Monday, June 09, 2008

CIITE and the CLB

Last week I attended a meeting of representatives from a number of Ontario Colleges who are undertaking to benchmark the language requirements of a number of their courses through the CIITE program (CIITE stands for Colleges Integrating Immigrants to Employment). At the meeting, we received the phase 2 final report. Although CIITE has a number of initiatives, the one that I'll be participating in is the language benchmarking. The following is taken from the relevant final-report recommendations:

"The results of all three activity areas support this recommendation. Colleges would benefit from using a common language proficiency framework and the CLB provides colleges with consistent national standards by which to refer to language proficiency. If adopted, the benchmarking of college programs, combined with CLB-aligned assessment tools, would result in a fairer assessment and admissions process for ITIs and all learners whose first language is not English. "

The CLB refers to the Canadian Language Benchmarks. When I arrived back in Canada in 2003, I was interested to learn of the CLB, but after spending some time getting to know it and finding out as much as I could about how it was put together, I concluded that it was NOT the proper framework for college to be using. (Very briefly, it is too vocational rather than academic in orientation, and its reliability and validity have not been sufficiently established.) I was therefore rather surprised at the conclusions from phase 2 of the CIITE project.

When I brought this up, it came out that no other set of benchmarks has actually been examined by CIITE. The above recommendation, then, seems to be at least somewhat premature. You could even say that it is begging the question. NewScientist recently ran an article arguing that governments should study alternatives scientifically before throwing money around and explaining the consequences of not doing so. This would seem to be a perfect example.

While no set of benchmarks are perfect, my experience tells me that the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages is much more suited to benchmarking college courses. But when I brought this up, a number of people argued that the CLB reflects the Canadian situation in a way that the CEFRL doesn't. This, strikes me a nonsense. Here's an excerpt from one of the general level descriptors from one of these two frameworks. I'll leave it to you to judge whether it better matches the Canadian or European environment:

"Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself 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 organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices."

I've heard that a growing number of countries outside of Europe, including Taiwan, Japan, and Chile, are making us of the CEFRL. If we're really interesting in opening pathways to immigrants, it makes sense to me that we use a language benchmark that is common currency around the world. Unfortunately, as with so many other government initiatives, we've already spent years and millions of dollars on the CLB, so there's no turning back now.

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