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).

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