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Feb 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Twenty Years of HLT – Twenty Years of CEF

Little Known ‘Facts’ about the Common European Framework of Reference

What better way of celebrating twenty years of HLT than to mention the magazine in the same breath as the Common European Framework of Reference, one of the most important documents in the field of language learning, teaching and assessment? And just as the HLT has had significant influence on humanising language teaching throughout the world, it seems appropriate to draw readers’ attention to the CEFR and point out some of the equally important influences this Council of Europe document has had on language learning, teaching and assessment throughout Europe and beyond. Of course, by now most people are fully cognisant of the definition of communicative language proficiency given by the CEFR and the consequences for the classroom in terms of content and methodology. The approach of this more light-hearted article will therefore restrict itself to a number of ‘facts’ that are almost certainly unknown – probably even to the authors of that document themselves.


Little-Known Fact 1

The basic idea of providing definitions of proficiency and competence has now been adopted by other institutions in order to establish a set of guidelines. The first example worthy of mention is the Common European Framework for Referees developed by the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations). This document aims to provide criteria for quality management during high-level football tournaments. The skill and knowledge areas covered include EFL (English as a Foul Language) with its emphasis on four-letter words, essential receptive knowledge for referees during international games involving British teams. The UEFA version of the CEFR also sets great store by the skill of ‘socio-linguistic appropriateness’, in particular the understanding of non-verbal communication, such as head-butting and the semantics of the middle finger (also known as digital literacy). In addition, it defines various levels of ‘goal-oriented interaction’ on the pitch. The validity and reliability of the UEFA approach can easily be demonstrated by reference to the fact that England nearly always lose in penalty shoot-outs and that the German national team, apart from one blip in the 2018 UEFA Championships, can always be relied on to reach at least the semi-finals.

A further offshoot of the CEFR, better known as the Common European Framework of Referendums (or Referenda for purists) was implemented by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron in 2016. Whereas Brussels viewed that project as a kind of placement test to see how high up on the CEFR scale of European Competence the British people were, for David Cameron it was designed as an achievement test to show how ‘euro proficient’ the UK really was. In actual fact, the attempt was on both counts a dismal failure, the result of the referendum revealing that a majority of the British people were below A1. Indeed, to deal with this hitherto unknown low level of proficiency, the Council of Europe had to produce a Companion Volume in 2018, in order to present descriptors for a new level labelled ‘pre-A1‘.

A third new version of the CEFR is rumoured to be in the process of development. Developed jointly by the Anglican Church and The Vatican, it will be known as “The Common European Framework of Reverends”, and will offer descriptors for assessing members of the Christian clergy.


Little-Known Fact 2

Many readers may well remember the financial crash in the US back in 2008 and the earthquake-like tremors that reverberated around Europe. Less well-known is the effect this had on the six CEFR proficiency levels as a result of “bad (item) banks” being used by a number of language test providers throughout Europe. Greece was particularly vulnerable, the Greek B1 level sinking below B0.5 overnight, and the Spanish B2 was downgraded to B Juan. Across Europe there was the threat of a general ‘haircut’ of 10% on all CEFR language proficiency levels due to the toxic approach of the U.S. Rating Agencies: “Poor Standards”, “Futch” and “Bad Moodys”. Indeed, had it not been for the strength of the German B1 testing organizations, who with their emphasis on strong verbs and strong endings as well as their willingness both to introduce “writing off” as a new writing sub-skill and to accept a sharp increase in “syn-tax”, were able to stabilize the CEFR A1 - A2 - B1 - B2 - C1 - C2 scale, otherwise an overnight devaluation  down to A0 - A0.5 – A1 - A1.5 - A2 and A2.5 would have been inevitable.


Little-Known Fact 3

One criticism put forward by a number of opponents of the CEFR is that the six proficiency levels from A1 to C2 fail to meet the needs of the overwhelming majority of people across Europe, namely those who are unable to communicate in any other language apart from their mother tongue. By not including A0 as an official grade of incompetence, it became virtually impossible to develop an official CEFR-aligned test of zero knowledge and skills. Such a test would not only be of practical use in that for example it would allow motorists caught for speeding by the British motorway police to prove their inability to communicate in English, or employees to prove their unsuitability for an unwanted posting abroad;  it would also offer a huge commercial potential for test providers across the globe, given the fact that there are over 6000 languages!

Still optimistic that a zero-level proficiency definition will be implemented some time in the future, test developers are rumoured to be designing new Certificates of Deficiency with innovative curricula including language-avoidance strategies and non-verbal responses to indicate non-comprehension, as well as creative test formats, e.g. using jokes based on ‘double entendres’ requiring candidates to keep a straight face in order to give evidence of their lack of competence in the skill of ‘listening/reading for jest’.

So, let’s see what the next twenty years bring!


Please check the British Life, Language and Culture course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the English Course for Teachers and School Staff at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Assessment for the 21st Century English Classroom course at Pilgrims website

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