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.