Is Your Content Challenging Your Learners?

Sara DavilaSara Davila

Learning Without Progress

I worked overseas for a number of years in a variety of settings, spending the longest time in Korea with students at almost every point on their language learning journey from kindergarten to university. One thing that was always fascinating to me was how much time learners devoted to language study versus what little progress they would make over the years. When I asked my A2-level university class how many years they had spent studying English, a majority of students reported that they spent roughly 10 years learning English, many in private schools or with private tutors. It was an alarming amount of study devoted to learning a language with little progress made. At the time I found myself asking why and dug in a bit more to understand the problem. Countless hours of research, interviews, and analysis of course materials later, I came to the conclusion that my students were never challenged beyond what they could do. Once they had achieved a certain ability, much like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, every English class was a constant repetition of information my students had already learned. With this in mind, it becomes even more important for teachers to have a sense of their learners’ level of ability so that they can provide content that will appropriately challenge learners in the classroom.

Content Creation and Challenge

In my last blog I spent a lot of time talking about communicating students’ ability to perform in English. To recap, using the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), we can give a quick, easy-to-understand, description of learner performance using a validated, publicly available scale. When talking to colleagues and peers in the field I no longer say my students are “low-intermediate.” I say they are “B1.” For those in the know, this provides a great deal more information about what a teacher can expect students to be able to do in the classroom. The Global Scale of English (GSE) allows me to get even more specific about the skills and abilities of my students by providing a data-driven teacher-calibrated bank of descriptors in three distinct categories: General Adult English, Academic English, and Professional (Business) English.

With these tools we can address one of the greatest challenges to overcome in the English language classroom: choosing content that is at the right level for our students. Those of us who have been in the language teaching game for some time are familiar with a number of theories and approaches which encourage providing content that will challenge learners appropriately. Whether it is Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development (ZPD) [SD3] or Krashen’s (2003) i+1, we know that in order for learners to begin to make progress, they need to go further with English. The reality is that we need to challenge our learners in just the right way; the question is how.

This is where the CEFR and the GSE come in: These are tools that provide insight into what students should be able to do at a level and are a roadmap for guiding students to learn new skills to improve toward the next level. In essence, these are practical, functional, and realistic tools that can be used to uncover the challenge provided by our materials. In some courses this is easier to see than others. Content from publishers that has already been benchmarked by CEFR and GSE levels will help to map what learners will be able to do with the program. Using the CEFR and GSE, teachers can go further to analyze where there may be gaps in the content they are using in class and what skills their learners need to be successful.

Conducting a Needs Analysis with the CEFR and GSE

So where to start? The first place would be with the coursebooks you currently use, assuming you are not creating all your content from scratch. I love well-constructed courses that can be used as a baseline and general guide for organizing a curriculum and setting expectations for students. Fortunately, most courses for English learners are leveled against the CEFR, which can provide quick information about course expectations of learner performance. With the introduction of the GSE, many courses are quickly cross-aligning to provide more granular insight into the programs.

northstar chart2

NorthStar is a great example of an academic coursebook that is fully aligned to the CEFR and GSE, The series provides GSE descriptors at the unit level, making it very easy to see which skills are covered in the course. With this information, you will have a quick indication of what skills your learners are developing and improving.

The next step in benchmarking against the CEFR and GSE would be to analyze the expectations for performance for students moving to the next level of the program. For example, if your EAP class has two sections, students in Level 2 should have improved ability with a core set of skills and now be equipped with the information needed to begin to develop and improve those skills further. Understanding the expectations of performance at Level 2 will allow you to examine the learning in Level 1 and to assess whether or not the content and skills developed will support student success at Level 2. If your institution has published outcomes for the courses, you could use those outcomes to map the expectations of performance at higher levels.

The following examples will assume an imaginary EAP course to provide context:

Figure 1 Fictional EAP Course General Outcomes2016-03-10_1742

For example, this EAP Level 1 course may have published the following outcomes for their class:

Can give a short presentation on a topic.

This is an excellent description of a skill a learner would need to perform and one that can be observed and assessed by the teacher. Unfortunately, this descriptor is not actually challenging enough to meet the goals of the class. When checked against the GSE for validation, the following “Can Do” descriptor provides a good level check for the skill:

Can give an effective presentation about a familiar topic.[1] (CEFR B1+, GSE 52)

Using the GSE, we can see that this particular skill, while important, is actually not challenging enough for a student at a B2 level. Thus begins the process of benchmarking course outcomes to a standard tool, allowing for improved insight into the level of performance being achieved.

Using our imaginary EAP school’s published benchmarks as an example, let’s use the GSE descriptors to validate the level of the outcomes and the CEFR/GSE estimated level of the offered courses.

EAP Level 1: B2 to B2+
EAP Level 2
B2+ to C1
Participate in a group discussion Participate in a group discussion on academic themes
Can effectively participate in a classroom discussion about an academic topic (CEFR B1+, GSE 54)  Can clarify points they are trying to make in an academic discussion, using simple language. (CEFR B2, 59)
Deliver presentations Deliver an academic presentation
Can give an effective presentation about a familiar topic. (CEFR B1+, 52) Can make an effective introduction and opening to a presentation. (CEFR B2, 60)Can make an effective summary and conclusion to a presentation. (CEFR B2, 65)
Understand purpose and structure of an academic writing Read and identify key details from academic texts
Can recognize the organizational structure of a paragraph in a simple academic text.     (CEFR B1+, 52) PCan follow chronological sequence in a formal structured text. (CEFR B1+, 52) Can extract key facts and ideas from an extended text. (CEFR B2, 59)Can identify the key points presented in graphs and charts in a simple academic text, if guided by questions. (CEFR B1+, 54)Can quickly scan long, complex texts for key information. (CEFR B2, 69)
Can write simple essays on academic topics Write a literature review
Can summarize simple research findings in an academic text, if provided with a model summary. (CEFR B1+, 55) Can introduce a counter-argument in a simple discursive text using “however.” (CEFR B1+, 56) Can synthesize and evaluate familiar information and arguments from a number of sources. (CEFR B2, 67)Can synthesize information from different sources in order to give a written or oral summary. (CEFR B2, 69)Can synthesize information from two or more academic texts. (CEFR B2+, 75)

Now that we have a sense of the GSE value of the published descriptors, we can use a little math to get to the basic level of the course. To get to our rough GSE value to show the level, we are looking for the average of the GSE scores presented.

EAP Level 1: B2 to B2+
EAP Level 2
B2+ to C1
Participate in a group discussion Participate in a group discussion on academic themes
 (CEFR B1+, GSE 54)        (CEFR B2,  GSE 59)
Deliver presentations Deliver an academic presentation
 (CEFR B1+,  GSE 52)  (CEFR B2, GSE  60) (CEFR B2,  GSE 65)
Understand purpose and structure of an academic writing Read and identify key details from academic texts
(CEFR B1+,  GSE 52) (CEFR B1+,  GSE 52)  (CEFR B2,  GSE 59) (CEFR B1+,  GSE 54) (CEFR B2,  GSE 69)
Can write simple essays on academic topics Write a literature review
 (CEFR B1+,  GSE 55)  (CEFR B1+,  GSE 56)  (CEFR B2, GSE  67) (CEFR B2, GSE  69)(CEFR B2+,  GSE 75)
 /6= (CEFR B1+, GSE 53)  /9 = (CEFR B2, GSE 64)

Now we can see that the courses as described are not going to deliver on the expectations of students. Using this information, it is possible to begin to adjust by filling in the gaps or defining skills that are at a higher level to challenge learners and help enhance their learning. In this way teachers can use the GSE as a guide to creating curriculum or revising programs.

I put myself in the shoes of the teacher in the imaginary EAP Level 2 course. Before validating the level of my content, my students might work in groups to have academic discussions about topics. Knowing that this skill is not in a B2+ range, I can utilize the GSE and look for some skills that my learners have not frequently worked with that will enhance their learning and push it to the next level. Using the Global Scale of English for Academic Purposes, I found these skills at the B2+ level related to speaking, and I know that I have barely used these with my B2 learners.

  • Can identify details that support a point of view in a panel discussion on a general topic. (GSE 58)
  • Can summarize and reformulate ideas from members of a panel discussion to clarify a point. (GSE 76)
  • Can contribute ideas in a panel discussion using linguistically complex language. (GSE 78)

With these three descriptors I can create a lesson that will align to CEFR B2+, GSE 70. This is an activity that will challenge my learners to go much further with their English. Now, instead of a presentation, I can construct an activity that will engage and push my learners to do more with English, providing that challenge and building language skills.2016-03-10_1754

By listening to the panel discussions with the groups, the teacher will be able to observe and assess success. Additionally, materials can be collected from the group work for assessment to ensure each learner was prepared and had participated to achieve the goals. The activity is satisfying for the student and provides a level-appropriate challenge. And, of course, I know that I am now pushing my learners toward the success offered in the EAP Level 2 class.

This is the greatest value of the GSE — as a tool for content creation. I could create several lessons with this skill set that utilize different contexts to be sure that my students are building their ability to participate in complex discussions with peers. Learning a skill once doesn’t mean immediate and magical learning, but with repetition in multiple contexts, I can be sure that my students are successfully learning. My next panel might be on local measures to reduce the carbon footprints of businesses in the area. We could do a follow up panel discussion on ways the students can help improve how the school works to support recycling efforts. In a final panel discussion the groups could research prominent politicians and their personal political stance on climate and the environment and share opinions on their platforms. I might be using the same skill (participate in a panel discussion), but there are a wealth of opportunities for learning.

The GSE is not a checklist of the language skills my learners need to attain, but instead a guide that can help me to improve the quality of content I am presenting. When used with sound pedagogical practice, I can build great learning content to supplement my coursebook material and rest assured that my learners are going to achieve the success promised in the course outcomes.

[1] Pearson, Global Scale of English Descriptor for Academic Purposes – Download the full set of descriptors at

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