The CEFR Companion Volume: beyond the four skills

At the IATEFL Conference in Brighton last April, I attended a session about the new Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) Companion Volume. This session was given by Tim Goodier, one of its authors. The work will be officially presented at a special conference in Strasbourg in the upcoming days and will surely have an influence on new language courses and curricula. One of the most striking things about this Companion Volume: it gets rid of the very traditional division of language into the so-called four skills.

The Common European Framework for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment (CEFR) was first released in 2001 after extended research that started in the 1960s and 70s. As a framework of reference, it was intended to guide people in language teaching and learning and help them qualify what “language proficiency” really meant. To do this, the framework used various levels (from A1 to C2) and described what people should be able to do with the language at one of these stages (the so-called “can do”-descriptor scales) for any of the four skills (listening, reading, writing, speaking). This common outline made it easier to set up standards (e.g. for assessment, course books, curricula) across Europe and even beyond.

Because the world has changed a lot since 2001, an update to the CEFR has now been released. So, what’s new? Well, in the Companion Volume some of the key aspects of the original CEFR have been updated to suit our current multicultural and technological society. In this respect some new descriptor scales have been written as well. Moreover, extra proficiency levels have been added to the original ones. The new scales start at a “pre-A1” level and also have A2+, B1+ and B2+ scales included now.

Most importantly, the Companion Volume replaces the “four skills model” (dating from 1961, by the way) with four modes of communication: reception, production, interaction and mediation, all of these four in both spoken and written form. Especially, the term “mediation” is quite new. As the term suggests, with mediation the language user is sort of “in the middle”. He is not concerned with expressing his own thoughts or meanings, he is some kind of “intermediary” between people who are not able to understand each other directly. So, the focus is on facilitating collaboration and interaction with others; it is about building bridges across an understanding gap that other people have. An example of this could be spoken translation of a written text (e.g. explaining the contents of a L1 poster to an L2 speaker).

This is where the concept of plurilingualism (or pluricultural competences) comes in, another new notion in the Companion Volume. For a long time, it was thought that using different languages together was confusing for the human brain. New research however has proven the opposite: it is highly beneficial for people to use different languages together to construct meaning. The fusing or blending of the different languages you know, can help you when communicating. Here is an example of a new CEFR descriptor in this field: “Can exploit creatively his limited repertoire in different languages for everyday contexts, in order to cope with an unexpected situation.”

Finally, the Companion Volume also explicitly includes “online interaction” in its scales. Attention is paid to multimodal online conversation and discussion on the one hand, and goal-oriented online transactions and collaboration on the other hand.