CEFR: Getting to know the Common European Framework of Reference

Hello Exam Seekers,

There’s been a while since I’ve been posting about English exams and courses. Most of them are Cambridge Certifications which usually come together with the CEFR. But what exactly is the CEFR?

CEFR Common European Framework of Reference
CEFR Common European Framework of Reference

It is an acronym that stands for Common European Framework of Reference for Languages which is an international standard for describing the level of comprehension and expression in the oral and written language ability in English.

Brief history

The origins of the CEFR date back to the 1970s when the Council of Europe (an international organization whose aim is to uphold human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe) sponsored work within its Modern Languages Project to develop two levels (Waystage and Threshold) assets of specified learning objectives for language teaching purposes.

According to Cambridge, Waystage and Threshold were relatively low proficiency levels designed to reflect achievable and meaningful levels of functional language competence. In 1977 David Wilkins (author of ‘The Functional Approach’) first proposed the concept of a set of ‘Council of Europe levels’, which could provide an explicit pathway for language teaching and learning with opportunities to accredit achievement outcomes along the way.

Because of his proposition, soon the framework started being developed so that it could offer students and teachers useful curriculum and examination levels:

  • Cambridge English: Proficiency (CPE) in 1913
  • Cambridge English: First (FCE) in 1939
  • Cambridge English: Preliminary (PET) in 1980

In the late 1980s, Cambridge Assessment English was one of the several stakeholder organizations to provide funding and professional support for revising Threshold and Waystage; then the other Cambridge exams came along:

  • Cambridge English: Key (KET) in the early 1990s.
  • Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) in 1991

They provided well-established and recognized accreditation ‘stepping stones’ along the language teaching/learning pathway. And with that, the Council of Europe’s Common European Framework Project started.

The Framework

The framework had the objective of creating a common meta-language to talk about learning objectives and language levels. It took a while before they decided on the terminology because they had been using familiar labels such as “advanced”, “intermediate”, “preliminary” and they couldn’t decide on a standard.

Alongside the council, the ALTE (Association of Language Testers in Europe), were also trying to co-locate their qualifications. They aimed to develop a framework establishing common proficiency levels to promote the transnational recognition of language certification in Europe.

The process had many parts involved, such as:

  • analyzing test content,
  • creating quality guidelines for exam production,
  • developing empirically validated performance indicators (Can Do statements) in different European languages.

Finally, the Cambridge Assessment English and the ALTE partners decided to conduct several studies to verify the alignment of the two frameworks deciding on a third and final framework, which now looks like this:

CEFR standard table
CEFR standard table


According to Cambridge Assessment, a test can only be considered good if it is fair.


That means that everybody who applies for these exams must be considered equal. Therefore, equal chances are given to all candidates, equal exams applied to everyone (or similar exams but with the same level of difficulty), etc.

That is also why when you apply for these exams, you not only have the CEFR marking system, but you also have the Cambridge English Scale, which gives you a number according to your mark.  This helps the assessors to set you at the right level.

How is this concept of fairness applied in the CEFR?

When you are being evaluated, the assessor has a scale to follow, so everybody is assessed the same way. Take a look:

Basic User

A1 (Breakthrough or beginner):

  • Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.
  • Can introduce themselves and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people they know and things they have.
  • Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

A2 (Waystage or elementary):

  • Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).
  • Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
  • Can describe in simple terms aspects of their background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate.

Independent User

B1 (Threshold or intermediate):

  • Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
  • Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

B2 (Vantage or upper intermediate):

  • Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.
  • Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

Proficient User

C1 (Effective operational proficiency or advanced):

  • Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning.
  • Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
  • Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
  • Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

C2 (Mastery or proficiency):

  • Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
  • Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
  • Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

Well, this was an explanation about the CEFR and now, every time you sit for some English Exams you will know what the CEFR is and your level according to the Common European Framework of Reference.

I hope I have cleared some questions related to the CEFR, but, if you have any other questions, please comment in the comment section below.


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Have a great week,
Patricia Moura


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Van, Ek, J A and Trim, J L M (1998a) Threshold 1990, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. – (1998b) Waystage 1990, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wikipedia – CEFR

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