Motivating language learners through certification: the French

Author(s): Daniel Toudic
Institution/Organisation: Université Rennes 2 (FR)


1.1 Scope of the initiative

This case study focuses on a national initiative launched by the French Ministry of Education in April 2000, designed to promote language learning in universities and other higher educational establishments through the introduction of a national CEFR-based language competence certification programme for students.

Although officially set up and recognised by the central education authorities, the Certificat de langues de l'enseignement supérieur ("CLES") is essentially administered by those universities that choose to take part in the initiative (see "organisation" below).  Forty-two universities took part in 2008-2009.

The numbers of students involved are summarized in the following table:


Although the CLES is still only taken by a very small percentage of the 1.5 million or so students studying languages in one capacity or another in HE establishments, numbers have increased rapidly since it was first introduced experimentally in a handful of universities (cf.

The "founding" universities (Lille III, Aix-Marseilles, Poitiers, Lyon2, Strasburg, Rennes 1...) have obviously been most active in implementing the certification process, generally through long-standing language centres serving all or most of their faculties.

Rennes 1 University (Hard sciences and Law) has been particularly active in promoting the CLES among its students. In fact science and technology students account for 59% of all students taking the CLES nationally. The University Language Centre (SCELVA), which serves all the foreign language learning needs of the various faculties, introduced the CLES on an experimental basis in 2001 and has now extended it to a number of Master's Degree courses as a standard form of language certification.
Rennes 2 University (Arts, Humanities and Social sciences) has now also been recognised as an exam centre for the CLES and will implement it fully for the first time in 2008-2009.

1.2 Range of languages learned

As the figures above show, the CLES can currently be taken in six languages: English, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Arabic, although the vast majority of students are tested in English, reflecting the overall distribution of language learning in French universities. It is expected that the figures for Spanish and Italian will increase as more Arts and Humanities faculties and universities introduce the certification.

1.3 Learning outcomes

The CLES is a language certification exam and therefore designed to assess the degree of language competence rather than to implement ways of achieving learning outcomes.
Being specifically aimed at students in higher education, the CLES offers three levels (CLES 1, CLES 2 and CLES 3), based on CEF levels B1, B2 and C1 respectively:

CLES 1: B1 (the level in theory achieved by all students reaching university after studying a language in secondary school)
CLES 2: B2 (generally assumed to be the minimum level that non language specialists can achieve at the end of a Bachelor's Degree course)
CLES 3: C1 (target level for students on Master's Degree courses).

1.4 Practical realisation

Any student may in theory take the CLES at one of the three levels, irrespective of their year of study. In practise, universities tend to focus on levels 1 and 2. Level 3 is still in the experimental phase and is gradually being introduced by a number of universities for Master's Degree and Doctoral students.

The CLES is designed specifically for students other than language "specialists" (i.e. those majoring in one or several languages). A student enrolled on a degree course in English would not therefore be entitled to take the CLES in that language, but may attempt it in any other language.

Concept: The three exams are based on language "scenarios" requiring the student to take on board different types of information provided in the language and to use the information in different guises.

CLES 1: the scenario is based on a typical communication situation which a student might encounter in the course of an international exchange. The 2h long test entails listening to audio or video documents (lasting a total of approximately 5 minutes), gathering information from a number of written sources (5 pages maximum), writing a 150-200 word letter or e-mail on the basis of the information collected, and leaving a spoken message on someone's answering machine in connection with the same task.

CLES 2: the scenario is more generally related to current social, economic or environmental issues and the test follows the same pattern as above, with longer and more varied source documents. In the course of a 3h long test, students are similarly expected to collect information from a variety of sources and then write a letter, memo or short report suggesting ways of resolving the problem raised in the source materials, followed by interactive oral communication on a one-to-one basis around the same issue.

CLES 3: at this level, considerable debate has taken place over the question of domain specialisation. The hard sciences and law faculties in particular have been keen to push for an LSP-centred approach, while others have argued in favour of more transversal and universal situational contexts. The issue has still not been entirely resolved as we write.

Scenarios and test materials can be designed and submitted to a central "pool" by any university officially recognised by the Ministry of Higher Education as being a "CLES centre". Recognition is awarded on the basis of an application setting out the university's language policy, the human and material resources available and prior experience in the area of language certification. A committee of experts from the core universities involved assesses and validates the scenarios, which are then made available (via a secure access) to all the universities in the network. The central principle is that any university entering the network must submit at least one scenario in each of the languages tested in that institution within 12 months of entering the network.

The tests are organised and implemented locally in each participating institution (generally by the University Language Centre), using scenarios chosen in the central pool. A national steering committee meets at regular intervals to assess new developments, suggest improvements and update the test specifications.

Each university is free to devise its own economic model for the process. In most cases, universities have opted not to charge students taking the certificate, although some expect a nominal contribution (charging the full cost would obviously defeat the purpose of providing an alternative to commercially-run certification and testing programmes). Universities can apply for government funding for the CLES under their grant application.

Similarly, institutions are free to make CLES certification (generally at level 2) a mandatory requirement as part of their Bachelor degree programmes or not, as the case may be. The Education Ministry, for their part, want to require all primary school teachers to meet CLES 2 standards (although this requirement has not yet been implemented in teacher training colleges).


2.1 Context

The CLES was launched nationally in April 2000 in response to a number of factors:

  1. The growing pressure on institutions to provide some kind of standardised certification of language competence for non language specialists alongside the traditional grading systems (traditionally a mark out of 20 awarded essentially for written comprehension and translation exercises).
  2. The small numbers of students going in for international certifications (TOEIC, TOEFL, Cambridge, Goethe, Cervantes, etc.): well under 10% in 2005 according to some figures (
  3. The reluctance on the part of the national education authorities and of many HE institutions to promote what were perceived as essentially 'commercial' certification programmes.
  4. The need to promote a multilingual approach to language certification (as opposed to the domination of "English-only" international tests and certificates).
  5. The prior existence of a CEFR-based national certificate designed for adult learners, the Diplôme de compétence en langues (DCL), launched in 1997.

Given the centralised nature of the French education system, even at HE level, it was the Ministry of Education (still responsible for Higher Education at the time) that provided the impetus for the extension of language certification throughout French universities, although the idea was originally developed at grass-roots level by the same forward-looking linguists who had been behind the "DCL" initiative. The certificate was officially created by "ministerial decree" in April 2000, launched on an experimental basis in a number of university centres (Marseille, Lille, Paris II/V/VI/Reims, Poitiers, Tours, Rennes, Lyon2, Strasburg...) between 2001 and 2003 and was more recently updated and extended to all universities wishing to offer it to their students in 2007.

2.2 Strategic goals of the initiative

As detailed above, the introduction of the CLES was part of a national policy for HE language learning, even though the initial impetus had come from earlier experiments in a number of major university language centres with experience in developing and implementing other certification schemes.

Now that the certificate is gaining recognition and being implemented at a growing number of universities, it is increasingly being seen as part of an overall institutional language strategy, in combination with new learning facilities and pedagogical methods. This has been encouraged by the new central government funding criteria, which place more emphasis on reducing student drop-out rates at Bachelor Degree level (and therefore on enhancing student motivation via curriculum innovation, tutorial support, or certification in IT and languages).


The success of the CLES could be measured by a number of indicators:

  1. Numbers of institutions and students participating in the certification scheme
    As already mentioned above, the scheme has seen a steady rise in the number of institutions involved and the numbers of students taking the certification tests, since its inception. Detailed figures are compiled every year by the CLES steering committee on the basis of requests for "scenarios" submitted to the exam subject "pool".
  2. ‘Success’ rates (i.e. students reaching the competence level required for the expected CLES level):
    Success rates in 2007 varied (cf. between 40 and 50% of participants depending on the CLES level, student population, and languages. These relatively modest results reflect the overall level of language competence achieved by non language specialist students in French universities. An overall improvement in the % of students achieving CLES levels 2 and 3 within a given institution will provide some indication of overall improvement in language competence among the general student population.
  3. Numbers of students taking CLES exams in languages other than English: as already mentioned, it is hoped that language diversity will increase as the certification spreads to academic sectors less dominated by an "English-only" approach.
  4. The number of language departments and centres redefining their courses in terms of CEFR-based learning outcomes as a result of having introduced language certification. These figures are difficult to compile, given the quasi-autonomous nature of HE institutions. Language centre figures could be gleaned via surveys carried out by the national language centre association (RANACLES), but language departments present a more difficult challenge.
  5. Recognition by employers, on a par with other language certifications. This is already the case as regards the Education Ministry, which will soon require applicants to primary school teaching posts to achieve a "CLES 2" level in at least one foreign language. Recognition by private sector employers is still a distant prospect, given the dominant position enjoyed by such tests as the TOEIC or, to a lesser extent, the Cambridge exams in Business English, or by the Cervantes and Goethe Institute exams in Spanish and German respectively. The "Diplôme de compétence en langues" (DCL) which was specifically set up by the Education Ministry in 1997 to provide a national CEFR-based language certification to adult learners in a life-long learning perspective, has never succeeded in broadening its appeal and extending its reputation much beyond the public sector.



The ultimate success of the CLES initiative rests 1. at the national level, on the smooth implementation of the scheme and the credibility of the certification itiself, and 2., at the local level, on the ability of innovative language centres/departments and teachers to persuade students, other colleagues and university authorities alike that this type of language certification is more than just a gimmick and that it can provide real added-value in terms of student motivation, pedagogical innovation and employability.

1. At the national level, the education authorities have for once, taken very much a "hands off" approach, leaving the implementation and day-to-day running of the scheme to the universities involved in the initiative, via the CLES steering committee and secretariat. This has worked successfully up to now given the dedication of the people who pioneered the initiative and the relatively small numbers of institutions involved. The involvement of other institutions, some of which may have less knowledge and experience of language certification issues, will raise real issues concerning the production, validation and management of exam "scenarios", the conditions in which the exams are implemented, assessment criteria and the awarding of results. It will obviously require more resources and close cooperation between the staff involved to ensure that the credibility of the certificate is not eroded by "local" interpretations and lax implementation. The establishment of a CLES agency responsible for vetting its implementation and maintaining standards will no doubt rapidly emerge as a key factor in maintaining the present momentum.

2. At the local level, the implementation of a policy-driven language certification scheme forces university authorities to make difficult decisions over funding arrangements and the sharing of costs between the institution and the "beneficiary". As mentioned above, Central Government simply provides encouragement through earmarked funding such as the current "Plan Licence", designed to enhance student motivation and reduce drop-out rates. In this sense, the issue of CLES certification is closely linked to the implementation of institutional language policies and of certification in other areas such as IT.

Getting a large enough number of teaching staff on board is of course a vital success factor in implementing the CLES. Although it would be possible to implement the CLES simply as yet another language certificate offered alongside existing tests and exams run by the language centre, it would defeat the purpose of the initiative if it were to remain limited to a handful or to a few dozen students and only involved a few language teachers already engaged in other certification schemes. The challenge is, therefore, to be able to show how the prospect of CEFR-based language certification can stimulate student motivation in the classroom and to bring about new pedagogical approaches via the definition of clear learning outcomes. One important by-product of the exercise is to increase awareness of the CEFR among teachers who may not be aware of its significance and usefulness. This requires a concerted policy implemented by a language centre or clear coordination at language department or faculty level. The most obvious danger with certifications of any kind is that lax implementation and local interpretations of standards can lead to the emergence of "local" variations which rapidly undermine the credibility of the whole process. The other common pitfall is that certification can become an end in itself, and that classes become geared almost exclusively to "preparing" students for the CLES. Again, this can only be avoided by a concerted approach whereby the certificate is seen as the validation of a learning process rather than a goal to be achieved.

The credibility of the CLES as a widely recognised language certificate is of course a key factor in persuading students of its usefulness. This is why it is essential to reach a critical mass in terms of numbers of institutions and numbers of students involved. Only when a sufficiently large number of graduates will have entered the job market with CLES certification on their CVs, will the certificate be able to compete with more well-established language certifications. The other key to acceptability on the part of students is if they are aware that the introduction of the CLES has brought about a different approach to HE language learning, centred on communicative skills.
Although studies of the impact of the CLES on motivation and satisfaction in language learning are underway, no results have as yet been published in a usable form.


5.1 Lessons to be learned at institutional level

Given that the CLES has only been in place since 2005, no large scale survey of its impact has yet been undertaken. The following universities have however shown how the certification can be implemented within the framework of a wider language policy:

Rennes 1 (Sciences, Medicine, Law, Economics)

Lille III

Poitiers Maison des langues

Lyon 2

Strasbourg (March Bloch)