Setting benchmarks for language proficiency

French Studies students at The University of Western Ontario will have a new method for gauging their language proficiency with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) being introduced in the department.


The system employs nationally and internationally accepted standards for grading an individual’s language know-how.

French Studies faculty member Jeff Tennant says CEFR will create benchmarks in the review of undergraduate language curriculum.

“We want to assure ourselves that our curriculum is of the quality we want it to be, and that our students, upon completing each level – and in particular upon completing their degree – are meeting nationally and internationally recognized standards in terms of their competency in French,” says Tennant.


The framework is a starting point and gives the department a way to determine what curriculum improvements may be necessary.

“It’s quality control; a way to gauge the professionalism and quality of our teaching, and to maintain a standard of teaching excellence in French Studies at Western,” he says.


Tennant is hopeful this route will dovetail with Western President Amit Chakma’s goal of a more global and international presence for the university.

“I see what we’re doing in French Studies in terms of institutional objectives at Western and the importance of languages for internationalization,” says Tennant.

“I hope he (Chakma) agrees with me that educating global citizens here at Western means plurilingual global citizens, not just mono-lingual Anglophone global citizens. This common European framework is all about plurilingualism and fits into the internationalization idea.”

Within the Faculty of Education, four researchers are part of a project to evaluate the validity of CEFR in school boards across the province. The faculty held an important workshop Friday to discuss the many facets of this new system to assessing language proficiency.

Robert Macmillan, Associate Dean of Education, says the Ontario government is interested in introducing the system into schools.


“It’s a stage we don’t have now,” says Macmillan. “Within the classroom, when an individual comes in, at what level does one expect that particular child to acquire the language over the course of the year? What are they functioning at now?”

Western-based researchers include professor emerita Suzanne Majhanovich, associate professor Shelley Taylor, assistant professor Farahnaz Faez and Maureen Smith, who holds an adjunct position in Education.

“It a communicative type of approach, so it benefits the students,” adds Macmillan, noting CEFR is being implemented in French as a Second Language programs in nine different school boards – including locally the Thames Valley District and the London & District Catholic school boards.

“The students are actually monitoring themselves as to how they are acquiring their language skills. It’s not a case of sitting down and learning a list of words, it’s actually using the words. It systemizes the linguistic acquisition.”

Right now kids are memorizing words and say they know French, says Macmillan, adding there is no way for a teacher to actually assess the level at which students are functioning.

The CEFR divides learners into three broad divisions – from beginning speaker to extreme competence – and includes:

• A – Basic User: A1 Breakthrough and A2 Waystage
• B – Independent User: B1 Threshold and B2 Vantage
• C – Proficient User: C1 Effective Operational Proficiency and C2 Mastery