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MODULE ONE TITLE: The Common European Framework of Reference for Language Learning, Teaching and Assessment AIM:

Familiarisation with the CEFR and a critical reflection on its use ONLINE ACTIVITY: Contribute to the debate about the use of the CEFR in the Italian school system ASSESSMENT TASK: A 500-word essay

Introduction The aim of this module is to examine in closer detail the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which currently forms the basis for most foreign language teaching and testing in Europe today.

To begin with we will look at the debate surrounding the CEFR to become aware of some of its shortcomings and take a more critical view of how it can be used most fruitfully in your professional work.

You will then be required to read sections of the Framework and reflect on various aspects and issues raised. Although the six levels of language proficiency are well known, as are the six levels of descriptors, often little attention is paid to the rest of the document, which actually provides some extremely useful information regarding issues related to language learning and teaching.

The aim of this module is to reflect on some of the issues it discusses. The document is long and often very dense, but it raises challenging, relevant questions that can represent a valuable resource for practising teachers and trainee teachers alike.

You will be required to participate in an on-line discussion about how the CEFR is used in the Italian school system and to submit a final essay relating your reading of the CEFR to your own teaching practice and experience.

We will discuss the points on which I ask you to reflect in the next lesson.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages is published in English by Cambridge University Press - ISBN Hardback 0521803136 Paperback: 0521005310

A .pdf electronic version of the Framework is available at http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/Source/Framework_EN.pdf

Other useful handbooks by J.A. van Ek and JLM Trim, attempt to describe and specify the content and objectives of the various levels of language learning:

Waystage 1990. Council of Europe, 1991, CUP. Threshold 1990. Council of Europe, 1991, CUP. Vantage. Council of Europe, 2001, CUP.

Introduction In 1991, the Council of Europe commissioned a Common European Framework for Languages with three main aims:

To promote and facilitate co-operation among educational institutions in different countries;

To provide a sound basis for the mutual recognition of language qualifications; To assist learners, teachers, course designers, examining bodies and educational administrators to situate and co-ordinate their efforts.

The task was entrusted to a small group of linguists including Brian North, John Trim, Joe Sheils and Daniel Coste, under the supervision of an international working party.

The development of the document took a decade, with various revisions, and was published in February 2001, in French and English, to mark the European Year of Languages. Since then it has appeared in other languages: German, Spanish, Catalan, Basque, Italian, Finnish and, in 2004, Japanese.

The document has mainly been used to meet the second aim: to provide a sound basis for the mutual recognition of language qualifications. This need has become more and more urgent as educational and vocational mobility has augmented within Europe: schools, universities and employers increasingly have to know the language skills of candidates from other countries.

Even though the CEF is still undergoing development, it is forming the basis for most language learning, teaching and testing in Europe today. It is also being used as a reference document in extra-European settings. The document has, however, met with a certain amount of criticism.

In 2004, an article by Glen Fulcher, an authoritative UK linguist, was published in The Guardian and was highly critical of some of the fundamental aspects of the Framework. A reply by Brian North, one of the Frameworks developers, which defended the project, was subsequently published.

Read both articles noting each authors main points for and against the Framework.

Are Europe's tests being built on an 'unsafe' framework? A system intended to ease comparison of language skills is failing learners, argues Glenn Fulcher Glenn Fulcher Thursday March 18, 2004 The Guardian The Common European Framework of Reference: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEF) was published in 2001, and is rapidly becoming the standard reference for teaching and testing languages in Europe. But there are very real dangers associated with embedding frameworks into our educational institutions uncritically. Initiated by the Council of Europe (COE) in the 1970s, the CEF has a long history. The Threshold Level (describing an "independent language user") was published during the 1980s, and republished with Waystage in 1990. The latter is described as the "halfway point" to Threshold. This coincided with a new COE project, "Language Learning for European Citizenship", that sought to develop "a comprehensive, transparent, and coherent common European framework" of language learning and assessment. Throughout the 1990s other "fixed point" documents were produced, including the Vantage Level ("upper intermediate" learners). However, the main thrust of work was toward developing the CEF for two main purposes. First, to support the introduction of a European Language Portfolio upon which learners' progress in acquiring European languages could be recorded, and second, to provide a Europe-wide means of comparing existing language tests for certification of learning. The notion of a common frame of reference that describes "levels of proficiency" across languages and tests is not new. The first such scale was developed during the 1950s by the Foreign Service Institute for use by the American military, and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Guidelines is now the standard framework for all modern language teaching and testing in the US. In Britain the English Speaking Union published a framework for the same purpose in 1989. Indeed so many scales have been developed that it is difficult to list them all, but with one or two exceptions none of them has any theoretical or empirical underpinning. It is important to understand how the CEF was developed to evaluate its limitations. The designers collected 30 existing rating scales, including those mentioned above. In total these contained 2,000 proficiency level descriptors. Teachers were asked to evaluate the descriptors for relevance to their learners, and then told to put them in piles according to whether they represented "low", "middle" or "high" proficiency levels.

The descriptors were then compiled into questionnaires that were presented to teachers, who were asked to decide which descriptors defined a level that was below, at, or above the level of their students. This data was then used in a statistical modelling technique known as Rasch Analysis to provide "difficulty estimates" for each of the descriptors. The descriptors were then "scaled" according to difficulty, and "cut points" set to place them into six pre-determined, apriori levels, with two levels each within "elementary", "intermediate" and "advanced". In the CEF these are now known as levels A: Basic User, B: Independent User, and C: Proficient User. The designers acknowledge that there is no theoretical basis to the CEF, and even that, as one has written, ". . . what is being scaled is not necessarily learner proficiency, but teacher/ raters' perception of that proficiency in their common framework." In other words, the CEF is nothing more than a set of scaled descriptors that reflects what groups of teachers drawn from around Europe could agree represented "more" and "less" proficient. The key problem is that once a framework is institutionalised, the danger of reification is great. While the CEF documentation itself (even in the first consultation draft of 1996) states that "The construction of a comprehensive, transparent and coherent Framework . . . does not imply the imposition of one single system", it is rapidly becoming "the" system. For teachers the main danger is that they are beginning to believe that the CEF scales represent an acquisitional hierarchy. That the language of the descriptors actually relates to the sequence of how and what learners learn. For the users of language tests, the danger is that any test that does not report scores in terms of CEF levels will be seen as "invalid" and hence not "recognised". Even more erroneous would be for users to compare scores across different tests that are "linked" to the CEF. For many producers of tests, the danger lies in the desire to claim a link between scores on their tests and what those scores mean in terms of CEF levels, simply to get "recognition" within Europe. This has already started. In a recent article in the ELT press, one examination board was quoted as saying, "The idea is really simple. Using a notional and functional taxonomy drawn from the CEF, tests in languages are created so as to give unified, reliable and valid test results no matter what the language." The CEF does not contain a "notional and functional taxonomy" that could be used as a basis for producing test specifications. And linking tests to the CEF is certainly not simple. The CEF has no underlying theory and no content specifications. Many tests that are now claimed to be linked to the CEF do not themselves have a theoretical basis. The "linking" is mostly intuitive. To educate test producers the COE has commissioned specific guidelines, the preliminary pilot version of which is now available on the COE web site.

This acknowledges that the CEF scales could be used for reporting test scores using a "common" language for the benefit of users. But we should beware of thinking that this language is inherently meaningful. And we must be cognisant of the political agenda in standardising the language of assessment across Europe. As one recent commentator said, the CEF provides 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". Glenn Fulcher is head of the Centre for Applied Language Studies, University of Dundee, Scotland

Europe's framework promotes language discussion, not directives Brian North Thursday April 15, 2004 The Guardian The "Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment" (CEF) seeks to make it easier for teachers, learners, publishers and testers to communicate across languages, educational sectors and national boundaries. It is not a directive and aims to encourage those involved in language teaching to reflect on and, where appropriate, question their current aims and methods. In language testing, for example, the CEF has led to the creation of a European association (Ealta). Glenn Fulcher's recent article (Are Europe's tests being built on an "unsafe" framework, March 18) is an example of the kind of discussion about fundamental issues that the CEF generates. But some of the issues raised by Dr Fulcher need to be clarified. The aim of the CEF is to empower and to facilitate, not to prescribe or control. The CEF is not a super-specification for producing new examinations. There is no "Official European Test" around the corner. The Council of Europe (COE) fully respects the diversity of educational and assessment systems in its 45 member states. It does not and could not promote "a shared language testing system", as one misguided commentator was cited as claiming in Dr Fulcher's article. What actually does exist is a modest, Dutch-led project funded by the European Union - a separate body - to collect a small bank of test items calibrated to the CEF levels that could be used to help "anchor" tests to one another. The CEF draws on theories of communicative competence and language use in order to describe what a language user has to know and do in order to communicate effectively and what learners can typically be expected to do at different levels of proficiency. It doesn't try to define what should be taught (content specifications), let alone state how it should be taught (methodology). Content specifications differ according to the target language and the context of the learning; methodology varies with pedagogic culture. The CEF aims to stimulate reflection and discussion on these issues; only the professionals concerned can take the decisions. In the descriptive scheme of the CEF, communicative language activities, for example, are presented in terms of reception, interaction, production and mediation. Divided into spoken and written respectively, they give eight "skills" to replace the old "four skills model" (listening, reading, speaking and writing). Communicative language competence (linguistic, pragmatic, sociolinguistic) and strategies (receptive, interactive, productive) are also treated. The 40

descriptor scales provided make it possible to profile the proficiency of an individual or the demands of an examination in relation to CEF levels. ELT professionals will find few surprises in the six levels (labelled: A1; A2; B1; B2; C1 and C2) since they correspond closely to the levels that have already established themselves in ELT. These levels are not the product of acquisitional hierarchies from second language acquisition (SLA) research. Unfortunately SLA research has so far only produced a partial, contradictory glimpse of what an acquisitional hierarchy might look like. The levels have emerged in a gradual, collective recognition of what the late Peter Hargreaves of Cambridge Esol described as "natural levels". This process has resulted in a set of levels shared by COE specifications (Waystage, Threshold, Vantage), the Cambridge Esol suite, the main ELT publishers and many language schools. Over the past 10 years, Cambridge Esol have in addition worked with other examination boards in Europe to begin to standardise on these levels through Alte (Association of Language Testers in Europe). The descriptors scales for these levels were developed in a four-step process: collecting and writing descriptors; identifying in workshops with some 250 teachers what kinds of categories and style of descriptors were clearest; mathematical scaling; checking the match of the resulting scale content to the levels represented by COE specifications and the Cambridge Esol suite. So how do we know the descriptors are valid? The scaling of the descriptors has been confirmed in studies from Finland, Switzerland, Cambridge Esol and Dialang (www. dialang.org). These validation studies also all concerned self-assessment, not teacher assessment as in the original study, and applied to several languages. The Cambridge study also showed that the CEF levels match up well to the Alte and Cambridge Esol levels, both in the content of the descriptors and in terms of the performance in examinations of the candidates concerned. The descriptor scales can be used for setting objectives, for self-assessment, for teacher assessment and for relating assessment results to common reference points. Of course there are different degrees of rigour in the way people relate assessments to the CEF, and it is legitimate that this should be so. One would logically expect a greater degree of rigour from an examination provider than from a language school and to this end, the COE has recently published a manual to help examination providers relate their tests to the CEF. The fact that the scale order of the CEF descriptors has been reproduced in several validation studies, plus the fact that self-assessments with the descriptors relate systematically to examination results, suggests that an empirical objectivity has been achieved in assigning the

descriptors to levels. Nevertheless one should not confuse a distillation of shared subjective expertise with "scientific truth". The CEF has been conceived as an open-ended, dynamic tool to fuel development. The descriptors form an "item bank" that can be supplemented and revised as and when research provides new insights. Brian North is head of academic Development at Eurocentres, the Swiss-based foundation, and a co-author of the CEF

Teachers, too, have expressed some difficulties in dealing with the Framework.

Some of the most common criticisms and complaints are summarised below.

1. The Framework document is very long and complex. The only clear part is the descriptors. Hence teachers are often not very familiar with the CEF and are not trained to use it. In particular, the terminology used is difficult to understand.

2. The Framework has no measure of grammar-based progression, so teachers working within a traditional grammar-led syllabus have great difficulty in applying the aims of the CEFR to the syllabus and coursebooks. Teachers have neither the time nor sufficient autonomy to write a new syllabus based more closely on the CEFR.

3. The Framework is not necessarily suited to school-based learners as much of the self-assessment descriptors seem to be more closely related to the world of work, business, travel and cultural exchange rather than to the interests of teenage or young learners.

4. The self-assessment descriptors, which are clear to follow, are increasingly being used as a basic syllabus. Yet the descriptors themselves are often not exhaustive.

If you are interested in reading more about teachers feedback on working with the Framework, and some ideas about how the CEF can be used to develop English courses, see:

Keith Morrow (ed) Insights from the Common European Framework. OUP, 2004.

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Now we will turn to the CEFR itself.

Read through Chapter 1 of the CEFR, which discusses the documents aims and objectives in relation to the Council of Europes language policy. Read Chapter 2 and familiarise yourself with the various terms used throughout the Framework, and their meanings.

Chapter 3 of the CEFR deals with the descriptors.

The descriptors of the levels of communicative proficiency were chosen from a series of existing lists which were submitted to a large number of teachers in Switzerland. Those selected were placed in rank ordering and make up the self-assessment grid. They are written in such as way as to be clearly understood by both learners and teachers, and mark the levels of the six major stages in the educational system.

John Trim has given a rough guide to these objectives:

A1 (Breakthrough) is appropriate to progress in the first foreign language at the 10/11 primary/secondary interface

A2 (Waystage) to around 14

B1 (Threshold) to 16+, the lower secondary

B2 (Vantage) to 18+, the completion of upper secondary education

C1 and C2 to the specialist university level

John Trim gives a guide to the objectives of the levels of the CEFR. Do they correspond to the levels expected of English language learning in the Italian school system? If not, how do they differ?

The speed of learning depends on a such factors as the learners age and aptitude, the curricular time available, extra-curricular contact with the foreign language, the relation between L1 (Italian) and L2 (English). Which factors do you believe are most influential in determining the speed of acquisition? Which factors might best explain the difference between the intended levels and those generally reached in the Italian school system?

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Table 1 gives a brief global description at the 6 levels.

Table 2 is a self-assessment framework and breaks this down into 5 activity areas (listening and reading, spoken interaction and spoken production, monologue and writing).

Table 3 defines progress in terms of the quality criteria expected at each level: range, accuracy, fluency, interaction and coherence.

Go to Chapter 3 of the CEFR and read the introductory paragraphs which discuss the various issues involved on establishing the descriptors. Then read through the three tables mentioned above. Do you find the differences in levels easy to identify? If not, which aspects are unclear?

Next read the section that describes the notions, functions, grammar and vocabulary implied (3.5-3.7). Does this information help clarify your understanding of the different levels?

Finally, read the rest of the chapter, which deals with the various way in which the descriptors can be used: for teachers and examiners. In your experience as a teacher, what use have you made of the descriptors? Do you find them a useful guide to be drawn on in the Italian school system?

Chapter 4 deals with the contexts in which language is used, then the themes and subjects spoken of, then the tasks and purposes of acts of communication, then the actual activities of speaking, writing, listening and reading look at first in isolation then in communicative interaction. Particular focus is given to mediation, both written (translation) and spoken (interpretation), an important factor in the plurilingual and intercultural Europe perceived through the Framework.

Chapter 4 also contains an important section on texts, which are considered and classified both according to their type and function and also in relation to the media which carry them and the activities that produce them.

Read through Chapter 4.

Look at the list of themes on Page 52. Try and identify appropriate tasks and activities for the language content at different levels of the CEFRR.

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Read the overall scales and sub-scales for speaking and writing, and think about what language content might be required at each level.

The sub-scales for listening include Understanding interaction between native speakers. Why is this distinction made and what implications does this have?

Besides the traditional skills of listening and reading, the CEFR also includes audiovisual reception (Page 71). What new skills are brought into play with the new media of communication?

Look at the tables for speaking skills. Think about what domains they refer to at each of the six levels.

Finally, read the section on mediating strategies (Page 88), for which there are no illustrative scales. Can you think of how some might be devised?

ONLINE ACTIVITY: Contribute to the debate about the use of the CEFR in the Italian school system.

ASSESSMENT TASK: Write a 500-word essay on the following topic:

Discuss an English teaching textbook you are currently using or have used in the past (either as teacher or learner) and relate it to the CEFR guidelines. Try and match the stated objectives of the course with the descriptors. Include reference to levels, skills, themes, and language content.

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