Standards are used for a variety of purposes in education. They serve as guidelines for curriculum development across subjects in different states, provinces, and even countries. Standards are also used to determine criteria for graduating from high school, gaining admission to post-secondary institutions, and even maintaining one’s academic standing once enrolled. Standards are used as criteria for obtaining a license to drive, practice law, or practice medicine. They provide ethical guidelines for conducting research on humans and animals. They are also used for for test design in different school subjects.
In the field of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, there are a different sets of standards (also called benchmarks) that are very useful for English-language teaching professionals. The most international set of standards available is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)1. They were in fact, set up, not only for the teaching of English but also for languages across Europe. The CEFR scale comprises six levels, from Basic to Proficient User and is presented as follows:
Because of the broad nature of these levels, the framework is used by ELT materials publishers such as Oxford and Cambridge as a means of calibrating and designating the proficiency levels of their textbooks in their online catalogues, which is particularly useful for their multilevel series. Additionally, both the Cambridge English2 and the Pearson International Certificate exams3 use the framework as a basis for designating the proficiency levels of their tests. The CEFR proficiency levels are also divided by macroskill (L, S, R, W) and can be used for self-assessment as well.
Next, the ACTFL (American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages)4 standards have quite a different purpose and structure from that of the CEFR. Like the CEFR standards, they can be applied to the learning of a number of different languages, including English. Being much more pedagogical and communicative than the former, they are useful for testing and developing materials for language use as well as language proficiency. The ACTFL standards include not only proficiency guidelines but also performance descriptors5 and can-do statements for three modes of communication: interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational. Below is a pyramid of the five different proficiency levels with each divided into three stages, as well as a sample performance-descriptor chart.
Because the ACTFL standards include such a wealth of information, they are suitable for teachers and program developers in workplace and academic-English settings. The performance descriptors can be employed for developing materials, planning instruction, and for developing and implementing assessment strategies. Instructors in business-English courses, as well as those teaching specialized courses for healthcare workers and international students seeking admission to English-medium universities, for example, would likely find the ACTFL-standards resources very beneficial.
The third set of standards I would like to introduce differs from both of those discussed already in that it is designed for use with adult learners in an ESL setting, that is, a setting in a region where English is used as the dominant language for daily communication. The standards I am referring to here are the Canadian Language Benchmarks6, and consist of twelve levels of proficiency divided into three stages covering all four macroskills:
At each of these levels, there is a profile of ability, a description of specific skills (can-do descriptors), and suggested tasks for learners at a particular proficiency level. The amount of detail makes the CLB, like the ACTFL proficiency and performance descriptors, useful for general course planning, developing materials, and planning instruction and assessment. However, given its target-learner focus, the CLB are limited for use with adult learners living in areas where English in heard, seen, and used on a daily basis.
Finally, I would like to turn my attention to a set of standards used for teaching young learners. The WIDA7 standards are a very detailed set of standards, organized by grade level from K-12, for use with English-language learners in the United States and in international schools overseas. The standards cover five domains and have broad application at each grade level8. The following two charts illustrate the scope of the standards as well as attention to detail at each grade level:
Standards provide TESOL instructors and administrators with practical tools for course planning, with helpful ideas for course objectives, planning instruction, and designing assessment tools. Whatever the age range of your learners, and in whatever type of program you are teaching, familiarizing yourself with the set of standards most applicable to your teaching context can equip you with valuable ideas for helping your students meet their English-learning needs.