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Revue Miriadi

1 | 2019


Applying new CEFR descriptors to intercultural language learning activities and assessment : the piloting results



This paper presents the results of the piloting of new descriptors from the extended version of the Common European Framework of Reference (Council of Europe, 2018) in an Italian L2 intercultural language course at the Linguistic Centre of Bologna University.

The chosen descriptors - ‘Creating pluricultural space’ and ‘Exploiting pluricultural repertoire’- were piloted in an intercultural activity where students wrote a reflection paper on differences and similarities among their universities and the host university (Bologna), followed by a group discussion on the proposed topic (IEREST, 2015).

Students’ linguistic behaviour was observed through discourse analysis of audio-recorded discussions.

Data show that the descriptors contributed to refining teacher and students’ comprehension of the intercultural concepts but, at the same time, they suggest a possible limitation of their static nature in the illustration of intercultural competence which is, by definition, a multifaceted, dynamic and co-constructed notion.


L’applicazione dei nuovi descrittori QCER all’apprendimento e alla valutazione linguistico-interculturale: i risultati di un pilotaggio

L’articolo presenta i risultati del pilotaggio di descrittori dell’ultima versione del Quadro Comune Europeo di Riferimento (Consiglio d’Europa, 2018) condotto all’interno di un corso di italiano L2 e intercultura presso il Centro Linguistico di Ateneo dell’Università di Bologna.

I descrittori scelti – ‘Creare uno spazio pluriculturale’ e ‘Valorizzare il repertorio pluriculturale’ – sono stati pilotati in un’attività interculturale in cui gli studenti hanno prodotto una riflessione scritta sulle differenze e somiglianze tra le università di provenienza e quella ospitante (Bologna), seguita da una discussione di gruppo sul tema proposto (IEREST, 2015).

Il comportamento linguistico degli studenti è stato osservato attraverso l’analisi del discorso delle discussioni audio-registrate.

I dati mostrano che i descrittori hanno contribuito ad affinare la comprensione dei concetti interculturali ma, allo stesso tempo, suggeriscono una possibile limitazione della loro natura statica nell’illustrazione della competenza interculturale che è, per definizione, una nozione sfaccettata, dinamica e co-costruita.

Texte intégral

1. Meeting the need of promoting intercultural foreign language education

1Interest in the intercultural dimension in language education was raised by a general shift in applied linguistics, a ‘cultural turn’ which connects language learning and teaching to interculturality, focusing on the process through which students reflect on differences, acquire awareness and act consequently through such awareness (Byram, Holmes & Savvides, 2013).

2As described by Kramsch (2009), intercultural awareness is not merely a skill, but a collection of skills and attitudes, not just a simple body of knowledge, but a set of practices involving knowledge, skills and attitudes. Intercultural awareness can act as a means to establishing better relationships among individuals, taking students and teachers away from the common perception of culture as national stereotype to explore who they might be as people with identities that are rich in their cultural multiplicity (Holliday 2015). This view of culture is commonly referred to as a non-essentialist view and represents the approach towards interculturality we adopt in our language teaching. This view, precisely, rejects stereotyping and culturalism, i.e. the reduction of the other to predefined traits of the culture they are assumed to belong to; instead, a non-essentialist approach, rather than viewing cultures as distinct entities that define people’s behaviour, considers culturality as a process in which meaning is co-constructed in the intercultural dialogue (Dervin, 2009).

3Accordingly, the intercultural activities we use in our Italian L2 courses at the Linguistic Centre of Bologna University aim at supporting international students in benefiting as much as possible from their abroad experiences in terms of personal growth and intercultural awareness. The intercultural activities are taken from the IEREST Project (Intercultural Education Resources for Erasmus Students and their Teachers), an Erasmus Multilateral Project (2012-2015) co-funded by the European Commission within the frame of the Lifelong Learning Programme 2009-2012. The project produced a set of teaching modules to be taught to Erasmus students before, during and after their experience abroad (IEREST, 2015). In IEREST intercultural activities the learner-generated content creates a collaborative environment for learning: students generate content and reflect on their own as well as other’s contributions, developing critical thinking skills while working through a formal educational social network; they gain perspectives on guided topics through other’s contributions and continuously build a body of knowledge; they create a learning community where information and ideas sharing expose them to varying cultures both socially and academically.

1.1. Combining intercultural aims and linguistic aims

4Aiming at the development of intercultural skills in the language syllabus means aiming at learners’ intercultural competence as well as linguistic competence. It means preparing students to express similarities and differences among different cultures, to explain, interpret and discuss cultural perspectives and practices in texts and intercultural encounters, to exchange information about cultural values and attitudes, to express opinions on facts and events taking into consideration different perspectives. At the same time, it means making students acquire linguistic structures, vocabulary, socio-pragmatic elements to produce such discourses.

5A very practical tool - very much used by language teachers - to develop a language syllabus has been, since 2001, the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), which, since that time, already presents a broader perspective of language education, providing not only a set of language proficiency levels but also a vision of the learner as a social agent together with the goal to enhance intercultural education in the context of foreign language teaching (Council of Europe, 2001). But the notion of intercultural competence – referred to briefly in CEFR Section and – was not greatly developed in the 2001 CEFR book and no validated and calibrated descriptors attaining to interculturality existed. Sixteen years later a new proposal of the Framework appeared, with the aim to update the document and to encompass, among others, descriptors for plurilingualism/pluriculturalism.

2. The CEFR latest edition with new descriptors related to intercultural competence

6On February 2018 the Common European Framework of Reference For Languages with new descriptors was published. Much approved in the consultation undertaken in 2016–17, this latest edition integrates domains relevant to language education across the curriculum, such as online interaction, collaborative learning, mediation, intercultural competence (Council of Europe, 2018).

7Mediation is introduced as a key concept for communicative language competences: descriptor scales are provided for mediating a text, mediating concepts, mediating communication and for plurilingual/pluricultural competences, in order to build learners’ intercultural competence. The role of language learning in developing inter­cultural understanding through plurilingual communicative competence is emphasized in this latest version. Following the notion of Kramsch’s third space (1993), here the notion of pluricultural space is introduced and defined as ‘a shared space between and among linguistically and culturally different interlocutors, i.e. the capacity of dealing with ‘otherness’ to identify similarities and differences to build on known and unknown cultural features, in order to enable communication and collaboration’ (Council of Europe, 2018:122).

8The scale Facilitating pluricultural space is included in the section ‘Mediating Communication’, while the broader conceptual area concerning plurilingual and intercultural education - ‘Plurilingual and Pluricultural Competence’- includes the three scales Building on pluricultural repertoire, Plurilingual comprehension and Building on plurilingual repertoire, whose source was the ECML’s Framework of Reference for Pluralistic Approaches to Languages and Cultures (CARAP/FREPA, 2007, 2012).

2.1 The piloting process

9Validation of ‘Mediation’ and ‘Plurilingual and Pluricultural Competence’ scales took place between February 2015 and February 2016. Then teachers and institutions were invited to pilot some of the descriptors (October 2016- February 2017) and to report a case study with a set of materials as example of experience (March-April 2017).

10The first step was the selection of one area to focus on in the pilot, which could be from small-scale, i.e. using the appropriate level of one scale with one class. Being relevant to our course syllabus, which combines language and intercultural activities and implements students’ generated content, the descriptors we chose were Facilitating pluricultural space and Building on pluricultural repertoire, included respectively in ‘Mediating communication’ and ‘Plurilingual and pluricultural competences’ areas. The chosen level was B1.

11These descriptors were piloted in an IEREST intercultural activity (Academic Life, IEREST, 2015: 64) where international students were invited to write a reflection paper on differences and similarities among their home universities and the host university (Bologna) and of how academic life in different places is shaped by different expectations and attitudes towards learning. Afterwards, in small groups, students were invited to discuss and to share views on the proposed topic.

12The intended outcome was the implementation of open practices in intercultural language activities for international students in contexts of academic mobility (Holmes, Bavieri & Ganassin, 2015; Holmes, Bavieri, Ganassin & Murphy, 2016) through the creation of a learning community who share learner-generated content and use CEFR descriptors as learning aims and peer assessment. Abilities being addressed in the selected descriptors were, in particular, developing a shared communication culture, fostering exchanges with people from other cultures showing interest and empathy, reflecting on and explaining particular ways of communicating in one’s own and other cultures, and the risks of misunderstanding they generate.

13CEFR piloted descriptors were integrated in IEREST intercultural learning aims and in IEREST assessment method (self- and peer-assessment), as shown in the tables below.

IEREST intercultural learning aims

CEFR Facilitating pluricultural space

and building on pluricultural repertoire B1

Reflect on each person’s uniqueness but also similarities, and on the fact that difference is not necessarily negative and that sameness is not necessarily positive either.

Explore and reflect on one’s emotional reactions going beyond easy attributions of emotional states to cultural differences.

Develop curiosity towards and further knowledge about the new environment and the people who inhabit it.

Examine how using another language can affect one’s self image and feeling of belonging.

Can help to develop a shared communication culture, by exchanging information in a simple way about values and attitudes to language and culture.

Can support communication across cultures by initiating conversation, showing interest and empathy by asking and answering simple questions, and expressing agreement and understanding.

Can explain in simple terms how his/her own values and behaviours influence his/her views of other people’s values and behaviours.

Can discuss in simple terms the way in which things that may look ‘strange’ to him/her in another sociocultural context may well be ‘normal’ for the other people concerned.


Can do it without efforts

Can do it sometimes

Can do it with lots of efforts

An objective to reach

Interpret academic system being aware of how communication in academic communities is shaped by differing histories, expectations and attitudes towards learning. (IEREST)

Explain in simple terms how his/her own values and behaviours influence his/her views of other people’s values and behaviours. (CEFR)

3. The analysis of students’ performance

14Students wrote an individual reflection paper on differences and similarities among their home universities and the host university and about their expectations. Here is an example:

15For us Erasmus it is not easy migrate from an academic system to another one. I discovered that in Argentina the course contents are more theoretical than in Italy. I don’t think that a method is better than the other one; I’d just like a balance between theory and practice in my carreer… Finally, in Argentina in every faculty there is a cafeteria where students meet. This place fosters social life among students, but non only, because the professors go there, too. So, the cafeteria becomes a space where academic life grows….I didn’t come to Bologna with many expectations because I already knew that our university level is very high. And indeed I found a very similar educational quality1.

16Anonymous excerpts from the written reflections were chosen by the teacher and distributed to students for the following discussion in small groups:

17Read some students’ comments on their experience.

18What difficulties did they meet?

19Are there any similarities or differences with your experience?

20What kind of advice would you give to a student who wants to study abroad?2

21During the oral activity, students’ performance was observed in the class, recorded and analyzed through discourse analysis, followed by an evaluation whether they behaved as described in the chosen scales.

22As illustrated before, the descriptors applied to the data were:

  • Communicative Language Activities / Mediation: Mediating Communication:

23Facilitating pluricultural space

  • Communicative Language Competences / Pluringual and Pluricultural Competences: Building on pluricultural repertoire

24And the research questions were, accordingly: did students behave as described in the descriptors? To which extent did the descriptors captured their performance?

3.1 The results

2580% of the chosen descriptors either from ‘Mediating Communication’and ‘Pluringual and Pluricultural Competences’ could be applied to students’ discourses. The rest 20% did not match to any students’ discourse, so we considered them as irrelevant for our context. We observed a complete consistence for ‘Mediating Communication’ descriptors and, consequently, we could use them as intercultural learning aims and self- / peer- assessment. We had, however, some doubts about the implementation of the ‘Pluringual and Pluricultural Competences’ descriptors: we found it difficult applying descriptions containing the word ‘culture’, which is used in general terms, covering possibly a broad category of notions.

263.1.1. Mediating Communication: Facilitating multicultural space B1

27Here are some example of relevant matching. The piloted descriptor is:

28Can help to develop a shared communication culture, by exchanging information in a simple way about values and attitudes to language and culture.

29The descriptor depicts the linguistic behaviour very well. Data show a pervasive and shared communication Erasmus culture, which is present in every group discussion, as in the following example, where students cooperate creating a single dicourse, completing each other sentences, conferming what has been said before, repeating the same words:

30S1: [here abroad a student] has to come with this self-confidence

31S2: be aware

32S1: be aware yes. Of the fact that….you will find it difficult. But…but you have also to be open to this and… don’t get upset easily because

33S3:: because when you decided to come here, you know that you can …..can… [pause]

34S1: yes. Be prepared

35S3: yes

36S1: psychologically for this. Because living alone, you need to be independent and responsible

37S3: yes

38S1: but also thinking that this is good for you to become an adult…a more

39S3: more independent

40S1: yes independent, a better adult3.

41We can say that, in their interaction, Student 1, Student 2 and Student 3 reached the intercultural objective of developing a shared communication culture about Erasmus values and attitudes.

42Here are two other descriptors from the same scale:

43Can establish contact and foster exchanges with people from other cultures, initiating conversation, showing interest and empathy by asking and answering simple questions, and expressing agreement and understanding.

44Can act in a supportive manner in intercultural encounters, recognizing the feelings and different world views of other members of the group.

45In the following excerpt, Student 1 introduces the assignment topic but Student 2 doesn’t understand a word and asks for clarification. Moreover, she has difficulties to explain the situation in her university because of her poor Italian. Student 1 and, partially, Student 2, more linguistically competent, do their best to exchange information with Student 3, who comes from a country completely unknown to them. They behave as described in the descriptors: they act in a supportive manner to foster the interaction, explaining with gestures when they can’t find words, asking and answering simple questions and expressing understanding. We can say they reached the described intercultural aims.

46S1: Student-professor relationships

47S2: Is it the relation between students and professors?

48S1: yes.

49S2: Ah

50S1: In Algeria there isn’t any relation between students and professors

51S3: Very authoritarian?

52S2: hm..sorry?

53S3: Very authoritarian?

54S1: authoritarian [explain with gestures]

55S2: [silence]

56S1: No?

57S3: Because you said that there is no…

58S2: no no there is but it is different depending on the professor

59S1: ahhh yes

60S2: [….] but here it’s great. Here it’s reality because there are always for me they are….they always try…

61S1: willing to help

62S2: yes

63S3: yes4

643.1.2 Pluringual and Pluricultural Competences: Building on pluricultural repertoire B1

65As pointed out above, we were uncertain about the application of the descriptors of this area which contained the terms ‘culture’ and ‘sociocultural’ without any specifications. Let’s see two examples.

66In the first example, the piloted descriptor is:

67Can explain features of his/her own culture to members of another culture or explain features of the other culture to members of his/her own culture.

68Student 1 reports the difficulties that some Italian students had during their Erasmus academic experience and attributes them to common-place features of the national culture she tells she belongs: German people have an hard-work mentality and a limited opening to changes. We can say that the descriptor is working if we add ‘national’ to the term ‘culture’. But - we asked ourselves - is explaining features of a ‘national culture’, which may lead to the expression of common places / stereotypes, relevant for an intercultural aim?

69S1: [talking about Italian Erasmus students in Germany] it was very difficult for Italians accepting German system, in the sense that… German people have a a very….. hard-working mentality? How do you say? Yes you have to study a lot, you have to stay focused all day long.

70S2: you have to follow the rules, let’s say

71S1: yes. In Italy I think they are…more… a little bit more…eh…relaxed with students…. With foreign students. But in Germany I think that… I think that professors don’t like…they don’like change eh…changes. Yes, like that. They want that Erasmus students are the same as other students.5

72In the second example, the descriptor is:

73Can discuss in simple terms the way in which things that may look ‘strange’ to him/her in another sociocultural context may well be ‘normal’ for the other people concerned.

74In this excerpt, Student 2 objects to Student 1 that her analysis of the relationship between Italian students and professors is generalized and that what appears strange to her is normal in her own sociocultural context, as the descriptor tells. She relies on her personal experience to demonstrate that the grade of formality in this relationship depends from the closeness between the two people. Thus, by relativising the judgement, we can say that Student 2 reached the intercultural aim, but only if we interpret the descriptor ‘another sociocultural context ‘as personal experience/context’:

75S1: a strange thing in my opinion here in Italy, yes, the relationship between student and professor is more formal, but I also saw… a student and a professor…. When a professor meets a student, the student can give three kisses… I told, but this is strange to me seeing this thing. Because in Holland it’s more informal, you can address them informally but you never do this when you meet a professor [laughs]

76S2: but maybe this students knew

77S1: because Italians are warmer than Dutch people

78S2: [….]two days ago I went to my faculty in Valencia and…I went to my professor’s office just just to talk a little bit with him….it is a good relationship so…he kissed me ‘ah D… how are you!!!’ so…and I think that depends from the relationship between student and professor

79S1: yes maybe it’s like that6

4. Conclusions

80Taking up the research questions - Did the students behave as described in the descriptors? To which extent did the descriptors captured their performance? – the results of our analysis indicate that students’ linguistic behaviour reflected the 80% of the chosen descriptors, with a complete consistence for ‘Mediating Communication’ descriptors. They proved to be a valid contribution to raising teacher and students’ awareness of the addressed intercultural concepts. Integrated in a learner-generated content activity, they can be a valuable tool to put into effect feedback and self-reflection.

81Some doubts emerged when using ‘Pluringual and Pluricultural Competences’ descriptors containing the word ‘culture’ or ’sociocultural context’ without any specification: which culture? The host culture? The culture of the other members of the group? In any specific case of application, it was always necessary to determine which one. More precisely, these perplexities aroused because of the theoretical approach we follow in our intercultural foreign language teaching. As explained above (cfr. §1), our view of the notion of ‘culture’ is a a non-essentialist one (IEREST, 2015): we don’t speak of ‘culture’ but preferably of ‘cultures’ (Holliday, 1999)7, considering that an individual is neither a product nor a representative of a culture because individuals participate in several cultural groups and identify themselves with a plurality of groups.

82Applying descriptors, which have a structural nature composed of explicit components, to approach intercultural competence, a multifaceted, dynamic and co-constructed notion, as it is described in the IEREST Project and in the same rationale of the CEFR (Council of Europe, 2018: 27,122,157), may be considered an intrinsically difficult and partial operation. The question is still open if this categorization of interculturality might need refining as, for example, Piątkowska and Strugielska (2018) suggest, or leave it at the disposal of any instrumental adaptation to the learning and teaching context.


Byram, M., Holmes, P. & Savvides, N. (2013). Guest editorial: Intercultural communicative competence in foreign language education: Questions of theory, practice and research. The Language Learning Journal, 41(3), 251-253.

Council of Europe (2018). Common European Framework Of Reference For Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment Companion Volume With New Descriptors. Education Department News. HYPERLINK ""

Dervin, F. (2009). Transcending the culturalist impasse in stays abroad: helping mobile students to appreciate diverse diversities. Frontiers: The interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 18, 119-141.

European Centre for Modern Languages of the Council of Europe (2007, 2012). CARAP/FREPA: A Framework of Reference for Pluralistic Approaches. HYPERLINK ""

Holmes, P., Bavieri, L., & Ganassin, S. (2015). Developing intercultural understanding for study abroad: Students’ and teachers’ perspectives on pre-departures intercultural learning. Intercultural Education, 26(1), 16-30.

Holmes, P., Bavieri, L., Ganassin, S & Murphy, J. (2016). Interculturality and the study abroad experience: students’ learning from the IEREST materials. Language and Intercultural Communication, 16 (3), 452-469.

Holliday, A. (1999). Small Cultures. Applied Linguistics, 20(2), 237-264.

Holliday, A. (2015). Introduction. In A. Beaven, C. Borghetti (eds.), Intercultural education resources for Erasmus students and their teachers (5). Koper: Annales University Press.

Kramsch, C. (2009). Third culture and language education. In V. Cook & L. Wei (eds.), Contemporary applied linguistics (233-254). London: Continuum.

IEREST (2015). IEREST. Intercultural education resources for Erasmus students and their Teachers. Koper: Annales University Press. ISBN 978-961-6964-45-6 HYPERLINK ""

Piątkowska, K., Strugielska, A. (2018). A critical stance on the approach to intercultural competence in the Common European Framework of Reference (233-246). Socjolingwistyka 32(14). HYPERLINK ""

Notes de bas de page

1 Original text in Italian: Per noi Erasmus non è facile migrare da un sistema universitario ad altro. Ho scoperto che in Argentina i contenuti dei corsi sono più teorici che in Italia. Non credo che un metodo sia migliore dell'altro, soltanto mi piacerebbe l’equilibrio tra teoria e pratica nella mia carriera…. E infine, in Argentina in tutte le facoltà c'è una caffetteria dove gli studenti si trovano. Questo coltiva la vita sociale tra gli studenti ma non solo, perché vanno anche i professori. Così, la caffetteria diventa uno spazio dove si sviluppa anche la vita accademica… Non sono venuta a Bologna con tante aspettative perché già sapevo che il nostro livello universitario è molto alto. Infatti ho trovato una qualità educativa molto simile.

2 Original text in Italian: Leggete alcuni commenti di studenti sulla loro esperienza. Quali sono state le difficoltà che hanno incontrato? Ci sono somiglianze o differenze con la vostra esperienza? Che consigli dareste a uno studente che vuole andare a studiare all’estero?

3 Original text in Italian:

4 Original text in Italian:

5 Original text in Italian:

6 Original text in Italian:

7 Holliday (1999) distinguishes between’ large’ and ‘small’ cultures: ‘large’ refers to ethnic, national or international; ‘small’ signifies any cohesive group within society. An emphasis on ‘large cultures’ tends to be essentialistic in that it focuses on the ‘essence’ of ethnic, national or international communities.

Pour citer ce document

Luisa BAVIERI, «Applying new CEFR descriptors to intercultural language learning activities and assessment : the piloting results», Revue Miriadi [En ligne], Revue Miriadi, 1 | 2019, mis à jour le : 18/10/2020, URL : (ISBN: 978-2-9573966-0-3)


Quelques mots à propos de :  Luisa  BAVIERI

Centro Linguistico di Ateneo, Alma Mater Studiorum, Università di Bologna

Italian language teacher at the University of Bologna Language Centre since 2000. She obtained a PhD at the University of Bologna with a thesis on a methodological integrated approach to citizenship and second language teaching and learning. She has authored self-access courses and web-based materials, has been involved in test development and writing and has participated in national and international projects on language teaching and testing, on intercultural communication and education (CERCLU, CEFcult, IEREST). She has published on Italian L2 language teaching and learning, language testing, citizenship education, intercultural education.