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.

Space and Place in Second Language Acquisition

This month we published Language Learning Environments by Phil Benson. In this post the author introduces the book and its relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We are in the habit of thinking of space as empty space: as a container for objects of many kinds, including people, things, information and language. We tend to think of these objects as existing in space and moving across space. This I call the objects-in-space view, which is pervasive both in everyday thinking and in the theory and practice of linguistics and SLA.

But what if space is not an empty container? What if it is more like the image on the cover of Language Learning Environmentsa complex, entangled, writhing web of objects? What if objects are space, and what if their movement is the movement of space itself? How will we conceive of the spatiality of language and second language learning from this objects-as-space perspective?

In brief, I argue that we need to view language, not as an object-in-space, as a self-contained system, network or structural entity, but as an object that is integrated with the physical world in many different ways. Language only exists in the world in the forms of physical ‘language-bearing assemblages’. This is a significant point for SLA, because it calls for attention to the ways in which language learning is tied up with the mobility of people, things and information in an increasingly globalized world.

The approach to SLA that I propose connects with ecological, complex and dynamic systems, distributed learning and posthuman perspectives. The key idea is that of learning through interaction with language resources in the environment. But I also argue that it is important to evaluate language learning environments in spatial terms. This leads to three differences with these perspectives.

  • Many researchers now believe that there is no distinction to be made between second and first language learning because both involve interaction with the environment. However, the spatial circumstances of access to the language learned are typically very different. For second language learners, an important question is whether the target language is a scarce or abundant resource in the local environment.
  • We now think of multilingualism, rather than monolingualism, as the global norm for language competence. But it is also true that people become multilingual for specific reasons and have specific language repertoires. The specific character of multilingualism depends partly on individual agency, but more importantly on access to language resources in the local environment. This in turn has much to do with the spatial distribution of language resources globally.
  • Lastly, there is a tendency to foreground the local over the global. Globalization may be an overused term, but a spatial perspective suggests that the global mobility of language-bearing assemblages (people, goods and information) determines the abundance or scarcity of second language resources in local environments and, ultimately, the question of who gets to learn which languages where.
A ‘language-bearing assemblage’ on the streets of Hong Kong

Language Learning Environments has been many years in the making, but it was mostly written during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020. We are now living in a world in which a spatial perspective on second language learning seems all the more relevant.

Global mobility drives second language learning. By smoothing the way for mobilities of people, goods and information, second language learning also drives global mobility. In the book, I point to a number of statistics that show how indicators of both global mobility and second language learning have mostly more than doubled over the last twenty years. In addition to the terrifying human costs of the pandemic, there has also been a drastic realignment of global mobilities as borders have closed. The mobility of people, and to some extent goods, has been dramatically slowed down. The mobility of digital information, on the other hand, is accelerating at a remarkable rate.

The future for the global mobilities of languages and language learners is uncertain. Will there be a return to the rapid acceleration on all fronts of recent years, or will there be some kind of longer-term adjustment in which we are less mobile physically, but more mobile digitally? We are already beginning to see important changes in the ways in which second language learners access language resources in their local environments. I believe that a spatial perspective can do much to help language researchers keep abreast of these changes.

For more information about this post please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Language Learner Autonomy by David Little, Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen.

Language Learning Strategy Instruction

This month we are publishing Learning Strategy Instruction in the Language Classroom edited by Anna Uhl Chamot and Vee Harris. In this post Vee explains the inspiration behind the book.

The inspiration for this book emerged from a chat with some colleagues at the end of a busy day. The discussion centred around research into language learner strategies: those internal tactics that people use to help them memorise vocabulary in another language or to make themselves understood, for example. Thinking perhaps there was something we both had missed, we tentatively suggested that there was a lack of research into how to actually teach these strategies. In the course of our classroom-based research, we had been struck by the way studies into Language Learning Strategy Instruction (LLSI) described in detail research methods and results but said little about the rationale underlying the teaching activities and approaches used. To our surprise, our colleagues shared our concern and we agreed that a book devoted uniquely to this area would be a valuable resource for both researchers and teachers alike. We decided to widen our enquiry to colleagues in a range of other countries and contexts, inviting them also to contribute a chapter on a topic of their choice. Committed to bridging the gap between research and practice, we stressed that their chapters could deal with the theoretical issues LLSI raised but could equally well describe concrete materials for teaching strategies to different age groups.

We were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm to participate whether from colleagues in the USA, New Zealand, Canada, or the UK. However two further areas emerged from their suggestions. The first was to have a section on those strategies that have been under-researched and therefore not frequently taught, such as strategies for learning grammar or developing Critical Cultural Awareness. The second would address the lack of guidance on integrating LLSI into pre- and in-service teacher education. Hence there are four parts to the book: parts 1 and 2 deal with issues such as the range of approaches to LLSI, and identifying and teaching the under-researched strategies. Parts 3 and 4 focus on the implementation of LLSI whether through the use of technology and the coursebook or through engaging with teachers.

Our book draws on scholars with a long-established, international reputation such as Andrew Cohen, Rebecca Oxford and Joan Rubin as well as new researchers and practising teachers. The contributors use their extensive knowledge and experience to present a ‘state of the art’ picture of Language Learning Strategy Instruction. However the book also looks to the future; so each chapter ends with key questions to be resolved within that topic area and the book concludes with a chapter that offers a map for future research directions.

The book will be an important resource for researchers both for its critical perspectives and for supporting them in designing interventions to implement LLSI. It should prove equally valuable to all informed languages teachers and students studying to become languages teachers, since it is one of a very small number of publications to include detailed teaching materials and activities. Although many of the illustrations are for ESL/EFL students, some are in French and German.

Finally it should also be relevant to all those with an interest in Second Language Acquisition since the mental and social processes of language learning, the reasons for differences in the rate and route learners take, and why some learners do so much better than others lie at the heart of our understanding of language learning strategies.

Vee Harris

This book is published in memory of Anna Uhl Chamot, who sadly passed away during the publication process.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting you might also like Language Learner Autonomy by David Little, Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen.

What Does Language Learning Outside the Classroom Look Like?

This month we published Second Language Literacy Practices and Language Learning Outside the Classroom by Miho Inaba. In this post the author explains what inspired this study and how she carried out her research.

I first became interested in out-of-class language learning more than 10 years ago when I had just started my career as a teacher of Japanese at a university in Sweden. I vividly remember how in my very first week at the university, some of my students told me about their favourite Japanese pop culture, such as anime (Japanese cartoons), manga (Japanese comic books) and movies. It was shocking to me at that time – I wondered how they could know Japanese pop culture better than me even though they were on the opposite side of the planet. I was also surprised by the fact that they could speak Japanese even before completing beginner level. It all started from there.

I then started asking my students what they had done in Japanese outside the classroom and realised that almost all do something extra in Japanese alongside their classroom-based study. At the same time, I started wondering what I could do to support their study as a teacher of Japanese. This question motivated (and still motivates) me to dig into out-of-class language learning for my research.

One big challenge when conducting this research was to decide which data collection methods to use. Out-of-class literacy practices are usually ‘hidden’ from teachers, and students undertake such activities irregularly. The very nature of out-of-class language learning might make the research on this topic complicated. However, when considering the different data collection methods available, I came across the ‘diary study with photos’ method in several papers in the field of literacy studies. Visual information is crucial to be included because one feature of literacy in this digital age is its multimodality.

In the end, I decided to employ this diary study with photo method alongside interviews, and asked the participants to include visual information as much as possible, for example, screenshots of websites and photos of books that they had read. I also asked them to bring paper-based materials to class (e.g. their books and essays for the Japanese classes) if possible. In the interviews, I used such visual materials to trigger the students’ memory when they engaged in particular literacy activities in their diaries. They sometimes even used my computer to demonstrate how they utilised online tools and websites. I think this method enabled me to collect rich data in a less intrusive way than either observations or video recordings and also helped me to understand the contexts of their literacy practices.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Language Learner Autonomy by David Little, Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen.

IATEFL 2018 – Laura’s trip to the conference in Brighton

Last week I attended the annual International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) conference in Brighton. It’s 7 years since we last attended the conference, and the first time I had been myself, so I was interested to see what it would be like.

Laura on the MM stand at IATEFL

It was clear from the opening evening exhibit hall preview that it was going to be a busy conference and that three of our titles would be vying for the spot of our conference bestseller.  They were:

Creativity and Innovations in ELT Materials Development, edited by Dat Bao. Fresh off the press (published just last month), this title was really popular with educators and academics, looking for the latest research on ELT materials design.

Language Learner Autonomy, by David Little, Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen. The latter two authors were at the conference and as active members of the IATEFL LASIG they were busy letting delegates know about their new publication.

Language Teacher Psychology, edited by Sarah Mercer and Achilleas Kostoulas. Sarah Mercer had been the plenary speaker at last year’s conference and many delegates were already aware of this exciting new book. I especially enjoyed meeting friends and colleagues of the editors, who were happy to let them know the good news of the book’s popularity, sometimes by taking a photo of the book at the stand to send to them!

Laura beside the Brighton Pier

Having not been to this conference before, many of the delegates were unknown to me and it was great for us to be able to reach a new audience, especially one that is so teacher focused. I was, however, also pleased to see a few familiar faces in the IATEFL crowd, including Janet Enever, the series editor of our new Early Language Learning in School Contexts series and author Carol Griffiths, whose new book is so new that I had to bring copies straight from the office.

As well as being my first visit to IATEFL, it was also my first trip to Brighton. As someone who loves the sea, I thoroughly enjoyed getting a good dose of sea air on my way to the conference every morning and treating myself to fish and chips on the beach at the end of the busy week. I managed to explore a bit of Brighton on the one dry and sunny evening of the week and loved what I saw…Brighton is definitely a UK city I’d love to return to for a holiday (ideally when the weather is a bit better!)

Laura

Three decades working with language learner autonomy

This month we are publishing Language Learner Autonomy by David Little, Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen. In this post the authors reflect on three decades’ work in the field.

Learner autonomy entails that learners are fully involved in planning, implementing and evaluating their own learning. We were first introduced to the concept in the 1980s. For Leni Dam it offered a way of responding to the challenge of differentiation in teaching and learning at school; for Lienhard Legenhausen and David Little it was a prerequisite for successful self-access language learning at university. Our collaboration of almost three decades, however, has focused on classroom learning. Leni and Lienhard have used empirical techniques to explore the outcomes of autonomous language learning and compare them with the outcomes achieved by learners working with a ‘communicative’ textbook; while David has been concerned to derive pedagogical principles from successful practice to facilitate replication in other contexts.

Although learner autonomy has been a focus for innovation in language education for almost forty years, it’s equally relevant to other areas of the curriculum. In our view its operationalization entails that learner self-management and reflective learning are exercised and further developed via ‘practice’ appropriate to the curriculum subject in question. In a language classroom, practice means use of the target language as the preferred medium of communication and reflection. Under guidance from their teacher, autonomous language learners use the target language from the beginning to plan, implement and evaluate their learning. Writing plays an indispensable role: learning is documented in logbooks and portfolios, and this supports use of the oral language and facilitates reflection on the process and content of learning.

It is sometimes assumed that learner autonomy is concerned exclusively with individual learning, but this is a misunderstanding. All effective classroom learning is based on interactive communication; what makes the autonomy classroom different is the fact that, by definition, the learners have equal right of access to all discourse roles, initiating as well as responding. Our experience leads us to define the autonomy classroom as a self-generating and self-maintaining community of practice whose members develop proficiency by using the target language to manage their own learning individually and collaboratively. This means that they devise their own learning materials and produce a wide variety of creative texts – stories, poems, plays, and reports on projects of many different kinds.

Some years ago, Leni asked a class of 15-year-olds, ‘After four years of learning English, how would you assess your overall progress?’ This is what one girl wrote (transcribed without correction):

“I already make use of the fixed procedures from our diaries when trying to get something done at home. Then I make a list of what to do or remember the following day. That makes things much easier. I have also via English learned to start a conversation with a stranger and ask good questions. And I think that our “together” session has helped me to become better at listening to other people and to be interested in them. I feel that I have learned to believe in myself and to be independent.”

Clearly, in four years this learner has acquired a proficiency in English that extends her communicative and reflective capacity and with it her identity. Her facility in writing implies that English is a fully integrated part of her developing plurilingual literacy.

The autonomy classroom shares fundamental pedagogical principles with inclusive education. It is thus not surprising that autonomous learning succeeds with students whose learning difficulties might cause them to fail in more traditional pedagogical settings. We have also found that learner autonomy empowers adult refugees learning the language of their host community; and that when primary pupils from immigrant families are encouraged to use their home languages in the classroom (even though their teacher may not understand them), this not only helps them come to grips with curriculum content but also gives them an interest in taking autonomous learning initiatives.

Everything we have written about learner autonomy over the past thirty years or so has taken successful practice as its starting point, and we have always believed that learner autonomy is first a pedagogical imperative and only secondly a fertile research topic. Aimed at student teachers, teacher educators and language learning researchers, our book will have served its purpose if it encourages more language teachers to embrace the principles of learner autonomy and find ways of implementing them in their classrooms.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also enjoy Managing Diversity in Education edited by David Little, Constant Leung and Piet Van Avermaet.

Managing Diversity in Education

Last month we published Managing Diversity in Education edited by David Little, Constant Leung and Piet Van Avermaet. Here, David tells us a bit about how the book came together.

Managing Diversity in EducationManaging Diversity in Education began to take shape at an international conference organised by Trinity College Dublin’s Trinity Immigration Initiative in June 2010. The conference marked the end of the Initiative, a network of five loosely linked research projects that were philanthropically funded from 2007 to 2010. One of the projects (which I directed) was concerned with the provision of English language support for immigrant students attending post-primary school in Ireland. The strand of the conference devoted to language education mostly comprised reports on Irish research in different educational sectors, but we also had an international dimension: Constant Leung (King’s College London) and Piet Van Avermaet (University of Ghent) were our invited speakers, and both had things to say that complemented local contributions while opening up broader perspectives.

As the conference drew to an end, Constant, Piet and I reviewed the presentations we had heard. We were impressed by their quality and their variety and agreed that they were worth publishing. But on their own they were not enough to make a book, and a book would in any case need a greater diversity of themes and perspectives. So we started contacting colleagues in various countries who we knew could contribute chapters that would add substance and variety to the three preoccupations of the conference papers: linguistic diversity, policy and pedagogy. Not all of those we contacted were in a position to write something for us, but an encouraging number were. By the time we approached Multilingual Matters we had contributions from eight countries: Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Nevertheless, seven of the sixteen chapters come from Ireland. Read together, they provide a comprehensive overview of the country’s response to the educational challenges posed by large-scale immigration: the implementation of official policy in primary and post-primary schools; the often inadequate provision of English language support at post-primary and tertiary levels; the sometimes hostile attitudes of teachers; the positive contribution made by research, especially the research carried out under the auspices of the Trinity Immigration Initiative; and innovative pedagogical developments in some schools. But the perspectives these chapters offer are greatly enriched by the multiple links between them and the contributions from other countries. For example, Déirdre Kirwan describes the way in which the girls’ primary school of which she is principal, situated in one of Dublin’s western suburbs, has progressed from a narrow view of English language support to a focus on plurilingual awareness that exploits pupils’ home languages in many different ways. It’s an inspiring story that assumes added resonance when it is read together with the discussion by Sven Sierens and Piet Van Avermaet of “functional multilingual learning”, the account that Nelson Flores and Ofelia García give of translanguaging in a high school for newly arrived Spanish-speaking immigrants in New York City, Natalie Auger’s description of the ways in which immigrant languages have been exploited in a number of French schools, and Shelley Taylor’s account of the management of linguistic diversity in Nepali primary schools. All other contributions to the book are similarly enriched by the chapters that surround them.

Editing a collection like Managing Diversity in Education is an instructive experience. One learns a great deal simply by reading the contributions as they come in, and more by gradually deciding the order in which they should be presented. Compiling the indexes provides a vivid reminder of the complex interplay of themes and arguments that runs through the contributions and of the international reach of published research, and this is reinforced when the proofs land one one’s desk. When a copy of the published book arrives in the post one sighs with relief, but one also hopes that readers will gain from it something of the same instruction and stimulation that the editors have enjoyed.

For further information on the book please see our website. If you found this interesting you might also like other books in the New Perspectives on Language and Education series.