Journey to becoming a teacher researcher

In this post Maria Chiara La Sala (Senior Teaching Fellow in Italian, University of Leeds, discusses her HEA Teaching Development Grant project ‘Promoting the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) for progression from ab initio to degree challenges’. Chiara outlines the aims and the objectives of her project and provides links to some of the project outputs. Chiara outlines how the project has helped her to become a teacher researcher, which skills the students have gained from taking part in the project and how colleagues can benefit from implementing the findings.

Aims and outputs

In October 2013, I was awarded the individual Teaching Development Grant for my project ‘Promoting the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) for progression from ab initio to degree challenges’. I was interested in comparing the progress of students who started learning a language ab initio at university with the progress of students who started their Italian degree course with an A-level qualification in Italian.

My aim was to investigate the experiences of learning Italian for both ab initio and post A-level students with particular focus on their motivation, their different experiences of learning a language and different ways of understanding and responding to feedback. In order to investigate and compare these different experiences, I identified two focus groups (ex-beginners and ex-advanced in their final year), with the aim of distinguishing the answers and views of those who started their Italian degree ab initio from those who started their Italian degree with an A level in Italian. 

Another objective of my project was to promote the CEFR for progression in language learning. The CEFR has provided a consistent methodology to compare ab initio and post-A-level contexts. Furthermore, I have been able to address one of the key recommendations of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry, which is the need to promote lifelong language and intercultural learning for plurilingualism. Incorporating the CEFR into my project has enabled me to address the two other subsequent recommendations of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry: ‘the development of learner responsibility and learner autonomy’ and the need for ‘a clear and transparent description of competences and qualifications to facilitate coherence in language provision’ and mobility in Europe’.

The project has produced the following outputs:

  • a student report on the major challenges in achieving language proficiency having started language acquisition ab initio at university, based on the shared experiences of an ab initio focus group;
  • a student report on the major challenges to achieving language proficiency having started a language degree with a post A-level qualification in that language, based on the shared experiences of a post A-level focus group;
  • a model for assessing free writing and translation in the target language based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR); and
  • a grammar checklist for self-assessmentfor students in their final year based on the levels of the CEFR: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2.

What did I gain?

Being an HEA Teaching Development Grant holder was a fantastic experience. I was able to enhance my understanding of the progress of two different cohorts of students as well as of adapting the CEFR to the requirements of my own specific teaching context.

Working on the project has given me the opportunity to influence practice and policy as other institutions have approached me with a view to incorporating the outcomes of my project in their own teaching. Also, I have published in a refereed journal, presented several papers in language conferences and run workshops for both students and staff.

All these activities have been a great opportunity to share my expertise with students and colleagues.

What did the students gain?

The project has improved the student learning experience as it has addressed specific issues relating to language proficiency, based on their individual language background (ab initio or post A-level).  Also, the students have played an active role in reshaping assessment and feedback. Under my guidance and supervision, they have developed a model for assessing free writing and translating in the target language based on the CEFR.

By participating in the project, students have increased their awareness of the challenges met during the process of achieving language proficiency.  By contributing to the creation of resources, they were also directly engaged with linguistic problems even at proficiency level and took an active role in identifying these areas and addressing them.

By becoming familiar with the CEFR, students were able to have a clearer understanding of their own current level and of how to progress to their next level.  Also, they could refer to a set of Common Reference Levels used across Europe and, increasingly, beyond.  Knowledge of the CEFR has enhanced their motivation and progress as well as facilitated educational and occupational mobility.

Moreover, students have had the opportunity of using the CEFR in a specific context. The CEFR is a very useful tool to understand language progress but does not offer ready-made solutions.  It must always be adapted to the requirements of a particular context.  Engaging the students in the process of adapting the CEFR to their own context has added value to their language learning experience.

I am including some students’ comments on their experiences:

"I found taking part in this project very interesting and thoroughly enjoyable, and it was certainly an extremely useful exercise in self-reflection, with regards to language learning and proficiency."

"This project has been very rewarding. I have found that it has allowed me to really think about the process of language learning, particularly through discussion with my peers about the CEFR criteria. Thank you."

What did my discipline gain?

In the academic year 2014-15, this model has been adopted by the Italian Subject Area at Leeds University to give feedback on formative and summative assessments in the target language. This innovation has been commended by the external examiner who has described the integration of the Framework into teaching and assessment as innovative, timely and significant for the development of languages nationally. For this reason, I have been invited to go to the University of Birmingham and the University of Durham to disseminate the project’s findings.


To what extent would the elements of this project (adapting the CEFR and engaging students in the process of assessment, feedback and resource development) support the learning experience of your students?


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