What is the CEFR?

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, commonly known as the CEFR, was developed, building on extensive research, by the Council of Europe, Europe’s leading human rights organization. First published in 2001, the CEFR was updated and extended in 2020 with the publication of The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment – Companion Volume. The CEFR is the core document in the Council of Europe’s work in language education, “which seeks to protect linguistic and cultural diversity, promote plurilingual and intercultural education, reinforce the right to quality education for all, and enhance intercultural dialogue, social inclusion and democracy” (Council of Europe, 2020b).

The CEFR describes language proficiency at different stages of learning and informs innovative approaches to language education. This comprehensive reference tool is designed to:

  • Facilitate dialogue and co-operation across boundaries
  • Promote reflection and reform
  • Help support planning for language learning, teaching, and assessment among language professionals

The CEFR is not specific to any one language and is adaptable for use within different local contexts. The 2001 version is now translated into over 40 languages. The 2020 version is available in English with translations in progress. The CEFR is used widely in Europe as well as in many other countries, including Canada.

Key Concepts and Implications for Language Education

Action-Oriented Approach

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.

Descriptive Scheme

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.

Basic User

Independent User

Proficient User

A1    A2 B1    B2 C1    C2

Illustrative Descriptors

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)

Plurilingual/Pluricultural Competence

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.

Find Out More About the CEFR

For more information about the CEFR, explore the following resources:

Council of Europe’s CEFR website: https://www.coe.int/en/web/common-european-framework-reference-languages

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment – Companion Volume (2020 edition), Council of Europe, available at https://rm.coe.int/common-european-framework-of-reference-for-languages-learning-teaching/16809ea0d4

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (2001 edition), Council of Europe, available at https://rm.coe.int/1680459f97

From Communicative to Action-Oriented: Illuminating the Approaches, Transforming FSL, available at https://transformingfsl.ca/en/resources/from-communicative-to-action-oriented-illuminating-the-approaches/

Action-Oriented Approach Handbook, CASLT, available at https://www.caslt.org/en/boutique-en/aoa-handbook-en-dwnld


Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1–26. https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/Bandura2001ARPr.pdf

Beacco, J.-C., Byram, M., Cavalli, M., Coste, D., Cuenat, M. E., Goullier, F., & Panthier, J. (2016, August). Guide for the Development and Implementation of Curricula for Plurilingual and Intercultural Education. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. https://rm.coe.int/CoERMPublicCommonSearchServices/DisplayDCTMContent?documentId=09000016806ae621

Council of Europe (2020a). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment – Companion Volume. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. https://rm.coe.int/common-european-framework-of-reference-for-languages-learning-teaching/16809ea0d4

Council of Europe (2020b). Newsroom. Education. https://www.coe.int/en/web/education/-/common-european-framework-of-reference-for-languages-learning-teaching-assessment-companion-volume

Piccardo, E. (2013). Plurilingualism and curriculum design: Towards a synergic vision. TESOL Quarterly, 47(3), 600–614.

Piccardo, E., & North, B. (2019). The Action-oriented Approach: A Dynamic Vision of Language Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.



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