ELT Chat on CEFR – a summary and reflection

#ELT chat

This is the first time I’m summarising one of the #ELTchats that take place regularly on Twitter. You can find out more about them on their FB page or the website, where you can suggest topics for future discussions. Admittedly, I haven’t attended the original chat (don’t have Twitter, though James Taylor is trying to persuade me to get it). I’ve only recently heard about the ELT Chat, and joined the FB group a few days ago. There I found a post asking for a volunteer to summarise the chat on CEFR which had taken place on 26th March 2014. Since I was quite interested in the topic and curious to find out how the discussion had evolved, I decided to volunteer 🙂

I’ll do my best to summarise the chat. Then I’ll add some personal comments and reflection. You can find its transcript here.

Most teachers seemed to be quite familiar with CEFR although there were some who had never heard of it (e.g. HanaTicha: “I didn’t hear a single mention of CEFR in my teaching programme”), or who only had scant knowledge of it. The discussion centred around the advantages and disadvantages of CEFR, which I’ll try to discuss here. But first, let’s briefly look at what CEFR is.

Probably the best and shortest description came from HadaLitim, who said that “CEFR is divided into 3 broad categories Basic / Independent / Proficient user and sub-divided into 6 – A1 to C2”. Since most participants seemed familiar with it, the discussion moved on to classroom usage and subsequently some advantages and disadvantages. First, however, I wanted to add some basic facts about CEFR for those of you who might be less familiar with it.

CEFR stands for Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. It is “used to describe achievements of learners of foreign languages across Europe and, increasingly, in
other countries”(Council of Europe 2001, p.1). As it was pointed out in the chat, there are 3 basic levels subdivided into a total of 6, as can be seen in the chart below:

from Imam and Shaw, 2013

The scale describes what students can do at each level. This is important as it views the learners interlanguage from a positive standpoint (i.e. abilities), rather than a negative one (i.e. errors). Most course books on the market follow CEFR and arrange their syllabi around the “can do statements”.

The #ELTchat then moved on to the impact CEFR has on our classroom practice, the way it’s viewed by students and teachers, and how we can apply it to teaching. From the discussion, a list of advantages and criticisms of the framework emerged which I’d like to discuss here.
The advantages:

  • The descriptors are important for us Ts to get a general knowledge of what Ss should know when they graduate” HanaTicha
  • Ed Laur “focuses on communicative skills as opposed to ticking off grammar or vocab lists”
  • gives a feeling of progress and goals
  • sts can judge their own progress (KateLLoyd)
  • I see value in established standards from reputable body. A common benchmark” TheSecretDos
  • CEFR gives “some uniformity in objectives and assessment” Marisa_C
  • Priscilamateini: “[students are] highly motivated by level and certificates
  • “Can-dos enable us to leave the coursebook and stil reassure sts we’re on track wth progress” HadaLitim 
  • “And helpful for a teacher planning own syllabus with no set course book. Can guide choice of tasks ” EdLaur

The disadvantages:

  • VenVVE “The only problem I have with it now that it seems too analytical (as opposed to holistic approach)”
  • HadaLitim: “for an allegedly communicative framework pretty prescriptive – no?”
  • “Ts don’t really understand it though. Descriptors are sometimes too broad” The Secret DoS
  • Ven_VVE “is my C1 equal to your C1?” Some concern was voiced that despite the fact that theoretically two students from two different schools who are both on C1 level should have the same – or very similar- abilities, there’s some variation.
  • “how do you know when “could do” becomes “can do”?” The Secret Dos
  • MarjorieRosenbe: “I also found it overwhelming at the beginning”
  • Band descriptors, especially on higher levels, are not very specific

 My reflection

The advantages:

I agree with what was said during the chat. As a language teacher, I find CEFR useful because it provides a common framework which can not only help us structure a course, but also monitor and assess students’ progress. It makes our lives as assessors easier by providing clear and unambiguous (at least theoretically) statements of students’ language ability. As it was pointed out in the discussion, can dos might also be used to motivate our learners by showing them the progress they have made. In addition, since apart from English I also teach Spanish and Polish, CEFR really help me design the courses (they’re 1-1s), prepare materials and track students’ progress, because the can do statements are transferable to other languages.

As a language learner, I also like the idea of being able to monitor my own progress and ticking off boxes with can-dos as I learn. I know – sounds super geeky, but it gives me a feeling of improvement and achievement. Obviously, not all learners will feel the same about CEFR (or any other structured assessment program), but I do think that if the students are properly introduced and eased into the idea of self-assessment using the can do statements, they will benefit from it. The statements are positive, and therefore avoid the risk of intimidating or discouraging students with negative feedback.

The disadvantages:

As above, I do agree with the criticisms voiced during the discussion. From a teacher’s perspective, they can be quite overwhelming at the beginning. I’ve also found them a bit vague at times or too long and descriptive. In addition, if we were really to follow the can do statements in every class and conduct the assessment according to them  (as I had to in one school I worked for), we would spend most of the class time evaluating our students, rather than teaching them. 

Another worry is the issue of validity, which was raised by The Secret DoS during the chat: “how do you know when “could do” becomes “can do”?” Since some descriptors are vague or unclear, and some are very descriptive, there is a lot of room for interpretation. In addition, most teachers are not trained in using can do statements for day-to-day assessments of students (at least I’ve never been), which severely undermines their value not only for teachers, but also for students who need to also be shown how to use CEFR for self-assessment.

My biggest criticism, though, concerns something which was not mentioned during the #ELTchat. Namely, CEFR “works primarily on the NS-NNS axis”(Hyninen, N. p.36). Many descriptors, especially on higher levels are based on using the language to communicate with native speakers, and the competencies are compared to that of a native speaker. For example, some of the illustrative descriptors are:

  • understands interaction between native speakers
  • understands a native speaker interlocutor

This assumes that the learner learns a language primarily in order to communicate with native speakers, which although in some case might be true (e.g. work or immigration reasons), on average definitely is not. Most students are far more likely to interact with other non-native speakers since NNS outnumber NS by 3 to 1. Therefore, in the view of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), some CEFR scales might only be unfair but also irrelevant goals.

Conclusions:

On the whole, despite all its drawbacks, the CEFR is by far the best and most comprehensive framework for scaling and assessing language levels there is. Of course, it’s got its disadvantages and is by no means perfect or flawless, however, in my opinion the pros far outweigh the cons.

It was great to be able to write the summary of the #ELTchat as reading through the notes prompted me to look things up in the literature and reflect. I’m looking forward to joining the chats in the future, and perhaps writing another summary.

Finally, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section:

  • Are you familiar with CEFR?
  • Do you use it in class?
  • Are your students familiar with it? Do they use it for self-assessment?
  • What do you think about the pros and cons mentioned in this post? Would you add any others?

References:

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2 thoughts on “ELT Chat on CEFR – a summary and reflection

  1. Marek,

    Thanks for giving your thumbs up on the CEFR framework of reference. I have been using it for years and yes, I do agree that there are both pros and cons as you have pointed out in your post. One must understand that it is a reference model and should be taken into consideration as that because there are exceptions of course. I use it to test my students when I see them on a one to one basis and then I prepare a course outline specifically for that student which helps me with the student's progress. Also, have you heard of the ALTE? if not, it would be interesting to check it out.

    Good luck!

  2. Thanks for your comment!
    As I said, despite its disadvantages, CEFR is the best thing out there for measuring students' progress and level, so there was no way I'd be against it.
    I totally agree with you that CEFR is only a reference model. However, I think more emphasis should be place in in-house training sessions and CPD on using the CEFR and adapting it to your teaching context. I think that for many teachers CEFR might be overwhelming and a bit abstract.
    I've been doing a lot of 1-1 lately on a freelance basis, and I've found CEFR can-do statements incredibly useful. They help me design the course, set objectives, level test, etc. Students also like them, because they help them keep track of their progress.
    No, I haven't. What is it?
    Cheers,

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