Re-evaluating the CEFR: an attempt

Zeynep Urkun, School of Languages, Sabancı University, Istanbul, Turkey

ÜrkünThe introduction of the Common European of Framework of References, with its aim to provide a method of teaching and assessing which applies to all languages in Europe, has definitely been one of the most exciting developments in the world of language teaching. As with any “new” idea, it has had its fair share of supporters and critics. In this paper, I will briefly describe some of the main problems that may arise from the misuse or misinterpretation of the CEFR.

Keith Morrow, in his introduction to Insights from the Common European Framework (2004) makes the point about how, when first introduced, CEFR created a wave of question marks about the document being put together by the Council of Europe. Many wondered what interest the Council may have had in the development of ideas about language teaching, and whether there was a “European Agenda” behind it all. However, the authors make it very clear from the beginning that the CEFR is not intended to introduce a uniform pan-European system and stress that the primary aims of the Framework are to promote reflection and discussion and to provide a way of describing diversity. Naturally, there then followed arguments questioning the feasibility of taking one particular framework and readily applying that to a multitude of contexts where learning/assessment aims and strategies might differ to a great extent. In order to point out that this isn’t really a major concern, North (2007) says:

“ there is no need for there to be a conflict between on the one hand a common framework desirable to organise education and encourage productive networking, and on the other hand the local strategies and decisions necessary to facilitate successful learning in any given context.”

He then goes on to say that it is not the aim of the CEFR to tell practitioners what to do in terms of laying down the objectives that users should pursue or the methods that they should apply (2000). Instead, the aim is to raise questions about the way languages are taught and assessed, with the hope that practitioners might go through a period of reflection which will then, hopefully, create the desired effect of ensuring higher quality.

The writer of this article, sharing the views of North, supports and believes that the CEFR can be used like a “concertina” (North, 2007) – a flexible tool to facilitate reflection, communication and networking. In other words, it can be adapted to allow its use in a large number of contexts according to the particular needs of that context, but at the same time, adhering to the main principles of the common framework. Indeed, there are many contexts where this has been the case. However, the writer also believes that it is the application of the CEFR, or rather, the misuse or misinterpretation of the CEFR, that may lead to problems.

This article will cover some of these main areas where the misuse or misunderstanding of the CEFR can, in fact, create undesirable results; but I would also like to suggest that most of these cases do not come about because there is actually anything “wrong” with the CEFR.

1.    CEFR and learner autonomy

It is widely accepted that the Language Portfolio is one of the main strengths of the CEFR for many reasons. Here are a few:

•    It is a pedagogical tool and supports reflective teaching & learning;

•    With CEFR descriptors, self-assessment, teacher assessment and external assessment can “speak the same language”;

•    It is not a form of high-stakes assessment; therefore it creates low levels of anxiety;

•    It brings assessment and learning closer;

•    It encourages life-long learning;

•    It develops learner autonomy via goal-setting and self-assessment.

However, David Little (2005) points out the following issues that may arise:

•    Self-assessment instruments in the ELP focus on the qualitative aspects of language use (grammatical accuracy, phonological control, sociolinguistic appropriateness). Are these easily within the scope of self-assessment?

•    There is no definition/guidance of how many descriptors define a level or how many communicative tasks one must be able to perform in order to achieve a level;

•    There is the potential trap of teachers or learners claiming they have reached a certain level on the basis of performance in just one or two of the descriptors;

2.    Linking examinations to the CEFR:

One of the main aims of the CEFR is to describe the levels of proficiency required by existing standards, tests and examinations in order to facilitate comparisons between different systems of qualifications (CoE, 2001). Most language teachers or testers complain about the difficulty of comparing the results of different tests in a meaningful enough manner. It is definitely preferable to have a common framework so that test users can have meaningful, transparent and comparable test results, which will also enhance the idea of “mobility”. In fact, many commercially-available ELT examinations, as well as other exams testing language ability in other languages, have now re-defined their exit levels according to the CEFR bands. This makes it easier for test producing institutions or units to speak a similar language when they are comparing exam results. It also makes it easier for the users of these tests to interpret their own exam results and make better sense of their existing level of proficiency in a particular language.

However, there are certain issues that need to be considered here as many exams seem to be claiming a linkage to the CEFR but, unfortunately, not all of them can produce completely adequate evidence of this linkage. Alderson (2006) points these out and asks of the institutions making the claim of linking their exam scores to the CEFR:

•    What evidence is there of the quality of the process followed to link tests and examinations to the Common European Framework?

•    Have the procedures recommended in the Manual and the Reference Supplement been applied appropriately?

•    Is there a publicly available report on the linking process?

•    Who monitors the linking process?

Weir (2005) approaches the issue from a similar angle, warning all those who are concerned, that if tests which were constructed for different purposes / audiences and which view and assess language constructs in different ways are located together on the same scale point, the possibility of making false assumptions of equivalence increases. He goes on to say that this may lead to producing performance descriptors that may be inconsistent or not transparent enough, finally concluding that CEFR doesn’t currently offer a view of how language develops across proficiency levels in terms of cognitive or meta-cognitive processing.

3.    Linking course books to the CEFR:

Perhaps the area which requires a more detailed analysis is the claims that many commercially-available course books make about their linkage to the CEFR. Unfortunately, many course books claim a linkage to a particular level of the CEFR but fail to provide any evidence of the process that they had gone though before that very claim. Some of the claims that are made on certain course books, can be listed as: “syllabus based on CEF”, “CEF link-up”, “CEF level B1.1”, “this book takes students from B1 to B2 level” or “each lesson guides students to a can-do goal in line with CEF’s can-do statements”. (Tsagari, 2006) It is clear, she says, that empirical research is needed for the investigation of writers’/publishers’ claims as such in order to ensure that these claims were based on a realistic and detailed linking process, which needs to be a rather long one at the same time, requiring considerable investment. This process needs to involve teachers, materials writers, publishers and learners.

4.    Using CEF-calibrated exam scores as gatekeepers for citizenship:

The world is going through interesting times with increased migration, but also with new states emerging. As a result, many countries in Europe, and around the world, are faced with the problem of language barriers within their borders. Perhaps there are many reasons behind the need to establish and maintain language standards for immigrants. Perhaps a certain level of language is essential in order to make the new immigrants become part of the employment scene in a speedy manner. In fact, many countries (e.g. the UK, the US, Canada, France, Netherlands, Australia) have either started or are in the process of establishing and applying these language standards, asking the new immigrants to provide evidence of their language proficiency. In many of these cases, the immigrants’ language ability is interpreted using a CEF-calibrated exam score. Interestingly, each country has a different level that they have established to be the minimum level of entry (de Jong, 2007):

  A1 A2 B1 B2 C1

Here, again, we run into an area where, through no fault of its own, the CEFR might be open to a certain level of misuse. Indeed, one does wonder, why is there a barrier in the first place? And what the differences in the expected level of language proficiency are based on? A clear case can be made here about whether the interpretation and usage of the Framework by politicians and governments always follow the aims and intentions put forward by the CEFR. One also cannot help wondering who monitors the quality of links to the CEFR or who monitors the administration procedures of these exams?


As has been explained above, there are several issues related to the use, or rather misuse, of the CEFR. Indeed, there have been cases where, unfortunately, the CEFR has not been put to the best use; cases which may create the impression that the application of the CEFR did not create the desired results.    However, as North says (2007), “that is not a limitation in the validity of the CEFR as such, but rather an unfortunately naïve use of it.” I agree. Luckily, there are so many cases where the CEFR has been put to much better use because the main principles were followed carefully and because the CEFR was used as a flexible tool to inform teaching, learning and assessment, thus helping to create the desired outcomes. It seems that it is up to a particular exam board, a course book  or an institution to interpret it in the way it was meant to be used and make the best use of it. When used appropriately, it has the potential to provide a common meta-language to talk about learning objectives and levels, of encouraging reflection, sharing of practice, transparency in learning, teaching and assessment, as well as encouraging learner autonomy, self-assessment, life-long learning and plurilingualism.

In order to solve some of the issues related to the misuse or misinterpretation of the CEFR in the above-mentioned four categories, perhaps we need a more systematic monitoring of the claims that are made in linking course books, language proficiency exams and language citizenship exams to the CEFR so that standards can be maintained and any possible bias can be avoided. Overall, in order to be able to claim any linkage to the CEFR, there needs to be a greater awareness on the part of institutions worldwide that they would need to have a very realistic approach to how they can make the best use of the CEFR in their local context. Institutions also need to be ready for the fact that they would need to make a considerable investment to ensure correct interpretation and application of the CEFR in order to achieve the desired results.


1.    Alderson, J.C, (2006): Bridging the gap between theory and practice, lecture at the EALTA Conference, Cracow, Poland

2.    Council of Europe (2001): Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

3.    De Jong, J.(2007): Language Testing for Citizenship, Lecture at the IATEFL Annual Conference, TEA SIG Pre-conference event, Aberdeen, Scotland

4.    Little, D., (2005): The Common European Framework and the European Language Portfolio: involving learners and their judgments in the assessment process. In Language Testing, v22 n3 p281-300, Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd

5.    Morrow, K., editor, (2004): Insights from the Common European Framework. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

6.    North, B. (2000): The Development of a common framework scale of language proficiency. New York, Peter Lang.

7.    North, B. (2007): The CEFR Common Reference Levels: validated reference points and local strategies, Lecture at The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and the development of language policies: challenges and responsibilities Policy Forum, Strasbourg

8.    Tsagari, Dina (2006): Linking EFL textbook materials to exam specifications, EALTA Conference in Cracow, Poland.

9.    Weir, C.J. (2005): Limitations of the Common European Framework for developing comparable examinations and tests University of Roehampton, Language Testing, v22 n3 p281-300, Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd

[First published in: The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL): Benefits and Limitations, 2008, IATEFL TEA SIG Croatia Conference Proceedings, 10-14, Canterbury, UK.]