How are language levels described?
If you have ever learned a new language, or if you have watched children developing their language skills, you will understand the idea of different ‘levels’ of learning. It is like stepping up a ladder. Young learners of English usually start with very simple things like numbers and colours. Next, they begin to learn vocabulary and grammar linked to everyday topics, such as animals, the family, food and drink, sports and games.
By learning these things, they can then read about their favourite animal, write about their brothers and sisters, listen to a song about oranges and lemons, or talk about the games they enjoy playing. Learning a new language is not just about collecting words or knowing the grammar. People need to learn to do useful things with that language, developing the skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking in order to understand and communicate.
In foreign language learning, many teachers and other experts use the Common European Framework of Reference, usually known as the CEFR, when discussing the level that a student has reached. Watch this short video about what the CEFR is for and why it is useful.
The CEFR has six levels from beginner (A1) to very advanced (C2). The CEFR is available online in 39 different language versions, and it describes the things that a language learner Can Do at each of these six levels. It focuses on the skills mentioned above – speaking, listening, reading and writing. It isn’t only for English – it describes ability across the languages of the European Union. Interestingly, the CEFR is also being used in foreign language learning in other parts of the world, from Japan to Chile; it is seen as a practical tool that can help to organise the content and development of classes and study.
Making progress on the CEFR
Apart from A1, which takes approximately 100 hours of guided learning to achieve, covering each CEFR level takes, on average, about two years of English lessons at secondary school. Naturally, this varies a lot. A learner’s progress may depend on many things, including how much they study and use the language (in the classroom and outside) and their motivation.
According to the CEFR, for example, learners at A2 level can understand short, simple texts containing the most common words and by the time they have reached B2 level, they can read many kinds of texts at different speeds and in different ways. Similarly, learners at A2 level can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters of everyday life whereas B2 learners, when writing essays for example, can synthesise information and arguments from a number of sources.
Teachers, textbook writers and people who make exams (such as Cambridge English Language Assessment) work with the CEFR Can Dos to make sure they are using or producing material at the right level for their learners. By using the CEFR, they can be confident that their material is suitable – not too easy and not too difficult.
In addition to the CEFR, English Language Teaching professionals now have access to a large research project for English, called the English Profile. This important programme has described the vocabulary and grammar that matches each CEFR level. There are helpful examples of typical learners’ English taken from an electronic database of learner language – the Cambridge Learner Corpus.
If you would like to find out more about English Profile and use the English Vocabulary Profile yourself, visit www.englishprofile.org. It’s completely free! On the English Profile home page, you can also watch a short video about the Common European Framework of Reference.