The CEFR 101 – Essentials for Teachers to Know, and What’s New!

This week’s guest post is from Tim Goodier, member of the core authoring group for the CEFR Companion Volume (among other things). Did you know that the descriptors had been updated? I didn’t! Here, he offers some useful insights into the changes and how to incorporate the ‘can do’ statements into your teaching.

Most people working in ELT will be familiar with the CEFR (in full: the Common European Framework of Reference for languages) though not necessarily in detail. You might be forgiven for thinking that it’s just a set of level labels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) that are roughly equivalent to ‘beginner/elementary’, ‘pre-intermediate’, ‘intermediate’, ‘upper-intermediate’, ‘advanced’ and ‘proficiency’. However, the CEFR levels are based on a scheme for profiling language skills, using ‘can do’ statements developed with the feedback of thousands of teaching professionals. It was first published in a book 2001 and then updated in an online Companion Volume in 2018 for greater relevance for the 21st century. This recent update has created a lot of discussion, especially concerning the expanded concept of ‘mediation’ (see the note on communication modes below).

Here are 3 key points about the CEFR, and its recent update, that have some interesting implications for English language teaching (and there are popular misunderstandings that we can de-mystify here too):

  1. The CEFR is for any language – this means it is designed to describe in detail what learners can do in any given language at each level. The same can do statements apply across different languages because they focus on the outcomes of communication, not the mechanics of specific languages. The idea is to support plurilingual education, where learners build a profile of 2 or 3 (or more) languages in a portfolio and ‘language passport’, to open opportunities in an increasingly globalised / ‘glocalised’ world.

    Implications for language teachers: The CEFR therefore breaks down language ability into things we do communicatively (for example, justify a viewpoint rather than use modal verbs),and this ‘action-oriented approach’ dovetails well with communicative, task-based and project-based learning. In essence, the CEFR gives us as a reliable core menu of communicative activities and strategies to work on at each level, which are applicable to different contexts and topics. Individual can do statements can be adapted as learning aims to help us focus more on coaching learners for real world communication, rather than just teaching language forms with staged controlled interactions. Check whether your course material already provides a simplified list of CEFR linked can do statements for learners, as they can be a good focal point for incorporating more personalised and action-oriented lesson tasks.  

    Popular misunderstanding: people often think that the CEFR does not support a focus on grammar and vocabulary practice, but this is not the case. There are in fact CEFR mapping projects for English grammar, functions and vocabulary such as the British Council Eaquals Core Inventory, or English Profile. Nevertheless, grammar and vocabulary topics need not dominate course aims at the expense of meaningful skills development.  The CEFR encourages us to organise learning around acts of communication relevant to the learners, and in tandem work on the language forms that they need to succeed in them. Published teaching materials are gradually changing their approach to reflect this (and I mean gradually!), but you can also use can do statements to negotiate with learners how to customise their course and lessons with extra activities.

  2. Four modes not four skills: The CEFR views listening and reading as ‘reception’, which is a mode of communication. But it also describes modes of production (formulating the message), interaction (engaging in dialogue)and mediation (collaborating and helping others to understand things better), which can apply to either speaking or writing, or a mixture of these, reflecting how communication really happens. The recent update to the CEFR adds scales of can do statements for mediation for the first time. This goes well beyond the dictionary definition and includes a wide range of activities for achieving better understanding between people; for example, skills for collaborative team work or explaining / summarising things you have read or listened to – hence the spotlight on integrated skills.

    Implications for language teachers: Mediation can do statements now provide a detailed level-specific roadmap for areas such as presentation skills, collaborative problem-solving tasks and summarising information from different sources. This is highly relevant to the growing focus on content and language integrated learning (CLIL) in ELT. It’s something you could explore yourself by taking one mediation can do statement and thinking how to bring it to life in an authentic communicative task.

    For example, consider the B1 descriptor:

    ‘Can summarise (in Language B) a short narrative or article, a talk, discussion, interview or documentary (in Language A) and answer further questions about details.’

    Firstly, note that ‘language A’ and ‘language B’ can be different uses of English, and are not necessarily two different languages. This could for example be developed in a task to present the main points of an article or documentary on a subject chosen by the learner, researched on an English-language website, or indeed in L1.  The main point here is a focus on relaying information and ideas in a personalised way for your intended audience, not just verbatim reporting or translation, and this can create rich opportunities for exploring language use, especially at B and C levels.

    Popular misunderstanding: ‘mediation is a new theory that we have no means to teach’. Mediation can do statements are in fact very practical, and they relate to tasks that have a focus on meaning, be it helping people understand something, helping people communicate better, taking other viewpoints into account, and/or talking through ideas to find solutions. Mediation can happen at low levels too e.g. in a simple form of relaying information from a schedule or brochure. Mediation is not new – it’s a feature of all good communicative classrooms, and the person who regularly mediates the most is you the teacher!
  3. ‘Online interaction’ – a genuinely new area:  The 2018 update to the CEFR also adds scales for online interaction, which can be open-ended or goal-oriented. Online interaction activities assume an integration of skills / modes, and can involve phases of live (synchronous) and delayed (asynchronous) interaction by text or speech, with varying numbers of participants, embedded threads and use of links to media to illustrate points etc. This together means something quite unique to the 21st century that is described separately in the updated CEFR levels.

Implications for language teachers: As with mediation we now have a more detailed roadmap for what to work on at each level for online interaction. This can be translated into concrete targets for 21st century communication skills, and personalised with creative activities learners can relate to. For example, ‘Can engage in online transactions that require an extended exchange of information’ could be developed in a house swap scenario, using, email, a free messenger app or simulating with exchanged written messages. The same principle can apply of experimenting with one descriptor to start with, and thinking how it suggests personalised tasks and simulations.

This is just a brief taster of what is described in the updated CEFR, but remember it’s free to download and explore. Follow this link:

On this page you can find the 2018 update titled the CEFR Companion Volume with New Descriptors (or CEFR CV) because it brings together all the scales of can do statements, original and new, in one easily navigable collection. If you’re interested to learn more, a good place to start is the introductory chapter of the CEFR CV called ‘Key aspects of the CEFR for teaching and learning’, which is rather more accessible than the original book, and is only 20 or so pages long!

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