Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I recently coauthored a report for a project (CIITE) funded by Ontario's Ministry of Citizenship & Immigration through CON*NECT. We were assigned to benchmark one of the college's programs against the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB). In other words, we have been visiting classes, looking at textbooks, and talking to students and faculty to determine the level of English required to be successful in the program. The CLB are like a scale, if you will, that we've been using to weigh the language requirements.

The problem is that the scale has never been properly calibrated and that the program we're benchmarking doesn't fit on it anyhow. To quote from the materials that were provided to us by the project office,
"The Canadian Language Benchmarks 2000 was not intended to describe the language used in academic programs; rather it focuses on describing the skills and capabilities of the learner. This was problematic as researchers had to navigate through a document that was not designed for the direct purpose in which it was being used."
But it's not just an issue of focus on the learner versus focus on the language. Last month I attended a presentation by Larry Vandergrift which brought to my attention a report that he had written in 2006 comparing various language frameworks. According to him,
“Since they [the CLB] were created for adult immigrants who are developing language skills for entry into the Canadian workforce, the CLB are not suitable to school contexts without significant adaptation.”
Vandergrift further observes that, “the benchmarks (levels) have not been empirically validated to ensure the fit of each descriptor with its level”. This certainly reflects our experience in trying to interpret the documents.

And yet clearly, a common framework of reference for language is a good thing. Still from Vandergrift,
"A common framework of reference for languages could provide the provinces and territories with a transparent and coherent system for describing language proficiency. In addition to providing a measure for calibrating language proficiency for educational systems across Canada, a common framework of reference for languages could foster a common understanding of what functional proficiency means. It could facilitate cooperation among ministries of education, provide a basis for mutual recognition of language qualifications, and track learner progress over time and in different jurisdictions. Such a framework could be used by each province and territory as a point of reference for language teaching and assessment, without imposing a particular curriculum, teaching methodology or standard for achievement. A common framework could provide a bridge between formal education systems, employers and cultural institutions across Canada and beyond into the international arena. "
So what does he recommend? The Common European Framework of References for language, which is what I've been saying since I first saw the CLB. The heartening part of this is that a number of jurisdictions within Canada have already gone in that direction. Hopefully CIITE will see the wisdom of following suit.

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