CEF backwash

Roger Hunt

Article first published in IH Journal.

I've called this article CEF backwash because of the classroom implications for teachers and learners represented by the CEF. It's washing back straight into our faces and cannot be ignored by anyone in ELT.

IH teachers will recognise an awful lot in the CEF from training courses they have done as many of the basic principles of the CEF have been part of IH training courses since they started in 1962.

Introduction

The Council of Europe was set up in Strasbourg in 1949 with three main objectives. The one that affects us language teachers states:

'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 discrimination.'

This of course was just after the Second World War and a lot of Europeans were not saying a lot to each other; even fewer had foreign language learning very high up on their list of priorities.

In 2001 Cambridge University Press published the Council of Europe's Common European Framework of Reference for languages: Learning, teaching, assessment (now mostly known as CEF or CEFR). The book is the result of many years' research, consultation and experimentation. It has now been formally adopted by countries in the European Union as the yardstick to be used by all in foreign language learning and assessment although, of course, the degree to which implementation has occurred varies enormously from country to country.

One of the major problems in implementing the CEF is that a huge number of teachers throughout Europe do not know what it is or how to use it. They are equally unaware of its classroom implications with regard methodology, materials, student autonomy and assessment of communicative competence over and above such things as discrete item grammar testing for example.

The CEF: what is it and how does it work?

Essentially the CEF provides guidelines on teaching, learning and assessment. It includes a very large number of descriptors of communicative competence or ability for students to use in self assessment. Here are three examples:

  • 'I can read articles and reports concerned with contemporary problems in which the writers adopt particular attitudes or viewpoints.' (B2 Reading)
  • I can connect phrases in a simple way to describe experiences and events, my dreams, hopes and ambitions.'
  • (B1 Spoken production) 'I can write simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest.' (B1 Writing)

Note such key words in these 'Can do' statements as: 'contemporary problems', 'attitudes or viewpoints', 'experiences', 'my dreams, hopes and ambitions', 'familiar or of personal interest'. The CEF is very much about individuals and what individuals are confident that they can and can't yet do: when students note what they can't yet do it often motivates them to strive towards these abilities by establishing goals for them to achieve.

(A note on levels: CEF levels are described as A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 though there are plus and minus levels between these as well. C2 is probably beyond native-speaker level – read the descriptors to find out why)

The CEF works on a practical level via the use of a language learning portfolio which comprises the following:

  • The Passport This actually looks like a passport and is a record of language skills, qualifications and experiences that the student has and which he or she records on the A1 to C2 levels according to the his or her abilities in the five skills (yes, five) of reading, writing, listening, interactive speaking and spoken production (eg: as when giving a speech or presentation). Note that the student makes a self-assessment and records it, not the teacher. Experiences might include such things as a stay in an English speaking country or involvement in an activity or project which involved English such as CLIL classes etc.
  • The Dossier The Dossier offers the learner the opportunity to select materials to document and illustrate achievements or experiences recorded in the Language Biography or Passport (quoted from the CEF) in other words the student compiles evidence of learning and ability. This can include examination results, projects undertaken, homework essays and anything that supports the levels indicated as attained in the passport.
  • The Language Biography This is a student's personal history of language learning. It includes the 'Can do' statements.

Implications for the teacher in the above are clear: help the students assess their levels accurately and help them produce relevant documentation to support this assessment.

Communicative language competence

You will now have noticed the 'Can do' statements describe a student's abilities in using a foreign language in communication, in other words they describe Communicative Competence. The CEF describes this in the following terms:

  • Linguistic This is the area we all know and love and is broken down into areas of lexical, phonological and syntactical knowledge. In other words vocabulary, 'pronunciation' and grammar – simple, no change there then. However, the other areas described by the CEF are perhaps less well known to teachers.
  • Sociolinguistic You will recall in the opening quote of the Council of Europe's main aims in this article the concern with communication between different countries. We might call these different cultures and different cultures have different norms of behaviour which include social conventions with respect politeness, class and social groups among other things. It is in areas of this sort that our syllabi and materials might start looking a little different from the linguistic categories given above. In other words CEF involves investigating culture in the classroom – not just our own culture, but those of other countries as well.
  • Pragmatic The CEF describes this in terms of discourse analysis including such things as coherence and cohesion. However, there is also interlocutor effect – in other words our student says something and either is, or isn't, comprehended as intended: the student might inadvertently cause offence for example by the use of a gesture or a word not fully understood in terms of connotation for example. So the 'effect' might be anger when the student was entirely innocent of any intention to cause this. (I have seen Spanish people sticking up two fingers in a bar in London and saying 'Two beers please'. The barman was not amused at the two finger gesture at all. Quite the opposite in fact!)

Implications of the CEF for the teacher and the classroom

  1. Self evaluation The fact that students are asked to evaluate themselves is possibly shocking to many teachers, but my experience has shown that we can assess ourselves far more accurately than any test. I am fully aware of my abilities in Spanish, for example. I do not need to take a test to know that I need to brush up on my use of the subjunctive – I know this already. You can download the general descriptors yourself (see web link below) and try them out for yourself, but my students invariably pinpoint their abilities with ease (and honesty in most cases though some are a little humble and others like to mark themselves up a bit). The thing is as teachers we are going to have to get our students doing this, and on a regular basis. As I said above, using the 'Can do' descriptors gives students an indication of what they can't do and tends to set the agenda for following classes; the students sense of autonomy and responsibility is automatically heightened. As a result they have an indication of what they need to learn, not in terms of grammatical structure but in terms of communicative ability.
  2. Autonomy and Syllabus design Apart from autonomy in self-assessment the CEF encourages a very autonomous approach by learners, generally with a particular focus on learning strategies. Consequently many teachers need to adapt some of their existing approaches and materials to take account of and facilitate this heightened degree of student autonomy. The CEF focus on communicative competence over such issues as grammatical accuracy also has major implications for teachers in terms of lesson and course design and planning with a need for a wider syllabus description that goes beyond simple lexical fields and grammatical structure – the 'Linguistic' area mentioned above is just one aspect of communicative competence.
  3. Methodology The emphasis on learning strategies and helping the learners learn to learn has considerable implications with regard classroom methodologies: developing student autonomy and communicative competence demands a classroom focus on learning strategies as well as (or instead of?) more traditional grammar exposés etc. This means a lot of class time being spent on practising these strategies and encouraging learners to apply them outside the classroom with the hope that as a result they will be able to enhance their own learning.
  4. Materials Modern course books are beginning to integrate the basics of the CEF into their materials and overall design. CEF levels are frequently included as are facsimile passports for example. However, there is still the need for adaptation and supplementation in a number of critical CEF areas. Course materials, course design and classroom activities will need to move away from articles about Madonna in order to differentiate between the past simple and the present perfect say, or articles about a healthy life style etc and instead start including learning strategies and articles on world cultures, customs and habits (I am not saying that this sort of thing does not already exist to an extent at least.)
  5. Testing In the CEF 'Testing' means assessing and evaluating a student's communicative competence: this means a very good awareness of the criteria for the assessment of communicative competence is required. It also means being able to design tests of communicative competence. This goes beyond traditional discrete item testing of lexis and grammar, to include the assessment of learning strategies and the student's abilities in the language skills. A number of tests of this sort approved by ALTE (the Association of Language Testers in Europe) are now available, but in a lot of schools (IH Barcelona for example) teachers are required to produce end of term and end of year tests for their students. Designing such tests is not a common inclusion on pre-service courses such as CELTA and, in fact, a lot of DELTA qualified teachers would find it daunting.

The five points above reveal a need for training of course, and here I am not only talking about IH schools, but also the thousands of teachers working in primary and secondary schools throughout Europe whose methodologies may differ very considerably from that implied by the CEF.

Future developments

I was invited to a conference at the University of Cambridge in June 2008 which was the brain child of an ex-IH teacher Cristina Rimini, some of you may remember her from IH Huelva and IH London. Apart from myself all the other delegates were from ministries of education in European countries and the majority of talks concerned developments in the application of the CEF in those places. Some countries, such as Switzerland, have fully integrated the CEF, but all are experiencing difficulties as the CEF is still largely unknown by those at the chalk face who need to know it best. Before long students will be coming to IH schools clutching their CEF passports and saying they need to achieve a certain level by a certain time for educational, professional or personal reasons: they will expect IH teachers to know what that means and be able to assist the student appropriately.

The local educational authorities here in Catalonia, Spain recently approached us about the provision of a course in implementing the CEF in their schools as they have developed CEF language portfolios for use by all children in all schools here. So, the game is afoot and we hope to meet the challenge.

IH schools around the world should be looking at meeting this new development in their countries. I say 'around the world' because the CEF has been translated into a number of non-European languages already and may possibly become the CWF (with 'W' standing for 'world).

By the way, the descriptors are currently available on the Council of Europe website in over twenty five languages so your students can use them in their L1 if they prefer.

 

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