How to crack the codes of CEFR

How much do you know about the CEFR? How can teachers use the CEFR in their everyday planning? Need help getting tips on how to use it effectively?

Webinar Summary

So today I will be talking about how to crack the codes of the CEFR. Let’s just start with the acronym itself. What do you think CEFR stands for?
It is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. 

So we’re going to talk about CEFR in General, how it was incepted, and then we’ll dig deeper into the descriptors skills and so on. So first of all, the CEFR, the common European framework, is a threshold level or this is how it started in the 1970s. It’s a level or a base where a language user can know their own abilities across four different language skills and it is the international standard for language teaching and learning as of the moment. It started first for English and that was adapted into French, and then for all other European languages and it was translated. The companion volume that describes all of the scales at the descriptors is translated into 40 languages. 

The CEFR as we know it right now was launched in 2001. And it marked a major turning point because it can be adapted and used for multiple contexts and applied for all languages. Though, this is a point of contention right now for some ELT researchers. They believe that, yes, it could be used for all context and all languages, and others would disagree with that. Now, the descriptors specify the progressive mastery of each skill (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) and we have a six level scale on which the descriptors are integrated: we have, A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. 

Let’s just talk about why the CEFR is important in the first place. Now, the CEFR is a major turning point. That means that, as we said because it highlights the competences a learner needs, that is not just linguistic, it’s also pragmatic, sociolinguistic, strategic, and Intercultural as a language user. And it has developed a familiar but adequate scales description of activities that the learner needs to undertake that is spoken and written, and reception and interaction, production. And the last one is mediation, which is something that has been added to the companion volume about two years ago. It’s also important because it provides validated and scientifically calibrated descriptors of these different aspects and it’s descriptive scheme, except for the part of intercultural competence and mediation, it’s sort of new. So there are lots of additions and modifications going on in that part. 

So, now, how to find it, where to find it, how to navigate it. This is the link to the Council of Europe. This is one of the tabs or one of the pages associated with the Council of Europe website and it talks, or introduces, the bank of supplementary descriptors here on the left. You can see a description of the different types of descriptors. We have four fundamentally different types of descriptors, skilled ones and non skilled ones. That’s number four, and we have number two, the descriptive language proficiency and language competence, and this is used in examination levels that is associated with the TOEFL scores and ILETS levels that you get at the end of the exam. And you have descriptors of language proficiency and language competence that are not found in the CEFR, and they indicate a certain level of competence of a learner. However, this learner has to belong to specific target group learning and they have to act in a specific context. It’s very group-specific and achievement-oriented. If you take a look on the right, you have the CEFR companion volume, if you click on it, it directs you to a page where you can download the whole companion volume and it’s about 278 pages long. So that’s quite rich and very long and detailed, and I’ll show you how you can navigate it very easily. And we have the older version that is the 2018 version. If you try to compare between both versions, you will find slight differences in the descriptors themselves. Some additions/modifications, but mainly it’s the mediation and intercultural communication, that would be the major difference. 

This is a very important tab, it’s called the CFR descriptors searchable. If you click on it, you get to download an Excel sheet. We’re going to save that file and we’re going to open it to let you see what it looks like. This is an Excel sheet with all the descriptors and the scales, all the details you might need. As you can see, you can find it here in Espanol, Italiano, Deutsch, Francais and English. Of course, we’re going to click the English tab. 

Before I go into details in the searchable descriptors, I’ll try to introduce you to three main types of scales. So first of all, we have the global scale. This is the very general, very Global across all four skills scale and it categorizes users into three main categories according to their abilities. So you have A1 and A2. A1 is beginner and it was elementary and these are the basic users. What can they do? What’s their can-do statement? They can understand sentences, frequently used expressions mainly in topics that are related to their immediate relevance (family, friends, shopping, local geography), if they go to school or if they go to university and they can communicate in very simple and routine tasks, requiring simple and direct exchange of information, like answering asking and answering questions. And if you take a look at A1 and A2, they are very similar to one another with slight differences, like for example, A1 can interact. However, this person or the other person or the teacher has to talk slowly and clearly and is prepared to help out if the speaker or the language user is unable to understand. So some repetition might be required at this point with an A1 user. But with an A2, not really, they might be able to understand on their own without the need for lots of repetition and hesitation. 

And we’ve got B1 and B2. B1 is intermediate and B2 is upper intermediate. These are independent users of the language. They’re able to understand the main points of standard input on familiar matters, encountered at work or school or leisure and they can understand the main ideas of more complex texts on both concrete and abstract topics and that includes technical discussions in their field of specialization. So, if an engineering student reads a text on nanotechnology, they will be able to understand it. However, as a medical student, or as an architecture student or maybe mass media student, they might not be able to completely comprehend the text. 

And we’ve got C1 and C2. C1 is advanced and C2 is proficient users and these are proficient users. They can understand a wider range of demanding and longer and more complex texts and they can understand implicit meaning, and that is the dividing line between the independent user and the proficient user. They can read between the lines in a text, they can understand subtle relationships between speakers, make deductions based on points raised in a text, and so on. 

And we’ve got the self assessment grids. This is a grid that divides the skills into writing, speaking, and speaking is subdivided into spoken interaction and spoken production, and we’ve got understanding and that includes listening and reading (receptive skills). It starts with a A1 and ends with C 2. This is a very good tool if you’re trying to introduce your students, at the beginning of the semester, to the idea of where they are right now, where they stand, and you can give them again the same grid at the end of the semester to see if they’ve made any progress, if they’ve gotten from point A to point B. So this could be used in a regular classroom, could be used in rubrics if you are testing your students in speaking and writing. 

And we’ve got the qualitative spoken language grid. That’s a very detailed spoken language grid and rubric, and it talks, or details, can-do statements, range, accuracy, fluency, interaction, incoherence, of course, it includes from A1 up until C2, but it’s a quite a large grid. So I took only one part of it to show you. So as you notice over here. B2 Plus in these empty (B2) plus is a low advanced student that is mixed with an upper intermediate learner or an upper intermediate user. So in order for me, let’s say to be a B2 plus user of French, I have to tick all the checkboxes of the (B2) user. So in range, I have a sufficient rate. I have to have a sufficient range of language to be able to give clear descriptions and express viewpoints in most general topics without a lot of conspicuous searching for words, and using some complex sentence forms to do so. And I might have the ability of having a good command and broad range of language, allowing me to select formulations to express myself clearly in an appropriate style on a wide range of general, academic, professional or leisure topics. However, I do have restrictions and that does not make me a C1 user because I do not tick all the boxes. It says “you do not check all the boxes in this C1 scale, or descriptors.”

Now, let’s go back to the CEFR researchable descriptors, the Excel sheet we were just talking about now. If you’re familiar with the idea of filtering in an Excel sheet, then this would be easy for you. What you have to do is to click that drop down menu under level, and you’ve got all the levels here. All you need is to unselect and then select the scale that you want. So if I’m teaching let’s say an intermediate class. I would take it and then I would find all of the descriptors related to all activities and strategies and competences and scales of a B1 user. So for oral comprehension, I can understand main points made in clear standard language or familiar variety on family matters, regularly encountered at work or school and that includes short narratives.

Now, how does this clue me in to something related to my class? How does this help me as a teacher? First of all, the idea that it says “clear standard language or familiar variety” is very important because if you teach a B1 class and intermediate class, you cannot expect your students or your learners to understand an audio track that talks about Healthcare in Scotland in a Scottish accent. Because that’s not the clear standard language they are used to or a familiar variety to them and that is relatable or it could differ from one teaching context to another, maybe in another place and another country a Scottish accent would be quite normal, quite familiar to your students, then it would make sense. But let’s say for my teaching context here in Egypt, a clear standard language or a variety would be American English or British English, maybe Australian English, but that would be a bit hard to understand at some points too. 

Then you continue to scroll down as you can see under every mode of communication. And under every scale, there are sub skills. So, under overall comprehension, you have: understanding conversation between others, understanding as a member of a live audience, understanding as a member of live audience again, and then understanding announcements and instructions, audio or side media, recordings, and watching TV and film and video. Under comprehension, you have: reading correspondences, reading information and argument, instructions, leisure activities, and you’ve got identifying cues and inferring. So it says over here that learners at this point can make basic inferences or predictions about text content from headings, titles or headlines. So it would be very normal and quite expected for you if you teach a B1 class to ask them what they think the text is going to be about based on the headline or the title, or the subheadings in the text. 

It goes on and on as you can see, you have oral interaction, written interaction, there’s online interaction too, which is wonderful if you’re teaching your class how to do some online communication, like leaving posts or messages on a forum, answering comments or replying to emails. And here, there’s mediation, how to mediate a text or to relate specific information based on certain signs. And here you have linguistic competence. There’s general linguistic range and there is phonological control prosodic features, turn-taking, thematic development and so on. 

This is the searchable descriptor. This is extremely important and very easy to use. You can always use the drop without the drop-down menu select or unselect whatever level that you want and you can also use the same technique with the scales. Maybe you’re interested in knowing all of the levels concerning addressing audiences, so you would take addressing audiences and that’s all you’re going to get. And we’re going to select all, so this is what happens in the scale of addressing audiences in production. And these are all the descriptors starting with pre A1 where there is no description available because this is not an ability that they’re going to have at that point and you’ve got C2 proficient users. 

Is the CEFR applied only to adult language users?
No, it is also adapted for young learners and we’ve got two CEFR mappings. We’ve got from 7 to 10 years old and from 11 to 15 and this CEFR mappings can be found in the same link that we were just using a while ago, the bank of supplementary descriptors, if you scroll down below. Now, you would find collated representative samples of the descriptors of language competences developed for young learners aged 7 to 10 and 11 to 15. This is the sample for 7 to 10 and this is for 11 to 15. You’ve got the companion volume just like the one for the adults, it gives you the core language that they need to learn, the strategies and the descriptors, the scales. 

Is CEFR only a tool for researchers in ELT?
I’m a normal teacher, I’ve no other responsibilities besides planning for my class and teaching, maybe assessing my students. What am I supposed to do with all of this wonderful and rich valuable information? First of all, you would be able to use this when you’re using your textbooks. The majority, if not, all of text books nowadays, especially the ones associated with big publishing houses, use CEFR as their base for material design. Also, you, as a teacher, can use it for planning and designing your own material for your class and for testing and assessment. So this is just an example. This is Speak Out pre-intermediate from Pearson. It says that for the pre-intermediate stage over this book, they are using, or they are relying on the descriptors of the scales for A2, the very end of A2, and the very beginning of a B1 descriptor, it lies over here. And these are the numbers according to the GSE, which is the global scale of English, which were going to talk about in a minute. So I assume that if you take it any take a look at any textbook that you are teaching, you might find the same either in your each teacher’s guide at the back of the cover of the book. If your textbook has audio resources, like Speak Out with Pearson, you can log on to the website and read some details about the book. It will also talk about its CEFR or descriptors or scale. 

Now, one of the wonderful things about the CEFR is that it has introduced us to other tools, which has encouraged the inception of other very useful tools like this one. This is the GSE toolkit and scale in books. This is something that Pearson has come up with, I’m going to show you what the website looks like. This is the global scale of English. If you go to this page, it’s going to take you to a very detailed description of what is the GSE, how it is related to the CEFR, its marking, its rating and so on. Over here, we have the GSE teacher toolkits. The toolkit is like a searchable descriptor Excel sheet, but includes lots of aspects, like learning objectives, grammar, vocabulary, and a text analyzer. So I’d like to start with the grammar part. So if you click on the tab that says grammar, you choose the grammatical category that you want to look up. So I want to look up determiners in specific. I want to look up articles. I will choose, then I’m going to look up or filter my results. Using the one article that I want to discuss or look up or examine or research, I’m going to choose ”the” and then I hit show results. You’re going to get the actual grammar item and its use or its meaning. The grammatical category, its rating in the GSE and where it stands and the CEFR and some additional resources where you can read more about that grammar item. 

Now, how is GSE useful?
It’s useful when you’re designing material for your own students. So if you’re teaching an A2 class, then you can teach them to use “a” or “an” with the names of jobs. You can use definite articles to refer to a specific person or thing or situation, or refer to something already mentioned to use definite articles correctly with geographical names and locations, like countries and places. However, you cannot teach them to make generalizations with groups and nationalities using “the2 and an adjective, because this is a feature of a B1 or a descriptor of the B1 learner or user. Let’s try modal verbs for likelihood. This is what you’re going to get, so you can start teaching modal verbs for likelihood starting the B1 one stage. That is the pre-intermediate/intermediate classes up until B2 Upper Intermediate, and that is the point where they can use a range of modal verbs with passive infinitives, referring to the present or the future. Over here, you’re going to choose your learner. If it’s a young learner, if it’s an adult learner.

And the last option is a text analyzer. If you are a teacher who is responsible for designing material or testing or creating tests and you need to give your students a reading text with some questions for reading comprehension skills and assessment, you might be confused as to whether this text is suitable for your students or not. Now, if you’re selecting this reading text from a book, things would be easier because of course books are graded and they are scaled, and at the very cover of the book, you’ll be able to tell if this is appropriate for your students or not. However, if you’re getting a text from the internet, then you might be suspicious about whether it’s suitable or not. So, I have a reading text here from a very old resource. I’m going to put it in the text analyzer, I’ll copy and paste and I’ll give it any title, then I’d say “read my text” or “analyze text” According to the text analyzer, the sentence count is 30 sentences and 371 words, and this might be important if you have some restrictions or limitations or guidelines as to the number of words in the word count in the text that you’re supposed to give your students, especially in exams. And the CEFR level is about B2 plus, that’s upper-intermediate students.

The IH Cairo “How to teach” series for language teachers.
So if you are a teacher, novice teacher or an experienced one, this is a very interesting course. You might want to go through the website and check our 45 hour course, we’ve got it on Fridays and Saturdays are the days for the attendees. So if you’re working, you shouldn’t be worried about having to put this into your schedule.

How is the gap between levels C1 and C2 in CEFR? Is it too far away from each other?
In some aspects, I would say that there is a discrepancy or a gap but in others, not so much. So I guess the highest difference, or the bigger the difference, is in the socio-cultural descriptor or scale, because C2 speaker or C2 learner has to have very good knowledge, excellent one, in pragmatic implication and understanding how a phrase is and the ability to use a variety of colloquial language, which is the highest and most complex aspect of being a language user, to be able to use the language almost like someone who’s lived in a certain country dealt with its people, dealt with the cultural traditions in that environment. So this is the part I feel there is a difference, but when we’re talking about oral comprehension or reading comprehension, there might be slight differences. I believe one of the differences in reading comprehension is for C1 users that they can understand literary writings, they can comprehend the aesthetic meaning behind it. However, they have to have a chance to re-read the text more than once, but for the C2 user, the idea of re-reading the text is not there. They are not required to read the text more than once to understand the literary style or literary text. So I wouldn’t say that there’s a huge discrepancy. 

Do you always go back to the CEFR when you are planning your course aims?
A hundred percent, yes. I have to have the CEFR descriptors in front of me. I used the searchable on the Excel sheet because it makes my life easier and that I have my books and that I have the GSE where I work. So I have all of them open on different tabs on my computer and then I start selecting what suits the CEFR descriptors, and what suits my teaching context as well. This is extremely important, I have to know while I’m teaching for my audience what are their interests. Let’s say there are lots of things to consider, but, yes, definitely, this CEFR is a very important backdrop of what I’m doing. 

What about when you’re designing your test items?
Also same thing, I rely heavily on the descriptors and the scales provided, especially the qualitative spoken grid. If you remember it from that presentation, it helps when I’m designing rubrics, mostly for advanced students. This is when I really start looking for accuracy and range in cohesion, because they are trained to use the sub-skills in their own lessons. And of course something like the text analyzer when we’re designing tests and we’re trying to decide if the text is suitable for the learners. Then I would go back to the text, to the CEFR, and see if the aims match the text or not, the descriptors in the scales match  this text or not. So yes, very important to testing and assessment as well. 

Is the teacher’s guide reliable a hundred percent or do teachers need to go and check the CEFR as well regarding the course aims?
Well, a big part of it has to do with the textbook that you’re using. So, again, because I use Speak Out and it already uses the GSE and the CEFR and relies heavily on it. So yes, I would go back to my teacher’s guide. The teacher’s guide differs from one textbook to another. Unfortunately, I don’t know if there are any standards as to how a teacher’s guide should be written or is already written, but for some books there are very detailed instructions as to how to teach this particular lesson and in some textbooks, the main focus is on the right answers for the correct answers. It’s more of an answer key than an actual guide, but why not do both? I mean, if you don’t truly like what’s going on with your teacher’s guide, then maybe you can go back to the CEFR and have it as your backbone. 

If I’m going to do research on language skills using CEFR, which skill would CEFR be most reliable to measure?
That’s a tricky question because I have no idea what sort of research you are doing and what teaching context you work in, and what sort of students you’re going to work with in order to assess or get some conclusions or statistics for your research. Which skill would CEFR the most reliable to measure? I feel that the CEFR works best with receptive skills with reading and listening. With production, things are difficult, because as any teacher knows, you might have some idea how your students are going to use the language or what they’re going to say, but they might end up surprising you. So there are a lot of parameters to consider or something like that, but maybe receptive skills, try that. 

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