​​Since 1996, the Canadian Language Benchmarks (and their French counterpart* Niveaux de compétence linguistique canadiens) have been recognized as the official Canadian standards for describing, measuring, and recognizing the language proficiency of adults and prospective immigrants in English and French. Fully supported by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), and in partnership with the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario, CLB’s most recent version (2012) was developed in consultation with over 1300 participants.

The CLB are currently used by agencies teaching English and/or French as an additional language to newcomer adults for the purposes of living, working, and studying in Canada. They are reliable standards for a variety of situations such as language assessment, language training, settling into a community, and preparing for work or academic studies (Canadian Language Benchmarks, 2012, pp. i–ii).

* The Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB) and the Niveaux de compétence linguistique canadiens (NCLC) are two separate frameworks; the NCLC is NOT a translation of the CLB.

Key Concepts

The Canadian Language Benchmarks are designed to provide the following:

  • A set of descriptive statements about successive levels on the continuum of language ability
  • A description of communicative competencies and performance tasks through which learners demonstrate application of language knowledge 
  • A national standard for planning curricula for language instruction in a variety of contexts
  • A frame of reference for learning, teaching, programming, and assessing adult ESL and/or FSL in Canada (Canadian Language Benchmarks, 2012, p. v)

The CLB provide clear descriptions of learner competencies (what a participant can do in the target language). The developers of the CLB remind us that teaching discrete, underlying elements of language competency — such as grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation — is not enough. Instead, learners must be allowed to demonstrate language proficiency through authentic tasks.

The CLB consist of twelve levels divided into three stages. Stage 1 (levels 1–4) is considered basic (beginner) in terms of its outcomes, while Stage 2 (levels 5–8) is intermediate. To put this into context, completion of Level 4 can be used for citizenship purposes, while learners who complete Level 8 will be almost ready for post-secondary education, depending on the program, but with some continued language limitations. Stage 3 (levels 9–12) is considered advanced language ability. Learners at this stage can use the language in high-stakes, demanding situations such as academic and work-related contexts.

Assessment with the CLB

First introduced in 2010, Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA) (in French, the Évaluation Linguistique Basé sur le Portfolio) is a teaching and assessment model aligned to the CLB. The goal of PBLA is to ensure the consistency and quality of language instruction and assessment for adult newcomers to Canada. It aims to help instructors with the following:

  • Focusing on authentic, task-based language learning
  • Assessing learners based on their performance in the target language

PBLA helped standardize assessment practices and provide a common approach for instructors applying the CLB to authentic tasks in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Learners’ language abilities are assessed through the performance of tasks and the comprehension of texts that reflect authentic communication.

Implications for Language Teaching and Learning

The introduction of PBLA in concert with the CLB has provided the backdrop for consistent programming across Canada. The creation of a database of real-world assessment tasks (created by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board) and a sharing site called Tutela have allowed instructors to share, demonstrate, and adapt appropriate learning and assessment content. Instructors can feel confident that these assessment tasks are consistent and adapted to the local context. Program participants can also feel confident that no matter where in the country they are accessing CLB language learning, they are being accurately assessed based on national standards and criteria.

Moving instructors away from a constant barrage of summative assessment, PBLA provides a tool for such assessments as:

  • Monitoring student learning and providing appropriate feedback (assessment FOR learning)
  • Metacognition and self-reflection (assessment AS learning)
  • Evaluation of language performance via real-world tasks and appropriate assessment criteria (assessment OF learning)

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