“Can keep up with an animated discussion, identifying accurately arguments supporting and opposing points of view.” “Can tell a story or describe something in a simple list of points.” If your program is using Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) descriptors as its outcomes statements, you’ll be familiar with ‘can-do’ statements like these.
The CEFR was developed as a means to assess and describe language proficiency. It was built on the European tradition of communicative language teaching (CLT), which emphasized the performance of language tasks. Since language performance can be observed, the CEFR’s can-do statements were a perfect match for the measurable-outcomes-based accountability initiatives that came in the wake of No Child Left Behind. Many teachers have been trained, encouraged, or badgered to plan their lessons and courses around SWBAT (‘students will be able to’) or can-do statements.
There is a persuasive case to be made that CEFR (and similar) performance statements are a useful way to describe language proficiency. Employers, for example, what to know what a potential employee can do in a language – what practical uses the employee can use the language for. Language educators are not employers, though. What language educators need to know is whether and to what extent learning has taken place, and here’s the problem.
Broadly speaking, two educational traditions have informed language teaching: the behavioral, and the cognitive. Behaviorists see learning as a change in behavior, one that can be observed or measured. Cognitivists see learning as acquiring and understanding knowledge. The cognitivist tradition fell out of fashion with the demise of the grammar-translation method and the rise of behavior-based approaches to language teaching. These days, we can probably all agree that in language learning, we need to refer to both traditions: the acquisition or construction of a mental representation of the language, and the skill required to be able to use it in practice. When our outcomes are can-do statements, we focus on observable or measurable behaviors, but tend to pay less attention to acquired or constructed knowledge. We want to know if the learner ‘can tell a story,’ or ‘keep up with an animated discussion,’ for example.
If you have taught students from various countries, you know that some are great performers even if they lack a solid language base – somehow, they manage to draw on sparse linguistic resources to communicate. And on the other hand, you know that some learners have extensive language knowledge, especially grammar and vocabulary knowledge, but have a great deal of difficulty ‘performing.’ Hence, Chomsky wrote of language proficiency, “behavior is only one kind of evidence, sometimes not the best, and surely no criterion for knowledge,” (as cited in Widdowson, 1990). The one is not necessarily indicative of the other.
If you are an educator (as opposed to an employer), you are interested in student learning in any form. You want to know what progress a learner has made. From a cognitive point of view, that includes changes in the learner’s mental representation of the language – a clearer understanding of the form, meaning, and use of the present perfect, for example – even if that has not yet resulted in a change in behavior, such as the ability to use that tense easily in a conversation. A learner who has made great strides in his/or mental representation of the language but is still speaking in telegraphic speech may be of little interest to an employer, but should be of great interest to an educator, because learning has taken place that is a basis for future teaching. Assessment and description of the learner’s language should address this type of progress. The behavioral tradition, with its can-do outcomes statements have no interest in such cognitive development – it is not interested until there is a change of behavior, an observable, measurable performance.
This approach to assessment shortchanges learners who may have made real progress on the cognitive side. So, I’m calling on language educators not to accept uncritically the use of CEFR and similar performance-based descriptors as measures of language learning.
Widdowson, H.G., Aspects of Language Teaching, Oxford University Press, 1990