Friday, July 19, 2019

How and why the Cambridge English Teaching Framework was developed

Cambridge English Teaching Qualifications have achieved wide recognition and acceptance by constantly evolving to reflect and encourage good practice in language teaching and teacher training. As part of that evolution, this framework has been developed to help explain clearly to teachers and their employers how our teaching qualifications map onto a core syllabus of competencies and how teachers are supported by our increased range of professional development opportunities.

Aim of the framework

The Cambridge English Teaching Framework has been designed to encapsulate the key knowledge and skills needed for effective teaching at a variety of levels and in different contexts. It aims to:
  • help teachers to identify where they are in their professional career
  • help teachers and their employers to think about where to go next and identify development activities to get there.
The framework describes teacher competencies across four stages, and five aspects of teacher knowledge and skill (categories), and is a profiling grid rather than a performance assessment tool (see North 2009). It is intended to show stages of a teacher’s development at any one point in time, rather than provide a description of ‘a good teacher’. This approach recognises that teachers’ development over time is not predictable or defined by years of experience only, and that most teachers’ development will be ‘jagged’ (Rossner 2009:5), in that, across the categories, teachers will be at different stages at any one time. As their professional needs change, the profile will help them to identify their development priorities.

Rationale for the categories

The framework is underpinned by evidence from the extensive written records of teacher assessments from around the world to which Cambridge English Language Assessment has access. These include assessors’ reports of lesson observations on pre-service (CELTA) and in-service (ICELT and Delta) courses, as well as detailed background documents in the form of assignments (CELTA and ICELT) and portfolios of work (ICELT and Delta) which demonstrate the processes that teachers go through when planning and reflecting on their teaching. This unique resource has provided us with detailed descriptions of classroom practice at different stages of teachers’ careers. Equally importantly, these assessment reports reflect the realities of teaching and learning in many different contexts, which are in turn reflected in the design of the framework. The development of the framework has also been informed by theory, in particular a wide-ranging review of current teacher education literature, as well as input by external consultants. This research-based approach has been complemented by the parallel development of an edited volume on assessment in teacher education Assessing language teachers’ professional skills and knowledge in the series ‘Studies in Language Testing’ (Wilson and Poulter, forthcoming). The levels and categories of the framework have also been informed by a review of the CELTA, ICELT and Delta syllabuses, which are themselves supported by a substantial body of information about their application in practice from the statistical analysis of both candidate information and examination results, and the detailed annual reports by the Chief Assessors and Chief Moderators for each qualification.
The framework has five main categories, with each of these categories broken down further, making a total of 36 framework components. The framework is also organised according to four stages of teacher competency: Foundation; Developing; Proficient; Expert. Evidence from the assessment reports and candidate feedback to which Cambridge English Language Assessment has access shows that, despite the lack of agreement as to what constitutes the knowledge base for language teaching (see e.g., Ellis 2009, Freeman & Johnson 1998, Graves 2009, Johnson 2009), teachers themselves, along with their employers, understand the importance of enhancing their professional knowledge and skills in the following areas:
  1. Learning and the Learner: Ellis (2009) and Graves (2009) emphasise the importance of knowledge of the principles of second language acquisition (SLA) and general theories of learning and of application of this knowledge to the teaching context (see also Popko 2005).
  2. Teaching, Learning and Assessment
    1. Planning language learning. Lesson planning (individual and series of lessons) is a key teaching competency, and is included in most teacher training programmes. At higher levels of teacher development, this will involve reasoning skills and decision-making during the lesson (Roberts 1998), which are likely to be ‘deliberate practice’ (Tsui 2003) as teachers develop more sophisticated routines from experience. Both Graves (2009) and Roberts (1998) also emphasise the need for teachers to understand principles of curriculum, syllabus and course planning.
    2. Using language learning materials and resources. The importance of evaluating, selecting, adapting and using learning materials is well documented (see Tomlinson 1998), and is included in most practical teaching guides (e.g., Ur 1991, Harmer 2007).
    3. Managing language learning. Classroom, or interaction, management, is widely recognised as a crucial aspect of effective teaching, and is given prominence in practical teaching guides and teacher training syllabuses. Here this includes: ‘creating and maintaining a constructive learning environment’, ‘using differentiation strategies’, ‘setting up and managing classroom activities’ and ‘correcting learner language’. Error correction is viewed as essential in language teaching (see e.g., Ellis 1994, Lightbown & Spada 2006).
    4. Teaching language systems. It is widely recognised that second/foreign language learning in the classroom is enhanced by explicit attention to language systems (Batstone & Ellis 2008, Ellis 2006, Spada & Lightbown 2008).
    5. Teaching language skills. It is generally accepted that language use is best promoted by skills development, and that knowledge of language systems alone is not sufficient (Skehan 1998; Spada & Lightbown 2008).
    6. Assessing language learning. ‘Assessment literacy’ (Stiggins 1995), the conscious understanding of principles of assessment, as well as the necessary skills to design, mark and give feedback on effective tests, is recognised as a vital competency, and both Coombe, Al-Hamsy and Troudi (2009) and Harmer (2007) see it as a key component of in-service language teacher education.
  3. Language Ability: It is acknowledged that a certain level of language ability is required in order to teach language effectively, as well as to communicate with other professionals as appropriate; however, any minimum language level required of the teacher is likely to vary depending on the teaching context and language levels of the group of learners being taught (see CEFR levels for guidance on language proficiency). A teacher’s linguistic competence and their language awareness are separate constructs (Andrews 2007) and one does not necessarily presuppose or predict the other; such that a teacher with high-level linguistic proficiency may have basic language awareness, and vice versa.
  4. Language Knowledge and Awareness: As well as linguistic competence, Freeman, Orzulak and Morrisey (2009) see knowledge about how language is used as vital to effective language teaching. Andrews (2007) and Bartels (2009) also emphasise the importance of knowledge about language (KAL), an important aspect of which has been shown to be teachers’ knowledge of terminology for describing language (Andrews 1997, Andrews & McNeil 2005, Borg 1999).
  5. Professional Development and Values: Professional development is widely viewed as creating a platform for teacher learning (Harmer 2007), and it is generally accepted that reflective skills are key in enabling teachers to evaluate their teaching and identify areas for improvement (Korthagen 2001, Richards & Farrell 2005, Russell 2005). Recent work on teacher cognition (Borg 2006) also suggests that conscious and guided reflection on teacher beliefs is an essential tool for promoting teacher learning (Richards, Gallo & Renandya 2001). ‘Practitioner knowledge’ (Hiebert, Gallimore & Stigler 2002; Johnson 2009) has been legitimised by the following: reflective teaching (Wallace 1991; Farrell 2007), action research (Burns 2009), experimental teaching (Allwright & Hanks 2009) and teacher research (Freeman 1998) – and is now seen as a key element of the knowledge base of teacher education (Borg 2006; Barduhn & Johnson 2009). A range of these different research activities has also been shown to be valuable in promoting teacher learning (Borg 2013; Wallace 1996). The role of a teacher in the 21st century is increasingly seen as involving the ability to work in a team and collaborate with colleagues and also to work within an institution taking on different roles and responsibilities where necessary (Darling-Hammond 2006; Freeman et al 2009; Leung 2009).
    While factors such as specific qualifications obtained, training undertaken, number of hours/years of formal teaching experience or degree of language proficiency are all important, they may not necessarily be directly related to a particular level of competence and are, therefore, not specified in the framework as such.

Stages in the framework

There is no support in the literature on teacher expertise for a definite number of stages or levels of teacher development; indeed, it is widely accepted that learning to teach is ongoing and there is no ‘terminal competence’ (Graves 2009). However, the four stages identified for the framework – Foundation, Developing, Proficient and Expert – map a ‘discernible developmental trajectory’ (Graves 2009) and reflect the career development of many teachers as well as their self-assessments of their own competence. Despite the lack of consensus as to what defines different stages of teacher development (Katz & Snow 2009, Murray 2001), research into ‘teacher expertise’ does suggest noticeable differences between ‘novice’ and ‘expert’ teachers: with ‘novice’ being more concerned with control, while ‘experts’ have more developed routines (Tsui 2003, 2009). Studies of ‘novice’ and ‘expert’ teachers suggest that teacher expertise involves the development of schemata/routines based on extensive experience of classrooms and learners, which ‘expert’ teachers rely on unconsciously for much of their instructional decisions (Bereiter & Scardamalia 1993; Tsui 2003).
A central point to emerge from recent teacher cognition research is that teachers’ thinking and behaviour are guided by a set of personal, practical, systematic, dynamic and often unconscious beliefs (Borg 2006). This suggests that ‘the process of learning to teach is not a linear accrual of various aspects of teaching, but rather a gradual process of proceduralising aspects of formal and experiential knowledge gained from teacher education and classroom experience mediated by beliefs and contextual constraints’ (Phipps 2010:23). In this framework, the four stages represent bands of increasing competence, which can be characterised by a gradual increase in understanding, applied with more and more sophistication, using a wider range of techniques across a more complex range of situations and contexts. A detailed teacher profile has been developed to exemplify each of the levels across each of the four categories and 36 components of the framework.

Relation to existing frameworks

During the past 10 years a number of continuing professional development (CPD) frameworks have been developed in both general education and language education. The first stage in the development of this framework was a literature review of existing CPD frameworks in the field. These serve a range of different purposes and are used by teachers, teacher educators, managers and accreditation bodies. There are also various sets of performance standards used in language education, such as the TESOL/NCATE Standards (TESOL 2002), but these are not discussed here. The following four frameworks are used in general education:
  • Professional Standards for Teachers (PST), Dept. for Education, UK. This framework, used for inspection and performance management purposes in the primary/secondary sector, no longer refers to different levels (Department for Education 2013).
  • Competency Framework for Teachers (CFT), Dept. of Education and Skills, Western Australia. This aims to describe dimensions of effective teaching as ‘a reference point for professional reflection, discussion and action’ (Department of Education and Skills 2004:iii), although it is also used for performance management purposes, and distinguishes between three different ‘phases’ of teachers’ career development.
  • Framework for Teaching, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), USA. This ‘identifies those aspects of a teacher’s responsibilities that have been documented through empirical studies and theoretical research as promoting improved student learning’ (Danielson 2008), is organised according to four levels of teacher competence, and is intended to be used for self-assessment and reflection by teachers.
  • Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST), Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, Australia. This is ‘a public statement of what constitutes teacher quality’ (APST 2011), is organised according to four levels and is also intended to be used for self-reflection purposes.
The following five frameworks were specifically designed for language education:
  • CAELA Framework for Professional Development, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC. This was produced in 2010 to help ‘improve the provision of teacher education programmes and facilitate learner progress through a systematic, coherent, and sustainable professional development effort’ (Center for Adult English Language Acquisition 2010:6). There is no reference to different levels of teacher competence.
  • National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), USA. This framework was developed for all subjects including ‘English as a New Language’, which targets ‘early adolescence through young adulthood’, namely ages 11–18 (National Board for Professional Teaching Standards 2010). It is used mainly for inspection purposes, but also includes space for teachers to conduct their own reflection prior to inspection, and does not distinguish between different levels of teacher competence.
  • BALEAP Competency Framework for Teachers of English for Academic Purposes, UK. This was designed in 2008 in order to: ‘support the professional development of EAP teachers within institutions; accredit individual teacher portfolios as evidence of professional achievement; EAP teacher recruitment; course design for teacher training in EAP; and course accreditation for teacher training in EAP’ (BALEAP 2008:2). There are no levels of teacher competency, but it is underpinned by a theoretical background (see Alexander 2010).
  • British Council CPD Framework for Teachers of English, UK. This has been developed in order to help teachers to plan their own career development and choose the most appropriate professional development activities to suit their needs (British Council 2011), and outlines a series of teacher competencies across six distinct levels. Further background rationale is provided (British Council 2012) which attempts to define the different levels, and provides guidance to teachers in how best to define their own level.
  • EAQUALS’ (Evaluation and Accreditation of Quality in Language Services) Profiling Grid was intended to be used prior to inspections and accreditation visits to enable managers within an organisation to profile their teachers (Rossner 2009). The successor to this grid, the European Profiling Grid (EPG), which was developed and validated as part of an EU co-funded project involving 11 partner organisations in 10 countries, outlines a range of descriptors for language teachers across six phases of teacher development (European Profiling Grid 2013). The development of the framework has clearly been informed by theory (see North & Mateva 2005, North 2009, Rossner 2013), and is by far the most elaborate and comprehensive of all the frameworks reviewed here. Moreover, it is intended to apply to teachers of any European language, and is available in 11 as well as in Chinese. An interactive version of the EPG, the e-Grid, is available online. It is complemented by the more detailed Eaquals Framework for Language Teacher Training and Development (Eaquals 2013).

Guide for users

An important feature of this Cambridge English Teaching Framework is the provision of guidance to teachers in how to self-assess their CPD needs and how to improve their own competencies by selecting appropriate CPD activities. Self-assessment is an important element of professional development (Freeman et al 2009, Katz & Snow 2009), so it is important to provide guidance and training to intended users of the framework in how to use it for their own professional development. This guidance will be provided initially by a questionnaire, which teachers will be able to complete online, in order to establish their current level of competencies with regard to this framework.


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Anything teachers can do – can technology do better?

Anything teachers can do – can technology do better?

Anything teachers can do – can technology do better?

At Cambridge Assessment English we’re often asked if digital technology will replace the language teacher and our answer is always ‘No’. Digital technology can never be the teacher of the future but it will be the teacher’s assistant, playing a supportive role which can make a valuable impact on learning outcomes. Technology can handle tasks that a teacher cannot do – whether through lack of time, or resources – and can add real value to the classroom. It’s important, for teachers to understand that a positive, proactive relationship with technology can help them and their learners. To achieve these outcomes, however, teachers need to expand and maintain their knowledge of learning technologies, and develop their ability to critically assess digital learning tools in order to identify those which offer the greatest benefit to their students.

What teachers can do better than tech

A fundamental role for the teacher is to foster social learning. Social learning features interaction, discussion and collaboration between students, and creates a positive, inter-personal learning climate. It involves taking a flexible and interactive approach which encourages engagement across the class, while also retaining a ‘real-time’ sensitivity to individual needs. As this type of learning is focused on the application of knowledge, it also encourages higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation, or – in the case of language learning – the development of communicative competence. Current digital technologies cannot enable this type of social and collaborative learning as well as a teacher can, since such learning environments are highly dependent on the inter-personal relationship between the teacher and their class. Technology, instead, delivers learning content in an ‘atomistic’ way, as the educator Philip Kerr notes, where learning is broken down into discrete ‘atoms’ which (it is assumed) eventually come together to create ‘learning’. Current technologies are unable to handle the complexities, and therefore deliver the benefits, of ‘social learning’.

What teachers and tech can both do

That’s not to say that technology is irrelevant in a socially collaborative learning environment. In terms of classroom administration, for example, technology can provide enhanced record keeping, greatly improving the teacher’s analysis of student performance, especially the identification of skills which could be improved by deliberate practice. This is where technology can really help. Deliberate practice in order to consolidate knowledge is considered essential for learning, but is challenging to do at class level as it takes time and requires specific focus on individual learners.
Digital tools allow students to practice practise discrete language skills repeatedly (e.g. specific grammar points or vocabulary), and for as long as they want or need to. Adaptive learning technologies – where tasks are adjusted according to ongoing student performance – can further extend deliberate practice. Teachers naturally adapt the content they use based on the ability of specific learners, but that’s difficult to do for individual learners; technology can provide adaptive learning experiences on a larger scale in an automated manner (but on limited domains of knowledge). Technology can also add value with marking of student work, and can provide feedback on student writing and aspects of speaking. (An example is Write and Improve, a writing development and feedback tool which is free for learners to use.) By marking students’ work, technology can reduce the administrative burden on teachers and give them more time for classroom teaching (although it cannot offer the depth or nuance a teacher can provide).

What tech can do better than teachers

On-demand learning combined with instant feedback, delivered quickly and on a large scale, is a major advantage of language learning technology. Practice is vitally important for the individual, but it’s a real challenge for time-poor teachers who often have to deal with large classes, so the ability to access digital tools and feedback at anytime, anywhere, represents a significant expansion in learning opportunities and should (theoretically) lead to accelerated progress. The best digital tools will provide learning without any human biases, and without teacher burn-out, while also generating invaluable ‘big data’ on learning and progression. This data is already being used to improve the efficiency and accuracy of digital tools, and by teachers who use it to inform their own classroom practice.

Overcoming communication challenges in healthcare settings

Overcoming communication challenges in healthcare settings

Good communication skills are essential to patient safety, wellbeing and the overall efficiency of busy healthcare organisations. At Cambridge Boxhill Language Assessment this is something we’re very interested in as we jointly own the Occupational English Test (OET), a widely used international English language test for healthcare professionals. Earlier this year we commissioned a piece of research that looked into the challenges of communicating clearly to patients, with the leading healthcare accreditation body Joint Commission International (JCI).So what challenges did the white paper highlight?
The paper highlights the serious problems that can result from poor quality communication, not just linguistic. For example a typical patient sees many different healthcare professionals during their treatment, and in multiple settings, each presenting a different set of communication challenges. If professional communication skills vary in quality, then a patient’s understanding of their health status may lack context, completeness and accuracy – often causing confusion and potential harm. In the US, for example, communication failures in hospitals and medical practices were responsible (at least in part) for 30 per cent of all malpractice claims, resulting in 1,744 deaths and $1.7 billion in malpractice costs over five years according to the Risk Management Foundation of the Harvard Medical Institutions.
Patients and their families expect to receive the information they need to understand care goals and make informed decisions, but the quality of this information can be compromised by poor communication between staff at handover points, as patients move through a healthcare system, and when they are discharged. Communication can be further impaired if a patient’s English or literacy skills are poor, or if they have limited ‘health literacy’ which affects their understanding of key instructions or explanations. Other challenges include cultural barriers, sensitivities to certain words, concepts or metaphors, and age-appropriate communication. Verbal miscommunication can also be an issue, with different accents, dialects or pronunciations all potentially adding confusion, especially when certain drug names or numbers can sound very similar.
But evidence-based practice focused on improving communication outcomes does exist. For example standardized methods, forms and tools can greatly improve consistency in handovers, for example, and when discharging patients, and staff should also be trained to accommodate different literacy, cultural or age-related needs. The verbal communication of medical orders or test results should also be limited to emergency situations, for example, or sterile procedures, and only when the prescriber is present and the patient’s chart available. Strategies should also be in place to help build the empathetic, relationship-building skills required to gain a true understanding of the patient’s perspective.
We found the findings really interesting as it’s an area that is constantly under the spotlight. The OET test takes these challenges into account and uses test material which reflects real healthcare scenarios, and generates results which help governments and regulators select staff with the language skills required for patient safety and quality care.

Developing teachers: key principles in the Cambridge English approach to teacher education

  • Cambridge Assessment English has long been recognised as one of the international leaders in pre-service teacher education through the CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) qualification. In recent years, we have been working around the world at a national level with both in-service and pre-service teachers to improve levels of pedagogical skill and knowledge in a variety of different countries, for example Panama, Ukraine and Malta.

Underpinning the work that we do in teacher education are a number of guiding principles which spring from our educational philosophy. We believe that learning is best conceptualised through a social constructivist theory of learning. A key tenet of this is the view that learning is constructed by the learner, as opposed to the traditional, “transmission” model of teaching and learning in which knowledge is passed on to students fully formed, ready to be assimilated. Furthermore, learning is primarily a social activity – knowledge and skills are constructed through interaction with others. This is an extension of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, which maintains the primacy of social interactions, mediated through the prevailing culture, in a child’s development (Salkind, 2004).
Based on this philosophical approach, Cambridge English have developed a number of key principles which inform our work in teacher education.

Learning is an active process

Learners build their knowledge through active engagement with learning opportunities. Therefore, teachers are required to be “activators” (Hattie, 2009, p. 243), and should encourage active learning through setting learning goals, providing engaging tasks, assessing achievement and giving targeted feedback.

Learning is additive, incremental and takes time

Learning takes place in small steps and builds on the learner’s existing knowledge structures (Johnson, 2006). In order to be fully incorporated into these knowledge structures, a learner needs to interact with new information three or four times (Nuthall, 2000). Therefore, teacher education should seek to work with what teachers already know, introducing new ideas and methods gradually, with time for assimilation, practical application, and reflection during the learning process.

Feedback and reflection play important roles in learning

Hattie (2009) emphasised the importance of feedback in learning when he suggested that it should be inseparable from instruction, the two working together to help a learner construct and reconstruct knowledge. Reflection on this feedback is also crucial as it allows learners to self-assess learning, and formulate their next actions. Writing specifically about teacher education, Borg and Albery (2015) suggest that reflective practice should underpin all teaching and learning.

Learning should be goal-focused and evidence-based

Learners should know in advance what they are aiming to learn, and also, how they can measure their achievement against this learning aim. Teacher education should therefore provide clear goals from the outset, and incorporate assessment of achievement which produces data that can support teachers in achieving these goals.

Experiential learning and practice are needed for skills development

Skills are developed through on-the-job practice, and any career which has a practical element incorporates this in its education programme – consider medical professionals and pilots as just two examples. Teaching is no different in this regard, and any teacher education programme should include an element of real teaching in real classrooms, with the chance to receive feedback and reflect on performance.

Peer-collaboration is an effective way to learn

Learning from others is a key tenet in a social constructivist theory of learning, and this seems particularly true in teacher education: in their 2007 report, McKinsey and Company identified how, in a number of high-performing education systems, teacher collaboration has been found to facilitate teacher development. Equally, Schleicher (2018) noted that evidence from the OECD’s TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) study suggested that professional development activities for teachers had most impact when mediated through group work.

Attitude to learning plays a key role

A consistent finding in high-performing education systems is that students believe that achievement is a function of hard work rather than innate intelligence (Schleicher, 2018). This attitude to learning has been termed a “growth mind-set” (Dweck, 2006). It is therefore important that teacher education programmes emphasise the importance of a growth mind-set among teachers in order for them to pass it on to their students.

Digital is increasingly a useful facilitator of learning

Using digital resources, e.g. apps, websites, and software, allows new avenues of learning to be accessed. This may be through changes to formal learning such as facilitating blended learning and the flipped classroom, or it may be through more informal tools e.g. apps on a smart phone. ICT and digital tools have become increasingly prominent in teaching and learning globally, and therefore, more than ever, should be considered an important component of teacher education programmes.
In summary, these are the main principles which inform our work in teacher education globally. However, it must be remembered that teacher education is always a local process too, and it is crucial for us to collaborate with teachers to understand the context that they work in and what their needs are regarding professional development. Without this flexibility, this ability to adapt to local needs, any programme of teacher education is unlikely to be successful.

Cambridge English Qualifications increase motivation to learn and

Cambridge English Qualifications increase motivation to learn and build confidence

Level-based exams and international standards

Cambridge English Qualifications are in-depth level-based exams that are like the steps of a ladder. Each exam corresponds to a meaningful improvement in language competence, and when a learner passes an exam, the next one is always within reach and never daunting. Learners always know what the next goals are, and this should give them the motivation and confidence to continue their studies.
Cambridge English Qualifications are closely aligned with the Common European Framework for Reference (CEFR), a set of internationally recognized criteria for measuring ability in second or foreign languages. The CEFR specifies what a person “can do”, or should be able to do, at each of six levels. For example, at level B2 a person “can make notes while someone is talking, or write a letter including non-standard requests”, and B2 First asks the test-taker to perform precisely these tasks to see whether they have achieved level B2 in their writing skills.
The CEFR level descriptors follow a sequence of natural targets for language-learners.[1, 2] Progressing through the six levels can therefore be highly motivating for learners. They can see where they stand in terms of international standards, what they need to do in order to reach the next level, and the value of the abilities that the exams are testing. As many as 75% of young learners sitting A2 Key for Schools in Beijing said following clear and meaningful targets had increased their motivation to study.[3]
The importance of meaningful goals is backed up by research in educational psychology. The study of how people are motivated was pioneered in the post-war years by John Atkinson at the University of Michigan. In his book Motivation and Achievement,[4] Atkinson argued that motivation is increased when there is an attainable goal in an activity that is highly valued. One such goal is the ability to use English in today’s internationalized professional and educational communities. John Hattie and Helen Timperley of the University of Auckland, in their 2007 work on self-monitoring and goal-setting, presented three important questions for learners: what are the goals, what progress am I making towards them, and what activities are needed to make better progress?[5] Using exams which are based on manageable meaningful targets which address the four language skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking, would support learners to explore these key questions.
In research specifically on the learning of foreign languages, the most influential theory of motivation has been the “motivational self” concept proposed by Zoltán Dörnyei, of Nottingham University. Learners imagine themselves when they are fluent in the language, and these images of themselves in the future encourage and motivate them in their studies.[6]

Real-life language skills

Cambridge English Qualifications are based on a model of communicative language ability that emphasizes the importance of real-life conversation and interaction, in line with the theory proposed by Michael Canale and Merrill Swain in their landmark 1980 paper on communicative competence.[7] This encourages and motivates learners because the skills they need for the exams are the same as the skills they need and use outside the classroom.
In this way, our exams are designed to have a positive effect on teaching and learning - what Nick Saville calls “impact by design”.[8] This reduces the phenomenon of teaching to the test, where teachers find themselves training the students in skills that will help them pass the test, but are not useful beyond the test.[9] At Cambridge we also consult key stakeholders, such as test-takers, parents, and institutions. That way, we stay in touch with real life needs as well as keeping up with theory and best practices.
Cambridge English exams are also highly valuable in peoples’ lives and careers because they are used by many institutions and governments as gate-openers for higher education, migration, and professional purposes. One Cambridge English study, in Madrid in 2011, found that improving career prospects was among the top factors that motivated students to learn English.[9] This is a further motivation for learners to structure their language learning using Cambridge products. In this way our exams promote extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside the individual, as well as intrinsic motivation, which comes from personal satisfaction alone.

Skill-specific profiles

With Cambridge English exams, the results provided to learners do not just describe the learner’s overall language level; they also provide information on their level in individual skills such as reading or speaking. These scores can be used flexibly to create skill-specific profiles suitable for different pathways—for example, admission to higher education courses or professional training courses.
This diagnostic information also enables learners to take action on problem areas, set new goals, and monitor their own progress. In this way they can become actively involved in their own learning and gain linguistic self-confidence as they move to the next level.[10, 11]

A virtuous circle

Cambridge Assessment research with school students has shown that self-confidence has a positive effect on future achievement in several academic subjects.[12] In the same way, the self-confidence generated by Cambridge exam success can increase learners’ self-efficacy, in other words, in their belief in their ability to achieve goals, and lead to future academic success. As one Italian student put it after she had passed her C2 Proficiency exam: “You will see your self-esteem and confidence increase by leaps and bounds, and everything will finally be worth it.”[13]

A reliable standard

Cambridge English exams are produced and administered in secure conditions and according to rigorous standards, to guarantee fairness and accuracy for learners in all countries.[14] They are also recognized by institutions and authorities around the world. Research suggests that this can be highly motivating, as it means that learners’ scores are an independent and objective assessment of their language ability. One teacher commented that “Parents are quite fond of these exams because they are from the University of Cambridge and it is not the teacher that assess[es] them.”[9]

The views of test-takers and teachers

Cambridge English carries out regular studies to learn more about how its exams work in practice. Recent studies have taken place in Mexico, Spain, Egypt, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. Questionnaires and interviews from these provide insights into the importance of motivation and the highly motivating nature of Cambridge English exams.
The Madrid study mentioned above involved 28 primary and secondary schools. It found that the top factors that motivated students to learn English and Cambridge English exams were: being able to communicate when travelling, improving career prospects, the importance and universality of the English language, and the influence of their parents.[9] Motivation is important not just for students, but also for teachers, and 53% of teachers said they had become more motivated to teach English as a result of introducing Cambridge English exams; none said they had become less motivated. 
Another study was carried out in Taiwan in 2012, using the Cambridge English tests for young learners.[15] Students felt positively about the exam: 41% said they liked it and only 14% disliked it, and 36% said they wanted to study English harder after the exam whereas only 15% said they did not. Comparing the Cambridge English test to their usual school English tests, 79% said the Cambridge test was harder but 66% said they liked it more. Difficult exams are not necessarily off-putting, even for young children. Teachers said the feedback from their students about the exam was mostly positive, especially among the stronger students. One commented that the students did not find the test as difficult as they had expected. This is important, as exams for young children need to be encouraging rather than challenging.
Another Spanish study was carried out by Ruth Breeze and Hanne Roothooft, researchers at the University of Navarra.[16] This found that “students are usually highly motivated to do the Cambridge English tests for young learners, and this has a good effect on their attitude and behaviour.” The researchers also wrote that “Any apprehension [the teachers] might have felt when starting out with these exams was usually dispelled once they had discovered the wealth of material available and experienced the positive effects on student motivation.”


  1. Taylor, L. and N. Jones, Cambridge ESOL exams and the common European framework of reference (CEFR). Research Notes, 2006(24): p. 2-5.
  2. North, B., The Common European Framework of Reference: Development, Theoretical and Practical Issues, in A New Direction in Foreign Language education: The Potential of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. 2006: Osaka University of Foreign Studies.
  3. Yan, Q., X. Gu, and H. Khalifa, Impact of Cambridge English: Key for Schools on young learners’ English learning: Voices from students and parents in Beijing, China. Research Notes, 2014(58): p. 44-50.
  4. Atkinson, J. and J.O. Raynor, Motivation and Achievement. 1974, New York: Wiley.
  5. Hattie, J. and H. Timperley, The power of feedback. Review of educational research, 2007. 77(1): p. 81-112.
  6. Dörnyei, Z., The L2 motivational self system, in Motivation, language identity and the L2 self. 2009, Multilingual Matters: Bristol. p. 9-42.
  7. Canale, M. and M. Swain, Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, 1980. 1(1): p. 1-47.
  8. Jones, N. and N. Saville, Learning Oriented Assessment: A systemic approach (Studies in Language Testing vol. 45). 2016, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Ashton, K., A. Salamoura, and E. Diaz, The BEDA impact project: A preliminary investigation of a bilingual programme in Spain. Research Notes, 2012(50): p. 34-42.
  10. Black, P. and D. Wiliam, Developing a theory of formative assessment, in Assessment and learning. 2012. p. 206-230.
  11. Ramaprasad, A., On the definition of feedback. Behavioral Science, 1983. 28: p. 3-13.
  12. Vidal Rodeiro, C.L., J.F. Bell, and J. Emery, Can emotional and social abilities predict differences in attainment at secondary school? Research Matters, 2009(7): p. 17-23.
  13. Morgan, S. and E. Long, Who's afraid of the CPE? What students do to pass a C2 exam. IATEFL TEASIG Newsletter, 2012(52).
  14. Research Notes [whole issue]. (59).
  15. Taiwan Impact Study 2012 (1464 Taiwan Impact Study 2012 13Aug2013.docx) [not publicly available].
  16. Breeze, R. and H. Roothoft, Implantation of Cambridge English: Young Learners exams in Spanish schools: teacher perspectives and washback on classroom practice. 2013, Cambridge English Funded Research Final Report [not publicly available].

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