Key Concepts and Implications for Language Education
The CEFR includes an innovative vision of the user/learner as a “social agent,” meaning someone who exerts agency, or more simply put, acts with intentionality to accomplish tasks (Bandura, 2001) within a social context. This signalled a major shift in language education, moving it away from a linear process focused mainly on language structures to one organized around completing real-life, collaborative tasks whose primary focus is not language (Council of Europe, 2020a). Seeing users/learners as “social agents” implies actively involving them in the learning process and allowing them to use all their resources to accomplish a task. It also requires recognizing the social nature of language use in which meaning is co-constructed, and the social interaction between individuals in the learning process. Using an action-oriented approach when planning involves starting with the end goal in mind — the completion of the real-life task — and working backwards through a needs analysis to help learners build the competences required to complete it.
The descriptive scheme of the CEFR provides a common language to talk about overall language proficiency, outlining what is present in real-life communication. In a communicative situation, general competences are combined with communicative language competences (i.e., linguistic, sociolinguistic, and pragmatic). Users/learners draw upon their competences under various conditions and constraints to engage in language activities while using strategies to accomplish tasks (Council of Europe, 2020a).
Language activities and strategies are presented under four modes of communication in the CEFR: reception, production, interaction, and mediation. The action-oriented approach is what brings the descriptive scheme of the CEFR to life.
Common Reference Levels
This CEFR organizes language proficiency into six levels under three categories: basic user (A1 and A2), independent user (B1 and B2), and proficient user (C1 and C2). These levels act as a shared reference point for language teachers and learners. For example, there is a common understanding across the world of what an individual can do in a language at the A2 level.
The common reference levels are defined by the CEFR’s illustrative descriptors, organized into scales for each of the modes of communication (reception, production, interaction, and mediation). Illustrative descriptors exemplify what a user/learner can typically do at a given level, thus bringing an asset lens to language education. For this reason, descriptors are often referred to as “can-do” descriptors. They are open-ended and incomplete examples and are not meant to be mandatory nor to provide an exhaustive list.
The descriptors, which have been empirically validated in large-scale projects, help to align curriculum, teaching, and assessment. They bring transparency to language education and help clarify how users/learners progress through CEFR levels. Descriptors can be used for many purposes, such as in needs analysis, “signposting” of curriculum aims, module and lesson planning, informing learners about objectives, personal goal setting, documenting achievement, and self-assessment (Piccardo & North, 2019).
|Examples of Illustrative Descriptors:
Can follow in outline short, simple social exchanges, conducted very slowly and clearly. (Reception – Oral comprehension, A2)
Can summarise (in Language B) the main points made during a conversation (in Language A) on a subject of personal or current interest, provided people articulated clearly. (Mediation – Processing text in speech or sign, B1)
Plurilingualism/pluriculturalism is a concept first introduced in drafts of the CEFR in the late 1990s. At the heart of the concept is the understanding that individuals do not keep languages and cultures in different compartments, but instead have a single, interrelated repertoire (Piccardo, 2013). Plurilingual/pluricultural competence is evolving and involves building one’s repertoire by adding linguistic and cultural resources and promoting personal development so that individuals can reach their full potential (Beacco et al., 2016). In the action-oriented approach, “social agents” draw upon all their resources, including their linguistic and cultural resources. Plurilingual/pluricultural competence also involves valuing cultural and linguistic diversity in language education.