The result of over twenty years of research, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR) is exactly what its title says it is: a framework of reference.

It was designed to provide a transparent, coherent and comprehensive basis for the elaboration of language syllabuses and curriculum guidelines, the design of teaching and learning materials, and the assessment of foreign language proficiency.

This section provides a brief historical overview of the development of the CEFR.

The CEFR is used in Europe but also in other continents. Available in 40 languages, it is the second most translated document of the Council of Europe – after the Convention of Human Rights.

 The CEFR: a non-prescriptive document

The CEFR does not tell practitioners what to do, or how to do it. It is a tool for reflection for all professionals in the field of foreign/second languages with a view to promoting quality, coherence and transparency through a common meta-language and common scales of language proficiency. 

The strength of the descriptive scheme is based on long years of experience working on the specification of learning objectives for specific languages; the strength of the scales of language proficiency lies in the fact that they result from long research, including rigorous empirical examination, and the fact that they are directly rooted in the parameters and categories represented in the descriptive scheme of the CEFR.

The CEFR does not represent a revolution but is part of an evolution of practice

As a leader in a new era in language teaching, the CEFR is a valuable and innovative tool, which is neither normative nor dogmatic. The CEFR is not a method but offers thoughts about various methodological options. It is important not to confuse the rigor of the grids describing the CEFR levels, with the spirit of the CEFR itself, which is both open and dynamic.

At first sight the CEFR may seem unwieldy. Indeed, the text is long, detailed and complex because it addresses issues as a whole, and reading it from beginning to end is not the best way to become fully familiar with it. The user needs to use what is relevant in relation to a particular profile of actors (learners or teachers), context and needs. It is vitally important to work actively and constructively with it in order to make the best use of it.

1960’s: Language learning for communication initiatives

According to Article 2 of the European Cultural Convention, member States of the Council of Europe commit themselves to facilitating communication among citizens through the promotion of each other’s languages.

Accordingly, the language projects set up since 1960 all focused on language learning for communication, promoting a learner centred, actional and positive approach. The purpose was to ensure that all citizens would have the opportunity to learn other languages (in addition to their first language), that their specific communicative needs would be taken into account and that methodologies would be based on real communication tasks. In order to promote learner autonomy based on self-confidence and motivation, the approach needed to be positive, valuing all that learners could do in a foreign or second language, even at modest levels.

1970’s: Specifications for language learning objectives

In the years 1970/80, among the most important projects, ‘Threshold Level’ specifications were developed first for English soon followed by French, and later for nearly 30 languages: these language-specific documents specify objectives for language learning with a view to attaining independent communication in the target language. Objectives for communication at a higher level (Vantage) and two lower levels (Breakthrough and Waystage) were then also developed for English.

The Threshold Level’s definitional approach reflects the view that linguistic performance depends on more than linguistic knowledge. This view became fully explicit in the next phase of the Council of Europe’s work on the specification of language learning objectives, focusing on scope and levels. Concerning the scope, five dimensions of communicative ability were identified: linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, socio-cultural, and social competence. As for the levels, work at this stage points forward to one of the central innovative features of the CEFR, the scaled description of L2 proficiency.

1990’s: A descriptive scheme and scaled descriptions of L2 proficiency in any language

By the 1990's it was time to develop a comprehensive framework for language learning, teaching and assessment in general.

The idea of developing a CEFR was launched in 1991 during a major Council of Europe symposium organised in Switzerland. A working party was set up in 1992, which worked closely with a research group in Switzerland (thanks to the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation). The aim of this research group was to develop and scale descriptors of language proficiency. Four members of the working party were chosen to be the authors of the CEFR.

The first version of the document was distributed to 2000 experts for feedback at the end of 1996, and a revised version was presented at a major conference in Strasbourg in April 1997. After two more years of piloting, the official version was launched in January 2001, which coincided with the launch of the European Year of Languages.

A concrete example of the use of Council of Europe specifications:  multimedia courses used world-wide

English: In the late 1970s, BBC produced the crash course “Follow me”, a television programme based on these Council of Europe specifications. It became popular in many overseas countries as a first introduction to English; it is reported that in 1983, one hundred million people watched the programme in China alone.

Spanish: based on the BBC initiative and in co-operation with the Council of Europe, the University of Salamanca produced the multimedia course “Viaje al español”, the use of which extended up to 2014.