Dr Tony Green of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment (CRELLA), University of Bedfordshire, describes how CRELLA are contributing to the English Profile research programme focusing on curricula and materials, with particular attention to the higher levels (B2-C2).
Why did CRELLA, and you personally, decide to become involved in English Profile?
I think it is an idea whose time is long overdue. There has been a long history of teaching, testing and applied linguistics each working in their own sphere without taking into account what has been achieved in other areas. The idea of English Profile is a logical one in creating one area to bring all of these different spheres together in a way that can be useful for language learners.
There seem to be number of long-standing discrepancies between what teachers and testers do and what language researchers do and the great promise of English Profile is that it can bring these worlds together in a mutually informative way. It may well be that the educational approach has as much to tell the linguists as the linguists have to tell the educationalists.
CRELLA is unique in that all of the staff in the centre are academics with practical experience as language testers and a background in language teaching. So, we recognise the importance of being able to describe what we want learners to do. If we want to come up with more effective tests and curricula in the future we need to be able to have a really clear understanding of this question.
At CRELLA we work in a collaborative way, and our focus is not just on examining language and how it is assessed, but on bringing together researchers and language teaching specialists with similar aims to get them involved in the overall ethos and trajectory of English Profile.
What is CRELLA’s contribution to English Profile?
The first task of the EP programme from CRELLA’s point of view has been to look at the way language testers, teachers and the authors of course books have described language at each of the levels. In particular, we’re focusing on the higher levels – levels C1 and C2 of the Common European Framework of Reference. The CEFR is a great starting point, but the higher levels have not been described in the same detail as the lower levels, which have already been addressed by the Waystage, Threshold and Vantage specifications. So what we’re really looking at is what students can do through English at the higher levels that they can’t do at the lower levels.
While John Hawkins and his team at RCEAL are concentrating on the output of from test takers and other learners, using the Cambridge Learner Corpus, what we’re focusing on is the pedagogical side.
The CEFR analyses languages in different ways, in terms of communicative functions – how language is used to communicate ideas – notions – the ideas that are actually communicated – and the lexical and grammatical exponents that are used to express these. We’ve been particularly interested in functional progression at the C1 and C2 levels – the ways in which learners acquire new skills as well as a greater quantity of language, if you like.
We have analysed the content of a range of published courses, and various national curricula and syllabuses, as well as the Cambridge ESOL exams, more than 30 schemes in all. From this, we have abstracted lists of the kind of things that are expected of language learners above B2 and are getting an idea of the kinds of communicative functions that appear in the higher levels.
As far as we know, no-one has surveyed such a wide range of schemes in this way before. Part of the problem has been that national curricula expressed in English are not easy to come by, and they are frequently not well documented. A lot of work has also gone into finding appropriate methodologies that will allow us to abstract information in a consistent way.
We are learning what we as a profession believe about the levels, what they mean about language ability and what it is we expect learners to be able to do. We have found a surprising amount of consistency across the schemes, and not just in terms of the grammar and vocabulary they cover – all of the different schemes we are looking at expect other skills such as sensitivity to register, and ability to use language in a nuanced way.
What do you see as the benefits of English Profile?
Our ultimate purpose is to create reference level descriptors for learners at the higher levels, but the results of the research we’re doing at the moment could be useful in all sorts of ways. For educators it’s a check on how far curricula reflect the way learners deal with language – are they teaching the most appropriate way to learn?
We’ll also be extending the scope of existing descriptions, especially John Trim’s Threshold series by describing the C1 and C2 levels in more detail. We can also build up additional Can Do statements that perhaps expand and perhaps take into new domains the things that are already in the CEFR to some extent. Of course, this approach can be applied to the lower levels of the CEFR as well.
From an academic point of view, we’re linking language research to practical outcomes which should directly inform what educators do, as well as giving us new directions for research.
How would you describe the progress of the work you have done on English Profile so far, and what are the next stages?
We have been working with Cambridge ESOL on a number of related questions for some time, and some of this research has recently been published (Examining Writing: Research and practice in assessing second language writing, Shaw and Weir, 2007, Volume 26 in the series Studies in Language Testing). There’s a companion volume on reading (Khalifa and Weir, 2008) in preparation at the moment, and we’re working on studies of speaking, listening and use of English. These studies focus on only one set of schemes - the Cambridge ESOL exams - but they definitely help to clarify the issues.
We have already produced two reports on our work on English Profile – a literature review and a synthesis of the schemes we have analysed. The next stage will be a peer review involving people who have been closely involved in the development of the CEFR and once we have done that we are aiming to produce a definitive description for the C Levels, based on the materials we have analysed and compared. We’re expecting to have this available later in 2008.
We will invite teachers, testers and language specialists to feedback on these descriptions, to start a dialogue that will feed into the ultimate aim of English Profile, the Reference Level Descriptors.
We will also be using some of the work John Hawkins and his team have carried out using output from test takers and learners to look at the extent to which these descriptions match what is actually produced.
There is a lot more work to do, but I think that once we have got a little further down the road with English Profile, we will have a better understanding. Relatively soon we may come to know things which have not been known before about any language.