply those skills.

Ideas for testing lesson progress?

Course books and their teachers’ guides have a lot of good suggestions and materials you can use for assessment. There are also some good resource books available with ideas for teachers. I would (of course) recommend my own book, Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (published by Routledge) and (a bit more theoretical) Focus On Assessment by Eunice Jang, published by Oxford University Press.

Why does level B1 always take a longer time to teach? I notice from the books we use…there is B1 and B1+.

The six CEFR levels A1 to C2 can be divided up into smaller steps. In the CEFR there are ‘plus’ levels at A2+, B1+ and B2+. In some projects I have worked on we have found it useful to make smaller steps – such as A1.1, A1.2, A1.3. Generally, real improvements in your language ability take longer as you progress. Thinking just about vocabulary, the difference between someone who knows no words and someone who knows 100 words of a language is very big: the person who knows a few words can do many more things with the language than the person who knows none. But the difference between someone who knows 5,000 words and the person who knows 5,100 words is tiny.

Could you please tell us more about assessment?

I’d love to! At the moment I am working with some colleagues around Europe on a free online course for teachers. Our project is called TALE and you can follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TALEonlinetrainingcourse/

What CEFR aligned placement test would you recommend?

The best placement test is the one that works most effectively for your students. I’m happy to recommend the Oxford Online Placement Test (OOPT), but whatever system you use, please keep a record of how often teachers and students report that a student seems to be in the wrong class. If you find one placement system is not very useful, do try to find a better one.

How reasonable is to place the keys to the tests in students books?

In the webinar I said that different tests have different purposes. If the test is for students to check their own knowledge, it would be strange not to provide the answers. If the test results are important and will be used to award grades or certificates, it would be crazy to give the students the answers!

Is cheating an issue with online placement tests?

Again, the answer is ‘it depends’. If cheating is likely to be a problem, security is needed. Online tests can be at least as secure as paper and pencil tests, but if it is a test that students can take at home, unsupervised, the opportunity to cheat obviously exists.

Could you please explain how adaptive comparative judgement tests work? Which students are to be compared?

Adaptive comparative judgement (ACJ) is a way of scoring performances on tests of writing and speaking. Traditionally, examiners use scales to judge the level of a piece of student work. For example, they read an essay, look at the scale and decide ‘I think this essay matches band 4 on the scale’.

ACJ involves a group of judges just comparing work produced by learners. Rather than giving scores on a predetermined scale, each judge looks at a pair of essays (or letters, or presentations etc.) and uses their professional judgement to decide which essay is the better of the two.

Each essay is then paired, and compared, with a different essay from another student. The process continues until each essay has been compared with several others. ACJ provides the technology for the rating of Speaking and Writing responses via multiple judgements. The results are very reliable and examiners generally find it easier to do than rating scales. Take a look at the website nomoremarking.com to learn more.

Besides the CEFR, what we can use to evaluate students in a more precise way?

See my answer to the last question for one interesting suggestion. A more traditional suggestion is working together with other teachers to agree on a rating scale to use with your students. Then have training sessions (where you compare the marks you each award to the same written texts or recordings of student work) to make sure you all understand and use the scale in the same way.

Can you suggest applications for correcting MCQ tests?

Online test resources like the ones at www.oxfordenglishtesting.com include automatic marking of tests. For making your own, one free online system I like is called Socrative.

How can placement tests be applied in everyday classrooms where they are split-level classes and students with disabilities learning together with others? What about people with some sort of disability/impairment (eg. dyslexia)

Sometimes there are good reasons to mix up learners of different levels within a class – and tests are not always the most suitable means of deciding which students should be in which class. Where learners have special needs, decisions about placement may involve professional judgement, taking into consideration the nature of their needs and the kinds of support available. In most circumstances placement should be seen as a provisional decision, if teachers and learners feel that one class is not suitable, moving to another class should be possible.

What about just giving a practice test before a major summative assessment at the end of a semester?

Yes, that seems a good idea. If students aren’t familiar with the test, they may perform poorly because they get confused by the instructions or misjudge the time available. Having a little practice is usually helpful.

If you missed Tony’s or any of our other PD webinars, why not explore our webinar library? We update our recordings regularly.


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Assessment for the Language Classroom – What’s on the menu?

shutterstock_271564088Professor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. Today, he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar Assessment for the Language Classroom.

What’s on the menu?

If there’s one topic in language education that’s guaranteed to get people worked up, it’s assessment. But, in truth, assessments are just tools. Like tools we use for other purposes, problems crop up when we use them to do things they aren’t designed for, when we lack the skills to operate them properly, or when they are poorly made. Knives are great tools for cutting bread, but are not so useful for eating soup. Some people are more skilled than others at using chopsticks, but chopsticks made of tissue paper are of no use to anyone.

“… different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses.”

Just like tools made to help us eat and drink, different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses. All assessments help us to find out what people know or can do with language, but they are designed to tap into different aspects of knowledge at different levels of detail.

Assessment ‘bread and butter’

The best known English language tests are the national examinations taken in many countries at the end of high school and international certificates, like the TOEFL© test, or Cambridge English examinations. For many students, these tests can seem make or break: they may need to pass to get into their chosen university or to get a job offer. Because of their importance, the tests have to be seen to be fair to everyone. Typically, all students answer the same questions within the same time frame, under the same conditions. The material used on the best of these tests takes years to develop. It is edited, approved and tried out on large numbers of students before it makes it into a real test.

‘Make or break’ testing

The importance of these tests also puts pressure on teachers to help their students to succeed. To do well, students need enough ability in English, but they also need to be familiar with the types of question used on the test and other aspects of test taking (such as the time restrictions). Taking two or three well-made practice tests (real tests from previous years, or tests that accurately copy the format and content of the real tests) can help students to build up this familiarity. Practice tests can show how well the students are likely to do on the real test. They don’t generally give teachers much other useful information because they don’t specifically target aspects of the language that students are ready to learn and most need to take in. Overuse of practice tests not only makes for dull and repetitive study, but can also be demotivating and counterproductive.

Home-cooked, cooked to order, or ready-made?

“What’s good for one [exam] purpose is not general good for another.”

When teachers make tests for their classes, they sometimes copy the formats used in the ‘big’ tests, believing that because they are professionally made, they must be good. Sadly, what’s good for one purpose (for example, judging whether or not a student has the English language abilities needed for university study) is not generally good for another (for example, judging whether or not a student has learnt how to use there is and there are to talk about places around town, as taught in Unit 4).

Many EFL text books include end-of-unit revision activities, mid-course progress tests and end-of-course achievement tests. These can be valuable tools for teachers and students to use or adapt to help them to keep track of progress towards course goals. When used well, they provide opportunities to review what has been learnt, additional challenges to stretch successful learners and a means of highlighting areas that need further learning and practice. Research evidence shows that periodic revision and testing helps students to retain what they have learnt and boosts their motivation.

Getting the right skills

Like chefs in the kitchen or diners using chopsticks, teachers and students need to develop skills in using assessments in the classroom. The skills needed for giving big tests (like a sharp eye to spot students cheating) are not the same as those needed for classroom assessment (like uncovering why students gave incorrect answers to a question and deciding what to do about this). Unfortunately, most teacher training doesn’t prepare language teachers very well to make, or (even more importantly) use assessments in the classroom. Improving our understanding of this aspect of our professional practice can help to bring better results and make language learning a more positive experience.

In the webinar on 16 and 17 February, I’ll be talking about the different kinds of assessment that teachers and students can use, the purposes we use them for, the qualities we should look for in good assessments and the skills we need to use them more effectively. Please feel free to ask Anthony questions in the comments below.

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References:
Green, A.B. (2014) Exploring Language Assessment and Testing. Abingdon Oxon: Routledge: Introductory Textbooks for Applied Linguistics.


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Assessment in the mixed-ability classroom

Student looking confused

Erika Osvath is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer. She joins us on the blog ahead of her webinar ‘Mixed-ability teaching: Assessment and feedback’, to preview the session and topics she will explore.

One of greatest challenges facing teachers of mixed-ability classes is assessment, especially in contexts where uniformly administered tests and giving grades are part of the requirements of the educational system.

These forms of assessment, however, tend to lead to unfair results. They are like holding a running event where participants set off from a different spot on the track. Naturally, in each case the distance covered and the rate of progress will depend on individual abilities. It is easy to imagine that there may be several students who cover the same distance within the given period of time, putting in the same amount of effort, but will be awarded with different grades for their performance. This can be extremely disheartening to them and may easily result in lack of motivation to learn.

Also, students tend to interpret their grades competitively, comparing their own performance to the others in the group, which, again, leads to anxiety and low self-esteem, becoming an obstacle to further improvement. The gap between learners, therefore, is very likely to increase, making learning and teaching ever more difficult.

We, teachers, are therefore challenged to find different forms of assessment within this framework, where all students achieve the best they can without feeling penalized, but continue to remain motivated and invested in their learning.

Self-assessment and continuous assessment are crucial in the mixed-ability classroom as they

  • give learners the opportunity to reflect on their individual results,
  • give learners information on what they need to improve in in smaller and manageable chunks
  • help learners draw up action plans that suit their language level and learning preferences
  • inform the teacher about their teaching and about their individual students.

Let’s look at a few practical examples.

My own test
Students write one test question for themselves at the end of every lesson based on what they have studied. You may need to give students a few examples of such questions initially. At the end of the term students are invited to sit down with the teacher to look back at all these questions and use them as the basis for checking and discussing their progress. Alternatively, depending on the age and the type of students in your class, they can be paired up to do the same thing. With this technique it is interesting that learning takes place when the question is written, not when it is answered.

A practical way of providing students with the opportunity to go through the same test at their own pace and have time to reflect and re-learn is the Test-box technique.

Test-box
Make several copies of the end-of-unit tests and cut them up, so that each exercise is on a separate piece of paper. Place them in the test box (make sure it is a nice-looking one to make it more appealing!) and keep it in the classroom. Allocate “test-box times” regularly, say, every second week for half an hour, when students have the chance to do the tasks they choose from the box. It is important to inform students of the minimum amount of exercises they have to complete by a given date.

How to use the Test-box
1. Students choose one exercise from the box.
2. They write their answers in their notebook, not on the paper.
3. As soon as they finish, they go up to the teacher, who marks their answers.
4. If all the answers are correct, they are given full credit for it and it is noted down by the teacher. In this case they choose a second exercise.
5. If there are mistakes, the student goes back, trying to self-correct using their notes or books, or they can decide to choose a different exercise from the test box.

The great thing about this technique is that although I tell students the minimum requirement for a top grade, they become less grade oriented and start to compete in learning rather than for grades.

Of course, there are many more advantages to it, which we are going to discuss in our webinar as well as look at further practical ways of assessment and how to best combine them in the mixed-ability classroom.

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