CEFR & ACTFL Language Proficiency Standards

There are two main frameworks for assessing foreign language proficiency: the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for languages and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Both are used for testing and certification as well as in textbooks, language teacher training, curriculum development and development of assessment standards.

Each of these language standards works a bit differently and evaluates individuals along different levels of proficiency. We’ll outline each of these two international standards below and compare and contrast them briefly.

What is the CEFR?

The result of over twenty years of research, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is precisely what its title says it is: a framework of reference.

The CEFR was designed to provide a transparent, coherent and comprehensive basis for the elaboration of language syllabuses and curriculum guidelines, the design of teaching and learning materials, and the assessment of foreign language proficiency.

The CEFR is used in Europe, but also in other continents as well. It can be adapted and used for multiple contexts and applied for all languages. It is currently available in 40 languages.

CEFR Levels of Proficiency (Standards)

  • The CEFR describes foreign language proficiency at six levels:
    • A1
    • A2
    • B1
    • B2
    • C1
    • C2
  • It also defines three ‘plus’ levels (A2+, B1+, B2+)

What is the ACTFL?

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) proficiency guidelines is a description of what individuals can do with foreign language in terms of listening, reading, writing and speaking in real-world situations in a natural and non-rehearsed context.

ACTFL Standards (Levels of Proficiency)

For each skill, ACTFL identifies five major levels of proficiency:

  1. Novice
  2. Intermediate
  3. Advanced
  4. Superior
  5. Distinguished

CEFR Levels vs. ACTFL Levels for Language Proficiency

All of our language tests are designed to meet internationally recognized levels, and students are presented with questions according to the CEFR/ACTFL proficiency level and difficulty. The table shows a comparison of the CEFR global descriptors and ACTFL proficiency levels. For both systems, language proficiency is emphasized over mastery of textbook grammar and spelling.


Learner knows the alphabet and sounds of the language, first words and basic emergency questions, and how to respond to simple phrases and questions with words.


Can understand and use familiar everyday phrases. Can introduce himself/herself and others, and can ask and answer questions about personal details. Can understand and respond to simple messages.


Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background and immediate environment.


Can understand the main points of a conversation (about work, school, leisure, during travels, etc.) Can produce simple, connected text. Can describe experiences and produce explanations for opinions and plans.


Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics. Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity with native speakers.


Can understand a wide range of longer texts and recognize implicit meaning. Can express himself/herself fluently and spontaneously. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.


Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can express himself/herself very fluently and precisely, even in the most complex situations.

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