Tag Archives: CEFR

Language Hacking: Breaking out of the Intermediate Plateau

 

image

There comes a time in the life cycle of every language learning experience where the student is hit by a brick wall. I have experienced this myself while learning, or trying to learn Irish, French, German, Spanish, Latin and Italian. I have seen other learners go through it as both a teacher and a friend. The usual course of events is this: the learner starts out by picking up a great deal of high frequency vocabulary. Vocabulary which gives them an extremely profitable return on their investment. These high frequency words are often heard and seen in reading and listening input and quickly become acquired, making the learner feel like rapid progress is being made. This happy state of affairs remains as the learner progresses through A1 and A2 levels on the CEFR and continues into intermediate stages. With each hour spent acquiring, vocabulary texts become progressively more penetrable, thus positively re-enforcing learner behaviour.

This encouraging state of affairs continues unabated right up until the quagmire that is the B1-B2 crossover point. Think of it as a dark foreboding forest where only the most valiant warriors emerge. The honeymoon phase is over. This phase creates the false impression that languages are easy to learn. Well, they are at first, that is until the learner runs out of high frequency vocabulary to learn. Then, the tables are turned, high frequency vocabulary runs out and learners became faced with the bleak prospect of learning a word which they mightn’t come across again for weeks if not months. This can happen even in a situation where the quantity of input is extremely high, such as can be found in a full immersion environment. This land of no return is well know by language learners and it’s the last stop on the line for many of them. The trains stops and they get off far out in the suburbs.

Polyglots can also experience this stage, having said that it is more rare once you’ve mastered your first second language. I will attempt to address why this is the case later.

Firstly, I want to point out that this stage, sometimes termed the intermediate plateau, is not necessarily a bad thing. This level of proficiency serves many learners well. Let’s imagine a Korean business woman in the IT industry on a trip to her company’s supplier in Vietnam, who happen to make parts for her company’s mobile phones, to oversee new standards of production. Her hosts are equally proficient in the language, and together the happy group negotiate meaning during the visit. Error counts are high- but who cares? There is no teacher around to write down their mistakes and communication, while imperfect, is mostly successful. It’s all about getting the message across and if she doesn’t happen to know how to use the present perfect tense very well-well who cares? If she doesn’t happen to have the word for a particular noun- let’s say ‘a blanket’ in the hotel that she’s staying in- well, she can just show the receptionist a picture on her mobile phone. She could go on holidays the following year to France and have a very similar experience. In short, meaning is negotiated, thrashed out if you like, between two or more willing parties.

The majority of English as a second language speakers around the world are on the plateau and are happy there. They learned the language to get by, not to understand the intricacies of assonance in Grey’s Elegy, nor watch The Godfather Trilogy without subtitles and certainly not to give a talk at a TEDX conference or publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. Their ambitions are much more modest and mediocre works just fine for them in their world thank you very much.

Sounds great, right? And remember practice makes perfect, doesn’t it? So these intermediate plateau learners (IPLs) will inevitably get better as they continue dealing with the language, right? No, that’s where we are sometimes mistaken. This isn’t my line but I wish it was, practice doesn’t make perfect but perfect practice does. If you want to progress to C1 and C2 and beyond, your learning behaviours need to change.

Before I discuss practising more perfectly, I want to quickly explore the other factor which creates the illusion that languages are easy to learn at lower levels. This is the unequal way we have divided up language learning courses into a series of levels. Be it the CEFR, IELTS bands or the old beginner to proficiency system, schools, course books and teachers do not make it clear to students that the time it takes to get from A1 to A2 is not the same as the time it takes to get from C1 to C2, not by a long shot. Think of A1-A2 as the Apollo mission to the moon and C1 to C2 as getting to Mars (and setting up a colony there). Similarly, getting from band 5 to 6 in IELTS can be done in 3 months while getting from 8 to 9 may take 3 years or 30.

Ok so language acquisition is more rapid at the beginning but once progress slows down, how can we make the time we devote to learning a language more worthwhile?
It’s not a revelation, or at least it doesn’t seem so at first, but it is. I mentioned polyglots before. They go through the intermediate plateau in their first second language as all other learners but they manage to find their way out of the forest. They master their L2. L3 is a much easier experience. The brain has been rewired to become highly attuned to acquiring. The difference between L2 and L3 for the typical polyglot is like the difference between getting a taxi from the airport to your hotel or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that’s late and trying to understand the bus maps that are in a foreign language. For the polyglot, it becomes an enjoyable experience to go from elementary to proficiency in your L3. L4 is almost done on autopilot and it gets even easier from there. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that learning a language, even your fourth is easy. On the contrary, it still takes a huge investment of time. However, what reduces is the frustration of performing learning behaviours that give little return on investment. Enjoyment increases. The pleasure of improving is felt much more often, at all proficiency levels, and there is very little of the frustration.

What do polyglots do then that’s different? Well, for one they tend to be extremely disciplined. Just like physical exercise, a little bit on a regular basis goes a long way. They stay relaxed and do not stress to much about their level or undergo anxiety during production. They’re constantly trying out what they know and taking feedback on board, always  trying to do better next time. However, they can be happy to remain silent and simply soak up what’s going on around them. They look at grammar only on a need to know basic and don’t make the mistake of trying to learn the third conditional before they’ve even noticed it during input. They have modest goals, at least at first. These might be to have a enough Italian to order food in a restaurant or hold a conversation about football in German. They find input that’s comprehensible. And of course they keep motivated, which brings me to the key ingredient: avoiding boredom.

Boredom is the mortal enemy of acquisition. Polyglots have developed techniques for avoiding this boredom and its associated frustration on the intermediate plateau. One of the ways of achieving this is to change the learning source frequently. For example, if you’ve been doing French on Duolingo for a few months and have made a lot of progress but are getting a bit fed up with the routine of it all? Say you’ve read all the graded readers in your local library, you’ve got all of Axelle Red’s CDs and you’re sick of trying to read Camus’ L’étranger. Well, try another source- read BBC Afrique, watch TV5 and France 24 and listen to Europe 1. Download some podcasts. Find a TV programme from the Francophone world that you like, for example ‘Un Village Français’, have a look on YouTube for an interesting French language blogger- why not one from Cameroon? Find a language swap in your town. Find 10 of them. In short, change the channel and when you get bored: change again, stay on the same language but change the channel. Find a new French class, watch a documentary in French about a topic that you’re familiar with. Listen or watch to whatever you like so long as it’s in French and so long as you find it interesting. Watch things that you enjoy multiple times. That’ll make it more comprehensible with each listen. Acquisition is INEVITABLE once you stay relaxed, avoid boredom and keep that input comprehensible. Oh an get copious amounts of it: between 2 and 4 hours every day. C’est facile, non?

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: