Thoughts on the CEFR – a mirror that reflects both ways?

By Tim Goodier

This year there has been a great deal of renewed interest in the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR), which most language professionals will be familiar with as the source of the common reference levels A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. This is largely because it has been recently updated in a ‘Companion Volume’ that collates and extends the full range of scaled ‘can do’ descriptors that underpin and illustrate the CEFR levels (if you need a brief refresher on CEFR basics and what’s new, try this blog post: In this post I’d like to share a few thoughts arising from my involvement in the recent development of the CEFR Companion Volume.

1 The CEFR is often misunderstood

The idea of a ‘framework’ suggests something rigid and top down, a prescriptive curriculum or set of standards. The widespread use of CEFR levels to benchmark language tests for international visa requirements and access to education tends to reinforce this impression. However, more in-depth consideration of what the CEFR and its aims actually are reveals a rather different picture – that of a large-scale and evolving consensus project, with illustrated levels based on the statistically calibrated judgements of thousands of practising language professionals in diverse teaching contexts. This means the CEFR is neither a curriculum nor a psycholinguistic standard, but rather a detailed inventory and heuristic, describing reasonable calibrated aims for agreed levels, applicable to a whole range of communicative scenarios. Rather than the CEFR being a compulsory curriculum, we are invited to select from the wide choice of available descriptor scales (i.e. the horizontal dimension) as a flexible reference in developing our own programmes for specific languages. Given frequent characterisations of the CEFR as something prescriptive, there is perhaps some irony that the Council of Europe’s intention was for it to facilitate greater freedom of movement and opportunities across borders of member states. The aim was to support clearer shared recognition of partial competences in a repertoire of languages, i.e. the language user’s ‘plurilingual’ profile, related to what the individual can do in personal, public professional and educational domains relevant to them. This principle was the basis of the ‘European Language Portfolio’, and is in direct contrast to two of the greatest objections voiced against the CEFR, that (i) that it is (allegedly) based on attaining a ‘native speaker’ ideal and (ii) that it is a tool for gatekeeping in migration. The first of these objections has thankfully been fully addressed in the Companion Volume, with the removal of any reference to ‘understanding native speakers’, along with the reinforcement of positive descriptions of partial competences with the addition of a pre-A1 level and ‘plus’ levels for A2, B1 and B2.

The second objection goes to the heart of the inherent problem with language assessment as a policy instrument, given that tests are tools designed to prove ability, opening doors to some and keeping them closed to others. The widespread use of the CEFR as a benchmark for high stakes language test results has therefore put it directly in the firing line as a perceived driver of governmental policies that reference its levels. In this sense any tool that describes what learners can do, can also be used to highlight what they can’t (yet) do – the mirror reflects both ways, but it is in fact language tests, not the CEFR , that will inevitably play the gate-keeping role. With the recent addition of new descriptors for higher order skills such as ‘mediation’ (see the note on four modes in the blog post linked above), there are understandable concerns that this will lead to the setting of new assessment hurdles in areas where cognition and emotional intelligence can be a strong factor in learners’ capacity to perform. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the CEFR should

maintain a lack of clarity in describing such skills, and mediation has always formed part of its conceptual framework, so the focus may be more usefully directed to responsible and informed use.

2. The CEFR (and its use) is evolving

The Companion Volume provides an accessible guide to exploiting the CEFR for teaching and learning, in a short chapter of about 20 pages. This is aimed squarely at teaching professionals and takes the focus off the CEFR ‘can do’ descriptors as purely a resource for benchmarking assessment. The official title of the CEFR says ‘learning, teaching and assessment’, which reflects the concept of ‘constructive alignment’ put forward by John Biggs (1996). This emphasizes the need for a clear relationship between setting of meaningful learning aims, conducting learner-centred activities, and evaluating learning success in relation to those learning aims. This presents a more positive view of how the mirror can reflect both ways, helping learners reflect meaningfully on their communicative successes, and using assessment for learning to identify, iteratively, what to focus on next.

Courses for a particular language (such as English) can often be dominated by a progression through grammar points and areas of lexis, as the relationship between learning aims, activities and outcomes can be evidenced clearly and easily in learners’ successful reproduction of language forms under controlled classroom conditions. By contrast, the CEFR as a language-agnostic project comes from a wholly communicative angle, focusing on situated acts of communication in ‘can do’ statements at each level, as activities, competences and strategies.

Realistically it will continue to take time for the integrated use of CEFR can do statements to filter down into everyday pedagogic practice, given that there is considerable work required to relate language teaching activities and grammatical / lexical resources to a core set of transferrable communicative outcomes. Teachers themselves rarely have sufficient time to do this and published courses tend to follow established grammar-based norms. Nevertheless, publishers are gradually taking a greater interest in organizing a proportion of learning activities around adaptations of the CEFR can do statements, including areas such as mediation. Moreover, in the piloting phase of the new descriptors, many teachers reported a beneficial shift of focus in using an individual can do statement as inspiration for designing a task, which is a more manageable proposition for busy practitioners.

3. The new CEFR descriptors can illuminate some interesting areas

As mentioned above, the CEFR Companion volume has added validated scales of descriptors for areas such as mediation, online interaction and plurilingual / pluricultural competences. These are based on the same validation methodology as the original CEFR project, gathering the feedback and inputs of language professionals in large scale surveys (this time conducted worldwide), and statistically calibrating their ratings of level. The use of ‘Rasch analysis’ in this process ensured that descriptors were discarded if there was too much variation in raters’ judgement of level. This has resulted in a robust bank of descriptors for areas such as ‘goal-oriented online transactions and collaboration’, ‘explaining data’, ‘collaborating to construct meaning’, ‘managing interaction’ and ’facilitating pluricultural space’ to name a few. Such descriptors shine a detailed light on integrated aspects of communication often attributed to the (rather nebulous) concept of ‘soft skills’, i.e. the transferrable inter-personal skills needed for the careers of tomorrow.

Overall, this should be seen as an enrichment of the existing CEFR resource; the new descriptors can be consulted selectively and incorporated into course aims as appropriate, which may not necessarily be for formal assessment purposes. For example, the new descriptors could help guide the pedagogic development of ‘21st century skills’ for multi-modal online/offline interaction and international team work. Many of the descriptors also correspond meaningfully to key behaviours observed in users of English and a Lingua Franca to manage successful communication. Hopefully we are now seeing the CEFR enter a new lease of life as a stimulus for pedagogic reflection, informing the ongoing development of more meaning-oriented and learner-centered approaches in language teaching and learning in years to come. The mirror can reflect both ways!

Some suggested reading around the topics discussed in this post:

Web resources:

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) home page where you can download the CEFR Companion Volume

Platform of resources and references for plurilingual and intercultural education European Language Portfolio (ELP) home page Reading: Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education, 32(3), pp.347-364. British Council | EAQUALS Core Inventory for General English. (2018). English Agenda, British Council/Eaquals.

COMMON EUROPEAN FRAMEWORK OF REFERENCE FOR LANGUAGES: LEARNING, TEACHING, ASSESSMENT COMPANION VOLUME WITH NEW DESCRIPTORS. (2018). 1st ed. [ebook] Strasbourg: The Council of Europe Education Policy Division. Dewey, M & Cogo , A (2012) Analysing English as Lingua Franca Continuum International Publishing Group, London

Little, David. (2004). Constructing a theory of learner autonomy: Some steps along the way. Future Perspectives in Foreign Language Education. Little, David & Dam, Leni & Legenhausen, Lienhard. (2017). Language Learner Autonomy

North, B. (2015). The CEFR in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

North, B. & Piccardo, E. (2019) The Action-oriented Approach: A Dynamic Vision of Language Education, Multi-lingual Matters, Bristol