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.