C is for Core Inventory

6 02 2011

"I've got a little list!" (Gilbert & Sullivan)

Here’s the scenario: a group of scholars, drawing on their own intuitions, on their collective classroom experience, and on the syllabuses of current bestselling coursebooks (but not on any corpus data), compile an “inventory of sentence patterns and grammatical structures”, organized into six levels of language proficiency, and designed as an aid, among other things, “in the planning of curricula and syllabuses for particular needs…, [and] for prospective practicing teachers of English, so as to give them a survey of the grammatical part of the field”.

The inventory “is not intended to be a comprehensive description of English grammatical structure. On the contrary, it is meant to be limited and selective. Nor is it textbook, though the authors hope that will provide source material for textbook writers.” It provides exemplar sentences and related lexis typically associated with the structures it lists. But the authors caution that “as a general syllabus, it is bound to need adaptation for particular circumstances.”

If you have been following the development of the “core inventory” by the British Council, in association with EAQUALS, all this will sound familiar. But in fact what I have just described is not the British Council/EAQUALS project. It was actually a book called English Grammatical Structure, published in 1975, and jointly authored by Louis Alexander, W. Stannard Allen, R.A. Close, and Robert O’Neill.

Now, in exactly the same fashion, using the same procedures, and for – ostensibly – the same purposes, but with considerably more hoopla, The Core Inventory of General English (North et al, 2010) has burst on the scene. It takes the six levels of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and maps on to these “the different aspects of the language that need to be mastered for progress to be made”, these “different aspects” being primarily grammatical structures, plus functions, vocabulary areas, discourse markers and topics. And, as its compilers repeatedly insist: “It is a description, not a prescription” (North, 2010). “The Inventory is not telling teachers what to teach; rather it is describing what teachers are teaching with the intention of informing discussion and providing teachers and syllabus writers with guidance” (Sheehan, 2010).

So, why do we need another inventory? Well, presumably so as to put flesh on to the bones of the CEFR, by “providing a practical inventory of language points that should be part of a balanced course at each level of the CEFR” (North, et al. p. 3, emphasis added).

But why do we need an inventory at all, especially one that is derived only from coursebooks and intuitions, rather than from, say, corpus data? Why do we need to ‘hold up a mirror’ to current practice? What is so great about current practice that suggests it should be codified in this way?

And how – more to the point – will this inventory be used? The writers disingenuously warn against its use as a template for course design or testing. But what else could it be used for?

In short, while I recognise that the attempt to flesh out the CEFR descriptors is well-intentioned, I’m a little sceptical of the value of the BC/EAQUALS core inventory (or of any inventory, for that matter, that is not compiled on the basis of a thorough and ongoing analysis of the learners’ specific needs).

Specifically, these are the problems I have with it:

  • Not being based on actual usage, e.g. on corpus data, it cannot be a reliable reflection of what specific CEFR competencies entail, nor does it necessarily reflect the relative frequency of the items listed;
  • By drawing (in part) on coursebook syllabi, it perpetuates a predominantly ‘verb tense’ view of grammar (see p. 40, for instance), and is biased towards written, rather than spoken, grammar;
  • It seems to be based on an idealised native-speaker model of competence, rather than on what a successful L2 user might be capable of (see Cook 1999);
  • By describing competence in terms of ‘language points’, it implies that language learning is the incremental acquisition of discrete entities, and that language use simply involves their bottom-up assembly and delivery;
  • By the same token, it fails to problematise notions like ‘mastery’ and ‘progress’: mastery in whose terms? progress towards what? etc;
  • It claims to be a ‘core’ inventory, yet its users are encouraged to be selective when using it;
  • And, finally, it claims to be purely descriptive, but the temptation to base syllabi and exams on it will be irresistable.

To my way of thinking, the real virtue of the CEFR is that it doesn’t specify linguistic content. Instead, it simply identifies key communicative competences. In this sense, it is entirely compatible with a communicative and task-based approach: teach for the communicative objective, not the ‘structure of the day’. Dressing the CEFR up in grammar McNuggets leads us, yet again, back into the dark ages.

Or am I missing something?


Alexander, L.G., Stannard Allen, A., Close, R.A., & O’Neill, R.J. 1975. English Grammatical Structure. Harlow: Longman.

Cook, V. 1999. ‘Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching’. TESOL Quarterly, 33.

North, B. 2010. ‘A CEFR Core Curriculum’. EL Gazette, December 2010, Issue 371, p. 6.

North, B., Ortega, A., & Sheehan, S. 2010. A Core Inventory of General English. British Council/EAQUALS.

Sheehan, S. 2010. ‘Reflecting good practice, not setting rules’. Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 9 November 2010.



53 responses

6 02 2011
English Raven

I thoroughly agree with your final point there, Scott: I’ve quite liked using and referring to the CEFR based on the practical and communicative competencies they describe, and not having prescribed language structures to deal with.

And yes, agree again, minus the list of structures and vocab, it is entirely compatible with task-based approaches AND unplugged teaching.

I’ve enjoyed using the ESL framework here in Australia for precisely the same reasons. Once you start listing “recommended” structures, it all becomes very sticks and straw, and removes what I feel is a crucial opportunity to develop emergent language delivered with a clearly communicative purpose at hand.

Or is there an assumption that so many of the world’s English teachers clearly have no clue about grammar, can’t work with it and foster language growth, without having some sort of prescribed list at hand (and don’t tell me it is just “descriptive”, please!).


– Jason

7 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jason. I tend to agree. However descriptive the C.I. purports to be (a) it’s unlikely to capture the richness, variety and sheer unpredictability of the language that emerges as a result of tasks aimed at achieving the communicative goals described in the CEFR; (b) the temptation to use it as a blueprint for teaching – not simply as a snapshot of current practice – seems hard to resist, especially in organisations that favour a ‘paint by numbers’ approach to language education.

6 02 2011

When I read through this document my first thought was, ‘what a disappointment.’ The grammar syllabus they prescribe reads like that of every post-Headway volume we’ve come to know and ‘insert verb of choice here’.

In a way, we as the professional community are to blame, at least those of us who answered the questionnaire on which their findings were based. I can’t help but feel there is a vicious loop to all this. As I recall, the question relating to grammar asked the participants when they felt it was most appropriate for each structure to be introduced. Unfortunately, the results seem to suggest that participants were explaining when they had been teaching these structures rather than when they felt they should. Thus we’re stuck with the ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ mentality. Who is to blame for this?

I knew that this core inventory was coming and we now have several hard copies of it floating around where I work and, as I’ve suggested, I was hoping for a lot more. Basically, they might as well have suggested we open the Headway series at the contents pages and see how they suggest it be done. A major opportunity has been missed.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I totally agree with you. Thanks, but no cigar yet.

7 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that insight into how the data were collected, Adam. It justifies the claim that the C.I. is a reflection of current practice. But, if used as a blueprint for future practice, this does seem to vindicate my point about perpetuating current orthodoxies.

6 02 2011

For those of view with nothing better to do, it’s available online here:

Click to access Z243%20E&E%20EQUALS%20BROCHURErevised6.pdf

Be warned, it’s not actually all bad.

I feel there’s definitely something behind the notion of organising your syllabus around scenarios (pages 14 and 15 exemplify this). I’m looking forward to what others have to say about this and the document in general.

6 02 2011

As usual, an eye-opening post, Scott. Really (re) opened-up some questions as I try to make my way through some humble ‘unplugged’ attempts and have to struggle with some students who don’t seem to be able to get rid of the idea of ‘we haven’t covered modals yet’ (as an example, this week I had an interesting argument with a student who is also a Catalan language teacher in another school on this exact point).

I would tend to agree with Jason, above, in that the document might be a good starting point -but just that, bearing in mind that the path of language is an open and mostly unpredictable one (and therefore, if you handcuff the spectrum of language possibilities with too prescribed and fixed structures and a set of closed words, well, you may be missing the fun of it!). Just my humble opinion, though…

Thanks for constantly inviting me to re-consider my teaching 🙂

7 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Alex. The metaphor of ‘covering’ grammar items, as in “we haven’t covered modals yet”, is a highly pervasive one, hence my attempt to offer an alternative metaphor, i.e. “uncovering grammar”. The view that grammar is emergent, dynamic, and an effect of communication rather than its cause, sits uncomfortably with a document like the Core Inventory, I’m afraid.

6 02 2011
wolfgang Butzkamm

I’d say that the new book is as superfluous as a goiter. It’s good to have people like Scott Thornbury who have been following developments for a few decades an can tell us when history repeats itself. I would not, however, go as far as Scott and invoke the dark ages. The book is simply unnecessary.

6 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Wolfgang – and as for the ‘dark ages’, allow me a rhetorical flourish! 😉

6 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

I should add that Evan Frendo has also been blogging about the Core Inventory – and it was in fact Evan who put me on to it: read his blog here.

6 02 2011

I remember when the CEFR was invented, how the major publishers were quick to add a sticker to the cover of their existing range of coursebooks, with ‘A2’ or ‘B1’ on a blue background and surrounded by ring-a-roses of golden European stars.

Now the rush will be on to devise another upgrade to their coursebooks: ‘NEW: With Added CORE INVENTORY!’ Let’s hope, at least, that the stickers are backed with ‘easy to peel off’ glue. Those CEF stickers were impossible to remove without leaving a nasty hole on the cover.

6 02 2011
English Raven

Yes, the huge circled/stamped A+ on the cover of this says quite a lot.

And as for Core Inventory, I find the term just spooky.

Those new robots they’ve got teaching in Korea might like it, though…


6 02 2011
Mr Darkbloom

“I would not, however, go as far as Scott and invoke the dark ages. The book is simply unnecessary.”

Wolfgang, this inventory is being promoted as an authoritative text by an authoritative organization. Regardless of what they say, it IS a guide, it IS a prescription and will be used a such.

6 02 2011
Mr Darkbloom

“What’s up, man? [The] cat got your tongue?”

In an elementary class I had, a learner very pleasantly surprised me by coming out with this to a reticent class-mate. He had picked this language up from a friend. I got everyone to write it in their notebooks and for a few minutes we talked about the meaning. It was a very nice moment.

For those few minutes, my A2 class ostensibly became B2.

This CEFR inventory isn’t simply unnecessary, it’s dangerous.

6 02 2011
Vicki Hollett

Hear, hear.

The CEFR struck me as a pretty cool document. It has its flaws, but I think it’s helped us share a better understanding of what we mean when we talk about different levels of competence. Importantly, the CEFR considers language in terms of how it’s used to communicate in different contexts and the skills that are involved in making that happen. In that way it was a leap forward from the book you mention, Scott, or the old Van Ek and Alexander Threshold document (or the first version of it, at least) which stipulated specific lexis and structures to be mastered at different levels. It has made more sense and has been more helpful to consider language in use.

So what I don’t understand about the EAQUALS document is why folks have wanted to take a step backwards. Why try to separate language from the contexts in which it’s used?

I might have misunderstood their intent, but I fear someone might have made an embarrassing misjudgment here and wonder if we should all stop talking about it now. Perhaps if we quietly ignore it, it will go away. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

7 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Vicki. I’m starting to feel a bit sorry for the Core Inventory, now that so many luminaries like yourself are taking pots at it! I suppose, in its defense, it does answer a need, on the part of some teachers and institutions, and maybe even students, to know how to operationalise the CEFR descriptors, within the parameters of a basically coursebook-driven, PPP methodology. But it does seem that the history of the communicative approach, from its inception in the mid 1970s until now, has been a painfully halting two-steps-forward, one-step-back one, with major breakthroughs in curriculum design immediatey shackled to a discrete-point syllabus.

6 02 2011
Declan Cooley

As a teacher trainer I take a balanced view, I can see how this would be a very useful resource for both novice and more experienced teacher. However, there are also real problems with it.

1. For a novice teacher, differences between levels are incredibly difficult to discern and they have trouble distinguishing s beginner from an intermediate learner as well as often underestimating the level of what is ostensibly an advanced student. This set of criteria could be really useful as an ASSESSMENT of students.

2. For a novice teacher, who wants to experiment with the use of authentic texts, this offers a guide to the GRADING OF TEXTS and a sequence of difficulty of texts based on complexity and information density (as well as possible cultural knowledge needed).

3. For any teacher, provides INPUT for discourse and functional needs so that these can be used as ‘currency’ in the classroom. But by “provide input” I do not mean solely as the starting point for a PPP lesson, but also as a ready- reference in a more unplugged classroom. Native speakers have a well-known weakness of not being able to supply common chunks and collocations when put on the spot; the common phraseology of a discourse community is the currency of that community – and in the same way as there are 5-pound notes and 10 pound note but not 3.85 pound notes to me mimics the way language has produced certain chunks used as “legal tender” and these (change of metaphor !) pebbles, well-worn by the river of discourse use make as we know life easier on both the receptive (‘insert exact change’) and productive sides (‘guess what’). A phrase (‘cat got your tongue’) may emerge naturally from the students but texts are a more common source of input ( as seen in Teaching Unplugged) and lists like these may sensitize a novice teacher to what a chunk of language actually looks like (change of metaphor but still an eco-friendly one !) ‘in the wild’ so as to make them and thus the learners better chunk-hunters (just as we have Birds of Europe guides for bird-watchers); expecting the novice teacher to be an instant reformulator/recaster/ resource for such chunks in students’ output is also often asking too much.

4. Useful as a RETROSPECTIVE SYLLABUS check list for a more unplugged classroom to reassure ss that they are getting a balanced diet of language.

However there are also issues with this list:

1. The incomplete linking of text-type/discourse type with functions/notions [the scenarios look promising but why so few ?]

2. A lack of inventory of TASKS (again scenarios are suggestive but more like a ‘stub’ )

3. TEXTS: failing to talk about length of text or subskills needed for these

4. A lack of FREQUENCY information (in which text types/ discourse types are these frequent and what is the order of frequency)

5. A lack of CORPUS evidence ( are these really the chunks used to ‘disagree’ for example ?) (in which text types/ discourse types are these frequent ?)

6. No references to which coursebooks were trawled (and why ?) – though we can guess. No bibliography at all – or index ( a pet peeve of mine)

7. No reference to current research on sequences of development in interlanguage and how it links to a list like this – am I asking too much ?

8. Overly linear and limiting as to what ss have a capacity for at any particular level (I tend to agree somewhat with the extremes A1 and C2 but in-between I feel that a real life classroom produces, at every ‘level’, language from A2-C1).

9. Overestimating what ss are capable of ( A1 – definite and indefinite articles !!!!!)

10. Grammar points that should be collections of ‘notions’ not simply structures (under conditionals we have “regrets” – surely this is more a notional category) or grammar points that would be more usefully categorised in functional terms (question tags >> inviting interaction | can can’t >>> talking about ability along with manage to etc)

I guess I am asking too much – what would have been good to see would be a version of Longman Grammar of Written and Spoken English (Biber et al, 1999) except a pedagogic version with a look at common spoken and written discourse types and then frequency lists of chunks and bundles appearing therein. After that an inventory of task and activity types (both ‘real-life’ and classroom activities) with a list of associated functional exponents.

In fact, all this seems to be is something one might have put together in a weekend by getting a pile of coursebooks and jotting down in a grid the common syllabuses and text types seen – any experienced teacher knows all this (however, could be useful for a novice to get the lay of coursebookland).

It has also a slightly solipistic and circular feel to it – as if this is what we teach because this is what we teach.

How long do we have to wait for a Classroom-corpus based “Longman Grammar of Written and Spoken Interlanguage” to track emergent language and/or a “real-life” [ELF?] Corpus-based Dictionary of Discourses and their Exponents at word /phrase/sentence and paragraph level.

Couldnt the CLC {cambridge learner corpus) be a start for the former ?

I think this book hints at what is possible and more helpful for teachers.
From corpus to classroom: language use and language teaching CUP 2007
Anne O’Keeffe, Michael McCarthy
as well as what the Collocations in Use books (CUP) attempt.

6 02 2011

Quoting Declan:

‘6. No references to which coursebooks were trawled (and why ?) – though we can guess. ‘

They weren’t trawled: see my earlier comment. Sadly we are to blame for this debacle.

7 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Declan, your comment really deserves to be the main post for this thread – your balanced take on the Core Inventory (CI) is extremely well argued and, well, balanced. I like the ‘currency’ metaphor a lot, and, even more, the ‘descriptive grammar = field guide for ornithologsts’ analogy (“Did you spot that third conditional that just flew by?!”)

For your information (athough you probably know this) a more exhaustive mapping of linguistic items onto the CEFR framework, using corpus data, is underway, and is called the English Profile, but its launch date is still a while off, I think. While the English Profile will redress some of the weakenesses of the CI (its lack or reliability, for example) it may well exacerbate others (the teach-by-numbers approach) and, if based solely on native speaker data, will not necessarily be any more reliable, either, in terms of what is acheivable by learners at different levels.

14 02 2011

I work on English Profile so perhaps I’m biased, but I do think that EP will be a highly comprehensive and user-friendly resource, that will flesh out the CEFR framework in a way that provides teachers with useful reference points for both teaching and assessing. We aim to describe what learners can do at each level of the CEFR in terms of grammar, vocabulary, notions and functions, providing concrete examples of the competencies laid out in the CEFR. We are using this to develop a series of resources for teachers, which we hope will allow us to escape the ‘prescriptive’ trap.

To achieve all this we’re using research based on both native speaker corpora and the Cambridge Learner Corpus which Declan mentions above (currently around 43 million words of learner output taken from Cambridge ESOL exams), plus we’re also building an English Profile corpus. This corpus is intended to complement the CLC by providing our researchers with non-exam written material, where (a) tasks are open-ended with less structuring and no word limits (b) the tasks are functionally organised rather than designed to elicit specific linguistic items (c) we use visual or audio stimuli to keep the tasks as free as possible and encourage learners to be creative and (d) we haven’t made any a priori assumptions about what learners can do (e.g. ‘A level learners cannot produce an argumentative/attitudinal text’). We’re trying to design tasks for our data collection which all levels of learners can attempt to answer – some A level learners can talk about likes and dislikes as an attitudinal text, where C learners could produce a developed and complex argument in response to the same prompt. At the same time we’re building a spoken learner corpus so that we can look at spoken learner English and how learners interact with each other. We are also looking at input texts, coursebooks and the like.

We don’t really have a ‘launch date’ as we are publishing our findings as they come out: we already have a Preview version of the English Vocabulary Profile (formally known as the Wordlists: please see preview version here: http://wordlistspreview.englishprofile.org/staticfiles/about.html) as well as our popular Word of the Week feature on the EP website. Anyone who is willing to contribute data to the EP corpus can access the full version of the English Vocabulary Profile for free (as well as the EP corpus itself). A similar Grammar resource will come out next year, and we’ll be publishing a booklet of EP findings this April which teachers will be able to use as a reference guide to the CEFR for English. We are really keen to involve the ELT community in our efforts and any feedback or comments from the people posting here would be gratefully received… You can contact us via our website, chat on our forum (which is in its infancy and not really attracting many contributors as yet) or come to one of our events and heckle!

15 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Julia, for that thoughtful and detailed overview of the English Profile project.

I’m glad to hear that it is not only data-driven, but that the data comes from the learners themselves, performing tasks designed to operationalise the competencies. Apart from anything else, this is a badly needed “road test” of the CEFR itself. I have no problem with this, and I’m looking forward to reading up on the ongoing research results — we have lacked for so long reliable data on learner output at various levels and for various communicative purposes, and have consequently been working in the dark, dependent on the hand-me-down syllabuses of several generations of coursebooks. So this is very exciting.

I guess the problem is — as has been pointed out again and again in this discussion — the purposes for which such data might be used, particularly in designing and assessing courses, where the original impetus that drove the CEFR — i.e. to describe proficiency in terms of performance, not competence — might be lost, or traduced, and replaced by the teach-by-numbers approach. This is not, of course, anything that the EP project designers can control — so, I guess, it’s up to blogs like this to act as a kind of “canary in the coal mine”, and make a loud noise when we smell the noxious gases of the discrete-item, predominantly grammar-based syllabus approaching!

6 02 2011
Lindsay Clandfield

If one thought that all teaching materials looked the same before, then developments like this can only accentuate that sinking feeling. I agree with Vicky that the CEFR had lots of positive points but this latest development will curtail even further the creativity on the part of materials developers, school systems and teachers if it is wholly embraced and taken to .

Not to say it isn’t interesting to read. I thought the sample scenarios were kind of telling though (start up businesses, online fora, going on holidays, going out and buying things etc) I was reading this while watching the news from Egypt and I felt inclined to make a simliar “scenario” sheet for Popular Uprising. E.g. Can make simple protest messages for cardboard signs to show international media.

I’m with Vicky though in that I hope it kind of goes away. I will be quietly ignoring from here on in. 🙂

6 02 2011
George Vassilakis

Thanks, Scott, for another excellent post!

I find it quite worrying that, after deifying the CEFR and taking its principles and assumptions for granted, we continue to break down the language into discrete manageable chunks and we continue to not just prescribe but regulate the content of language teaching by simply making official the lists which publishers have been compiling for years based on the collective lack of wisdom of the profession. Sadly, Scott, I think you are right: this is merely the legacy of Stannard Allen and Alexander, repackaged and sanctioned by the BC and EAQUALS. And, as other people rightly observed here, coursebook consumers will soon start demanding conformity with this new “standard” and coursebook covers will equally soon begin advertising that they comply, whether we choose to ignore it in the vain hope that it will disappear or not!

7 02 2011

“One of the criticisms often levelled at the CEFR is that it stifles creativity. So the Inventory is surely another step in this process of standardisation? In years to come all English courses for adults will be reduced to the contents of the Core Inventory with nothing that is not listed in it being taught. Around the world any course labelled as B2 will be run along exactly the same lines.

We really cannot imagine such a future.”

(from the Guardian article linked to above).

What c**p. Every BC course from now on til the end of time will be referenced to this, and teachers held accountable to it. “What did you today? That’s not in their level in the core inventory!” It’s a convenient way of creating a global syllabus and therefore every teaching centre will be teaching the same thing, and can be measured by it.

This is more centralising and mandating, and what’s more it will be seen to be legitimate as teachers have been asked (using questions that seem to have come straight from Yes Prime Minister Episode 2). Consent has been manufactured.

But then I am a gruff old conspiracy theorist 😉

7 02 2011

The controversy that this core inventory can produce is not surprising but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is no value in linking how the CEFR competences are attained with corresponding language structure. Having said that, I agree that without a thorough correlation to a corpus of both spoken and written English, the validity of the document will be in question, despite having the backing of the twin behemoths, the BC and EAQUALS.

I hope the big publishers will not be so quick to jump on board with this but, won’t it make life easy for them! A ready-made grammar syllabus ‘linked’ to the CEFR. Who will be first with this? Maybe Headway the fourth?

7 02 2011
Antonia Clare

When the CEF appeared, the first thing writers (and many teachers) were asked to do was to map out the framework in terms of ‘teachable structures’. It comes as no surprise then that coursebook syllabuses have been used to compile the Core Inventory, and yes, I agree that in many ways this might be perceived as a step backwards. However, I think the point about the Korean robots is a good one. Perhaps now that we have such a clear inventory, students can be set computerised self-study work to cover, ‘practise’ and test these language points, thus freeing up classroom time so that the rest of us can focus more creatively and effectively on developing sts’ individual language skills and working on problems as they appear.

7 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Antonia. That’s a useful – and constructive – ‘take’ on the Core Inventory, and chimes nicely with Declan’s notion (above) of grammar mcnuggets constituting a kind of ‘currency’. We can tell the students to start earning – and saving – the mcnuggets in their own time, and then use classroom time for activities in which they exchange and trade with them. Perhaps. 🙂

7 02 2011
Declan Cooley

One risk of the ‘currency’ model might encourage one to view it as leading rather directly down to the “banking model” (related to transmission/ jug-and-mug) as mentioned by Freire (as quoted in Teaching Unplugged p.14).

Just to pre-empt this, by currency I think I’m referring more to HOW chunks become “the way we say things around here” : these discourse-community-accepted chunks (“howzitgoin”) become ‘current’ more readily than the unacceptable artefacts built from pieces [such as a certain learner might create] in a more generative manner (**”How does your life work?”). These chunks and expressions passed in a peer-to-peer way (like the socially-acceptable forms of gifts) are similar to coins + notes in the way the language congeals into communicable packets.

To extend the analogy, (to breaking point ?) >> a person saying ” How does your life work?” might be responded to in the same way as a person offering the price of their coffee all in pennies – (awkward to deal with) whereas the “howzitgoin” as happily accepted as a 2-pound coin.

Thus I’m just giving another model for how a language might operate as a complex system – just as an economic system. [or as a gift-giving system a la Levi-Strauss but here I am outside my field].

To bring it all together, the CI may work as a sort of ” Guide to the recognisable notes and coins” as seen in an economy. However the CI as a Guide here seems to include a lot of “funny money” and outdated notes (or simply rare as a 5-dollar coin). Going back to Birds of Europe Guide, the CI may be more like the strange engravings we got of dodo’s and other creatures which , while not totally wrong, proved somewhat fanciful on further investigation.

I look forward to the “English Profile” (thanks for the heads-up on that) as a better Guide to the world of language as seen “in the wild”.


7 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Declan, for clarifying that. I now see more clearly what you are getting at, and your ‘currency’ analogy certainly makes sense in terms of how particualr combinations of words tend to ‘solidify’ and rise to the top as it were, to become the basic building blogs of both fluency and idiomaticity, while unidiomatic, infrequent and non-functional elements sink to the bottom and are lost in the primeval slime. This phraseological aspect of language – a sort of grey area between lexis on the one hand and (traditional) grammar, on the other, seems under-represented in the Core Inventory – there is constant reference to ‘collocations’ in the vocabulary sections for each level, but nothing specific as to what these collocations might be. I have often argued that the most important resource that doesn’t yet exist is a kind of ELT phraseology – which would effectively be a collection of your ‘coins’.

7 02 2011
English Raven

As a coursebook writer, Antonia, I think you ought to be watchful of this one! Which of those two options you describe do you think will start mandating what you have to do(consider/cover/cater to) in your coursebook writing? How many unit activity ideas and themes may end up shelved through the editing process because they don’t address the CI(A) criteria clearly enough?

I’m with Herr Clandfield on this one… as a course materials writer I get an (increasingly) sinking feeling with this CI(A) caper.


7 02 2011
Antonia Clare

Yes, you are right, Jason, and I am watching mindfully, and with slightly sinking heart too. But I think publishers (though perhaps not Ministries of Ed) are also keen to find new ways of delivering this kind of content (or nuggets), so I remain hopeful in that respect. As coursebook writers, we often have to work ‘creatively’ with rather uncreative and restrictive documents, keeping a close eye on what we feel will work in the classroom. The CEF was one example, and I think the Core Inventory may prove to be another (although arguably more difficult to adapt).

12 02 2011
Philip Kerr

The problem with CEFR is not the document itself, I think, but the use that has been made of it. It is subtitled ‘Learning, teaching, assessment’ in that order, and the text reflects those priorities. Of its 250 pages, only about 80 are devoted to lists of competences; the rest offers a lot of valuable insights into learning and teaching processes. But mention CEFR to virtually anyone, and all they think of is A1, A2 etc, and lists of can-do statements.

In comparison, the Core Inventory is a joke. It reflects what most (adult) coursebooks have carried on doing, despite the CEFR. The coursebooks have stuck CEFR labels on the back and inserted can-do statements at the top or bottom of the pages, but this is really tokenism.

Much more worrying is English Profile (“setting industry standards for English language learning”), with heavy commercial interests behind it. It’s more worrying because it will have the weight of ‘corpus research’ (but which corpus?) behind it, as well as CEFR (and British Council) respectability … and so we will have vocabulary lists that correspond to different CEFR levels, and these lists will need to be reflected in national and international examinations, and coursebooks, of course. Yes, it looks as though we will have lists of grammar items (thanks to Core Inventory) and vocabulary items (thanks to English Profile) which neatly tie into CEFR levels, and it can all be packaged into wonderful USPs for Cambridge exams and Cambridge publications. It is not a “collaborative programme to enhance the learning, teaching and assessment of English worldwide”. It is mostly about money.

12 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Philip – yes, the English Profile fills me with dread. Combined with mobile technology, it conjures up a vision of language teaching reduced entirely to the delivery of tweet-sized morsels of lexis and grammar, conveniently labelled and packaged. And eminently testable.

12 02 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Just a thought in response to Scott’s response: which is more sizable – a Lexical Tweet or a Grammar McNugget? 😉

And slightly more seriously, the choice of word “Inventory” is an interestingly mercantile metaphor, which has some resonance with your recent post “N is for Neoliberalism”, wouldn’t you say? Inventories are, after all, generally for the purposes of stock control, and questioning this metaphor – and who it truly serves – might be fruitful (to use an opposing type of metaphor 😉 )

7 02 2011
Patrick Jackson

I have found an excellent use for the Exponents for Language Content section. Students make pairs or small groups and select sentences from the lists. These sentences must them be strung together to make amusing short role plays to be performed in front of the class. Bonus points are awarded for the longest meaningful exchanges such as:

Man in sinking car: ‘I can’t swim!’
Wife: ‘What did that man say?’
Husband: To be fair, it was his own fault for parking
where he shouldn’t have.
Wife: Let’s move on, shall we?

During the course of the year students will naturally acquire all the English they need to master. A further activity is for higher level students to choose a random item from the list every morning and try and surreptitiously include it in as many of the conversations they have during the day as possible. It can be challenging especially in the case of such gems as ‘What do you think, Mario?’ but don’t give up. With practice comes mastery.

8 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Patrick, inspired by your comment, I did a quick trawl through English Grammatical Structure (Alexander et al.) which also has example sentences. Such as:

A man with a stick is following us.
My dog was bitten by a snake.
Susan’s running away from home was the last straw.
If in doubt, ask a policeman.
Does this knife belong to anybody?
I’ve been able to mend my typewriter.
He is scarcely moving his lips.

Try working those into a dialogue!

12 02 2011
Philip Kerr

If anyone is looking for great example sentences, Thomson & Martinet is the place to go. Here are three I like:

Small bananas are often better than big ones.
He prefers drinking to dancing.
Chinchilla is more expensive than mink.

12 02 2011

This is quite fun. How about these examples (though they do include practice) from Natural Grammar:

Penguins can fly.
Oh go on, have a spring roll.
There are some Swedes who don’t have fair hair and blue eyes.
She’s just as nice as her sister.
Not only does he sing, he can dance too.
The army took pleasure by means of a military coup!

(Almost visionary, I would say.)

Just a reminder perhaps of the value of context and the issues of isolating and inventorying items of language.

12 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hoist by my own petard, Antonia!

But “the army took pleasure…” – that surely must have been a misprint. “The army took over…” perhaps – or are you using the same less than totally reliable voice recognition software that I do?

12 02 2011

No, it wasn’t ‘dragonspeak’ software on this occasion (though I have been caught out by that in the past). To be fair, it was a ‘spot the mistake’, but I just couldn’t resist. The point being that we can all be beaten with the same stick. I’m in the middle of writing grammar sentences for focussing on modals at Advanced. I’ll be thinking very carefully about the examples I use, and using corpus for reference, but taken out of context I’m sure they could provide similar fodder.

14 02 2011
Anthony Gaughan

I know I’m late, but here is a choice morsel from Thomson & Martinet (1961) A Practical English Grammar: Exercises #1, OUP…

For the purpose of practising formation of Conditional #3, complete the following:

Rome (be captured) by her enemies if the geese hadn’t cackled.

Makes what gets served up these days seem pale in comparison, doesn’t it?

8 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

If you fancy a bit of fun, Lindsay Clandfield has ‘sub-titled’ a ‘movie’ inspired by this blog post (although I think he conflates the Core Inventory, the CEFR, and English Profile – but that’s poetic licence!). You can see it by clicking on this link (helps if you DON’T speak German).

8 02 2011
Lindsay Clandfield

Yes, I confess I have conflated all three things – I only had 1m58 and it is a mashup after all. Still, who’s to say that there isn’t the next “Mark Zuckerberg” beavering away on a project such as this?

8 02 2011
James Quartley

Made an otherwise grey day brighter, despite me knowing German.

8 02 2011
Tony Winn

Thanks for your thoughts on this. Really, thanks for you thoughts and the comments of those like minded individuals who have contributed to this thread. They have galvanised some thoughts of my own.

The current orthodoxy, which amounts to little more than collective heresay to my mind, seems in little danger of collapse. Worse, this is being compunded by having its central assumptions lent credence by leading accrediting bodies like EAQUALS and the BC.

The EQUALS student charter states that in order to attain accreditation an LTO must show that:

‘The teaching and learning/training methods and techniques used are appropriate and effective for the course participants’.

And further that ‘teaching and educational standards are high, and yield effective learning’.

Click to access EAQUALS%20Charter%20for%20Course%20Participants%20English%202010.pdf

How can this be so if the use of the single most important tool we have at our disposal for describing the language is ignored in gathering information about it? It certainly goes against the spirit of open enquiry which should characterise any discipline worth its salt. I have a background in the history of science and this really reminds me of the head in the sand resistance of the authorities of old to the changing world views which have periodically shaken orthodoxy. Surely they can’t have simply side-stepped the issues? Can they? It certainly looks like it.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I really thought some of the most significant developments in the descriptive side of our field were the following, all of them owing a large thank you to findings from work on corpora:

1. Much more accurate information about spoken language. The fact that the sentence has been dethroned as the organising principle of much of our talk should surely have alerted the powers that be that the type of description being undertaken is at best partial.

2. A better understanding of the interplay between lexis and grammar-the very fact that we can now confidently speak of word patterns. Whatever people’s take on Lewis and co. in describing the language this was surely a very useful step forward-or should have been. At least in my own case, this has had a huge impact on daily teaching practice.

3. An understanding that ‘beyond the sentence’ really matters. Canale and Swan’s (1980)sensible division of communicative competence into systemic , sociolinguistic and strategic elements reflected a global understanding that we needed to redress the balance and give equal weight in our description of the language to pivotal role of context.

4. And what of SLA? Readiness to acquire structure x? Have we been wasting our time?

This project de facto promotes a bottom-up approach to both learning and teaching. It’s probably fair to say that the exciting developements in the field have led away from this and where not they have tried to bring a balanced view to what should and can be learnt and how to foster learner growth. I find this development very sad and more than a little depressing.

Wasn’t this precisely what the CEFR hoped to avoid? EAQUALS promotes itself as ‘the CEFR expert’- but this surely goes against the spirit of the thing.

8 02 2011

‘EAQUALS promotes itself as the CEFR expert’

I must confess I’d never heard of them. Are they accredited, and if so, by whom?

8 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

“EAQUALS is a pan-European association of language training providers. It is the only international association of language schools that has a formal inspection scheme to verify the quality offered by its accredited members.”

You can find out more about EAQUALS by clicking on this link.

11 02 2011

One of the reasons I’ve been unable to read blogs for a while is that I’m currently trying to prepare for an EAQUAL’s inspection at the end of the year. As part of the inspection we have to take all the coursebooks teachers use in the school and unit by unit map the CEF onto the course books (as well as grammar/skills/subskills/ etc) (mentally pretty tiring business)

I’m only just getting my head around the documents. The way I’m trying to use the CEF is by firstly identifying tasks within the units, then thinking about what I’d actually say/write – and finally attributing a “can do” statement to that.

I haven’t given set sentences/grammar points or functional phrases as examples, in other words, I don’t give prescribed lists of language stating how teachers should have students achieve the task ….but purely worked in identifying the task/objective THEN mapping an appropriate can do statement on to it.

As part of our schools “methodology” I’ll be stating that we work with discourse features of spoken and written language, emergent language, which could be chunks, or one word utterances. And that it’s up to teachers to identify which language would work best to most naturally aid the students in carrying out the task.

Of course teachers will receive numerous in-house workshops on task teach task, working with emergent language, discourse, and the lexical approach, so that they are able to actually carry out the schools methodology. My aim is the methodology should empower teachers to be able to use a variety of ways to “bridge the linguistic gap” between being unable to perform a task and being able to ‘better’ perform a task.

I’m still trying to get it clear in my own head – but somehow, by taking the practical elements of the can do statements…….linking them to tasks……..I can then make my ‘map’ but at the same time use emergent language which could be chunk based etc as bridges to enable learners to carry out the task.

I met some senior EAQUAL’s people including Dr North in Zurich for drinks in Zurich last year – back then I had little idea of the whole scheme and its implications. If I pluck up the courage and am able to make sense next time I’ll try and ask Brain about the reasons behind such lists of prescriptive grammar points, functional phrases in the light of research on discourse and how people actually speak.

12 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

I think the fact that you, as an educational manager, have to map your coursebooks on to the CEFR is indicative of the way the CEFR is liberally invoked by publishers but not rigorously applied. There should be a coursebook series called Lip Service. Lip Service Intermediate – B1 according to the CEFR (we like to think).

11 02 2011

LOL – just realized I called Brian – Brain! It’s been a long day!

13 02 2011

Sheesh! You’re waiting your life for one inventory to show up and then three show up at once. When I first heard of the CEFR, I was delighted. Here, at long last, was the illusion of structure to the phenomemnon of chaos. Despite my (somewhat faded) libertarian leanings, I crave structure and would remind people that it was Pierre Proudhon who asserted that, “Anarchy is order.”

Then I saw the CEFR. And wondered just what use it was. I went through it and whipped out all the competencies it listed for each of the levels. Then I compared them to students who were studying where I worked. Each student had a profile that was more jagged than the Alpine range. Regrettably, our institution, like every other, does not cater for such students. So our B2 speaking students with A1 writing skills sat alongside A2 speaking students with B1 writing skills. The profession remained divided about how to assess people’s listening skills or their reading skills.

Nevertheless, I was sympathetic to the thinking that lay behind the CEFR and a keen supported of the European Language Learning Passport idea: an idea that has invariably met its death when presented to a class of living students. Never mind.

And now the core inventory. Wonderful. And as circular as everything else to emerge. It makes me think of Earl Frieden’s (“The Chemical Elements of Life.” Scientific American, Jul 1972, pp. 52-60) listing of the elements found in the human body and their percentages. Despite providing a (rather more scientific) breakdown of the human body into 65.0% Oxygen, 18.5% Carbon, 9.5% Hydrogen, 3.3% Nitrogen etc, Frieden stops short of suggesting that this might be of use to those of us who wish to make our very own humans. I assume that he is well aware of the view that there is something else which contributes to the fusion of all of these contents into something recgonisable as a human being. I am not sure whether or not such a commonsensical view would be shared by anyone who proposed that the Common Inventory might serve any practical purpose whatsoever [such bombast is not intended to include the clearly right-thinking contribution of Declan Cooley above].

However, what prompted me to write was Scott’s call for inventories to be “compiled on the basis of a thorough and ongoing analysis of the learners’ specific needs.” This interested me because my experience is that the learners I have worked with have very rarely had any specific needs that extend beyond the need to understand/be understood by the teacher and, in multilingual classrooms, their classmates. In such situations, one wonders whether or not the time and effort expounded in the production of an inventroy might not be deployed more fruitfully elsewhere. Like in thinking up ridiculous dialogues that incorporate armies pleasing themselves by taking power. Regrettably, I was unable to find an error in the original sentence. Could we get a clue?

27 03 2011

Oh. Scot, give me something to hang upon, I am new, and if you dismiss the core inventory, then tell me where mys I look for help. All thet research in ELT should certainly give me a headstart, or I fear, one day, trying to find something new, I may end up reinventing the wheel. Help please

29 04 2017

Scott sir, adding some grammar suggestions to the functions/notions/can dos of the CEFR is most definitely not a return to the dark ages!

There are many situations, especially beyond the inner circle, where such additions offer a beacon of hope rather than a turning off of the light.

I’ve been neck deep in the CEFR for the last few months, and have just written a point by point reply to your objections to the BC/EAQUALS Core Inventory, but I decided against posting it as it was getting too long and could easily be misconstrued.

I’m a great fan of the work done by Trim, North, Van Ek and the hundreds of teachers and other linguists who have contributed so far to the CEFR project and its precursors. It’s a truly international endeavour, and its influence continues to spread around the world. Here’s a link to John Trim talking about it


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