An Introduction to the CEFR for Language Teachers
Whilst teachers are increasingly adopting The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), there is still limited understanding of its purpose and history, and why it has largely superseded traditional language levels. Many teachers use the new levels as equivalences of more traditional labels that they feel more familiar and comfortable with. This is not really surprising, given the size and complexity of much of the CEFR documentation and guidance, but risks profoundly misunderstanding the nature of the change that the CEFR has brought about.
In this short piece, we aim to provide a very brief introduction to its history, purpose, and key components, as well as outlining its level equivalences to traditional labels and examination levels. We hope you will find it useful and, if you would like to take things further, we recommend you go to the Council of Europe’s main website, which provides much more detail on every aspect of the CEFR.
History and Aims of the CEFR
The CEFR was an ambitious initiative spearheaded by the Council of Europe in the late 1990s as part of its language policy planning. Aimed at creating a comprehensive system for language learning, teaching, and assessment, the CEFR was developed through wide-ranging consultation with linguistic experts, educators, and policymakers. This collaborative approach sought to harmonise language training and certification across Europe, promoting ease of mobility for work, study, and social interaction.
The overarching vision of the CEFR goes beyond mere assessment. It seeks to foster multilingualism and multicultural understanding, values considered increasingly critical in our interconnected global society. The CEFR views multilingualism as a highly desirable, essential skill set, enabling individuals to participate in culturally diverse settings and thereby contributing to broader social objectives like inclusion and the combating of xenophobia.
CEFR Levels: A Focus on Four Core Skills
The CEFR framework distinguishes language proficiency across six well-defined levels: A1, A2 (basic users), B1, B2 (independent users), and C1, C2 (proficient users). These levels are designed to be applicable across the four key language skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Here's how each skill is characteristically represented across CEFR levels:
1. A1 (Breakthrough)
- Listening: Can understand basic phrases and expressions.
- Speaking: Can use simple phrases to describe themselves and their immediate surroundings.
- Reading: Can understand simple sentences and common expressions.
- Writing: Can write a short, simple postcard or fill in forms with personal details.
2. A2 (Waystage)
- Listening: Can understand the main points of clear standard speech on familiar matters.
- Speaking: Can communicate routine tasks requiring a direct exchange of information.
- Reading: Can read very short, simple texts and find specific information.
- Writing: Can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters in areas of immediate need.
3. B1 (Threshold)
- Listening: Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters.
- Speaking: Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling.
- Reading: Can understand texts that consist mainly of high-frequency everyday language.
- Writing: Can write simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
4. B2 (Vantage)
- Listening: Can understand extended speech and lectures on complex topics.
- Speaking: Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity.
- Reading: Can read articles and reports concerned with contemporary problems.
- Writing: Can write detailed texts, including essays, reports, and letters.
5. C1 (Effective Operational Proficiency)
- Listening: Can understand extended speech, even when it's not clearly structured.
- Speaking: Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much searching for expressions.
- Reading: Can understand long and complex factual and literary texts.
- Writing: Can express themselves in clear, well-structured text, expressing points of view at some length.
6. C2 (Mastery)
- Listening: Can effortlessly understand virtually any form of spoken language.
- Speaking: Can present clear, smoothly flowing descriptions or arguments.
- Reading: Can understand specialised articles and longer technical instructions.
- Writing: Can write complex articles, reports, and essays that present a case with an effective logical structure.
Equivalence to Traditional Labels and Examinations
The movement towards acceptance of the CEFR levels is important because it offers a far more nuanced scale of proficiency than traditional labels like 'Beginner' or 'Intermediate,' and provides a universally recognised benchmark. For example, the Cambridge English exams are now aligned with CEFR levels:
- A1: Cambridge English: Starters (YLE Starters)
- A2: Cambridge English: Movers (YLE Movers), Key (KET)
- B1: Cambridge English: Flyers (YLE Flyers), Preliminary (PET)
- B2: Cambridge English: First (FCE)
- C1: Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE)
- C2: Cambridge English: Proficiency (CPE)
Similarly, Trinity College London and other major exam providers, now offer comprehensive assessments that align with CEFR guidelines.
The Jagged Profile
Another important concept to understand in relation to the CEFR is that of a 'jagged profile'. This concept involves a huge paradigm shift in the teaching and learning of languages. It acknowledges that individuals might excel in one skill while needing improvement in another. This allows for targeted teaching and assessment methods to help learners balance their skills in a way that is most appropriate for them. This, in turn, leads to a more dynamic, responsive approach to language learning. By recognising that not all skills need to be developed to the same level of proficiency, the CEFR enables learners to meet specific, real-world tasks and challenges more effectively. By way of illustration, consider the following examples:
A. The Translator: A Focus on Reading and Writing
A professional translator primarily works with written texts, which means their job depends heavily on advanced reading and writing skills. Speaking and listening might be secondary skills in this context. The CEFR framework enables the translator to prioritise:
- Reading at C1/C2 level: Understand complex articles, idiomatic expressions, and specialised vocabulary.
- Writing at C1/C2 level: Write coherent, well-structured articles or reports in the target language.
By embracing a jagged profile, the translator can focus on reaching high levels of proficiency in these two skills, while perhaps maintaining a B1 or B2 level for speaking and listening, which are less critical to their professional needs.
B. The Travel Enthusiast: A Balanced Approach
Someone planning a trip might be interested in attaining a level of proficiency suitable for getting about and functioning in new places, reading signs, and engaging in simple conversations. In this case, the jagged profile be:
- Listening at B1 level: Understand clear standard input on familiar topics like directions and food orders.
- Speaking at A2 level: Communicate in routine tasks and social interactions like greeting and ordering food.
- Reading at A2/B1 level: Understand short, simple texts like signs, menus, and basic travel guides.
- Writing at A1 level: Write short notes and messages, possibly just to jot down key phrases or addresses.
This more balanced profile acknowledges that while the traveller may not need to write elaborate texts, a moderate proficiency in reading, listening, and basic speaking is essential for a comfortable travel experience.
C. The Telesales Representative: Prioritising Speaking and Listening
For someone working in telesales in English, speaking and listening are the most crucial skills, often demanding a higher level of proficiency compared to reading and writing. A targeted CEFR profile could be:
- Speaking at B2 level: Interact with clients with fluency, discussing products and services effectively.
- Listening at B2 level: Understand extended speech, even if the topic is somewhat unfamiliar, as clients may come from varied backgrounds.
- Reading at B1 level: Read and understand basic work emails or scripts.
- Writing at B1 level: Write simple, connected text like emails to clients or teammates.
Here, the focus shifts significantly toward speaking and listening, the most valuable skills for a telesales job, without entirely neglecting reading and writing.
Whether it's a translator needing advanced reading and writing skills, a traveller needing moderate speaking and listening abilities, or a telesales agent needing to excel in oral communication, the CEFR's nuanced approach ensures that language learning is as efficient and tailored as possible.
‘Can Do’ Statements
A final aspect of the CEFR that is worth understanding is the purpose of what is termed ‘Can do’ statements. ‘Can do’ statements are simple expressions of practical things the learner can do with the language. They are particularly useful when planning lessons, as they define specific learning outcomes the teacher wishes to achieve. Focusing on the practical skills students are developing through their lessons, provides a learner-centred, targeted approach. It also provides a metric for judging outcomes and progress, allowing learners to develop their knowledge and skills in an explicit way, and provides a purpose for their learning and its application to real-world situations.
The CEFR has significantly reshaped the landscape of language learning and assessment, providing a robust, nuanced framework that recognises the complexity of language proficiency. It promotes a multilingual, multicultural approach, that is well placed to address the communication needs of modern learners.
Written by Mike Turner