Communicating Performance:
What does “intermediate” mean to you?

Sara Davila Sara Davila

A few years ago, one of my colleagues asked to come observe one of my sophomore conversation classes. I’d been talking in the break room about work I was doing to incorporate more collaborative task-based activities with a truncated, or completely eliminated, presentation. Basically, the students walked in, got into their learning teams, took the activity package for the day and got to work. This intrigued many and encouraged a few requests for observation. After colleagues watched the class, I got nothing but praise but also heard the following: “I could never do this with my students. You’re working with intermediate learners.” This was actually really interesting to me at the time, as I had just started using the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) to better evaluate my students. I clarified, that my students were at best A2 learners working toward A2+, not quite intermediate, but more high-beginner. This lead into an entirely different discussion about how we talk about students’ level of ability and the words we use to communicate proficiency.

One of the greatest challenges in language teaching continues to be communicating student performance. Given that the name of the language teaching game is communication, this is perhaps the biggest irony. While the underlining pedagogy of language teaching has changed radically in the last 30 years, many teachers still describe their students in terms of “beginner” “intermediate” or “advanced.” These general catchall terms only occasionally function as indicators of performance, largely due to interpretation. One teacher’s “beginner” is another’s “intermediate”. In the U.S. especially, the challenge of communicating student ability is hindered by a lack of universal reporting systems between EAPs, IEPs, colleges, and universities. It’s a challenge for everyone involved with language acquisition: teachers, students, and administrators. Where should a student go to receive instruction that will be optimal for their language needs?

The few measures we have that would communicate what a student can do with language aren’t perfect.  Far too often I meet a teacher who was faced with a classroom of students who all had exceptional scores on language tests, but were completely incapable of authentic communication in a classroom environment.  A test alone is simply not enough to indicate ability to perform. On top of that, tests fail to help us roadmap for a student’s strengths and weakness, which can be used to create a learning journey supportive of a learner’s needs.

It was this very challenge that lead to research conducted by the Council of Europe, which was used to create one of the first universal measures for communicating learner performance in language proficiency (though not strictly performance in English language proficiency. That tool is called the Common European Framework of Reference, or the CEFR (Council of Europe, 2001). For anyone that interacts with language, this is a truly amazing resource.

Advantages of a Common Reference

CEFR Levels

Sara_Davila_Feb1What makes the CEFR so useful is that it is freely available, allowing all teachers to gain access to the information, the descriptions of learning performance, and the way that performance is leveled. The leveling system itself is fairly easy and intuitive to use and describes six broad areas of learning, from A1 or the breakthrough, beginner stage through to C2 mastery, proficiency stage.[1] For each level of the Global Scale of English (GSE), there are a series of descriptors of performance that cover speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Teachers don’t need advanced training to use the CEFR (unlike some other measures of language proficiency). The fact that the CEFR can be used by anyone to assess and level any program provides great value to language teachers and administrators.

The second most relevant and useful aspect of the CEFR is the research that went into the development of the system. I, like many teachers, have looked at test scores and leveling systems and have wondered how specific values of performance were achieved. Frankly, there are times when I look at test scores and wonder if the numbers and descriptions of when a students would be able to do something weren’t chosen at random in a dark room using a dart board. There are some scales and labels of measurement that just do not align well to what we know as the reality of the classroom. The CEFR, however, is aligned based on research and input from classroom teachers and supported by a rigorous analysis of learner performance at different stages. CEFR descriptors and levels make a lot of sense.

For example, a learner at the A1 breakthrough stage would be described as follows:

Has a very basic repertoire of words and simple phrases related to personal details and particular concrete situations. Shows only limited control of a few simple grammatical structures and sentence patterns in a memorised repertoire. Can manage very short, isolated, mainly prepackaged utterances, with much pausing to search for expressions, to articulate less familiar words, and to repair communication. Can ask and answer questions about personal details. Can interact in a simple way but communication is totally dependent on repetition, rephrasing and repair. Can link words or groups of words with very basic linear connectors like “and” or “then.”

English language professionals will easily recognize how this description fits our general beginners’ ability in speaking with a great deal of precision. The same can be said of a description of a B1 level speaker, the threshold stage of an independent speaker, described as:

Has enough language to get by, with sufficient vocabulary to express him/herself with some hesitation and circumlocutions on topics such as family, hobbies and interests, work, travel, and current events. Uses reasonably accurately a repertoire of frequently used “routines” and patterns associated with more predictable situations. Can keep going comprehensibly, even though pausing for grammatical and lexical planning and repair is very evident, especially in longer stretches of free production. Can initiate, maintain and close simple face-to-face conversation on topics that are familiar or of personal interest. Can repeat back part of what someone has said to confirm mutual understanding. Can link a series of shorter, discrete simple elements into a connected, linear sequence of points.

Again, here it is easy to recognize, and even agree, that this concisely and accurately describes our lower-intermediate students who are working toward deeper fluency. Once a teacher is familiar with the basic description of each stage of the CEFR, it is easy to look at a specific level of ability and use the levels as shorthand.

For example, when I was preparing to work with a group of non-native in-service teachers, my co-trainer described the class as “dominated by B1 level students, but I have a handful of B2 students in the mix.” Since we were both speaking the same language to describe proficiency, I was immediately clear on what to expect from the students and had a good sense of how to plan for the class moving forward.

The CEFR has a final advantage over a general test score in that there is a realization that learners can have different levels of proficiency in different skill areas. As an example, I’m a solid A2 speaker of Korean, but my writing is at the very bottom of A1. My focus on language acquisition has always been on communicative proficiency which means that my communicative skills are strong (speaking/listening), but my reading and writing suffer for it. The CEFR allows teachers to describe performance in different skill areas with much greater accuracy, again making teaching and planning a more clear-cut process.

The Catch

This diagram represents the breadth of CEFR levels. Notice that A2, B1, and B2 are significantly larger than A1, C1, and C2. It’s difficult to see granular improvement using the CEFR alone.

The CEFR is a great tool for clearly and accurately communicating performance between teachers, across schools, across state lines, and even across international borders. A teacher in New York can quickly and easily explain the performance of their class to a peer based in London. Having this ability has already had a profound impact on teaching and learning for many, and as more teachers, institutions, and schools begin to use the CEFR to communicate about proficiency, the future looks bright for clear communication of language ability.

The CEFR is a great resource; however it does have one great limitation: granularity. The CEFR is more like a yardstick than a ruler. We can see the big picture, but just as a yardstick is not the best way to measure inches, the CEFR is not the best reference for more granular language performance.

As I’ve talked to professionals in the field I was surprised to discover two things: 1) A great number of my language teaching peers were using the CEFR in their institutions (EAPs, IEPS, etc.) to level and create programs; 2) many of these institutions were creating their own, more granular descriptors of student performance. This creates some pros and cons for teachers and for learners. The CEFR provides us with verified levels of performance that have been carefully validated and are scientifically sound. The descriptors made by individual institutions lack that verification, and additionally, are not going to be consistent from school to school. The CEFR is a great building block for schools, but it does have limitations.

 Building a Granular Scale


In teaching and learning we need to be able to break our CEFR into smaller increments, like inches on a yardstick. At the same time, it would be great to maintain the validity of the CEFR with descriptors that are supported with verified research that is also universally accessible. Today, that granular insight exists as the Global Scale of English Learning Objectives inventory. The Global Scale of English (GSE) provides the inches on the CEFR yardstick, giving more insight into learner performance at much smaller levels. Best of all, like the CEFR, the GSE is freely available and ready to be used to develop content, level content, or analyze learner performance.

The GSE was built from the CEFR, which means that it will not replace the CEFR or require an institution to switch to yet another system, but instead the GSE expands on the CEFR. As teachers, we get to maintain the functionality of the universal scale with additional supporting elements to describe our learners, the objectives of our curricula, and at the most granular level, the specific outcomes of activities and learning that takes place from class to class.

This is perhaps the best advance for students, teachers, and administrators who want to be able to more accurately describe performance across the skills and when going from one classroom to another.

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Like the CEFR, the GSE breaks language performance into the four distinct skills areas of English: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The original CEFR, partially because of the time of its inception, has a deck of objectives heavily stacked to assess speaking. As speaking performance is often a tricky aspect of performance to measure, this actually was very helpful at the time the CEFR was originally published, but for the modern English teacher, we need to have more balanced insight into performance across skill areas. This becomes profoundly important for students who have achieved the B1 level of performance, where improving reading comprehension of more complex texts and improving cohesions (and reducing fossilized errors) in writing is fundamental for success in advanced study. The GSE has truly supported the CEFR by building out descriptors of performance for reading and writing, while continuing to develop and expand upon speaking and listening skills.

For teachers, one of the most useful aspects of the Global Scale of English is an examination of language acquisition in different contexts. Teachers will know that the process and needs for teaching an older adult immigrant are very different from those of a young college student who needs to improve quickly to enter a degree course. Then throw into that mix adult learners who are focused specifically on business English. The CEFR provides no distinction between performance for these learners, but the GSE does give insight into these different types of learner through three different banks of learning objectives. The Global Scale of English for General purposes is most useful to teachers of adult and general ELL’s. The Global Scale of English for Academic English incorporates the general objectives and includes additional descriptors specifically related to academic achievement for students on a college or university track. The Global Scale of English for Professional English incorporates the general objectives and digs into the discreet and specific needs of business English learners.

What’s Next?

Thanks to the CEFR we have a universal language we can use to describe learner proficiency in skill areas, making it much easier to communicate about our learners and their needs in the classroom. Combining the CEFR with the Global Scale of English provides even more information—not just about where students are currently at in the language acquisition journey, but what they can do and what they need to do to move toward the next level. And there is more to what learners, teachers, and administrators can do with the CEFR and GSE, and this is related directly to the content we teach, the assessments we use, and the objectives we craft for our classrooms. In my next installment I will explore how teachers can use the GSE to evaluate course content, create new content, and change the curriculum to better meet the needs of learners.

Sara Davila is a teacher, teacher trainer engaged in language education, professional development, and curriculum construction. She has worked in the US and abroad as a language teacher and learning expert in the field of language acquisition. She has done extensive research on performance assessment, communicative based instructional strategies, and learning theory with presentations, workshops, and articles around each topic. She is currently working with Pearson, English as the Learning Expert in Higher Education for global English language products. Sara also continues to contribute to the field through her website, which contains presentations, free lesson plans, and free worksheets for teachers, which can be found at

[1] Download the complete CEFR here: