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Common European Framework Of Reference For Languages English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5424 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Europe hosts a considerably large variety of races and ethnicities having their own peculiar life styles, beliefs, languages and cultures. For several purposes, mainly of trade, they interact with each other and learn each other’s languages. This heterogeneity offers a great scope of forging harmonious relationships among the European nations. This opportunity was recognized and the establishment of Council of Europe (COE) in 1949 marks a significant development in this regard. In an endeavor to achieve a common view of European Citizenship, it sought to transform the diversity of languages and cultures into a source of mutual cooperation and understanding which will help in overcoming barriers in communication, improve working relationships and will allow easy access to information in the member states. The following three fundamental principles of COE manifest this agenda.

that the rich heritage of diverse languages and cultures in Europe is a valuable common resource to be protected and developed, and that a major educational effort is needed to convert that diversity from a barrier to communication into a source of mutual enrichment and understanding.

that it is only through a better knowledge of European modern languages that it will be possible to facilitate communication and interaction among Europeans of different mother tongues in order to promote European mobility, mutual understanding and co-operation, and overcome prejudice and dis-crimination;

that member states, when adopting or developing national policies in the ¬eld of modern language learning and teaching, may achieve greater convergence at the European level by means of appropriate arrangements for ongoing co-operation and co-ordination of policies.

(COE,2011,p 2)

This clearly reveals the COE’s acknowledgement of the need for the formulation of a common framework which could preserve the linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe, while at the same time, promote a feasible communicative environment in different spheres of life. This brought language to the center and the need for developing feasible language learning environments became dire. Resultantly, the COE developed a framework named Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), first published in 2001, with an aim “to set up a common understanding and recognition of language educations and qualifications in different countries” (COE, 2001, P5). It provides a “common basis for the elaboration of language syllabuses, curriculum guidelines, examinations, textbooks, etc. across Europe” (2001a, p 1) which would synchronize practices of teaching, learning and assessment of foreign languages across different cultural and educational settings, more precisely in planning, delivering and assessing language proficiency.

After a detailed process of piloting and reviewing, the framework was

which would equally promote and support learning of all European languages

AsMilanovic (2002, p. 3) says, the CEF “offers language test designers and those involved in producing examinations the possibility of moving collectively towards a shared language testing system that is motivated by the core values of the Council’s own notion of European citizenship.”

At the heart of this framework is the concept of plurilingualism where the marriage of different cultural and lingual experiences is cherished and appreciated. As an outcome of globalization, the modern world demands have changed a lot and so of language since languages are directly coupled with social practices. It is now increasingly important for an individual to be able to communicate in several languages to carry out their various tasks. But unlike previous approaches, his first language is not considered a hindrance in learning a new language. Quite the opposite, it is desirable now to bring home and target language and cultures closer to each other. When a language learner operates in a second language environment, he imbibes new experiences of the language and culture he is in contact with. These experiences enrich his personality and enhance his knowledge and competences. In this situation, however, his existing knowledge and competences of the first language do not remain isolated and detached; rather they mingle/merge into the newly acquired experiences of the new language and culture making learner pluri-lingual and pluri-cultural. In this way, he neither “ceases to be competent in his or her mother tongue and the associated culture, nor is the new competence kept entirely separate from the old” ( Trim, a CEFR: a guide for users)

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Theoretically, the CEFR is not an avant-garde framework. It is the product of forty plus years of efforts by the COE’ Modern Languages Division in language teaching and language education since the 1970s and beyond. It is profoundly grounded in the theories already in use in language education; for instance the significance it associates with interaction (Long, 1983, 1985), or its emphasis on language use which has its roots in Swain’ output hypothesis (1985,1995, 2005). Little (2006), in his praise of “can do” statements confirms that the framework is new in the sense that it has brought curriculum, pedagogy and assessment much closer than the past. He further traces that the reasons for CEFR’s success lie in its efforts to combine/supplement traditional ‘beginner’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘advanced’ levels with a more modern elaboration in the form of content descriptions for each level (2007).

Ever since its evolution, the CEFR has been a phenomenal success and is widely adopted in language education for a broad range of purposes i.e curriculum planning, textbook design etc more importantly because of its adaptability to any setting. Faez et al (2000) note that more and more policy makers and language programs worldwide have shown a deep interest in adopting CEFR in their programs. The COE’s website reveals that it has been translated into more than 37 languages (COE, 2011a), European as well as non-European. Moreover, not only it has become a common reference instrument for classifying language teaching and certification but has also gone beyond the boundaries of classroom. For instance, it was used to select volunteers for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic winter games (European center of modern languages, 2011). Thus the expansion of CEFR is far greater than expected.

However, the CEFR must not be misinterpreted as an all-encompassing approach to language teaching whose function is to propose universal method(s) of teaching, learning and assessing language. It is not an instrument used to centralize and harmonize language teaching’as a hammer gets applied to a nail’ (Jones & Saville, 2009:54). Instead, it is an open, flexible and adaptable approach which encourages reflections on contemporary practices in the field of language education and thus can be expanded, contracted and exploited according to the needs of the local contexts. Every context is different from another and there always are features peculiar to that context only. Thus, a single approach or framework can never be labeled as apposite to all contexts of the world. The CEFR corresponds to this principle by accommodating local context’s needs which it might not address directly. It allows the distinct features of a context to be considered and then linked to it in the light of the prescribed guidelines. In this way, it remains ” not only comprehensive, transparent and coherent, but also open, dynamic and non-dogmatic’, (COE, 2001a:18). This has been endorsed by many critics (Trim, 2001,Coste, 2007; Little, 2006, 2011; Piccardo, 2010) and also has been made very clear by the CEFR itself in the following.

“We have NOT set out to tell practitioners what to do or how to do it. We are raising questions not answering them. It is not the function of the CEF to lay down the objectives that users should pursue or the methods they should employ.” (CEFR 2001: xi)

The CEFR consists of a Descriptive Scheme of language use and competences including definitions, categories and examples, and six proficiency scales for the different parameters of this scheme. The descriptive scheme, where the learner is placed at the centre, comprehensively covers not only language use, but also details language learning, teaching and assessment. Based on an action-oriented approach to language learning and use, it describes a language learner’s needs in terms of skills and knowledge required for effective communication (CoE, 2001: 1).

“Language use, embracing language learning, comprises the actions performed by persons who as individuals and as social agents develop a range of competences, both general and in particular communicative language competences. They draw on the competences at their disposal in various contexts under various conditions and under various constraints to engage in language activities involving language processes to produce and/or receive texts in relation to themes in specific domains, activating those strategies which seem most appropriate for carrying out the tasks to be accomplished. The monitoring of these actions by the participants leads to the reinforcement or modification of their competences.”(CoE,P9)

From the description above, it is obvious that there are a number elements/categories involved in language use and language learning: general and communicative language competences, strategies, language activities, language processes, tasks, texts, contexts and domains. Further, each of these can be divided into sub-categories. All these categories are inter-related and inter-dependent as every communicative act does involve all or some of them. To perform a communicative act, a language learner who is on his way to become a language user, relies on numerous competences. The CEFR identifies competence as a combination of areas of knowledge and skills which facilitate learner in communication (COE 2001,p 9). These competences are developed in the course of a learners’ growth over the past years and continue to develop provided that the learner is engaged in communicative acts. However, the CEFR makes a distinction between purely linguistic and non-linguistic competences: The General Competences, though not language specific, are put to use while performing all sorts of actions. These include: Declarative knowledge (savoir), Skills and know-how (savoir-faire), Existential competence (savoir-être) and Ability to learn (savoir apprendre). Declarative knowledge surrounds learners’ “knowledge of the world” (CEFR p. 101), which embodies knowledge of people, locations, and attributes of the target language-speaking country. But for language learning and communication, one needs more than the knowledge of the structure of the world and its working. Thus, this knowledge in itself becomes insufficient and therefore, is closely associated with and dependent upon the sociocultural knowledge and intercultural awareness. The former involves knowledge of everyday life, living conditions, interpersonal relations, values, beliefs and attitudes, body language, social conventions, and ritual behavior. The latter, intercultural awareness, encompasses au fait with the local as well foreign culture, with all their similarities and differences. Besides, a learner must possess skills and know-how (practical and intercultural) to adequately utilize declarative knowledge in the real world and to work as an intermediary between the home and target culture. These skills enable him/her to adapt the target culture, using strategies to avoid misunderstanding and conflict situations.Apart from the knowledge and skills, a user’s/learner’s personality affects his learning significantly and eventually, his communication. Each learner has particular personality traits, values, beliefs, and attitudes etc. which contribute to the learners’ individual identity and selfhood, identifying him as an individual. These factors of existential competence can hinder or promote the learning of and interaction with the target culture. In addition, learner/user’s ability to learn enables him to observe and engage in new experiences and then to subsume them into the already existing knowledge, accommodating changes where required. This entails, firstly, language and communication awareness, a sensitivity to the organization of a language’s system and its working which aid in synthesizing home and target language and cultures. A learner equipped with this competence can easily select appropriate opportunities for effective learning. Secondly, the general phonetic awareness and skills which further enable auditory discrimination and articulation of new sounds and patterns. Thirdly, the study skills which help him become autonomous in his language learning by making him uncover his strengths and weaknesses, identify his goals and needs and apply strategies for the achievement of these goals. Finally there are heuristic skills which aid in getting acquainted with the new experiences.

General competences


Declarative knowledge

knowledge of the world

sociocultural knowledge:

everyday living, interpersonal relations, values, beliefs, conventions etc

intercultural awareness

awareness of the relationship between the worlds of first and second language

Skills and know-how

Practical skills and know-how

social, living, vocational, leisure skills

Intercultural skills & know-how

Attitudes i.e. openness, willingness



intrinsic/extrinsic, Instrumental/integrative, the communicative drive


religious, philosophical, ideological etc

Cognitive styles

convergent/divergent, holistic/analytic

Personality factors

self-reliance-confidence-esteem, intelligence etc

Ability to learn

Language and communication awareness

(Sensitivity to language and language use)

General phonetic awareness and skills

ability to differentiate and articulate new sounds and prosodic patterns; an ability to perceive and catenate unfamiliar sound sequences etc.

Study skills

attention, cooperation, organization, self-awareness etc

Heuristic skills

Table 1: General competences (ch.5 CEFR, p)

Together with the general competences outlined above, a language learner/user must be able to demonstrate more language-focused communicative competences in order to perform a communicative act. These competences extend over three broad areas of linguistic, socio-linguistic and pragmatic competences. The linguistic competence embodies knowledge and skills of language systems i.e. lexical competence (knowledge and vocabulary of a language), grammatical competence (morphs, conjugation, gender, case etc.), semantic competence (reference, connotation, synonymy/antonymy, hyponymy etc), phonological competence (phonemes, allophones, syllable structure etc), Orthographic competence ( punctuation, spelling, font size etc), and Orthoepic competence (ability to consult a dictionary, ability to resolve ambiguities etc). On the other hand, the Socio-linguistic competence involves language and skills required to cope with the social aspects of language use. These include linguistic markers of social conventions (use and choice of greetings, address forms, turn-taking etc.), politeness conventions (positive & negative politeness, impoliteness etc.), expressions of folk wisdom( idioms, proverbs, quotations etc), Register differences ( difference between varieties of language used in different contexts), Dialects and accents. Finally, the pragmatic competence includes discourse competence (coherence and cohesion, turn-taking, flexibility etc.), functional competence (socializing, communication repair, and design competence, seeking factual information etc.) and the design competence.

Communicative competences


Linguistic competence


knowledge and vocabulary of a language


morphs, conjugation, gender, case etc.)


reference, connotation, synonymy/antonymy, hyponymy etc


phonemes, allophones, syllable structure etc


punctuation, spelling, font size etc


ability to: consult a dictionary, resolve ambiguities etc

Socio-linguistic competence

Linguistic markers of social conventions

use and choice of greetings, address forms, turn-taking etc

Politeness conventions

positive & negative politeness, impoliteness etc

Expressions of folk wisdom

idioms, proverbs, quotations etc

Register differences

between varieties of language used in different contexts

Dialects and accents

Pragmatic competence

Discourse competence

coherence and cohesion, turn-taking, flexibility etc

Functional competence

Design competence

Table 2: Communicative competences

The communicative act is performed in a particular context which has its own distinct demands. Firstly, it is carried out in a particular domain or sphere of social life. For the purpose of language learning and teaching, the CEFR presents four major domains of language use: personal, public, occupational and educational, but the number can be infinite. An essentially important part of the selection of any of these domains is to choose the ones that are relevant to the future prospects of language use. Secondly, every domain involves certain situations such as where is the language use happening, who are the persons involved, what operations will be performed and so on; however, there might be situations that demand more than one domain of language use. Thirdly, these domains and situation impose some physical, social and other constraints on the language user/learner which he has to successfully deal with. While designing language learning material, teachers need to pay special attention to the pressures and constraints under which the language user/learner has to operate. Fourthly, apart from the external context of language use, there is an internal context within the language learner/user, his mental context. The external context is vast and immeasurable and hence, cannot be fully perceived by the user/learner. To clearly interpret the target context, a lot depends on his mental capacities which have been developed over the years of his growth. Equally important is the mental context of the interlocutor which demands the learner to pitch his communication at a comprehensible level. The congruence in the interaction between them will lead to effective communication.

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The communicative act comprises of some communicative tasks which arise from the situation and domain a language learner/user is working in. These tasks are based on communicative themes: the topics in discussion, conversation like language, home, entertainment etc which can be sub-classified further. It is highly important in CEFR that the tasks should be seen in relation to other elements of communication like situations, domains, learner’s competences etc. A task not focusing real life cannot yield fruitful results. Since different learners have different set of skills and competences, a task should, therefore, be open to multiple interpretations which can be manipulated in order to accommodate the ongoing development of learner’s competences. These tasks are carried out through communicative activities: Reception, Interaction, Production, and Mediation. In Interaction, the participants are producers as well as receivers of the actions i.e conversation and correspondence. In case of listening to a recorded speech or reading a book, the producers and the receivers are isolated from each other and the communicative act is called Listening, Reading, Speaking, and Writing. In Mediation, however, the producer and the receiver cannot communicate directly due to any reason, but they use a medium i.e a writer or speaker. Many classroom situations certainly contain all of these activities where a learner might be asked to listen to a speech, interact with fellows in a group or write an essay. To accomplish the tasks through activities, the user employs some communicative strategies and activates some mental processes. The CEFR views Pre-planning, Execution, Monitoring and Repair action as four major types of strategies which serve as the means through which a language user assembles his resources and activates his skills to perform a communicative task successfully (COE, 2001, p57). In other words, he chooses an appropriate plan of action which enhances effectiveness in communication. It is through these activities and strategies that a learner’s progress in learning can be determined. The CEFR has prepared detailed descriptor scales for different activities and strategies (See chapter 4).

The CEFR model of language use thus incorporates cognitive processes, knowledge and strategies which the learner has to engage with in order to develop his/her competences. Whenever a learner comes in contact with a language task in a particular context, he has to deal with a single or a set of activities which further involve different strategies activating his/her cognitive processes in order to capture learning.

Language activity


Domain of use

The language learner/user




Figure 1: CEFR model of language Use and Learning (Cambridge, 2011)

Assessment is an integral part of learning and teaching process but it involves a network of complex procedures which vary according to the needs of the context and objectives of the program/course. It has long ceased to be merely a tool administered at the end of an exam or course, and now is a profoundly integrated and continuous process entailing several factors related to contexts, cultures, and assessment traditions. In CEFR (chapter 9) assessment refers to an enquiry into and judgment about learner’s level of proficiency, contrasted to a much broader term ‘evaluation’ which embraces not only all assessments but also teachers; teaching material and even the entire course evaluations. But CEFR does not confine assessment to tests only as there exist other methods of assessing proficiency levels which might not be termed as tests (COE, 2001. P 177). But whatever the method be, three fundamentally important concepts of validity, reliability and feasibility need to be contemplated with regard to assessment. Validity is “what is actually assessed (the construct) is what, in the context concerned, should be assessed” (ibid,177). In other words, an assessment must target only those skills which the assessor actually wants to assess and must remain disconnected from other irrelevant factors. These skills are usually defined by and aligned with the course objectives. Reliability, in addition, refers to the consistency of a score across different assessment situations and different people. A person’s proficiency should stand the same at a test taken twice. It also involves agreement between assessors. Feasibility is the practicality of the assessment. Every assessment situation involves an extensive range of constraints i.e, time, atmosphere, test length etc. and a practical assessment takes into account all these factors. Thus, an assessment must be able to furnish evidence of the required competences, performances, and achievements in feasible, valid and reliable ways. These three concepts form the basis of any assessment process and are intertwined; however, it is also important to prescribe certain procedures in determining criteria for validity, reliability and feasibility in order to reach a particular judgment about learners. Nonetheless, there may appear situations where achieving one might hinder the attainment of the other. For instance, an assessment can be valid in that it assesses what it aims to assess, but this might take too long a time that is not feasible to arrange.

These assessments carry different purposes on the basis of which several decisions relating to learners are made. The CEFR propounds 13 pairs of assessment classified in 26 types, each of which has a specific objective in a specific context. For instance an achievement assessment is interested in measuring what has been taught during a course; in contrast to a proficiency assessment which is focused on what a learner can do in the real world. In any case, it is increasingly important for the practitioners to be informed about the complex mechanisms involved in the theory and practice of these assessments in different contexts and for different purposes. Only then it would be possible to elucidate proficiency levels accurately and take precise decisions. .

The CEFR proposes its six common reference levels stretched across three general areas which help in resolving questions of setting objectives, measuring proficiency and making comparisons across different exams. These levels represent a ‘wide but by no means universal consensus on the number and nature of levels appropriate to the organization of language learning’ (CoE 2001: 22). The levels are

C2 Mastery

C1 Effective operational proficiency Proficient User

B2 Vantage

B1 Threshold Independent user

A2 Waystage

A1 Breakthrough Basic User

Each of these levels has been defined in terms of skills to make the description lucid and unambiguous. There is no mention of specific grammar or lexical items, but merely descriptions of skills and competences at three different levels. This means that they do not specifically define proficiency and hence, are not restrictive; instead they are illustrative in the sense that they keep things open to the practitioners allowing them to include or exclude aspects of language use while designing tests. The levels further include:

A global scale

A self-assessment grid

A spoken proficiency rating scale and 58 specific scales

A collection of :Can Do” statements

The global scale supplies holistic summaries of the six levels as shown in the Figure 1. For each level, there is a general description of language competence expressed in ‘can-do’ statements which follows the order reception, production, interaction, mediation (CoE 2001: 24). In addition to this, the self-assessment grid enables learners to gauge their own proficiency. It contains descriptors of different skills of understanding, speaking, writing at six levels. The spoken proficiency rating scale details qualitative aspects of language at each of the levels, and provides assessment criteria for range, accuracy, fluency, interaction and coherence. Also, there are 58 more specific scales focusing linguistic, socio-linguistic, strategic and pragmatic competences. The Collections of ‘can do’ statements all using the six levels help perceive proficiency at different levels, i.e. what people at different levels can do.

Proficient user


Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.

Can summarize 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.


Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognize 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 organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

Independent user


Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.

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.


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 & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

Basic user


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.


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.

Table1: Common reference Level: Global scale (Council of Europe 2001,p24)

These levels have gained a much greater currency in contemporary language learning as they have been widely accepted and adopted not only in Europe but also worldwide. For many exam bodies, they have become the fundamental principles of assessing proficiency i.e Cambridge ESOL, ALTE etc as they have used it in many of their course books and have tried to align their assessments with CEFR (Reference). Nonetheless, questions have been raised against the validation of these levels (and scales) as significant gaps have been found at different levels i.e A1 and C (Cambridge, 2011, p6), however, one thing needs to be considered that they are not all-inclusive as they neither cover all possible contexts nor do they claim so. “There is no single best method of accounting for claims which are made. What is required is reasoned explanation backed up by supporting evidence (ibid)”. It is an ongoing process and yet there is a lot to be refined and explored, but still it can be asserted that they do not simply emerge out of nowhere. They have been developed after a sustained effort over an extended period of time by the Association of Language Testers in Europe (ALTE) and the DIALANG project in accordance with the four criteria (COE, p21). First, the scales are “context free”: that the scales are not targeting a particular context and can be generalized and applied to any context. Secondly, at the same time they are “context relevant” that they correspond and relate to the local context’s needs. Thirdly, they stem from theories of language teaching and testing already in use. Finally, they are easy to use for the practitioners. It is essential for a scale in any context to meet these four criteria.

The employment of CEFR covers a large spectrum of language learning including curriculum and syllabus desig


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