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The Development of a Common Framework Scale of Language Proficiency


Brian North

Scales describing language proficiency in a series of levels can provide orientation for educational programmes, criteria for assessment, and reporting to stakeholders. However, in most cases such instruments are produced just by expert opinion. A scale of language proficiency actually implies a descriptive scheme related to theory but usable by practitioners. It also implies a methodology for scaling content to different levels. This book describes the use of both qualitative and quantitative techniques to develop scales for the «Common Reference Levels» in the Common European Framework of Reference for modern languages. Short stand-alone descriptors were (i) developed and classified, (ii) refined and elaborated in workshops, and then (iii) scaled by analyzing the judgments of one hundred teachers on the English language proficiency of the learners in their classes.


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2. Description 41


2 Description As discussed in Chapter 1 a scale of language proficiency does not have to be holistic; many define different aspects of proficiency at different levels in what Pollitt and Murray (1993) described as a diagnosis-oriented grid. There may be occasions when one might want to give a holistic overview of a complex phenomena, as in the example given at the beginning of Chapter 1 and the arguments for and against so doing are considered at the end of this chapter. Even holistic scales, however, tend to employ categories which are reflected in the definitions for the different levels and in so doing "embody an implicit view of the construct" (McNamara 1995: 164) just as much as a series of categories presented separately. Thus whether the approach taken is holistic or analytic (Shohamy 1981 ), a scale cannot escape using categories which consciously or unconsciously reflect theory. The question of deciding which categories to describe is discussed in the chapter, together with the extent to which people can actually distinguish categories anyway. Towards the end of the chapter, the pros and cons of profiling and holistic rating are discussed. First, however, we consider what people mean when they talk about proficiency, and how the expressions proficiency, competence and performance relate to one another. Definitions of Language Proficiency Two simple intuitive definitions of proficiency are: "how successful the candidate is likely to be as a user of the language in some general sense" (1-1orrow 1979/81: 18), or "what is meant when...

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