Reflecting on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and its Companion Volume

This month we published Reflecting on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and its Companion Volume edited by David Little and Neus Figueras. In this post the editors introduce the CEFR and the questions raised in their book.

The best known fact about the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is that it defines communicative proficiency at six levels arranged in three bands: A1 and A2, B1 and B2, C1 and C2. Very soon after the CEFR’s publication in 2001, the principal national and international language testing agencies in Europe began to use these labels to indicate the level of their tests and report test-takers’ performances. The CEFR made much less impact, however, on curricula and teaching.

Twenty years on, the introduction of the CEFR Companion Volume (CV) seeks to redress the balance, giving priority to teaching and learning over assessment. The CV also updates the CEFR’s descriptive scheme, adding many new descriptors, a handful of new scales, a new pre-A1 level, and a substantial new section on mediation. In doing so, it gives language education professionals much new material to reflect on and engage with.

Predictably, the CV has aroused great interest among language assessment specialists. In 2018, EALTA (European Association for Language Testing and Assessment) organized a one-day symposium to stimulate discussion of the provisional (2017) version of the CV; and in February 2020, EALTA, UKALTA (UK Association for Language Testing and Assessment) and the British Council organized a two-day conference that focused on the definitive version of the CV within the broader framework established by the 2001 CEFR.

The conference opened with two accounts of the international impact of the CEFR, one from Japan and the other from the United States, and an introduction to the CV from Brian North, who coordinated its development. The remainder of the conference addressed three aspects of the CEFR and the CV: their “action-oriented” approach to the description of language proficiency in terms of language use, their advocacy of a “plurilingual approach” to language education, and the proficiency levels and descriptors. This explains the four-part structure of Reflecting on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and its Companion Volume, which brings together expanded versions of the conference presentations.

The book provides a wide-ranging introduction to the CEFR and the CV. It also encourages those who already work with the CEFR to revisit basic concepts by raising questions like these:

  • The CEFR identifies four modes of language use: reception (listening and reading), production (speaking and writing), interaction (spoken and written), and mediation (spoken and written). Why then do the major testing agencies use the CEFR’s proficiency levels but cling to the four-skills model (listening, speaking, reading, writing)?
  • In the CV’s scales of plurilingual and intercultural competence, the descriptors assume a strict separation between languages. How then can we take account of the real-world practice of mixing two or more languages in the same communicative event?
  • The process of linking curricula, teaching materials and assessment to the CEFR and CV is (or can be) highly technical. So how realistic is it to encourage busy professionals to take the CEFR to their hearts?
  • As we have noted, the CV invites us to focus on curricula, teaching and learning rather than assessment. But how can we expect educational reform to succeed if all three dimensions are not developed interdependently?

These are just four of the many questions explored by contributors to our book. We hope that the book will stimulate language education professionals to pose questions of their own – and to undertake the research that is necessary to answer them. Only in this way can we maintain the CEFR and the CV as the living and ever-evolving instruments of language education policy and practice that the Council of Europe intended.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like The Action-oriented Approach by Enrica Piccardo and Brian North.

An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching: From Margins to Mainstream

This month we are publishing the second edition of An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching by John Corbett. In this post the author explains what’s new in this edition.

I first started drafting what would become the first edition of An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching in Brazil in the autumn of 1998; it finally appeared five years later. In March 2020, at the beginning of a period of semi-isolation from the Covid pandemic, in the state of Sao Paulo, I finally got around to revisiting and revising that volume for its long-delayed second edition.

Re-reading the first edition, I realised how much things (and I) have changed. At the turn of the century, despite the work of people like Mike Byram and Claire Kramsch through the 1980s and 1990s, there was a feeling that interculturality was still a peripheral concern, at least to many English language teachers, particularly those working in commercial schools. But last year, when I told a colleague from a commercial school in Brasilia that I was revising a book on an ‘intercultural’ approach to ELT, he responded, ‘Well, is there any other way of doing it?’ Why has an intercultural approach gone, apparently, from the margins to the mainstream?

We can point at different reasons: the publication of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) document, in 2001, put interculturality at least nominally at the heart of the language learning agenda; other influential documents, like the NCSSFL-ACTFL ‘can do’ statements followed its lead. But the world also changed, with digital communications and social media giving many learners, for the first time, a direct opportunity to interact with speakers of different languages, speakers who come from quite different backgrounds and hold diverse views of the world. And digital communications also gave teachers abundant access to culturally rich materials to adapt for use in their classrooms. The days of teachers laminating pages cut from magazines are largely over. English rapidly assumed the status of an international language, not a foreign language any more so much as an auxiliary language that pervaded all societies and has been appropriated by their members for a range of functions.

So…the second edition of the book addresses many of these developments. Its treatment of the CEFR and subsequent guidelines is much deeper than that of the first edition, and it acknowledges the critical backlash against ‘universalising’ accounts of interculturality that the CEFR has been said to embody. Its discussion of ethnography extends to an entirely new chapter on online exchanges and the possibilities for cultural exploration they promise, and the challenges they often set for learners and teachers alike. While trying to remain true to the framework of the first edition, the second updates the references and reframes the contents so that they are relevant to the third decade of the 21st century.

And yet, some things remain the same. The first edition was predicated on the optimistic assumption that human beings are generally inclined to be active explorers and interpreters of the worlds they inhabit and encounter. Without necessarily atomising ‘intercultural communicative competence’ as a set of abstract abilities, the second edition likewise draws upon ethnography and semiotics as key disciplines that, if developed in the classroom, will enable learners to explore those worlds more effectively and interpret them in richer ways. The contents of the book might have been thoroughly overhauled, but I hope that its optimism remains intact.

John Corbett
BNU-HKBU United International College
johnbcorbett@uic.edu.cn

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might like Person to Person Peacebuilding, Intercultural Communication and English Language Teaching by Amy Jo Minett, Sarah E. Dietrich and Didem Ekici.

What is the Action-oriented Approach to Language Education?

We recently published The Action-oriented Approach by Enrica Piccardo and Brian North. In this post the authors explain what is meant by the action-oriented approach.

Many people seem to be convinced that language methodologies have not progressed beyond the communicative turn, and that all more recent developments are just a refinement or extension of the communicative approach. In particular many who are familiar with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) think that it simply promotes the communicative approach and provides a set of levels to define competence in the four skills. In fact, by seeing the user/learner as a social agent engaging in different types of language activities, the CEFR introduced rich concepts like the action-oriented approach, mediation and plurilingualism, which called for further development.

Our book The Action-oriented Approach explains the distinct characteristics of the approach and shows the way in which, over the past thirty years, different complementary theories and bottom-up experimentation have enabled the development of an innovative, holistic form of language education.

The action-oriented approach is growing significantly on the ground as a means to provide motivating, realistic, project-based language teaching linked to the promotion of interculturality and Competences for Democratic Culture (CDC).

 Whilst it is difficult to summarise the action-oriented approach in a few lines, and not all aspects listed below are present in all examples, the main tenets of the overall approach are:

  • Backwards design of teaching modules (3-10 lessons) working towards ‘can-do’ aims (learning outcomes)
  • Acceptance rather than avoidance of complexity, with scaffolding as necessary
  • Authenticity/credibility of the scenario for the task/project in the module, with a focus also on the authenticity of materials, and autonomy to research different source materials
  • A unifying task at the end of the module, which probably contains several phases including: reception, interaction, mediation, and the (co-)production of an artefact, plus a reflection phase at the end
  • A pluri-/ inter-cultural focus at some point in the module
  • Agency to decide how to go about accomplishing the task/project; collaboration: and co-construction of meaning through the mediation of concepts and/or communication
  • Increasing language awareness
  • Integration of additional languages, in terms of openness to learners’ linguistic (and cultural) resources and support to plurilanguaging within and beyond the language classroom
  • Feedforward and feedback in a iterative approach adopted to build self-efficacy
  • (Self-)assessment of the outcomes, informally, both at the level of the individual user/learner and as regards the scenario/module itself

The recently published CEFR Companion Volume with new descriptors has further supported the definition of the Action-oriented approach with its focus on mediation, strategic learning and plurilingualism.

Further information can be found on the following Council of Europe websites:

Language Policy

CEFR

Enrica Piccardo: enrica.piccardo@utoronto.ca

Brian North: bjnorth@eurocentres.com

 

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like From Principles to Practice in Education for Intercultural Citizenship edited by Michael Byram, Irina Golubeva, Han Hui, Manuela Wagner.