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LANGUAGE: Do your level best

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Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 11/2018 vom 24.10.2018

Haben Sie sich schon einmal gefragt, für was eigentlich unsere grün-orange-roten Symbole stehen? Und was genau sich hinter dem sperrigen Begriff „Gemeinsamer Europäischer Referenzrahmen“ verbirgt? CLARE MAAS hat Antworten auf diese und viele weitere Fragen zum Thema Sprachniveau.

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If you take a look at the righthand column on page 5 of Spotlight, you will find the little text box below, which tells you about the language levels in the magazine:

The levels of difficulty in Spotlight magazine correspond roughly to The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages:

This ...

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... information is certainly useful to teachers and students, but does it mean so much to you, or does it lead to a string of questions you’ve never dared to ask? What do these combinations of letters and numbers really mean? What is The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)? Who thought it all up, and why? Most importantly, though, what does it mean to you as a learner of English?

We’ve asked language author and university lecturer Clare Maas to answer these and many other questions for you.

What does CEFR mean?
CEFR stands for “Common European Framework of Reference for Languages”. It is a set of guidelines for measuring your progress in learning a foreign language. The Council of Europe devised it to make a comparison of different language certificates easier. The CEFR can be used with any language you learn, not only English. Even so, a lot of the follow-up research has come from English-language teaching and learning.

What are the CEFR levels?
The CEFR includes six levels of progress, which are now used as the standard rankings of foreign-language competence in Europe and beyond. For each level, the CEFR describes what learners are capable of in the skills of reading, listening, speaking and writing. The framework looks at how many things learners can do in a foreign language (quantitative measures) and how well they can do them (qualitative measures) to describe their general language competence.

The six levels are called:
A1 — beginner / breakthrough
A2 — elementary / waystage
B1 — intermediate / threshold
B2 — upper intermediate / vantage
C1 — advanced / effective operator
C2 — proficiency / mastery


Learners at A1 or A2 level are called “basic users”. They can understand and use everyday words and simple sen tences about real things. They can talk about themselves, their home towns and their families. They can understand others who speak slowly about these topics, and they can read short, easy texts.

When learners are at A2 level, they can understand and use words important to their own lives, such as work, shopping or hobbies. They can also share simple information on everyday topics. Most basic users of a language form short sentences, make a lot of mistakes and do not speak very quickly.

Illustration: s5iztok/iStock.com; Vecteezy.com

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Sie auch auf Deutsch aufwww.spotlight-online.de/ level-best


At B1 and B2 levels, learners are “independent users”. Learners at B1 level can understand the overall point if someone speaks to them slowly and in a standard dialect. They can communicate about familiar topics and their personal interests. Most basic interactions related to holidaying in the country where the language is spoken are not a problem. Learners can describe experiences, events and dreams, and they can explain their ambitions and opinions.

When they have reached B2 level, learners start to understand the main points of more complex texts and conversations. They can communicate about abstract ideas, particularly within their field of work or study. Their level of understanding means that normal interaction with native speakers is possible. The learners can express their ideas on a range of topics; for example, justifying an opinion or evaluating something. The kinds of mistakes that independent users make rarely lead to confusion.


“Proficient users” of a language have attained C1 or C2 level. At C1 level, learners can use a range of expressions that allow them to talk about a broad spectrum of topics related to general, professional or academic situations. Errors are uncommon at this level, and speech is fluent and natural. When it comes to reading, C1-level learners can comprehend complex texts, including connections between different points and implied meanings.

C2 is the highest level on the CEFR scale. People who have reached this level of proficiency can understand virtually everything they hear or read, and express their thoughts almost as well as in their native language. They can comprehend and convey fine nuances of meaning, provide coherent explanations and synthesize abstract information from multiple sources. The flow of their speech is effortless and natural, and they can use native-like intonation patterns.

How do I know my level?
Did you notice how the three sections above became progressively more difficult? That’s because they use vocabulary from the level they describe. How much could you follow? If you understood everything under the “proficient users” heading, your English reading skills have already reached a very high level.

On the Council of Europe website (see page 18), you can use the “global scale” as a checklist to assess your language skills. Or you can use the “self-assessment grid” to obtain a more specific picture of your understanding, writing and speaking skills. This grid is a table of statements about what you can do in the foreign language, and you find the statement that best describes your ability in each area. Note that most people are stronger in certain skills than others.

You may find, for example, that you are at B2 level in understanding, but only at B1 level in speaking. This is nothing uncommon and is not something you should worry about. On the other hand, it can give you a good idea of what you should work on to improve your abilities.

Here are some examples from the self-assessment grid:

E A1 speaking: I can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where I live and the people I know.

M B1 writing: I can write simple connected texts on topics that are familiar or of personal interest. I can write personal letters describing experiences and impressions.

A C1 understanding: I can understand long and complex factual and literary texts, appreciating distinctions of style. I can understand specialized articles and longer technical instructions, even when they do not relate to my field.

How can I prove what I can do?
If you want to work or study in an English-speaking country, you will probably need an official certificate of your level of English, usually attesting at least B1 level. There are various official tests you can choose from. These cost something to take, but are internationally recognized.

Some of the best-known certificates are offered byCambridge English Language Assessment . The Cambridge certificates cover the full range of CEFR levels, and you can choose between general or business English. There are more than 60 Cambridge test centres in Germany, and a test will cost you around €150.

There are also English tests for people who would like to follow a university degree programme in English.The International English Language Testing System (IELTS), for example, covers the B and C levels on the CEFR. There are several places in Germany where you can take an IELTS test. It will cost you around €200.

If you’d like to study in the US, you may need to take theTest of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), since this is accepted by most American universities. The TOEFL test covers the levels up to C1 and costs around €200.

Illustrationen: s5iztok/iStock.com; Vecteezy.com

For those who use English in their jobs, theTest of English for International Communication (TOEIC) and LCCI tests (certified by theLondon Chamber of Commerce and Industry ) will be of interest. The TOEIC costs around €100 to take and covers all CEFR levels. With the LCCI tests, you can choose to focus on specialized areas such as English for business, marketing or finance, and select the appropriate CEFR level. The prices for the tests range from €30 to €250.

If you want to test yourself in an organized way, but don’t need an official certificate, you can also work with the materials connected with these exams. Several publishers sell textbooks or other material with practice exercises and mini-tests to prepare people for certain exams. The examining organizations often make past exam papers available on their websites. Why not use these to check your own language level?

What do these exams look like?
Most of the exams mentioned above include several sections, or “papers”, that test the skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. Sometimes, they combine skills; for example, you might be asked to read a text and then write about it. In a test of general English, a typical reading test would include questions to check your comprehension of an article, e-mail, letter or report. The exercises might be multiple-choice, true or false, gap-filling, finding synonyms or matching (similar to what we ask you to do in our plus exercise booklet).

The listening tests are often quite similar in format, but the input is an audio text. At the higher levels, the reading and listening texts are likely to be authentic. For the lower levels, though, the texts are usually adapted and simplified.

On page18 is an example question you might find in a B1 general English reading exam:

Summer opening hours

Due to staff holidays, shop closes early on Thursdays and Fridays during July. Open on Saturdays as usual.

Look at the text on the shop sign above. What does it mean? Choose the right answer (A, B or C):
A. The shop is closed on some weekdays due to holidays.
B. The shop’s opening times are different on some days during the summer.
C. The shop closes at different times at weekends in July.


B. The shop’s opening times are different on some days during the summer.

The writing and speaking parts of a language exam usually start with specific exercises to test your accuracy in vocabulary and grammar. They then move on towards asking you to produce language yourself. Specific exercises could be sentence transformation, multiple-choice, gap-filling, word-changing forms, or answering short, interview-style questions. In the production sections, you may be asked to write an e-mail, a short story or an essay. Examiners look for accuracy, natural flow and connections between the points you make. Here is an example task in sentence transformation at B2 level:

Complete the second sentence so that it means the same as the first sentence, using the word given in brackets.

1. John was in favour of closing the shop earlier on Fridays. (idea)
2. John thought it would _____________ the shop earlier on Fridays.


John thought it wouldbe a good idea to close the shop earlier on Fridays.

The kinds of things you might have to Write or speak about could include:
•a reply to a short email asking for information (A2 level)
⋅a short story using the title provided (B1 level)
⋅what jobs about the house you like /dislike (B1 level)
⋅how you celebrate special occasions and why (B2 level)
⋅how you would help people in difficult situations as shown in photos (B2 level)
⋅your view on the advantages or disadvantages of something (C1 level)

What language level for which job?
You probably already have a good idea of the level of English you would need for different types of work. With A1- and A2-level English, the kinds of jobs you can do are limited to those that do not involve much communication. If you have reached B1 or B2 level in English, slightly more interesting jobs will be open to you.

This is maybe why B1 level is often required for immigration visas. The B1 level of English allows you to interact with other people; for example, with customers in the service industry. B2 level is usually required to study in English at university and is the level that opens most doors to you professionally. B2 level allows you to work in technical and office-based professions. Specialized jobs, especially those that involve a lot of writing or where accuracy is very important, will require C1 level, if not higher.

What does the CEFR mean for me?
Depending on your language goals, the CEFR will certainly give you a very good idea of where you are in your learning progress. As with all learning, however, the most important aspect of improving your language skills is to have fun while you’re at it. So keep reading and enjoying Spotlight.

Further reading
See www.coe.int/en/web/common-europeanframework-reference-languages/home (in English). Go to “The CEFR levels” and scroll down to find the “Global scale” and the “Self-assessment grid”. See also: www.europaeischer-referenzrahmen.de (in German) and www.sprachtest.de

Illustrationen: 4x6/iStock.com; Vecteezy.com