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The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Content, purpose, origin, reception and impact

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Since its circulation in two draft versions in 1996, and especially since its commercial publication in English and French in 2001, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) has come to dominate discussion of L2 curricula, the assessment of L2 proficiency, and L2 teaching and learning in Europe. Although it is widely referred to, however, the CEFR remains relatively little known beyond the summaries of its six proficiency levels presented in the so-called ‘global scale’ and ‘self-assessment grid’. This article summarises the CEFR's content, purpose, and origins; describes its reception, paying particular attention to its impact on L2 teaching and learning (especially via its companion piece, the European Language Portfolio) and on the assessment of L2 proficiency; and concludes with a brief consideration of present challenges and future prospects.
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State-of-the-art article
The Common European Framework of Reference for
Languages
: Content, purpose, origin, reception and impact
David Little Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
dlittle@tcd.ie
Since its circulation in two draft versions in 1996, and
especially since its commercial publication in English and
French in 2001, the Common European Framework
of Reference for Languages (CEFR) has come to
dominate discussion of L2 curricula, the assessment of
L2 proficiency, and L2 teaching and learning in Europe.
Although it is widely referred to, however, the CEFR
remains relatively little known beyond the summaries of
its six proficiency levels presented in the so-called ‘global
scale’ and ‘self-assessment grid’. This article summarises
the CEFR’s content, purpose, and origins; describes its
reception, paying particular attention to its impact on L2
teaching and learning (especially via its companion piece,
the European Language Portfolio) and on the assessment
of L2 proficiency; and concludes with a brief consideration
of present challenges and future prospects.
1. What is the
Common European
Framework of Reference for Languages
?
The Council of Europe published the Common
European Framework of Reference for Languages
(CEFR) in two draft versions in 1996 (Council of
Europe 1996a, b). On the basis of feedback received
from a wide range of users and potential users, the
document was revised and commercially published
in English and French, the two official languages of
the Council of Europe, in 2001 (Council of Europe
2001a, b). A German translation followed almost
immediately (Council of Europe 2001c), and at the
time of writing (April 2006) the Council of Europe
web site, <http://www.coe.int>, reports translations
into 21 other languages: Albanian, Armenian,
Basque, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Finnish, Friulian,
Galician, Georgian, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese,
Moldovan, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian,
Serbian (Iekavian version), Spanish and Ukrainian.
Further translations are in preparation. There is no
doubt, then, that the CEFR has had an immediate
and significant impact at some level in many of the
Council of Europe’s member states and further afield.
Yet the number of language professionals who are
closely familiar with the CEFR evidently remains
rather limited. In 2005 the Council of Europe’s
Language Policy Division conducted a survey on the
use of the CEFR.1A short questionnaire was sent
1I am indebted to Waldemar Martyniuk of the Language Policy
Division, Council of Europe, for giving me pre-publication access
to his report on the survey.
by e-mail to all the Council of Europe’s language
contacts and published on the Council’s web site. It
elicited 111 responses from 39 countries, which in
itself tends to confirm that knowledge and use of
the CEFR is confined to a minority of specialists.
The survey also confirmed that easily the best known
and most frequently used parts of the CEFR are the
summary versions of its common reference levels
of language proficiency, the so-called ‘global scale’
(Table 1) and ‘self-assessment grid’ (Table 2). There
is, however, a great deal more to the CEFR than
the global scale and the self-assessment grid, and it
is appropriate to begin this review with a summary
description of its content.
1.1 Content
The CEFR is a descriptive scheme that can be used to
analyse L2 learners’ needs, specify L2 learning goals,
guide the development of L2 learning materials and
activities, and provide orientation for the assessment
of L2 learning outcomes. It is based on
an analysis of language use in terms of the strategies used by learners
to activate general and communicative competences in order to carry
out the activities and processes involved in the production and reception
of texts and the construction of discourse dealing with particular
themes, which enable them to fulfil the tasks facing them under
the given conditions and constraints in the situations which arise
in the various domains of social existence. The words in italics
DAVID LITTLE is Associate Professor of Applied
Linguistics and Head of the School of Linguistic, Speech
and Communication Sciences at Trinity College Dublin.
He wrote one of the preliminary studies for the Common
European Framework of Reference for Languages, on
strategic competence; has drawn on the CEFR to develop
curricula, teaching/learning materials and tests for learners
of English as a Second Language in Irish primary
and post-primary schools; has worked with versions of
the European Language Portfolio since 1998; and has
published on the application of the CEFR to curriculum,
pedagogy and assessment and on the origins, pedagogical
implications and possible future development of the ELP.
Professor David G. Little, School of Linguistic, Speech
and Communication Sciences, Centre for Language
and Communication Studies, Trinity College, Dublin
2, Ireland <http://www.tcd.ie/CLCS/people/David_
Little/index.html>dlittle@tcd.ie
Lang. Teach. 39, 167–190. doi:10.1017/S0261444806003557 Printed in the United Kingdom c
2006 Cambridge University Press 167
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David Little
Ta b l e 1 CEFR Common Reference Levels: global scale (Council of Europe 2001: 24)
Proficient User C2 Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from
different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent
presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating
finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.
C1 Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can
express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can
produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of
organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
Independent User B2 Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including
technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation. Can interact with a degree of fluency and
spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for
either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a
viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
B1 Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly
encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst
travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics
which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes
and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
Basic User A2 Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate
relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography,
employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct
exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects
of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
A1 Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the
satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and
answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and
things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and
clearly and is prepared to help.
designate the parameters for the description of language use and
the user/learner’s ability to use the language. (Council of Europe
2001a: xv; emphasis in original)
The descriptive scheme has a vertical and a horizontal
dimension. The vertical dimension uses ‘can do’
descriptors to define six levels of communicative
proficiency in three bands (A1, A2 – basic use r;
B1, B2 – indepe ndent user; C1, C2 – proficient
user). There are six levels because there appears to
be ‘a wide, though by no means universal, consensus
on the number and nature of levels appropriate to
the organisation of language learning and the public
recognition of achievement’ (Council of Europe
2001a: 22f.). The results of the Swiss research project
that developed the levels, on the other hand, ‘suggest
a scale of 9 more or less equally sized, coherent
levels’ (ibid.: 31), which the CEFR labels thus: A1,
A2, A2+, B1, B1+, B2, B2+, C1, C2. The ‘plus’
levels appear in the illustrative scales, in the upper
half of the cells labelled A2, B1 and B2 (see Table 3
for examples). Communicative language activities
involve reception,production, interaction and
mediation. Accordingly there are scales for listening
and reading,spoken production (e.g. making a
speech, giving a lecture), written production,
spoken interaction and written interaction (e.g.
letter writing). However, the distinction between
written production and written interaction is
not maintained in the self-assessment grid (Table 2),
and there are no scales for mediation. The scales
that constitute the vertical dimension of the CEFR
are user- or learner-oriented: because they describe
communicative behaviour – what the learner can do
in his or her target language – they are as accessible
to learners as to curriculum designers, textbook
authors, teachers and examiners.
The horizontal dimension of the CEFR is con-
cerned with the learner’s communicative language
competences and the strategies that serve as a hinge
between these competences (the learner’s linguistic
resources) and communicative activities (what he
or she can do with them). Like communicative
activities, competences and strategies are scaled, but
the scaling is subordinate to the scaling of communi-
cative behaviour and is not the product of
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The Common European Framework
independent empirical research. Thus, for example,
the A2 descriptor for accuracy –‘[u]sessome
simple structures correctly, but still systematically
makes basic mistakes’ (Council of Europe 2001a:
31) – attempts to capture the degree of grammatical
control that is necessary for the performance of
A2 productive tasks. Whereas the behavioural scales
are user-oriented, the scales of competences and
strategies are designed with teachers and assessors in
mind and are oriented to diagnosis and assessment.
The horizontal dimension also offers taxonomies for
the analysis of contexts of language use: domains,
situations, conditions and constraints, mental context,
themes, and communicative tasks and purposes.
In keeping with the Council of Europe’s non-
directive ethos, the CEFR refrains from saying how
languages should actually be taught. However, the be-
havioural terms in which communicative proficiency
is defined point unambiguously in the direction
of task-based teaching and learning, and this is
reinforced by a detailed discussion of tasks and their
role in language teaching. The CEFR also refrains
from prescribing how communicative proficiency
should be assessed, though again the action-oriented
approach in general and the discussion of assessment
in particular imply a strongly communicative orienta-
tion. Finally, it is important to note that the CEFR’s
presentation of its descriptive scheme is bracketed by
an account of relevant Council of Europe policy and
a discussion of linguistic diversification and the curri-
culum. Table 4 provides a detailed overview of the
CEFR’s structure and content.
1.2 Purpose and principles
The declared purpose of the CEFR is to provide
‘a common basis for the elaboration of language
syllabuses, curriculum guidelines, examinations,
textbooks, etc. across Europe’ (Council of Europe
2001a: 1) and in doing so to serve the Council of
Europe’s political, cultural and educational agenda.
Early in the first chapter the authors quote
Recommendation no.R (98) 6 of the Committee
of Ministers to member States concerning modern
languages, which insists on the need to ‘equip
all Europeans for the challenges of intensified
international mobility and closer co-operation’,
‘promote mutual understanding and tolerance’,
‘maintain and further develop the richness and
diversity of European cultural life through greater
mutual knowledge’, and ‘meet the needs of a
multilingual and multicultural Europe by appreciably
developing the ability of Europeans to communicate
with each other across linguistic and cultural
boundaries’ (ibid.: 3). Language learning is
‘necessarily a life-long task’ (ibid.: 5), which means
that the CEFR must cater for all domains of
language learning. It must also adopt plurilingualism
and pluriculturalism as general goals, not just for
education but for life, and it must respond to the
inevitable fact that many of us will develop partial
competences (e.g. in listening and speaking only, or
in reading only) in at least some of the languages we
learn.
The CEFR is intended to ‘promote and facilitate
co-operation among educational institutions in
different countries’, ‘provide a sound basis for the
mutual recognition of language qualifications’, and
‘assist learners, teachers, course designers, examining
bodies and educational administrators to situate and
co-ordinate their efforts’ (Council of Europe 2001a:
5f.). In other words, it is offered as a basis for sustained
international co-operation in the development of
language education policy, the construction of
language curricula, the implementation of language
learning and teaching, and the assessment of language
learning outcomes. To this end, the CEFR seeks to be
comprehensive, specifying ‘as full a range of language
knowledge, skills and use as possible’; transparent –
‘information must be clearly formulated and explicit,
available and readily comprehensible to users’; and
coherent – the descriptions should be ‘free from
internal contradictions’ (ibid.: 7).
1.3 The levels and scales: some
clarifications
Although the CEFR contains a great deal more than
levels and scales, the levels and scales are nevertheless
central to its descriptive system. It may therefore be
useful to offer four clarifications at this point.
First, the scales are multidimensional. The global
scale, the self-assessment grid, and the illustrative
scales for the activities of listening, reading, spoken
interaction, spoken production, written interaction,
written production, note-taking, and processing text
refer to communicative behaviour: what the language
user/learner can do with the target language. But
these scales should be read, interpreted and used
together with the scales of linguistic competence/
language quality (general linguistic range, vocabulary
range, vocabulary control, grammatical accuracy,
phonological control, orthographic control, sociolin-
guistic appropriateness, flexibility, turntaking, them-
atic development, coherence and cohesion, spoken
fluency, propositional precision) and the strategic
scales (planning, compensating, monitoring/repair;
identifying cues and inferring; turntaking, cooper-
ating, asking for clarification). The CEFR’s action-
oriented approach is based on the principle that in
performing communicative acts we use strategies
to determine how to make most appropriate and
effective use of our linguistic resources.
Secondly, the levels and scales describe learning
outcomes. The progression that emerges in particular
from the lower levels reflects orders of teaching that
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David Little
Ta b l e 2 CEFR Common Reference Levels: self-assessment grid (Council of Europe 2001: 26f.)
A1 A2 B1 B2 C1 C2
UNDERSTANDING
Listening I can understand familiar
words and very basic
phrases concerning myself,
my family and immediate
concrete surroundings
when people speak slowly
and clearly.
I can understand phrases
and the highest frequency
vocabulary related to areas
of most immediate personal
relevance (e.g. very basic
personal and family
information, shopping,
local area, employment). I
can catch the main point in
short, clear, simple messages
and announcements.
I can understand the main
points of clear standard
speech on familiar matters
regularly encountered in
work, school, leisure, etc. I
can understand the main
point of many radio or TV
programmes on current
affairs or topics of personal
or professional interest
when the delivery is
relatively slow and clear.
I can understand extended
speech and lectures and
follow even complex lines
of argument provided the
topic is reasonably familiar.
I can understand most TV
news and current affairs
programmes. I can
understand the majority of
films in standard dialect.
I can understand extended
speech even when it is not
clearly structured and when
relationships are only
implied and not signalled
explicitly. I can understand
television programmes and
films without too much
effort.
I have no difficulty in
understanding any kind of
spoken language, whether live
or broadcast, even when
delivered at fast native speed,
provided I have some time to
get familiar with the accent.
Reading I can understand familiar
names, words and very
simple sentences, for
example on notices and
posters or in catalogues.
I can read very short, simple
texts. I can find specific,
predictable information in
simple everyday material
such as advertisements,
prospectuses, menus and
timetables and I can
understand short simple
personal letters.
I can understand texts that
consist mainly of high
frequency everyday or
job-related language. I can
understand the description
of events, feelings and
wishes in personal letters.
I can read articles and
reports concerned with
contemporary problems in
which the writers adopt
particular attitudes or
viewpoints. I can
understand contemporary
literary prose.
I can understand long and
complex factual and literary
texts, appreciating
distinctions of style. I can
understand specialised
articles and longer technical
instructions, even when
they do not relate to my
field.
I can read with ease virtually
all forms of the written
language, including abstract,
structurally or linguistically
complex texts such as
manuals, specialised articles
and literary works.
SPEAKING
Spoken
interaction
I can interact in a simple
way provided the other
person is prepared to repeat
or rephrase things at a
slower rate of speech and
help me formulate what
I’m trying to say. I can ask
and answer simple questions
in areas of immediate need
or on very familiar topics.
I can communicate in
simple and routine tasks
requiring a simple and
direct exchange of
information on familiar
topics and activities. I can
handle very short social
exchanges, even though I
can’t usually understand
enough to keep the
conversation going myself.
I can deal with most
situations likely to arise
whilst travelling in an area
where the language is
spoken. I can enter
unprepared into
conversation on topics that
are familiar, of personal
interest or pertinent to
everyday life (e.g. family,
hobbies, work, travel and
current events).
I can interact with a degree
of fluency and spontaneity
that makes regular
interaction with native
speakers quite possible. I
cantakeanactivepartin
discussion in familiar
contexts, accounting for
and sustaining my views.
I can express myself fluently
and spontaneously without
much obvious searching for
expressions. I can use
language flexibly and
effectively for social and
professional purposes. I can
formulate ideas and
opinions with precision and
relate my contribution
skilfully to those of other
speakers.
I can take part effortlessly in
any conversation or discussion
and have a good familiarity
with idiomatic expressions
and colloquialisms. I can
express myself fluently and
convey finer shades of
meaning precisely. If I do have
a problem I can backtrack and
restructure around the
difficulty so smoothly that
other people are hardly aware
of it.
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The Common European Framework
Spoken
production
I can use simple phrases and
sentences to describe where
I live and people I know.
I can use a series of phrases
and sentences to describe in
simple terms my family and
other people, living
conditions, my educational
background and my present
or most recent job.
I can connect phrases in a
simple way in order to
describe experiences and
events, my dreams, hopes
and ambitions. I can briefly
give reasons and
explanations for opinions
andplans.Icannarratea
story or relate the plot of a
book or film and describe
my reactions.
I can present clear, detailed
descriptions on a wide
range of subjects related to
my field of interest. I can
explain a viewpoint on a
topical issue giving the
advantages and
disadvantages of various
options.
I can present clear, detailed
descriptions of complex
subjects integrating
sub-themes, developing
particular points and
rounding off with an
appropriate conclusion.
I can present a clear,
smoothly-flowing description
or argument in a style
appropriate to the context and
with an effective logical
structure which helps the
recipient to notice and
remember significant points.
WRITING
Writing I can write a short, simple
postcard, for example
sending holiday greetings. I
can fill in forms with
personal details, for
example entering my name,
nationality and address on a
hotel registration form.
I can write short, simple
notes and messages. I can
write a very simple personal
letter, for example thanking
someone for something.
I can write simple
connected text on topics
which are familiar or of
personal interest. I can
write personal letters
describing experiences and
impressions.
I can write clear, detailed
text on a wide range of
subjects related to my
interests. I can write an
essay or report, passing on
information or giving
reasons in support of or
against a particular point of
view. I can write letters
highlighting the personal
significance of events and
experiences.
I can express myself in
clear, well-structured text,
expressing points of view at
some length. I can write
about complex subjects in a
letter, an essay or a report,
underlining what I consider
to be the salient issues. I can
select a style appropriate to
the reader in mind.
I can write clear,
smoothly-flowing text in an
appropriate style. I can write
complex letters, reports or
articles which present a case
with an effective logical
structure which helps the
recipient to notice and
remember significant points. I
can write summaries and
reviews of professional or
literary works.
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David Little
Ta b l e 3 CEFR Common Reference Levels: illustrative scale for
SPOKEN INTERACTION: CONVERSATION
(Council of Europe
2001: 74)
overall spoken interaction
C2 Has a good command of idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms with awareness of connotative levels of meaning.
Can convey finer shades of meaning precisely by using, with reasonable accuracy, a wide range of modification
devices. Can backtrack and restructure around a difficulty so smoothly the interlocutor is hardly aware of it.
C1 Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously, almost effortlessly. Has a good command of a broad lexical
repertoire allowing gaps to be readily overcome with circumlocutions. There is little obvious searching for
expressions or avoidance strategies; only a conceptually difficult subject can hinder a natural, smooth flow of
language.
B2 Can use the language fluently, accurately and effectively on a wide range of general, academic, vocational or leisure
topics, marking clearly the relationships between ideas. Can communicate spontaneously with good grammatical
control without much sign of having to restrict what he/she wants to say, adopting a level of formality appropriate
to the circumstances.
Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction, and sustained relationships
with native speakers quite possible without imposing strain on either party. Can highlight the personal significance
of events and experiences, account for and sustain views clearly by providing relevant explanations and arguments.
B1 Can communicate with some confidence on familiar routine and non-routine matters related to his/her interests
and professional field. Can exchange, check and confirm information, deal with less routine situations and explain
why something is a problem. Can express thoughts on more abstract, cultural topics, such as films, books, music etc.
Can exploit a wide range of simple language to deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling. Can enter
unprepared into conversation on familiar topics, express personal opinions and exchange information on topics that
are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life (e.g. family, hobbies, work, travel and current events).
A2 Can interact with reasonable ease in structured situations and short conversations, provided the other person helps if
necessary. Can manage simple, routine exchanges without undue effort; can ask and answer questions and exchange
ideas and information on familiar topics in predictable everyday situations.
Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and
routine matters to do with work and free time. Can handle very short social exchanges but is rarely able to
understand enough to keep conversation going of his/her own accord.
A1 Can interact in a simple way but communication is totally dependent on repetition at a slower rate of speech,
rephrasing and repair. Can ask and answer simple questions, initiate and respond to simple statements in areas of
immediate need or on very familiar topics.
are familiar to us from syllabuses and textbooks; it
does not claim to be an order of acquisition, far
less a description of the acquisition process itself.
Also, there is more to successful language learning
than upward progress, as the CEFR itself points
out:
One ...needs to remember that levels only reflect a vertical
dimension. They can take only limited account of the fact
that learning a language is a matter of horizontal as well as
vertical progress as learners acquire the proficiency to perform
in a wider range of communicative activities. Progress is not
merely a question of moving up a vertical scale. There is no
particular logical requirement for a learner to pass through all
the lower levels on a sub-scale. They may make lateral progress
(from a neighbouring category) by broadening their performance
capabilities rather than increasing their proficiency in terms
of the same category. Conversely, the expression ‘deepening
one’s knowledge’ recognises that one may well feel the need
at some point to underpin such pragmatic gains by having a
look at ‘the basics’ (that is: lower level skills) in an area into
which one has moved laterally. (Council of Europe 2001a:
17).
Thirdly, the levels and scales are not an alternative
system of grading, in the sense that in the same
language class one should expect to encounter some
learners who are C2, some who are C1, some who are
B2, and so on. On the contrary, the levels and scales
describe a succession of language learning outcomes
that take many years to achieve. As Appendix B of the
CEFR explains, the empirical research project that
produced the illustrative scales of descriptors surveyed
teachers and learners in four educational domains:
lower secondary, upper secondary, vocational, and
adult. Language user/learners who achieve the
highest proficiency levels are likely to have pursued
their learning through each of these domains and
perhaps into their professional life. Across Europe,
however, the largest concentration of language
learners is at lower secondary level; and most of them
will spend several years mastering A1, A2 and perhaps
part of B1. This fact underlines the importance of
recognising horizontal as well as vertical progress.
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The Common European Framework
Ta b l e 4 Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: overview of contents
Chapter 1 states the aims, objectives and functions of the CEFR in the light of the Council of Europe’s overall language
policy, a key component of which is the promotion of plurilingualism (the ability to communicate in two or
more languages) as a response to the challenge of Europe’s linguistic diversity.
Chapter 2 introduces the CEFR’s action-oriented approach and its descriptive scheme.
Chapter 3 introduces and summarizes the Common Reference Levels, six empirically derived levels of attainment arranged
in three bands: basic use r –A1,A2;inde pendent user –B1,B2;proficient use r – C1, C2. This chapter
contains the global scale, the self-assessment grid, and scales of five qualitative aspects of spoken language use:
range, accuracy, fluency, interaction, and coherence.
Chapter 4 presents categories for describing language use and the language user/learner: the domains, situations, conditions
and constraints that determine the context of language use; the themes, tasks and purposes of communication;
communicative activities, strategies and processes; and text, especially in relation to activities and media. This
chapter contains 34 illustrative scales for oral production, written production, listening, reading, spoken
interaction, written interaction, note-taking, and processing text. It also contains scales for planning,
compensating, and monitoring/repair; for the receptive strategies of identifying cues and inferring; and for the
interaction strategies of turn-taking, cooperating, and asking for clar ification.
Chapter 5 describes the competences on which the language user/learner depends in order to carry out communicative
tasks: general competences (declarative knowledge, skills and know-how, ‘existential’ competence, ability to
learn) and communicative language competences (linguistic, sociolinguistic, and pragmatic). Scales are provided
for 13 dimensions of communicative language competence: general linguistic range, vocabulary range,
vocabulary control, grammatical accuracy, phonological control, orthographic control, sociolinguistic
appropriateness, flexibility, turn-taking, thematic development, coherence and cohesion, spoken fluency,
propositional precision.
Chapter 6 is concerned with language learning and teaching: what lear ners have to learn or acquire; the processes of
language learning; how the CEFR can be used to facilitate language learning; methodological options for
language learning and teaching; errors and mistakes.
Chapter 7 examines the role of tasks in language learning and teaching, dealing in turn with task description, task
performance, and task difficulty. This chapter provides an integrative perspective on the CEFR’s action-or iented
approach, setting forth some of the considerations that must be taken into account when using the scales and
descriptors to generate a programme of language teaching/learning.
Chapter 8 discusses the implications of linguistic diversification for curriculum design, considering plurilingualism and
pluriculturalism, differentiated learning objectives, some principles of curriculum design, two possible curricular
scenarios, lifelong language learning, and partial competences. This chapter acknowledges that significant
language learning takes place outside as well as inside systems of formal education, and proposes the European
Language Portfolio as a means of documenting progress towards plurilingual competence.
Chapter 9 is concerned with the ways in which the CEFR can support the assessment of communicative proficiency,
dealing briefly with the specification of test content and criteria and the various types of assessment.
Appendix A discusses the description of levels of language attainment from a technical perspective. It identifies five essential
features of good descriptors – they must be positive, definite, clear, brief, and independent; and summarises
intuitive, qualitative, and quantitative approaches to scale development. The appendix concludes with an
annotated bibliography.
Appendix B describes the Swiss research project that developed the illustrative descriptors for the CEFR (it involved almost
300 teachers and about 2,800 learners drawn from lower secondary, upper secondary, vocational and adult
education). Appendix B provides a clear summary of the methodology involved and thus a starting point for
anyone who wishes to undertake similar work.
Appendix C presents DIALANG, an on-line assessment system that uses the scales and descriptors of the CEFR to provide
language learners with diagnostic information about their L2 proficiency.
Appendix D describes the ALTE (Association of Language Testers in Europe) ‘can do’ statements, which were developed,
related to ALTE language examinations, and anchored to the CEFR.
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David Little
Fourthly, the behavioural dimension of the
highest levels implies maturity, general educational
achievement, and professional experience. A1 spoken
production as described in the self-assessment grid
can be mastered by learners of any age (in an age-
appropriate way): ‘I can use simple phrases and
sentences to describe where I live and people I know’
(Council of Europe 2001a: 26). But the same does not
apply to C2 spoken production, which is described
thus: ‘I can present a clear, smoothly flowing descrip-
tion or argument in a style appropriate to the context
and with an effective logical structure which helps the
recipient to notice and remember significant points’
(ibid.: 27). This complex activity lies far beyond the
cognitive range of learners at primary or lower sec-
ondary level, and some way beyond the experiential
range of the great majority of learners at upper sec-
ondary level. The same consideration applies to the
other communicative activities. This characteristic of
the CEFR’s levels and scales means that they can be
adapted to the needs and circumstances of younger
learners to a limited extent only. Those who insist
otherwise have usually failed to grasp that a high level
of linguistic competence does not necessarily entail a
precocious range of communicative proficiency.
2. Where did the
CEFR
come from?
2.1 The Council of Europe’s involvement in
language policy, curriculum, teaching and
learning
The CEFR did not spring fully formed from the void.
Rather, it is among the latest products of the Council
of Europe’s three and a half decades of work on lan-
guage teaching and learning, which has always been
politically as well as culturally and educationally mo-
tivated. The Council of Europe was founded in 1949
to defend human rights, parliamentary democracy
and the rule of law, develop agreements to standardise
social and legal practices in the member states, and
promote awareness of a European identity based on
shared values. The three meetings of Heads of State
and Government that have been held in the Council’s
fifty-seven-year history have all reasserted these fun-
damental concerns.2The moral, political, and social
values that shape the Council of Europe’s purposes are
enshrined in the European Convention on Human
Rights (1950). The promotion of these values in
the member states requires a continuous educational
effort in which the teaching and learning of languages
play an indispensable role. Thus the second article of
the European Cultural Convention (1954) focuses on
the need for each member state not only to encourage
study of the languages, history and civilisation of
other member states but to promote in the latter the
2For further details and key policy documents, see the Council
of Europe’s web site, <http://www.coe.int>.
study of its own language(s), history and civilisation.
Clearly, mutual understanding, effective educational
and cultural exchange, and the mobility of citizens all
require large-scale and successful language learning.
Since the early 1970s, the Council of Europe’s
work in language policy and language education
has shown a steady commitment to fundamental
principles that coincide with its political, cultural and
educational agenda. From the beginning, the idea of
learning languages for purposes of communication
generated two fundamental concerns: to analyse
learners’ communicative needs, and to describe the
language they must learn in order to fulfil those
needs. On this basis documents produced in the 1970s
argued the case for developing a unit/credit scheme
for adult language learning that would provide for
‘the fully participatory development of language
learning systems appropriate to different learning
situations at different times and places’ (Trim 1978:
22). Pursuit of this goal led to ground-breaking
work in three areas: the analysis of learners’ needs
(Richterich 1973; Richterich & Chancerel 1978;
Porcher 1980); the development of a notional-
functional approach (Wilkins 1973, 1976) to the
definition of a ‘threshold level’ of communicative
proficiency in a foreign language (van Ek 1975; see
also Coste et al. 1976, Baldegger et al. 1980); and
the elaboration and promotion of the concept of
autonomy in foreign language learning. Each of these
concerns helped to shape the CEFR as well as its
companion piece, the European Language Portfolio.
2.2 Threshold Level and its successors:
functions and notions
The Threshold Level was designed to meet the needs
of adult learners of English,
people who want to prepare themselves, in a general way, to be
able to communicate socially on straightforward everyday matters
with people from other countries who come their way, and to
be able to get around and lead a reasonably normal social life
when they visit another country. This is not simply a matter
of buying bread and milk and toothpaste and getting repairs
carried out to a car. People want to be able to make contact with
each other as people, to exchange information and opinions, talk
about experiences, likes and dislikes, to explore our similarities
and differences, the unity in diversity of our complicated and
crowded continent. (Trim 1975: ii)
The Threshold Level set out to define the communi-
cative repertoire that such learners need in terms
of the situations in which they must be able to
understand speech and speak, the language activities
they will be likely to engage in, the language
functions (communicative purposes) they will have to
perform, and the notions (general and specific mean-
ings) they will need to express. One is immediately
struck by the document’s ambition: it clearly seeks
to achieve very much more than the ‘phrase book’
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approach that the functional-notional model has
sometimes been accused of promoting.
It is important to draw attention to two limitations
of The Threshold Level, however. First, it is
concerned only with oral communication: ‘A general
ability to read and to write the foreign language
is not part of the T-level objective. What has
been specified is a strictly limited ability’ (van Ek
1975: 114) – though the document concedes that
written materials are likely to be used extensively
to support learning, so that ‘on reaching T-level
the majority of learners will have a much more
general ability to use the written forms of the
language – especially receptively – than what has
been described in the objective’ (ibid.: 18). It should
be noted in passing that Un Niveau Seuil (Coste et al.
1976), The Threshold Level’s French counterpart,
included written communication in its descriptive
system and did not confine itself to the needs of a
single target group. However, The Threshold Level
rather than Un Niveau Seuil provided the model that
was applied to other languages and was used as the
basis for specifying two lower levels, Breakthrough
(unpublished) and Waystage (van Ek, Alexander &
Fitzpatrick 1977), and one higher level, Va n t a g e (van
Ek & Trim 1997). These four specifications provided
the labels for the first four of the CEFR’s common
reference levels: A1 Breakthrough,A2Way st ag e ,
B1 Th r e s h ol d ,andB2Va n ta g e .
A second limitation of The Threshold Level lies in
the fact that it specifies what learners should be able
to do in their target language, but does not specify in
detail how well they should be able to do it. Instead it
defines two general criteria for judging the efficiency
of communication: as speakers, learners should be
able to make themselves ‘easily’ understood, and
as listeners they should be able to understand ‘the
essence’ of what is said to them without having to
exert themselves ‘unduly’ (van Ek 1975: 113). Given
its brief and very general treatment of the degree
of skill that learners need to develop, it is hardly
surprising that The Threshold Level has little to
say about assessing learning outcomes. But it briefly
distinguishes between tests of communicative tasks
and tests of sub-skills, coming down in favour of the
former (ibid.: 114f.) and thus lending its support to
communicative language testing without providing
detailed pointers. These were forthcoming, however,
in the following decade (e.g. Council of Europe
1987).
In keeping with other Council of Europe
documents of the 1970s (see especially Trim 1978),
The Threshold Level’s definitional approach reflects
the view that linguistic performance depends on
more than linguistic knowledge. To this extent it was
related to Hymes’s (1972) concept of ‘communicative
competence’ and the similar though later definitions
of Canale & Swain (1980) and Canale (1983). This
relationship became fully explicit in the next phase of
the Council of Europe’s work on the specification of
language learning objectives, focusing on scope (van
Ek 1986) and levels (van Ek 1987). In the first of
these publications van Ek identifies five dimensions
of communicative ability – linguistic, sociolinguistic,
discourse, socio-cultural, and social competence –
which are not discrete elements but ‘different aspects
of one and the same thing, different aspects to focus
on for the purpose of a systematic exploration of the
concept’ (van Ek 1986: 36). This restates the model
of communicative competence that underlies The
Threshold Level and is carried forward into the CEFR.
On the other hand, van Ek’s study of levels points
forward to one of the central innovative features of
the CEFR, the scaled description of L2 proficiency.
2.3 The communicative approach,
learner-centredness, and the Council of
Europe’s interest in learner autonomy and
self-assessment
The unit/credit approach to adult language learning
first elaborated in Systems development in adult language
learning (Council of Europe 1973) took as its starting
point the analysis of learners’ needs, defined as
‘the requirements which arise from the use of ...
language in the multitude of situations which may
arise in the social lives of individuals and groups’
(ibid.: 32). The analysis of ‘needs’ in this objective
sense was fundamental to the construction of
language learning ‘units’, and thus a matter of systems
development (see also Bung 1973a, b). ‘Needs’ were
held to be distinct from ‘motivations’, which are
created by ‘the social lives of individuals and groups’
(Council of Europe 1973: 32). But by accepting that
different learners have different needs, the unit/credit
approach brought the learner’s individuality into
focus and was thus (objectively) learner-centred.
In the 1970s the Council of Europe was also
concerned with an approach to adult education in
general that sought to take account of learners’
‘motivations’ (which implicate their subjective
needs). Thus, Trim (1978: 1) declares that one of
the Council of Europe’s ideals is to
make the process of language learning more democratic by
providing the conceptual tools for the planning, construction and
conduct of courses closely geared to the needs, motivations and
characteristics of the learner and enabling him so far as possible
to steer and control his own progress.
According to this view, adult education should itself
be a democratic process that
becomes an instrument for arousing an increasing sense of
awareness and liberation in man, and, in some cases, an
instrument for changing the environment itself. From the idea
of man ‘product of his society’, one moves to the idea of man
‘producer of his society’. (Janne 1977: 15)
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The application of this general idea to language learn-
ing was made fully explicit in Henri Holec’s Autonomy
and foreign language learning (1979). Here learner
autonomy, understood as the learner’s capacity to
plan, monitor and evaluate his or her own learning,
comes to be seen as a prerequisite for the success
of a needs-based approach to language learning
for communication. Self-assessment (‘internal eval-
uation’) is fundamental to the process of autonomous
learning:
It is one of the stages of learning, that during which the learner
evaluates the attainments he has lately made as compared with
what he was aiming at so that, in the first place, he can be certain
that he really has acquired something – and the learning process is
not at an end until this evaluation, whether positive or negative,
has been carried out – and in the second place so that he can
plan his subsequent learning. (Holec 1979: 21)
As we shall see, one of the functions of the European
Language Portfolio is to support the development of
learner autonomy; and learner self-assessment using
checklists based on the CEFR’s common reference
levels is fundamental to its effective use.
2.4 Plurilingualism: a new turn in language
education policy
In the foreword to The Threshold Level we read:
The overall aim of the Project is to make the free movement
of men and ideas in the European area easier by increasing the
scale and effectiveness of language learning. Partly, this aim can
be achieved by offering every European child the opportunity
to learn – and use – one of the major languages of international
intercourse during the period of compulsory education. (Trim
1975: i)
It is easy to overlook how revolutionary The
Threshold Level was when it first appeared. In many
quarters the idea that large numbers of adults might
learn to communicate in just one foreign language
was already too ambitious by half. But whereas The
Threshold Level assumed that schools should teach
and adults might want to learn one foreign language,
the CEFR starts from the assumption that the
Council of Europe’s political, social and educational
agenda demands both more language learning and the
learning of more languages. The CEFR also associates
plurilingualism with partial competences.
It is possible to argue that the goal of pluri-
lingualism has always been implicit in the Council
of Europe’s founding texts, beginning with the
European Cultural Convention of 1954 (Beacco
& Byram 2003). What is more, The Threshold
Level prepared the way for the CEFR’s more
thoroughgoing approach to the definition of partial
competences in two ways. By first describing a target
communicative repertoire in behavioural terms and
only then identifying the vocabulary and grammar
required by such a repertoire, it contradicted the
traditional notion that learning a foreign language
entails complete mastery of the target linguistic
system; and by specifying a repertoire for speaking
(and listening) but not for reading and writing,
it asserted the possibility of focussing language
learning on the development of a limited range of
communicative skills. Nevertheless, it is only in more
recent years that the term plurilingualism has been
explicitly identified as a key educational goal of the
Council of Europe. For example, Recommendation
No. R (98) 6 of the Committee of Ministers to
member states includes the following:
Promote widespread plurilingualism ...by encouraging all
Europeans to achieve a degree of communicative ability in a
number of languages; ...by diversifying the languages on offer
and setting objectives suitable to each language; [... and] by
encouraging teaching programmes at all levels that use a flexible
approach. (Council of Europe 1998)
Recommendation 1539 of the Parliamentary As-
sembly of the Council of Europe on the European
Year of Languages states that plurilingualism ‘should
be understood as a certain ability to communicate in
several languages, and not necessarily as perfect mas-
tery of them’, and recommends that the Committee
of Ministers call upon member states to ‘maintain and
develop further the Council of Europe’s language
policy initiatives for promoting plurilingualism,
cultural diversity and understanding among peoples
and nations’ and to ‘encourage all Europeans to
acquire a certain ability to communicate in several
languages, for example by promoting diversified
novel approaches adapted to individual needs’
(Council of Europe 2001d).
The movement towards a more explicit promotion
of the goal of plurilingualism has run parallel to three
significant developments. First, greater prominence
has been given to regional and minority languages,
which has had the effect of raising their status.
For example, the European Charter for Regional
or Minority Languages was opened for signature in
November 1992, while the Framework Convention
for the Protection of National Minorities (1995)
agreed to ‘undertake to promote the conditions ne-
cessary for persons belonging to national minorities
to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve
the essential elements of their identity, namely
their religion, language, traditions and cultural
heritage’ (cit. Beacco & Byram 2003: 33). These
intergovernmental measures, and actions arising from
them, have done much to increase awareness of
this dimension of the European heritage; though
as Beacco has pointed out (2005: 18f.), census
returns and other forms of survey may tell us
what percentages of a population speak different
languages, but they tend not to tell us anything
about the different plurilingual profiles present in the
population.
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Secondly, high levels of migration have had a
significant impact on the linguistic profiles of most
western European countries, many of which were
largely or wholly monoglot until the recent past (Go-
golin 2002). In other words, where plurilingualism
was previously rooted in the history of particular
regions, it is now the inevitable consequence
of the large-scale mobility of populations. To take just
two recent examples, from Ireland: Integrate Ireland
Language and Training has reported that 74 different
nationalities (and roughly the same number of first
languages) were represented in the English language
courses it provided in 2004 for adult immigrants
with refugee status (Integrate Ireland Language and
Training 2005: 5); while in one primary school
in the Dublin area 80% of the September 2005
intake did not know English.3Similar examples
can, of course, be cited for most major cities in
western Europe, where increasing percentages of
the population are plurilingual independently of
educational intervention.
Thirdly, the explicit identification of plurilingual-
ism as an educational goal may be understood in
part as a response to the increasing dominance of
English in the language classrooms of all European
countries except the United Kingdom and Ireland.
For while it is true that English is a de facto lingua
franca in many areas of international communication,
it is also true that Europe’s many other languages
remain the medium of social, cultural and political
life in the countries and regions where they are
native. Thus if the British and the Irish learn no
foreign languages, and the rest of Europe learns only
English, enormous swathes of European culture will
be accessible only to native speakers of the languages
in which they are expressed. Alternatively, to put the
matter more positively and with an eye on increased
awareness of plurilingualism as a social fact, it may be
through plurilingual education that Europeans finally
find a sense of European identity: ‘Europe could
be identified, not by the languages spoken there,
whether or not they are indigenous languages, but
by adherence to principles that define a common
relationship with languages’ (Beacco & Byram 2003:
30).
As the CEFR makes clear (Council of Europe
2001a: chapter 8), if we adopt plurilingualism as an
educational goal, we commit ourselves to diversi-
fication in two senses: making more languages
available to learners, and recognising that different
objectives may be appropriate for different learners
and different languages. But we also commit ourselves
to developing integrated language curricula in which
‘linguistic knowledge (savoir) and skills (savoir-faire),
along with the ability to learn (savoir-apprendre), play
not only a specific role in a given language but also a
3I am grateful to Deirdre Kirwan for providing me with this
information.
transversal or transferable role across languages’ (ibid.
2001a: 169).
To sum up: in its action-oriented approach the
CEFR is in direct line of descent from The Threshold
Level and its successors, though its descriptive
apparatus fully embraces reading and writing as well
as listening and speaking. Itself an instrument of needs
analysis, it balances a concern with learners’ objective
needs with a focus on the subjective dimension
of language learning and use in its treatment of
the learner’s individual capacities. This continuing
commitment to learner-centredness is also signalled
by the CEFR’s sub-title, which puts learning before
teaching and assessment. It is perhaps unlikely
that many individual learners will use it to plan
programmes of self-directed learning in the way the
CEFR itself proposes (Council of Europe 2001a: 6);
but the concept of the European Language Portfolio
took shape in parallel with the CEFR as a way of
mediating key concepts and issues while at the same
time fostering the development of learner autonomy.
Finally, the CEFR’s promotion of plurilingualism as
a central goal of language education policy reflects a
significant development in the Council of Europe’s
thinking that corresponds to equally significant
developments in Europe’s linguistic situation.
3. The reception of the
CEFR
Already in the pilot phase (1997–2000) the Council
of Europe supported the dissemination of the CEFR
by commissioning a series of brief guides aimed
at different categories of potential user. Most of
these guides were subsequently gathered together in
two volumes. The first (Council of Europe 2002a)
contains a general introduction to the CEFR (Trim
2002) and introductions for adult learners (Bailly,
Gremmo & Riley 2002), teachers and learners
(Devitt 2002), primary and secondary teachers and
teacher trainers (B. Jones 2002), those responsible
for language curriculum design and revision (Stoks
2002), those responsible for language curriculum
organisation and delivery (Makosch 2002), those
concerned with quality assurance and quality control
(Heyworth 2002), and those involved in the produc-
tion and design of textbooks and other language
learning materials (Hopkins 2002). The second
volume (Council of Europe 2002b) is devoted to
language assessment and test development. Between
them these two volumes still constitute the best gen-
eral introduction to the CEFR. A good interactive
on-line introduction to the CEFR and the common
reference levels is provided by the EU-funded
CEFTrain Project’s web site, <http://www.ceftrain.
net>, which offers samples in video and print to
illustrate listening, speaking, reading and writing at
each level, allowing users to match their judgements
against those of the web site’s authors.
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The Council of Europe has also coordinated
projects designed to support the mediation of the
CEFR via the European Language Portfolio and to
facilitate the application of the common reference
levels to language examinations and tests. These will
be dealt with separately, but first it is necessary to
consider the more general impact of the CEFR. This
can be done only very approximately, for two reasons.
First, much of the available evidence is anecdotal and
thus difficult to evaluate – a rumour, for example,
which may or may not be based on fact, that school
leavers in a particular country will henceforth be
required to achieve B2 in their first and B1 in
their second foreign language. Secondly, precisely
because the CEFR’s impact is truly international
(recall the number of translations which have already
been made), it is generating applications, research
and publications in many different languages, only
a small number of which can be accessible to any one
person. A systematic study of the CEFR’s impact
would require an extensive network of researchers,
at least one in each Council of Europe member state
that has engaged in any way with the CEFR. This
caveat notwithstanding, it is nevertheless possible to
indicate the general range of the CEFR’s impact and
to report briefly on applications of the descriptive
apparatus to particular languages, two important
convergent developments, and two attempts to use
the descriptive apparatus to develop L2 curricula for
specific audiences.
3.1 Range of impact
To date two collections of papers have been published
in English reporting on applications of the CEFR
to different domains. The first was commissioned
by the Council of Europe (Alderson 2002) and
brings together twelve case studies. Two are internal
to the CEFR, reporting on the development and
validation of its proficiency scales (respectively North
2002a and Kaftandjieva & Takala 2002), two more
are concerned with the use of the scales in self-
administered on-line tests (DIALANG; Huhta et al.
2002) and self-assessment (North 2002b), one reports
on the project to relate the ALTE Framework to
the CEFR (N. Jones 2002), and one reports on the
adaptation and expansion of the CEFR for German as
a foreign language (Wertenschlag, M ¨
uller & Schmitz
2002). The remaining six studies report on the use
made of the CEFR in the Polish educational reform
of 1999 (Komorowska 2002), as a point of reference
and a ‘tool for reflection’ in the development of
language education in Catalonia (Figueras & Melcion
2002), as a basis for developing third-level Spanish
courses in the Open University, UK (Garrido &
Beaven 2002), as a means of helping primary and
secondary language teachers to develop the learning
skills of their pupils (Jaakkola et al. 2002), as a basis for
elaborating English language programmes for adult
refugees admitted to Ireland (Little, Lazenby Simpson
& O’Connor 2002), and as the underpinning for
the European Language Portfolio (Lenz & Schneider
2002).
The second collection of papers, Morrow (2004a)
shares some authors with the first and covers
a partially overlapping range of topics. Morrow
(2004) summarises the background to the CEFR;
Heyworth (2004) explains its importance; Lenz
(2004) introduces the European Language Portfolio;
Mariani (2004) deals with the CEFR’s treatment of
the ability to learn languages and the development
of language learning skills; Keddle (2004) reports
on an attempt to create an interface between the
CEFR and the language classroom; Komorowska
(2004) explains how the CEFR has been used in pre-
and in-service language teacher education in Poland;
Huhta & Figueras (2004) describe the development of
DIALANG, the on-line self-testing service (see also
section 5.3 below); and North (2004) summarises
procedures for relating assessments, examinations and
courses to the CEFR. The volume concludes with
three case studies, on the use of the CEFR to develop
an ESL curriculum for newcomer pupils in Irish
primary schools (Little & Lazenby Simpson 2004),
English courses for teenagers at the British Council
Milan (Manasseh 2004), and English courses for
adults at the University of Gloucestershire (Wall
2004).
These two books are probably an accurate
reflection of the CEFR’s general impact in two
respects: to date it has been applied to testing and
assessment as much as to all other domains together;
and in those other domains – notably teacher edu-
cation, curriculum and course design, and reflective
pedagogy – projects have mostly been on a limited
and local scale.
3.2 Applying the model to specific
languages
The CEFR’s descriptive apparatus and proficiency
levels are language-independent, and their application
to specific languages lies beyond the scope of the
Council of Europe’s work. However, two significant
initiatives of this kind have been undertaken, in
France and Germany, with the Council of Europe’s
explicit approval. In France publication has begun of a
series of reference books each of which is devoted to a
single proficiency level. The first to appear (Beacco,
Bouquet & Porquier 2004) combines a number of
background readings with a detailed elaboration and
exemplification of level B2 in French; the second
(Beacco, de Ferrari & Lhote 2006) does the same for
level A1.1, the lowest level for which certification is
provided in French as a foreign language.
As noted above, the German translation of the
CEFR appeared very soon after the ‘canonical’
English and French versions in 2001. The following
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year saw the publication of the first version of Profile
Deutsch, a CD-ROM accompanied by a detailed
handbook (Glaboniat et al. 2002). Profile Deutsch is
effectively a blend of the CEFR and Kontaktschwelle
(Baldegger et al. 1980; for an account of the
preparatory work, see Wertenschlag et al. 2002). The
CD-ROM presents the common reference levels as
global and detailed ‘can do’ statements for the first
four common reference levels (A1, A2, B1, B2),
together with a corresponding functional-notional
resource (speech acts and their culture-specific
realisations, general notions, and specific no-
tions/vocabulary), functional and systematic treat-
ments of German grammar, an overview of text
types and their realisations, and an overview
of communication and learning strategies. Profile
Deutsch can be used to plan, implement and evaluate
learning programmes in German as a second and
foreign language. Working from the CD-ROM the
user can collect material from the various sections
to compile a syllabus or establish communicative
(‘can do’ but also functional-notional) and lexico-
grammatical resources to guide the development of
learning materials and assessment tasks. The second
version of Profile Deutsch (Glaboniat et al. 2005) covers
all six common reference levels and goes beyond the
CEFR itself by introducing at levels C1 and C2 a
wealth of new descriptors that in principle could be
applied to any other language but also drawn back
into the non-language-specific model. This aspect of
the development of Profile Deutsch helpfully confirms
two things about levels C1 and C2. First, the higher
the level, the more specific, concrete and needs-
oriented learner expectations tend to be; and second,
the higher the level, the more difficult it is to define
level-specific linguistic resources (ibid.: 46).
The production of a set of reference level
descriptors for English, along the lines of Profile
Deutsch, is currently being addressed by a consortium
comprising the British Council, Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, English UK, the Research Centre for
English and Applied Linguistics (University of
Cambridge), University of Cambridge ESOL
Examinations, and the University of Luton, with the
participation also of the Council of Europe and the
Association of Language Testers in Europe.4
3.3 Two closely related developments
As we have seen, The Threshold Level was designed
to meet the needs of adult language learners. Yet its
most immediate impact was on language teaching
at school: in the series of workshops for language
teacher trainers that the Council of Europe coordin-
ated between 1984 and 1987 to support the develop-
ment of communicative language teaching, about
60% of the events focussed exclusively on language
4I owe this information to Nick Saville, Cambridge ESOL.
teaching and learning at school (Council of Europe
1988). A similar fate has befallen the CEFR. As we
have seen, the descriptors that define the common
reference levels were developed on the basis of
empirical research involving teachers and learners
in lower and upper secondary, vocational, and adult
education; and reading the scales from bottom to
top gives one a sense (among other things) of the
traditional language learning trajectory, which starts
for the majority at the beginning of secondary
education and continues for a minority to the end
of formal education and into professional life. Yet
one of the major developments in language teaching
across Europe in the past decade has been the
introduction of lower starting ages for learning at least
the first foreign language. The question thus arises,
to what extent are the CEFR’s common reference
levels applicable to young language learners? To
date the most substantial attempt to answer this
question has come from the Bergen ‘Can-do’ Project
(Hasselgreen 2003, 2005), which began as a local
project administered from the University of Bergen
but subsequently became part of the 2000–2003
medium-term programme of the European Centre
for Modern Languages, Graz. Taking as its starting
point the desire to develop national testing procedures
for English that would be harmonious with the
CEFR’s levels, the project set out to find ways of
adapting the CEFR’s descriptors to take account of
the characteristics and needs of children and young
teenagers while preserving the CEFR’s integrity. This
is an important undertaking that appears to have had
less impact than it should have done, especially on
the European Language Portfolio.
Whereas the Bergen ‘Can-do’ Project seeks
to extend the application of the CEFR’s levels
to younger learners, the UK’s Languages Ladder
(Department for Education and Skills, UK, 2004)
was conceived as a parallel development that would
apply the ‘can do’ dimension of the CEFR’s action-
oriented approach to the UK’s levels of certification.
The web site of the Department for Education and
Skills, <http://www.dfes.gov.uk/languages>,putsit
as follows:
One of the three overarching objectives of The National
Languages Strategy is to introduce a voluntary recognition
scheme to complement existing national qualification
frameworks and the Common European Framework. This would
give people credit for their language skills and form a ladder of
recognition from beginner level to a standard which sits alongside
GCSE, A Level and NVQs.
The Languages Ladder comprises six stages divided
into grades as follows: Breakthrough (grades 1–3;
entry level); Preliminary (grades 4–6; level 1); Inter-
mediate (grades 7–9; level 2); Advanced (grades 10–
12; level 3); Proficiency (grades 13–15; higher levels
4–6); Mastery (grades 16–17; higher levels 7–8).
The Department for Education and Skills describes
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David Little
these six stages as approximately equivalent to the
CEFR’s six levels. Breakthrough covers A1 and
some elements of A2; Preliminary covers A2 and
some elements of B1; Intermediate and Advanced
are equivalent to B1 and B2 respectively; while
descriptors for Proficiency and Mastery, currently
under development, will correspond to CEFR
levels C1 and C2. External assessment leading
to a qualification recognised within the National
Qualifications Framework is under development
by the UCLES Asset Languages project, <www.
assetlanguages.org.uk>. Each language skill will be
assessed separately, so that over time learners will be
able to develop a unique profile. Assessment is already
available for the first three stages in eight languages:
Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Panjabi,
Spanish and Urdu.
The development of the Languages Ladder scheme
provides an interesting example of the power of
the CEFR. To begin with, the Languages Ladder
was conceived as a system of levels in some ways
parallel to but certainly independent of the CEFR.
What is more, it differs from the CEFR in two
important respects: it does not distinguish between
spoken (and written) interaction and production; and
the development of its descriptors was not supported
by empirical research. But such has been the CEFR’s
impact on the international language testing scene
that the pressure to align the stages of the Ladder
to the CEFR levels has become irresistible. It will
be interesting to see how far this process continues
in the years to come. For example, if descriptors
for Proficiency and Mastery are developed in full
harmony with CEFR levels C1 and C2, and if the
Asset Languages assessment scheme is taken up to
a significant extent, will the labels attached to the
Languages Ladder’s six stages be dropped in favour of
the CEFR’s labels?
3.4 Using the CEFR as the basis for
developing new L2 curricula
5
The two collections of papers on different aspects
of the impact and reception of the CEFR referred
to above (Alderson 2002; Morrow 2004a) contain
several pieces that describe the application of the
CEFR to curricula of various kinds. To date,
however, there are few examples of curricula that
have been (re)constructed from the bottom up using
the descriptive apparatus of the CEFR to specify
learning targets at different levels of proficiency. Two
instances that have been documented are the Swiss
IEF Project and the curriculum for English as a
second language that has been developed for use in
Irish primary schools. It is not coincidental that in
5This section draws on a discussion paper prepared for the
Council of Europe on age-appropriate descriptors. I am grateful
to the Council of Europe’s Language Policy Division for
permission to reproduce the material here.
both cases the implementation tool is a version of the
European Language Portfolio.
3.4.1 Example 1: The Swiss IEF project
6
This project was carried out by the Centre for
Language Teaching and Research of the University
of Fribourg on behalf of the German-speaking
Swiss cantons. Its purpose was to promote the
quality and effectiveness of school-based foreign-
language teaching and learning by improving the
quality, coherence and transparency of assessment;
it also contributed goal-setting and self-assessment
checklists to the Swiss European Language Portfolio
for lower secondary learners. Taking the CEFR
as its basis, the project developed age-appropriate
descriptors for sub-divisions of the first three
common reference levels: A1.1 and A1.2, A2.1 and
A2.2, B1.1 and B1.2. The bank of new descriptors
(written in German, but to be translated into French,
Italian, Romansch and English) was compiled in four
steps as follows:
(i) Descriptors relevant to the needs of younger
learners were collected from ELPs that had been
validated by the Council of Europe and derived
from textbooks and tests.
(ii) These descriptors were then qualitatively validated
in teacher workshops: teachers decided on their
relevance, assigned them to the common reference
levels, and added to them on the basis of their
experience.
(iii) Experts finalised the wording of the ‘can do’
statements and added further descriptors. They
then made a selection of descriptors to cover the
whole range of levels from A1.1 to B1.2, as well as
a wide range of (sub-)skills and tasks.
(iv) 126 teachers each assessed seven of their pupils.
The assessment was based on a series of nine partly
overlapping questionnaires, all of which comprised
50 ‘can do’ statements. The questionnaires
contained a number of descriptors from the CEFR
as level anchors; these provided a means of linking
the questionnaires to one another. The teacher
assessments were subjected to Rasch analysis, the
results of which caused a number of descriptors
to be eliminated. The remaining descriptors were
scaled (i.e. put in order of difficulty) and anchored
in relation to the common reference levels. Finally,
the level thresholds established for the CEFR by
the Swiss National Science Foundation Project led
by G ¨
unther Schneider and Brian North (North &
Schneider 1998; Schneider & North 1999) were
6These paragraphs are based on information provided by Peter
Lenz, Centre for Language Teaching and Research, University
of Fribourg. Further infor mation (in German) is available from
<http://www.babylonia-ti.ch/BABY204/baby204en.htm>ac-
cessed 29/4/2006.
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applied in order to assign the descriptors to their
levels.
Two further steps led to the development of checklists
and an age-appropriate self-assessment grid for the
Swiss ELP for lower secondary learners:
(v) Selected ‘can do’ statements were reworded as ‘I
can’ statements in order to make them suitable
for self-assessment. They were then piloted in a
number of classes in order to discover whether or
not learners could make sense of the descriptors
and use them to assess their own proficiency. The
results of the piloting were used to rephrase the
whole collection of descriptors.
(vi) Finally, checklists for levels A1.1, A1.2, A2.1, A2.2,
B1.1, and B1.2 were developed, together with a
new self-assessment grid. The IEF descriptor bank
served as the main source; additional descriptors
were taken from the CEFR and the Swiss ELP
for adolescents and adults (Schneider, North &
Koch 2001), mainly in order to provide a more
comprehensive description of levels B1 and B2.
3.4.2 Example 2: ESL curricula for
non-English-speaking pupils/students
in Irish primary/post-primary schools
Integrated Ireland Language and Training has
developed English Language Proficiency Benchmarks
for learners of English as a second language in primary
and post-primary (secondary) schools. Both sets of
benchmarks (Integrate Ireland Language and Training
2003a, b) are based on the first three common
reference levels (A1–B1) and offer a scaled curriculum
designed to bring non-English-speaking learners to
the point where they can access English-medium
education without intensive English language sup-
port. The benchmarks were developed by bringing
the self-assessment grid and illustrative scales of the
CEFR into interaction with the official curricula and
the results of classroom observation. Both documents
begin with ‘global benchmarks’, which are effectively
age-appropriate and domain-specific versions of the
self-assessment grid. These are followed by a number
of grids that refer respectively to recurrent themes
in the primary curriculum and the main subject
areas of the post-primary curriculum. The versions
of the ELP that were developed on the basis of the
benchmarks contain an abbreviation of the ‘global
benchmarks’ in place of the self-assessment grid
(which, however, is included as an appendix to each
model) together with checklists derived from the
relevant benchmarks.
The interrelation of these various descriptors can
be illustrated with reference to the post-primary
benchmarks. In the global benchmarks the following
descriptors are given for spoken interaction at A1:
Can greet, take leave, say please and thank you,and
use very basic words and phrases to ask for directions to
another place in the school.
Can ask for attention in class.
Can interact in a simple way provided the other person
is prepared to repeat or rephrase things and help him/her
reformulate what he/she is trying to say.
Can make basic requests in the classroom or playground
(e.g. for the loan of a pencil) and respond appropriately to
the basic requests of others.
In the language passport section of the corresponding
ELP these descriptors are summarised as:
I can say hello and goodbye,please and thank you,
can ask for directions in the school, and can ask and answer
simple questions.
The benchmarks for A1 spoken interaction in the
context of history and geography lessons are:
Can indicate lack of comprehension and ask for assistance
with vocabulary specific to history/geography.
Can use basic words and phrases and visual support (e.g.
pointing to appropriate pictures or graphics in the textbook)
to participate in group work.
Finally, in the corresponding ELP the relevant
descriptor in the history/geography A1 checklist is:
I can use some key words in group work.
As these examples show, the Irish descriptors are not
only age-appropriate but strongly domain-specific:
they define the communicative proficiency required
by learners of a certain age who are learning in a
particular educational context.
The two sets of benchmarks and their respective
ELPs have provided an effective and robust basis
for teaching English as a second language in Irish
schools. In developing them, every effort was made
to find secure anchors in the CEF scales. However,
it has not been possible to validate the descriptors
empirically, so the relation of the benchmarks to the
CEFR’s common reference levels remains a matter
of faith. This will be true of any other adaptation
of the CEFR descriptors that is not supported by
empirical validation. It would, however, be possible
to add descriptors from a source like this to a core
collection of descriptors that had been empirically
validated, like the IEF bank (this was the procedure
used to develop the Council of Europe’s bank of
descriptors for use in adolescent and adult ELPs; see
section 4.3 below). For further information on the
Irish project, see Little & Lazenby Simpson (2004),
Little (2005).
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4. Mediating the CEFR to L2 learners:
the European Language Portfolio
4.1 The structure and functions of the
European Language Portfolio and their
relation to the CEF
From the beginning the European Language
Portfolio was conceived as a way of mediating the
CEFR to language learners. In 1991 the R ¨
uschlikon
Symposium, ‘Transparency and coherence in lan-
guage learning in Europe: objectives, evaluation, cer-
tification’ (Council of Europe 1992), recommended
that the Council of Europe should establish ‘a
comprehensive, coherent and transparent framework
for the description of language proficiency’; it also
considered that ‘once the Common Framework
has been elaborated, there should be devised, at
the European level, a common instrument allowing
individuals who so desire to maintain a record of
their language learning achievement and experience,
formal or informal’ (ibid.: 39). The symposium
recommended that the Council of Europe should
set up two working parties, one to elaborate the
Common Framework and the other to consider
possible forms and functions of a European Language
Portfolio (ibid.: 39f.):
The Portfolio should contain a section in which formal
qualifications are related to a common European scale, another
in which the learner him or herself keeps a personal record of
language learning experiences and possibly a third which contains
examples of work done. Where appropriate, entries should be
situated within the Common Framework. (ibid.: 40)
This description of the ELP clearly anticipates the
tripartite structure of language passport, language
biography, and dossier. At this early stage, however,
the ELP was seen as a means of recording language
learning experience and achievement; its pedagogical
function had not yet begun to emerge.
In 1997 the Council of Europe held an inter-
governmental conference in Strasbourg (Council of
Europe 1997b) to launch the second draft of the
CEFR (Council of Europe 1996b) and to present
a collection of studies that considered how the ELP
might be configured for language learners of different
ages in different domains (Council of Europe 1997a).
Over the next three years further work on the CEFR
produced the version that was published in English
and French in 2001 (Council of Europe 2001a, b) and
is the subject of this article. Simultaneously projects
in fifteen Council of Europe member states and
three international non-governmental organisations
developed, piloted, and revised versions of the ELP
for language learners in primary, lower and upper
secondary, vocational, tertiary, and adult education
(for details, see Sch¨
arer 2000; for further background,
see Little 2002). The leaders of these pilot projects
met twice each year to report on experience and
exchange ideas, which meant that there was a great
deal of cross-fertilisation in the design of different
ELP models. During the pilot phase the Principles and
Guidelines that define the ELP and its functions in
relation to Council of Europe policy were gradually
elaborated and refined (Council of Europe 2000).
In keeping with the Council of Europe’s ethos,
it was never intended to develop ‘canonical’ ELP
models for different categories of learner. Instead, the
Council of Europe established a Validation Commit-
tee and invited competent authorities in the member
states to develop ELPs and submit them to the
committee for validation (a matter of establishing
their conformity with the Principles and Guidelines)
and accreditation. At the time of writing (April
2006), the Council of Europe’s ELP web site lists 75
accredited models from 26 member states and three
international non-governmental organisations.
4.2 Policy implications of the ELP
The Principles and Guidelines (Council of Europe
2000) are divided into four sections. The first declares
that the ELP reflects the Council of Europe’s concern
with
the deepening of mutual understanding among
citizens in Europe;
respect for diversity of cultures and ways of life;
the protection and promotion of linguistic and
cultural diversity;
the development of plurilingualism as a life-long
process;
the development of the language learner;
the development of the capacity for independent
language learning;
transparency and coherence in language learning
programmes.
(Council of Europe 2000: 2)
The first three of these concerns have always been
fundamental to the Council of Europe’s political,
cultural and educational agenda, and the fifth and
sixth (having to do with the development of the
individual learner) have also been present since the
1970s. It is the fourth and seventh, with their focus
respectively on plurilingualism and transparency and
coherence, that reflect concerns specific to the
CEFR.
The second section of the Principles and Guidelines
explains that the ELP
is a tool to promote plurilingualism and pluri-
culturalism;
is the property of the learner;
values the full range of the learner’s language and
intercultural competence and experience regardless
of whether acquired within or outside formal
education;
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The Common European Framework
is a tool to promote learner autonomy;
has both a pedagogic function to guide and support
the learner in the process of language learning
and a reporting function to record proficiency in
languages;
is based on the CEFR with explicit reference to the
common levels of competence;
encourages learner self-assessment and the recording
of assessment by teachers, educational authorities
and examination bodies;
incorporates a minimum of common features which
make it recognisable and comprehensible across
Europe;
may be one of a series of ELP models that the
individual learner will possess in the course of life-
long learning.
(Council of Europe 2000: 2)
This description of the ELP succinctly captures the
challenge that it poses to language education. It is
designed to promote plurilingualism and pluricul-
turalism, which thus become explicit educational
goals (cf. the discussion of plurilingualism in section
2.4 above); it insists on the equal status of all language
learning, wherever it may take place; it aims to foster
the development of learner autonomy and assigns
as much importance to learner self-assessment as to
assessment by teachers and external authorities; and
by making explicit reference to the CEFR’s common
reference levels it implies that in any context language
learning goals and content can be expressed as a
collection of ‘I can’ descriptors.
The third section of the Principles and Guidelines is
addressed to ELP developers; it briefly describes the
functions of the ELP’s three parts and lays down basic
design criteria. On their own these criteria will not
get the novice ELP developer very far, but detailed
guidance is provided by Schneider & Lenz (2001)
and the annotations that the Validation Committee
has added to the Principles and Guidelines (Council
of Europe 2004b). The fourth section addresses
implementation issues: what an educational authority
needs to do in order to promote the effective use of
its ELP(s).
4.3 The ELP’s goal-setting/self-
assessment checklists as learner-centred
curriculum
The common levels of the CEFR are fundamental
to the ELP, not just because they make explicit
the relation between the ELP and the CEFR, but
because without them it is difficult to imagine a
coherent ELP concept capable of being translated
into many different forms, all of them sharing a strong
family resemblance. Early in the ELP pilot projects
(1998–2000) it became clear that in order to plan
and evaluate their learning, learners need more than
the summary level descriptions of the self-assessment
grid (Council of Europe 2001a: 26f.). Thus, although
the Principles and Guidelines do not explicitly require
it (see, however, the annotated version; Council of
Europe 2004b), the inclusion of detailed checklists
of descriptors arranged by level and skill quickly
became obligatory; and it is fair to say that the
checklists play a key role in the dynamic that supports
effective ELP use. The language passport allows the
learner/owner to maintain a summary of language
learning achievement and intercultural experience,
and he or she can collect concrete evidence of that
achievement in the dossier. But if the ELP comes to
play a central role in the language learning process,
it does so by virtue of the reflective processes of
planning, monitoring and evaluating learning on the
basis of the checklists. These processes are stimulated
and captured in the language biography. This explains
why the single most important practical support the
Council of Europe has provided for ELP developers is
a bank of descriptors compiled by G ¨
unther Schneider
and Peter Lenz, which takes as its starting point the
empirically derived descriptors of the Swiss ELP for
older adolescents and adults (Schneider et al. 2001)
and supplements them with descriptors drawn from
other validated ELPs (see the Council of Europe’s
ELP web site, <http://www.coe.int/portfolio>,for
the descriptor bank and a revised version of chapter
6 of Schneider & Lenz 2001). It also explains why
there is a need to develop descriptors that meet the
special needs of young learners without impairing
the integrity of the common reference levels (cf.
Hasselgreen 2003, 2005).
As far as the ELP user is concerned, the
checklists quickly become the curriculum, expressed
in communicative/behavioural terms. In some cases
the construction of checklists is itself an act of
curriculum development (cf. the ESL curricula for
Irish primary and post-primary schools described in
section 3.4.2 above); in others ELP developers must
construct their checklists by translating an existing
curriculum into an inventory of communicative
tasks (see e.g. Ushioda & Ridley 2002). Clearly, a
close fit between checklists, curriculum and exami-
nation requirements is essential if an ELP is to be
implemented successfully.
4.4 Pedagogical impact of the ELP
Although the ELP was originally conceived primarily
as a means of recording language learning experience
and achievement, the pilot projects (1998–2000)
were largely concerned to develop its pedagogical
function. This is hardly surprising, for the ELP
is unlikely to mean much to learners of any age
unless it has played a central role in the learning
process. In other words, the ELP’s recording and
pedagogical functions are necessarily interdependent.
Without a strongly developed pedagogical function,
there is unlikely to be much worth recording; on
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the other hand, the attempt to record aspects of the
learning process as well as learning outcomes is what
drives the pedagogical function forward. Available
reports suggest that the pedagogical impact of the
ELP arises from two factors, both connected to the
action-oriented description of language proficiency
developed in the CEFR. The checklists of ‘I can’
descriptors help teachers and learners to adopt a
task-based orientation to teaching and learning (cf.
the example of a Czech teacher cited by Little &
Perclov´
a 2001: 38f.; also the nine brief case studies
from seven countries collected in Little 2003b);
but the checklists also provide a means of helping
learners to plan, monitor and evaluate their own
learning. Teachers participating in the pilot projects
reported that the ELP had a strongly positive effect
on learner motivation (Little & Perclov´
a 2001: 18)
and accommodated a wide range of learner ability
(ibid.: 19). Despite persistent rumours of ELP-
oriented research, published findings that are more
than anecdotal remain a rarity; where they do exist,
however, they tend to confirm the feedback collected
from the pilot projects (e.g. Ushioda & Ridley
2002; Sisamakis 2006). Although there is by now
ample anecdotal evidence that the ELP can have a
transformative impact on individual classrooms where
particular languages are being taught and learnt, we
do not yet have an empirical study of its use as a means
of bringing the teaching and learning of different
languages into interaction with one another so that
it helps learners to become explicitly aware of their
developing plurilingual profile. Moreover, study of
the ELP models validated to date shows that we have
a long way to go before we can claim that the ELP
has had its intended impact on the development of
intercultural learning and intercultural awareness.
5. The CEFR and the assessment of L2
proficiency
We have noted more than once that the common
reference levels, especially in summary form, are
easily the best known part of the CEFR; and it is true
to say that in discussion and use of the CEFR much
more attention has been paid to the ‘vertical’ than to
the ‘horizontal’ dimension of language learning. One
obvious reason for this is the attractiveness of ‘uni-
versal’ scales of language proficiency at a time when
populations are increasingly mobile and the easy
comparability of language qualifications has so much
to offer. Another reason can be found in the genesis of
the CEFR. Those parts of the document that focus
on the ‘horizontal’ dimension of language learning
synthesise research findings at one remove, drawing
on a number of preliminary studies, for example,
those on strategic competence and strategies by Holec
(1996), Little (1996a, b) and Richterich (1996), and
on sociocultural competences by Byram, Zarate &
Neuner (1997). Those parts of the CEFR that have
to do with the ‘vertical’ dimension, on the other
hand, are rooted in original research: the CEFR’s
‘Can do’ scales and their descriptors were arrived
at on the basis of rigorous empirical and statistical
procedures (for detailed accounts of this research,
see North & Schneider 1998; Schneider & North
1999, 2000; North 2000a, b, 2002a, 2004). What is
more, this work ran parallel to the development of the
ALTE ‘can do’ statements, work on which began in
1992 (N. Jones 2002: 168), the year of the R¨
uschlikon
Symposium, while the DIALANG descriptors were
developed in parallel with the CEFR. Both sets of
descriptors are included in the 2001 edition of the
CEFR (Council of Europe 2001a, b).
5.1 Linking existing examinations to the
CEFR’s proficiency levels
At the beginning of chapter 3 of the CEFR, which
introduces the common reference levels, we read:
‘One of the aims of the Framework is to help partners
to describe the levels of proficiency required by
existing standards, tests and examinations in order
to facilitate comparisons between different systems of
qualification’ (Council of Europe 2001a: 21). In 2002
the Council of Europe launched a project to assist
this process. The first outcome of the project was
a preliminary pilot version of a manual for relating
language examinations to the CEFR (Council of
Europe 2003; the authors of the manual are Brian
North, Neus Figueras, Sauli Takala, Norman Verhelst
and Piet van Avermaet). The manual is designed to
support four sets of procedures: familiarisation with
the CEFR’s common reference levels; specification of
examinations in terms of content, test development,
marking and grading, and test analysis, and the
relation of that specification to the CEFR scales;
standardisation in assessing performance and judging
the difficulty of test items in relation to the CEFR
scales; and empirical validation through the analysis
of test data (for a description of these procedures
and a summary of possible future benefits but
also less desirable consequences, see Figueras et al.
2005). The Council of Europe has also published
a reference supplement to the preliminary pilot
version of the manual, written by Jayanti Banerjee,
Felianka Kaftandjieva and Norman Verhelst, and
edited by Sauli Takala (Council of Europe 2004a).
The supplement discusses approaches to standard
setting, classical test theory, qualitative methods in
test validation, generalisability theory, factor analysis,
and item response theory.
The purpose of the so-called Manual Project
is not only to provide these foundational tools,
however, but to produce samples in various languages
that illustrate the different language skills at the
different CEFR levels. Details of the materials
currently available can be found on the Council
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of Europe web site,7which also offers a guide to
organising seminars to calibrate examples of written
performance (Council of Europe 2005) and other
supporting documentation. In addition, the various
procedures elaborated in the manual are being piloted
in 41 projects in 21 countries.8
5.2 Using the CEFR as the basis for
developing new assessment instruments
OnthefirstpageoftheCEFRwearetoldthat
it ‘provides a common basis for the elaboration of
language syllabuses, curriculum guidelines, examin-
ations, textbooks, etc. across Europe’ (Council of
Europe 2001a: 1). In other words, the descriptive
apparatus that embodies the CEFR’s action-oriented
approach is intended to apply not only to the
comparison of language examinations but to the
specification of learning goals, the development of
teaching and learning materials and procedures, and
the design of examinations and tests. Some measure
of the extent to which the CEFR has become a
key reference point in language test development
is provided by Eckes et al. (2005), a series of brief
reports on the reform of language assessment in the
Baltic States, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary,
Poland and Slovenia.
Chapter 9 of the CEFR, devoted to assessment,
proposes that there are three main ways in which it
can be used in relation to language tests:
(i) For the specification of the content of tests and
examinations: what is assessed.
(ii) For stating the criteria to determine the attainment
of a learning objective: how performance is inter-
preted.
(iii) For describing the levels of proficiency in existing
tests and examinations thus enabling comparisons
to be made across different systems of qualifications:
how comparisons can be made. (Council of
Europe 2001a: 178; emphasis in original)
These are strong claims if they are taken literally:
as Weir (2005: 283) points out, test developers
require more comprehensive specifications than the
CEFR itself contains (the same point is made in
practical rather than theoretical terms by Little et al.
2002 and Little 2005). In fact, however, the claims
should rather be taken to mean that in each
respect the CEFR is intended to serve as a starting
point and basic reference; hence, for example, the
detailed support provided by the manual for relating
7<http://www.coe.int/T/E/Cultural_Co-operation/
education/Languages/Language_Policy/Common_Framework_
of_Reference/3illustrationse.asp>accessed 29/4/2006.
8I am grateful to Waldemar Martyniuk for providing this
information.
language examinations to the CEFR and its reference
supplement.
To date the so-called Dutch CEF Construct
Project (Alderson et al. 2004) is the most substantial
response to the need to supplement the CEFR’s scales
and descriptors in order to generate test content. The
project involved ‘gathering expert judgments on the
usability of the CEF for test construction, identifying
what might be missing from the CEF, developing a
frame for analysis of tests and specifications, and then
examining a range of test specifications, guidelines to
item writers, and sample test tasks at the six levels of
the CEF’ (ibid.: ii). As well as a critical review of the
CEFR, the project produced compilations of CEFR
scales and test specifications at the different CEFR
levels and a series of classification systems, which
led to the development of a web-based instrument
for characterising tests and items in relation to the
CEFR.9The Dutch CEF Construct Project was
concerned with listening and reading: there is a clear
need for a similar project focussed on speaking and
writing. At the same time there is no doubt that
the CEFR’s action-oriented approach can be drawn
on to support the development of communicative
language tests in contexts where they may still
be a novelty. Little (2005), for example, describes
the development of batteries of placement, progress
and achievement tests for the graded primary ESL
curriculum described in section 3.4.2 above.
5.3 DIALANG
Because the CEFR’s action-oriented approach
assigns a central role to the description of communi-
cative behaviour in terms of ‘I can’ and ‘Can do’
statements, it brings language learning/teaching and
assessment into a much closer relation to each other
than has often been the case. What is more, that
relation is accessible to learners as well as teachers and
test developers. Although learners may not always
be able to identify formal deficiencies in their use
of the target language, they generally know which
communicative tasks they can and cannot perform,
and with what degree of assurance. One of the first
projects to exploit this fact was DIALANG, <http://
www.dialang.org>, an on-line language assessment
system whose development was funded by the
European Union. Currently tests are available at
all six common reference levels in fourteen langu-
ages (Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French,
German, Greek, Icelandic, Irish, Italian, Norwegian,
Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish) for the skills of
listening, reading and writing, and for structures
and vocabulary. The tests are free of charge; no
certificates are issued.
There are five steps in the DIALANG procedure.
First users choose which test to take (language and
9<http://www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/cefgrid>accessed 29/4/2006.
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David Little
skill focus). Then they are presented with an optional
placement test that requires them to say whether
75 words presented on screen belong to the target
language or are invented. The third step is self-
assessment against a series of ‘I can’ statements,
designed to get users to reflect on their language
skills. The second and third steps are both optional,
but users who skip them run the risk of being given
a test that is inappropriate to their proficiency level.
On the other hand, if users take the second and third
steps and what follows suggests that they have under-
or overestimated their skills, DIALANG tells them so.
The fourth step is the test itself, in the language and
skill chosen in the first step. The final step gives users
a great deal of feedback on their test performance.
The essential underpinning for the system is provided
by the DIALANG scales, which were developed on
the basis of the second draft of the CEFR (Council
of Europe 1996b), descriptors being translated from
English into the thirteen other languages of the
system. The development of DIALANG has been
described by Huhta et al. (2002), Huhta & Figueras
(2004), and Alderson & Huhta (2005).
5.4 Reconciling assessment by
examination boards and teachers with the
culture of self-assessment promoted by
the ELP
Published accounts of DIALANG emphasise that its
function is diagnostic: by using its tests language
learners can become more aware of the skills they
already possess, learn to make informed judgements
about their behavioural capacities in their target
language(s), and thus support their further language
learning. The ‘I can’ checklists that are central to
the ELP perform much the same function as the
self-assessment module in DIALANG, the difference
being that the ELP user does not receive automatic
feedback; though in some teaching/learning contexts
learners who make a claim about their target language
proficiency are expected to be ready to substantiate
it to their teacher or other learners (see e.g. Little &
Perclov´
a 2001: 38).
Checklists derived from the common reference
levels of the CEFR mark an important advance
for self-assessment in language learning, for they
make it possible for learners to assess themselves
using the same objective scales that in principle
may underpin the tests and examinations they are
required to take. At the same time, the presence
of such checklists as a key element in the ELP
adds a significant new dimension to portfolio-based
language learning and assessment. Proponents of this
approach claim that it ‘enables instruction to be linked
to assessment, promotes reflection, helps learners to
take responsibility for their own learning, enables
learners to see gaps in their learning, and enables
learners to take risks’ (Ekbatani 2000: 6–7; see also
Kohonen 1999). Similar considerations underlie the
claim in the Principles and Guidelines that the ELP
is designed to foster the development of learner
autonomy. But as with earlier approaches to self-
assessment, so with portfolio learning and assessment
the problem has been to devise appropriate assessment
criteria. The checklists provide a solution.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that
when it is undertaken using carefully developed
instruments, self-assessment can correlate well with
teacher assessment and examinations (e.g. Oscarson
1978, 1984, 1989; Ross 1998). Spolsky (1992: 36)
proposes, however, that the accuracy of self-
assessment depends on whether or not two basic
conditions are met: there should be no advantage in
giving inaccurate answers; and the responses required
must focus on aspects of language proficiency which
lie within the responder’s experience. The ‘I can’
basis of self-assessment in the ELP arguably meets
the second of these conditions. Whether it will
be possible to develop an assessment culture that
accommodates self-assessment alongside assessment
by tests and examinations remains an open question.
There is no doubt that the ease with which materials
can be downloaded from the Internet has provided
an enormous boost to plagiarism; on the other hand,
seriously exaggerated claims made on the basis of
plagiarised material can quickly be exposed in an
oral exam in which the learner presents his or her
ELP to the examiner (for further discussion of this
point, see Little 2003a).
6. Challenges and prospects
It should be clear by now that the CEFR has had
a significant if partial and uneven impact on the
teaching, learning and assessment of languages in
Europe. Since it was first given wide distribution in
1996, but more especially since its commercial pub-
lication in 2001, applications of the CEFR in various
domains raise the question whether the descriptive
model needs to be consolidated and perhaps
expanded. For example, although the levels and
scales that constitute the CEFR’s vertical dimension
were developed on the basis of rigorous research,
not all of the descriptors were empirically derived:
those for written production were ‘mainly developed
from those for spoken production’ (CEFR, Appen-
dix B; Council of Europe 2001a: 220). This implies
that it may be appropriate to undertake a new
phase of empirical development. Further work could
also usefully be done on the CEFR’s horizontal
dimension, where some of the descriptors are open to
challenge. For instance, fluency is defined largely in
terms of hesitation (Council of Europe 2001a: 28f.),
yet native speakers often hesitate in the production of
indisputably fluent speech. More generally, it would
be worth exploring the relation (if any) between the
teaching progression that is reflected in the CEFR’s
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The Common European Framework
‘Can do’ scales and the orders of L2 acquisition
uncovered by empirical research. Finally, the fact that
language test developers require more information
than the CEFR itself can possibly provide suggests
(as noted above) the need for another project like
the Dutch CEF Construct Project but focused on
speaking and writing.
Over the past decade and a half plurilingualism
has become increasingly central to the Council
of Europe’s policy declarations and projects, but
neither the CEFR nor the ELP does full justice
to the concept. Our plurilingualism is rooted in
our first language, as the CEFR acknowledges: ‘an
individual person’s experience of language in its
cultural contexts expands, from the language of
the home to that of society at large and then to
the languages of other peoples (whether learnt at
school or college, or by direct experience)’ (Council
of Europe 2001a: 10). Yet the CEFR offers an
apparatus for describing second and foreign language
proficiency, and the ELP is explicitly concerned with
learning languages other than the mother tongue.
The Council of Europe has begun to address the first
of these contradictions by launching a new project
on languages of school education. According to the
Council’s web site, the aim of the project is
to support social inclusion and equal opportunities for successful
learning by (i) analysing and defining approaches to curricula
for language(s) of school education/mother tongue education,
taking into account the language skills needed for study in all
curriculum areas; (ii) examining possible links with learning,
teaching and assessment in foreign (and other) languages in order
to promote a coherent approach to language education.10
If this project succeeds in its second aim to the extent
of developing a descriptive apparatus that applies to
first as well as second and foreign languages, this will
have important consequences not only for the CEFR
but for the ELP and the elaboration of language
curricula. Meanwhile, general policy issues arising
from the concept of plurilingualism are central to
the Council of Europe’s Guide for the development of
language education policies in Europe (Beacco & Byram
2003) and play an important role in the language
education policy profiles that the Council of Europe
helps member states to develop (to date profiles are
available for three countries – Cyprus, Hungary and
Norway; and in progress for seven more – Ireland,
Lithuania, Lombardy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovenia
and the Slovak Republic).
The CEFR poses a challenge to language educa-
tion across Europe by virtue of its comprehensiveness.
As we have seen, its action-oriented approach entails
thatitispossibletousethesame‘cando’descriptorto
identify a learning target, shape the learning/teaching
10 <http://www.coe.int/T/E/Cultural_Co-operation/
education/Languages/Language_Policy/New_Activity>
accessed 29/4/2006.
process, and guide the assessment of learning
outcomes. This is perhaps the CEFR’s single
most innovative feature: that it brings curriculum,
teaching/learning and assessment into much closer
interdependence than has usually been the case.
But the coherence thus achieved means that the
application of the CEFR to just one of the domains it
addresses may very well generate problems in one or
more of the other domains. Revising school leaving
exams to bring them into line with the common
reference levels, for example, may create difficulties
for teachers if the curriculum and textbooks are
not revised at the same time as part of the same
process. A version of this challenge confronts the
ELP, which seems most likely to succeed long-
term when it is integral to the reform of curricula,
teaching approaches and assessment. But although
many (perhaps most) ELPs were designed with
pedagogical reform in view, few of them have been
accompanied by thoroughgoing curricular reform or
programmes of teacher education.
In the end, of course, the Council of Europe can
only develop tools and provide expert support; what
use is made of the tools and support depends on the
member states. In their account of the development
of the manual for relating language examinations to
the CEFR, Figueras et al. (2005: 276f.) sketch two
possible scenarios. In one, the process of relating tests,
examinations and certificates to the CEFR results in
greater professionalism and increased transparency;
in the other, claims of linkage to the CEFR are
made without due process and validation and are thus
meaningless. As Figueras et al. (2005) acknowledge,
both scenarios already exist side by side; and the same
is likely to become increasingly true in the other
domains of CEFR application, curriculum develop-
ment and pedagogy. But this is only to be expected.
Just as the CEFR itself may strive to be com-
prehensive in its descriptions but can never be
exhaustive, so its impact may be wide-ranging and
profound but can never be total.
Acknowledgements
I am grateful to Waldemar Martyniuk, Se´
an Devitt
and four anonymous LT reviewers for their helpful
comments on the first draft of this article.
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