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. Continue reading