The Common European Framework – Evaluation and Course Content – Issues AND PROBLEMS

British Council, Rome.


Can the Common European Framework (CEF) help to evaluate a language-learner’s ability? Main problems are:

1. variability of performance

I would like to use the example of my own ability at Italian. I would argue that I am almost C2 according to the “global scale” of the CEF:

Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express himself/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.

But only B1 for “Overall Written Production”:

Can write straightforward connected texts on a range of familiar subjects within his field of interest, by linking a series of shorter discrete elements into a linear sequence.

However, I am not even B1 for “Writing reports and essays”:

Can write short, simple essays on topics of interest. Can summarise, report and give his opinion about accumulated factual information on familiar routine and no-routine matters within his field of interest with some confidence.

Then, I would argue that the actual level also depends also on time of day, circumstances, motivation, tiredness, embarrassment etc.

2. subjectivity of interpretation when using the descriptors:

This is the first sentence of B1 “writing reports and essays”:

Can write short, simple essays on topics of interest.

But this does not explain what “short” means, ( 20 words? 50? 100? 1000?) or what “simple” means. And it says nothing about the linguistic level of the essay. (Number of mistakes? General level of comprehensibility?).

These problems are true of any assessment system. It is important to remember that the CEF is just a framework. What we have to be careful of is referring to it as a kind of all-embracing system giving absolute answers.

Course content

The people who put together the CEF claim that we should not use it for defining course content. This is from the introduction:

One thing should be made clear right away. We have not set out to tell practitioners what to do or how to do it. We are raising questions, not answering them. It is not the function of the Common European Framework to lay down the objectives that users should pursue or the methods they should employ.

Nevertheless, a number of teaching organisations and institutions have taken it to mean exactly that. That it does tell us what to teach and, incidentally, how to teach it.

In my organisation, the British Council, we are preparing “learning aims” for all our courses. These learning aims are a selection, a synthesis, and, in some cases, an extrapolation, of the objectives listed in the Common European Framework. The idea is that these form a type of syllabus. I have been directly involved in producing these level-based learning aims. The problem is how to relate CEF “objectives” to something that a teacher might do in a classroom. Let’s look at examples from level B2, “Spoken Production”:

I can speculate about causes, consequences, hypothetical situations.

This is quite an easy one to turn into teaching. It means you teach your students discourse markers for cause and consequence: because, due to, so, as a result of etc. and then you teach them all the conditionals. Let’s look at “Writing” (still from B2):

I can write a short review of a film or book.

This means the teacher gets the students to write a film review, a rather normal language course activity. With “Listening ” it gets more difficult:

I can understand in detail what is said to me in standard spoken language even in a noisy environment.

Does this mean that you play a cassette for your students and get them to do a listening exercise, but at the same time you leave the windows open, so that the traffic noise disrupts them as much as possible. Now, “Spoken interaction”:

I can engage in extended conversation in a clearly participatory fashion on most general topics.

This is a perfectly valid description of somebody’s level, but no teaching content is specified in any way. Now let’s look at “Language Quality”:

I have sufficient vocabulary to express myself on matters connected to my field and on most general topics.

Again, this is too general to be of use to a teacher preparing a course or lesson. So, whereas some of these CEF objectives provide help for teachers, course designers, publishers producing coursebooks, and, students, trying to understand what is the subject matter of their courses, other objectives don’t. They don’t lead to any particular teaching or learning point. But then the objectives are not supposed to lay down what a language learning course must contain. Again I refer to the notes at the beginning of the Common European Framework.

They… are suggestive only. You may well wish to keep some, reject others and add some of your own. You should feel quite free to do so, since it must be for you to decide on your objectives and your product.

So what is the CEF good for?

So, the Common European Framework does not help us assess students very easily and does not (often) help us decide what we have to teach them. Nevertheless, I feel it’s a very important and significant document.

1. Before the advent of the CEF, there was no basis to any assessment system. Students could not be compared, if they had different teachers (with different ideas of what “elementary” or “intermediate” meant) or were learning in different environments or even learning different languages. The CEF is not an assessment system, but it is a model against which a real assessment system can be measured. Similarly, with course content, the CEF is not a syllabus, but provides a model against which a syllabus can be evaluated.

2. The CEF reminds us of a very important point. Students want to learn a language, partly to pass exams and get bits of paper, but mainly so that they can fulfil real-life tasks in the real-life world. What is important is not learning the rules of some obscure grammatical tense, but to be able to do things in that language. All the “descriptors” contain the word:”Can”….. This emphasis on being able to use rather than simply “knowing” the language is what the CEF reinforces.

3. Finally, the CEF reminds teachers that what they should teach should be based on objectives. You don’t just teach something simply because it’s there. You don’t do an activity in class just because it’s the next page in the coursebook. There has to be reasons for why you teach what you teach.


The British Council has spent some time examining what the CEF can give us, as an organisation. In the end, we concluded that the most important thing it could do was to improve teaching quality, by making teachers question and re-consider what they do and why they do it. Remember:

We are raising questions, not answering them.

So my conclusion is that the CEF will probably not change what you teach or what you test, perhaps not immediately. But hopefully, it may force you to question it. For the CEF, the process is as important as the product.