What is the CEFR and Why is it Used for Language Reference?


What is it?

The Common European Framework of Reference describes what a student can do at a particular stage of language learning. Dr Nick Saville, director of research and validation at Cambridge ESOL, calls it a “learning ladder”. Students can see exactly what their ability must be to reach the next rung. The CEFR’s ‘Global Scale’ states exactly what ability is expected at each level in handy ‘can do’ sentences.

Its six levels of ability range from A1 (low) to C2 (high). The category a learner falls into is determined by five factors: Spoken Interaction, Spoken Production, Listening, Reading and Writing. This expands on traditional guidelines that focus simply on writing, listening and reading.

Why is it Used?

The CEFR isn’t specific to English language learning: it is neutral for all languages. Created to unify perceptions of language ability between countries (‘intermediate’ in Spain might not be ‘intermediate’ in Malaysia), the framework provides people with a toolkit to understand their abilities better.

It is used, amongst other things, as guidance for developing syllabuses, creating exams, evaluating language learning needs, designing courses and even self-assessment.

Why is the CEFR so Popular for Reference?

Incredibly detailed in the organisation

The CEFR repeatedly makes use of ‘can do’ sentences. It uses defining statements such as “Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment, and matters in areas of immediate need.” This description corresponds to the level of A2 level on the Global Scale.
The five categories (Spoken Interaction, Spoken Production, etc.) also have easy-to-comprehend ‘can do’ sentences. The three distinct groups (A, B, and C) qualify the Basic User (levels A1 and A2), the Independent User (B1 and B2) and the Proficient User (C1 and C2). As opposed to Beginner, Intermediate and Fluent, the CEFR’s groupings convey an understanding of modern learners. Students of any language want to develop their strategies for communicating as well as improve their grammar.
CEFR also provides guidance on how many hours it might take to achieve different levels. C2 is approximately 1,000-1,200 hours and A1 is comparatively less daunting at only 90-100 hours.

The Creators of CEFR have evolved it like no other

It was designed in the 1960s as a reference tool, and it was efficient until a shift in the 1970s. Language learning became less about grammar, structure and rules and more about communication. The CEFR gradually developed from there and, in its current form, is used globally by businesses, schools, and governments.

The framework encourages progress

An examination determines how well a learner scored. The CEFR determines what fluency a student has and what they can do to progress. Goals are not based on particular scores, but on what you can actually do with the language.

As Dr Saville says, it is a “framework of reference” that doesn’t give answers but is a way of coming up with them. A thorough understanding of the CEFR and training is needed if using it for assessment, but it is very easily used as a tool for setting targets and understanding abilities.

It can be adapted to you

You can take a level and break it down for whatever your learning needs are. Formally, there are six levels. However, you can take any level and break it down into smaller steps. For example, levels A1 and A2 can be broken down into four, six, nine or more stages.
Japan used this idea and produced the CEFRJ. It is the same framework adapted and expanded to suit learning in schools, from kindergarten to the last year of high school.

It promotes individualism

In today’s classrooms, testing attempts to label learners with standardized strengths and weaknesses. However, experience tells us that in one classroom, no two learners are the same. Understanding this is fundamental to the CEFR and the future of education. An employer, teacher or parent can see the progression in different ways using the CEFR. If more help is needed in specific areas, it is easy to see how and where they can provide it.

Where has it Worked?

CEFR is a globally tried and tested format. In 2017, a study in Malaysia found that over 20,000 school students of a range of ages from different backgrounds and areas had dramatically improved their English since an assessment in 2013. The government was, of course, thrilled and the implementation of the CEFR was admired.

Well-established and evolved, the Common European Framework of Reference is adaptable and modern. This model is integral to the future of language reference for entire countries, starting with businesses and classrooms.

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