CEFR, levels of proficiency and profiles

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a reference tool that has three main purposes:

  • to provide language professionals across Europe with a common basis for the elaboration of language syllabuses, curriculum guidelines, examinations, textbooks, etc.;
  • to help them to overcome the barriers to communication arising from the different educational systems in Europe;
  • to define levels of proficiency by which to measure the language learner’s progress at each stage of learning and throughout his or her life.

Launched in 2001 and now available in 40 languages, the CEFR is used throughout Europe and also in other parts of the world. Designed to support the teaching and learning of foreign languages in formal education, its descriptive scheme and proficiency levels should be applied to the language needs and communicative proficiency of adult migrants only after careful interpretation and adaptation: as its title indicates, the CEFR is a framework of reference, not a normative instrument.

Levels of language proficiency are artificial constructs necessitated by the way in which education systems are organised. They are a response to the need to make learning targets explicit and measure learning outcomes. If adult migrants are to develop proficiency in the language of the host country and their proficiency is to be measured, it is necessary to specify the level required of them. Council of Europe member states usually do this with reference to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which defines proficiency at six ascending levels arranged in three bands (A1 and A2; B1 and B2; C1 and C2) in relation to three kinds of language activity: reception (listening and reading), production (speaking and writing), and interaction (spoken and written).


How the CEFR describes proficiency

The CEFR adopts an action-oriented approach to the description of communicative proficiency: it sees learners as language users with real-life needs, describing what they can do at each of the levels. The description has two interdependent dimensions: the language activities that learners perform and the competences (knowledge, skills and characteristics) that make those activities possible. Learners cannot communicate without (for example) knowing words, how to pronounce them and how they relate to one another grammatically; on the other hand linguistic knowledge of this kind is usually acquired for purposes of communication.


The CEFR’s levels do not provide ready-made solutions

The CEFR seeks to be flexible, open and dynamic. Accordingly it does not provide a single scale of language proficiency, but rather a toolkit from which an indefinite number of scales can be constructed, in response to the characteristics and needs of specific learner groups. It can also be drawn on to design an indefinite number of language courses, each of which likewise caters to specific learner needs. Although its successive levels reflect the foreign language learning trajectory typical of European education systems, any attempt to use the CEFR to develop curricula or assessment instruments for any part of those systems necessarily requires selection and adaptation: selection because no curriculum or test can possibly take account of every dimension of the CEFR; adaptation because whereas the CEFR is language-independent, curricula and tests always focus on a particular language and should take account of the characteristics and needs of a particular population of learners.


Levels and profiles

In any language we can always understand more than we can produce. The CEFR allows us to take account of this fact by describing proficiency separately in relation to reception, production and interaction. This is especially useful when setting learning targets for adult migrants. The CEFR defines OVERALL LISTENING COMPREHENSION at A2, for example, as follows: Can understand phrases and expressions related to areas of most immediate priority (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment) provided speech is clearly and slowly articulated. This may be an appropriate learning target for adult migrants seeking permanent residence, but the same is not necessarily true of CREATIVE WRITING at A2: Can write short, simple imaginary biographies and simple poems about people.

In our daily lives all of us perform some language activities more than others. Most of the communication related to social interaction and the transactions we carry out in shops, banks, etc. are associated with A2; and in most societies the majority of native speakers do not need to perform the tasks specified for production and interaction at the higher CEFR levels. These are important considerations when determining the proficiency level that adult migrants should demonstrate in the language of their host country in order to secure entry, permanent residence or citizenship.


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Related resources

For more detailed discussion of the CEFR in relation to adult migrants, see

Language policies for adult migrants, 2012, Jean-Claude Beacco

The ‘Common European Framework of Reference for Languages’ and the development of policies for the integration of adult migrants, 2008, David Little

The linguistic integration of adult migrants and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, 2008, David Little

See also Council of Europe publications related to the CEFR (www.coe.int/lang-CEFR), in particular

The CEFR Common Reference Levels : validated reference points and local strategies, 2007, Brian North

Contextualising uses of the CEFR, 2007, Daniel Coste