The Dead Hand of The CEF
The Common European Framework was designed for language teachers, so that levels and grades could be equated across different languages. It’s based on the original work which led to The Threshold Level. It is NOT a progressive syllabus and does not claim to be such, but is rather a list of goals for broad (way too broad) achievement levels of proficiency in languages: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2.
For English teaching, I consider it together with the PET and KET and FCE specifications, to be the greatest backwards step in the nearly four decades I’ve been involved with language teaching. First the levels are applied vaguely and crudely … for back catalogue, I’ve seen marketing reps decide on applying the levels. Secondly, it has constrained, or rather destroyed, creativity in syllabus design.
The deadly dull uniformity struck me last Saturday. I was In Foyles, looking for books for my grandkids. My granddaughter in Year 8 is starting Spanish and German. My grandson in Year 7 is starting French. I wanted a series unlike those used at their schools, so one where translation was not used greatly more than the target language. My aim is help them, as so often language learning is difficult and boring. It shouldn’t be, but sadly often is. You see, British and American kids truly lack the motivation to study a foreign language … the music they want, the TV, the arcade games, the internet … are already in their mother tongue.
So back to Foyles bookshop, I looked at Book 1 of level A1, and some German publishers very sensibly divide it into two levels, A1.1 and A1.2, which should have been major level divisions in the first place. If those doing the specifications had been Beginner / Elementary specialists, that is.
All of them, French, Spanish and German, teach far too much in a very long unit 1 … numbers 1-30 or more, pronunciation of the alphabet in the language, and then there are the opening dialogues. Across all three languages (and I looked at recent English EFL ones too), the first lesson has:
What’s your name?
Where do you live?
Do you speak (English)?
Then Hello, How are You. I’m fine, thanks. And you.
The German ones manage to get both du and dir for greetings in lesson one. Explain that one to a beginner. OK, it’s a set expression or formula. I guess the same formula issue is true in English with There you go / Here you are.
There are basic misconceptions going on here. The first is that secondary kids at age 11 and 12 have an immediate functional need for the foreign language in the real world. They don’t. They do need to greet each other in lesson 1, and they do need to ask names.
What about Where do you live? / Where do you come from? I find that amusing, because it shows the origin of so much language teaching lore in multi-national classes in London, Bournemouth, Brighton, Oxford and Cambridge in the 1970s. That’s where all the significant ELT books then came from. Yes, our lesson ones always covered nationalities, because it was fun. when you had Swiss, Mexicans, Japanese, Brazilians and Turks in the same class.
Let’s take a secondary class, maybe here in Poole, Dorset.
Where do you come from? might well embarrass the Polish and Chinese kids in every class. With the example Where do you live? I live in (Britain) there isn’t far to go with thirty kids living in the same town in the same country.
So here in Poole, you might say I live in Sandbanks (Ooh! You’re rich. Has daddy got a Bentley convertible?) or you might say I live in Herbert Avenue (Ooh! Social housing!).
So, imagine it in your town. Is it a good question for lesson one?
In the first unit in the German CEF course, we learn the names of countries. I have visited Germany, Austria and Switzerland many times, but I never had occasion to mention those important words for Norway (Norwegen), Sweden (Schweden), Belgium (Belgien), Holland (Holland) and Portugal (Portugal) while I was there. And guess what? If I’d simply said them in English, it would have been absolutely fine for communication.
Let’s explore further. We wrote all our series on a logical progression from simple to complex structures, much of it enshrined in English Grammatical Structure by L.G. Alexander, W. Stannard Allen, R.A. Close and Robert O’Neill. A formidable 70s supergroup of experienced writers and syllabus designers, who produced a far better work than the Council of Europe ever did.
So why Where do you come from? Where do you live?
We would start with the verb to be and hold the present simple (with do / does auxiliary) back until later. In communicative terms, Where are you from? is less frequent than Where do you come from? but it is structurally simpler, using to be just like What’s your name? It’s perfectly valid to get the meaning across. It exists. It’s easier. Frequency for native speakers, at this stage is less important.
I’ve never tried to teach thirty numbers in one lesson. Nor the entire alphabet. We used A / B to mark speakers in the first dialogue, C/D to mark the speakers in the second dialogue and worked through to Y/Z over several units. We also worked in short lesson-length units, so 40 or 80 units in a book, not 12 or 15.
Yes, you balance structure and communication. Communication doesn’t have to carry straight to the outside world, but kids need to know what they’re doing is potentially useful. We wrote the 80 unit video course My Oxford English strictly to PET / KET levels and found them not as well compiled as our own, older syllabuses.
Yes, we have written to the ubiquitous guidelines: My Oxford English
Over seven or eight of our own series we had finally evolved our own first three lessons.
Pre-unit: words which are the same or readily guessable in your own language: sandwich, web, internet, google, jet, football, karate, kung-fu, rap, espresso, pizza, spaghetti etc. This builds confidence. Most zero beginners know around 200 or more international words. Every time I did teacher training on this, someone with furrowed brow would say But spaghetti’s Italian … OK, describe a plate of the stuff using only pre-1900 English words.
Another option is essential classroom language in English: Listen … Read … Ask your partner etc.
Unit 1: meeting and greeting, getting to know each other: My / His / Her name is …? / What’s your / his / her name? Hello / How are you? / I’m good / And you? Numbers 1-10.
I’m good is now more frequent at teen level than I’m fine. I’d take that up to late thirties in age.
Is it an Americanism? Yes, it is. Live with it. We added a set formula using a structure outside the level too: I don’t know as in Yes / No / I don’t know.
Unit 2: immediate communication using minimal language. Fast food. Something like:
- A burger, please.
- With fries?
- Yes, please.
- And ketchup?
- No, thanks.
Go on to coffee, tea, milk, sugar etc. Try and use words like hot dog, burger, espresso which are international.
In the 80s and 90s when I was travelling around promoting, teachers had choices. Streamline English and Grapevine / Main Street looked quite different to Strategies which looked quite different to The Cambridge English Course which looked different to Kernel One. We designed the syllabus to Streamline and Grapevine as did Brian Abbs & Ingrid Freebairn for Strategies and Michael Swan & Catherine Walter for Cambridge English Course and Robert O’Neill for Kernel. That’s what authors did. There was room for difference … in the end, all of them worked. People learned English. I often discussed with Brian Abbs the strange habit which schools had for using BOTH Streamline and Strategies in tandem. They were radically different. I also remember a happy afternoon arguing over unit one content with Brian Abbs and Robert O’Neill in the Athens Hilton coffee shop. We didn’t agree, but most importantly, we didn’t have to agree, and didn’t expect to agree, nor did publishers impose a framework on us.
The job satisfaction of authors is greatly diminished by all these pre-set guidelines, as is their status and royalties … they no longer have the same control. I just spent 15 minutes looking for my PET and KET specification booklets. Thankfully, I have no intention of doing anything else that requires them again and they were hidden away.
What happened to humour? fantasy? interest value? The CEF assumes we want to talk about a mundane series of dull topics. I assume that learners will get interested if there’s a shift into space, rock, the Wild West, sitcom, drama … anything but What are your hobbies?
In English Starter: Unit 1
So in Grapevine Two (False beginner / Elementary) we summed up personal details with an interview by a computer on a space station in a galaxy far far away. The person being interviewed is a computer programmer, and the punch line is when the computer puts two and two together and says Mummy!
I think it so sad to open about twenty textbooks in four languages, flick to unit one, and see that stifling uniformity of content.
ADDITION (22 October)
We often help my granddaughter with homework. She’s the thirteen year old doing French, Spanish and German this year. This week she had Spanish and German homework on successive days. Same homework. Write a paragraph on what’s in your schoolbag. Let’s compare, yes, a ruler, a pen, a notebook, a dictionary and … a banana. Different books, different authors, different publishers, different languages. As she’s a year forward with French, she didn’t have her French book, but remembered the same exercise … and yes, the “funny but” (ha-ha) was the banana. She said she changed it to apple last year to personalise her paragraph. We said, do it again. The uniformity of content is appalling. I’m not saying I never wrote the same exercise in a Workbook. I may well have done. I don’t remember because it’s so boring.
As the article on The Dead Hand of the CEF has been read by so many, I thought I’d add another Language teaching Rant. Language Learning in Britain Past (LINKED) is about how my own negative experiences of language learning shaped my beliefs on how to teach English as A Foreign Language. Do comment on the article, not on this post.