Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

The Common European Framework of Reference
for Languages
, a unifying framework for Canada

Examples of achievements in the Atlantic provinces

Christine Thibaudier-Ness
French Immersion Specialist, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Prince Edward Island
(Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers)


On the cover of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) are three simple words that best describe what really happens in a classroom: Learning, Teaching and Assessment. As self‑evident as they may seem, these three words have a direct impact on what governs the role of educators in the classroom and certainly carry strong implications for students’ futures. It is therefore no coincidence that these words appear in a document like the CEFR. Educators and students are linked to each other, and the CEFR’s principles reinforce this relationship.

Almost a decade has passed since Canadian educators first met nationally to learn or talk about the CEFR content in Edmonton. It is now time to reflect upon and to evaluate the contribution the CEFR has made to second, official, additional or foreign language programs, as well as its positive effect on teaching, learning and assessment in language teaching.

It is clear that, through all the events that have taken place since it was published in 2001 and officially introduced in Canada in 2005 (meetings, workshops, publications, research, seminars, committees and training courses), the CEFR has not only generated a lot of discussion but also incited action.

The CEFR makes us think. Neutral and open to all pedagogical approaches, it provides avenues for reflection on the qualitative value of skills developed by learners, whatever their background. Thus, in the Atlantic provinces, a working committee on second-language teaching programs that was put together for the Council of Atlantic Ministers of Education and Training (CAMET) adopted the CEFR in 2008 to guide students’ learning and assessment from kindergarten to Grade 12. In fact, how can we not embrace an action‑oriented approach that focuses on students’ abilities rather than on their deficiencies; literacy principles that encourage students to learn and to take responsibility as lifelong learners; rating scales for continuous assessment based on transparent, concrete, specific and logical skills descriptors; and a recognition of the sociocultural distinctions that characterize and accompany any form of language exchange?

The CEFR is also a clarification tool. It facilitates the development of tools to enhance student learning and accountability, using elements that are easy to work with: for example, knowledge, skills and competence tables; simple and precise explanations of the issues involved and the steps required in carrying out a task; and distinctions regarding the various types of knowledge and skills in the form of categories related to everyday tasks.

By aligning the specific learning outcomes for language teaching curricula in the Atlantic provinces with the descriptors validated by the Council of Europe from various sources,1 it was possible to successfully test an online portfolio linked to a career choice tool for students of all official language programs from Grades 7 to 12.

This alignment also helped to fill gaps in the teaching of oral communication skills (especially listening) and to develop fair assessment tools in an area that is often difficult to measure.

On a larger scale, the CEFR has served and continues to serve as a guide in developing curriculum and in clarifying expectations for the tasks selected to provide students with authentic communication experiences. The CEFR proposes structures, both in development and in teaching or learning, which ensure that the steps marking knowledge development are consistent.

Teacher interest in working on study programs and the curriculum has also increased. While we have noted that students have a higher degree of confidence in their learning, we have also seen teachers demonstrate the same increased confidence in working and collaborating on their teaching pedagogy. The use of authentic resources (electronic tools or documents) clearly illustrates this trend toward bringing classroom protagonists closer together.

The successful adoption of the CEFR in our provinces is ultimately demonstrated through the introduction of the DELF (Diplôme d’études en langue française) in classrooms.2 This year, all of the Grade 12 immersion students in Prince Edward Island wrote the DELF exam. The 290 candidates who took this risk were able to measure themselves against international scales and to take tests exposing them to new situations, whatever choice they made.

Right away, the widespread adoption of the DELF and the DALF (Diplôme approfondi de langue française) in Canada and its influence on the renewed commitment of high school students in particular speak for themselves. The development of portfolios in hard copy format (Lafargue, Turnbull) or in electronic format (CAMET) encouraged students to take responsibility and helped them personalize their language experiences by adding a cultural element that was often difficult to incorporate into pedagogy.

For educators, the CEFR was integrated as a thinking tool to review teaching, pedagogy and language functions. The CEFR helped them gain a better understanding of the value of assessment and its potential to motivate students and to encourage them to challenge themselves with “can do” statements. Thus, students can be involved in their tasks in a more concrete way and develop their own tools and mechanisms for feedback (or self-examination).

Lastly, as a tool for learning and understanding language usage and mechanisms, the CEFR has become a rallying tool for developing relevant teaching material that is aligned with specific objectives for everyone in the classroom. The levels outlined in the CEFR have become a point of reference for resource developers, and their transparency has provided a consistent way of cultivating exchanges using a common language across jurisdictions.

Overall, it is good to see the progress made since 2006, when Larry Vandergrift explained the Canadian vision in Nouvelles perspectives canadiennes (pp. 7-8):

A common framework of reference for languages could provide the provinces and territories with a transparent and coherent system for describing language proficiency. In addition to providing a measure for calibrating language proficiency for educational systems across Canada, a common language framework could foster a common understanding of what functional proficiency means. It could facilitate cooperation among ministries of education, provide a basis for mutual recognition of language qualifications, and track learner progress over time and in different jurisdictions. Such a framework could be used by each province and territory as a point of reference for language teaching and assessment, without imposing a particular curriculum, teaching methodology or standard for achievement.

Now that practices are in place, let’s continue the work of our predecessors. Why not see Larry Vandergrift’s vision through to fruition and benefit from a "common framework" that could "foster closer ties among formal educational systems, the workplace and cultural institutions"?

Back to the note1  The descriptor databases.

Back to the note2  The DELF, conceived in 2005 and introduced in Canada in 2008, had over 7 000 candidates (universities, colleges and Alliances françaises) in Canada in 2014.