Promoting and evaluating the use of the European Language Portfolio

Author: Vicky Wright


The Nuffield Foundation and the University of Southampton funded 10 partner institutions to run mini-projects whose aim was to implement and evaluate the European Language Portfolio in Higher Education.

Table of contents

1.0 Background

The overall aim of this project was to promote the take-up and evaluate the use of the European Language Portfolio (footnote 1) (ELP) in UK Higher Education through ten case-studies or mini-projects. The project followed two key recommendations of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry (footnote 2) in setting out to encourage wider participation in a range of languages beyond school in both higher education and in the community (Recommendation 8) and in developing a strategic approach to higher education through the use of the ELP (Recommendation 10). It also addressed a number of overall themes and recommendations of the Inquiry, in particular, the need to promote lifelong language and intercultural learning for plurilingualism through 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.

More specifically the project set out to:

  • Evaluate the use of the ELP as a reflective and reporting tool amongst a range of learners
  • Promote the development of good language and lifelong learning strategies
  • Explore the use of the Common European Framework as a common reference point
  • Strengthen the interest in a range of languages

Two versions of adult portfolios had been validated for use in the UK and Europe by the start of the project and were both used. These were the adult/vocational ELP published by CILT in 2002 (footnote 3) (to be updated in spring, 2006) and the CERCLES ELP (footnote 4), also validated for use in 2002 and designed for use by member universities across Europe.

2.0 Methodology

The project ran between June 2003 and spring 2004. The project was co-ordinated by the Centre for Language Study at the University of Southampton working closely with the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies based at the same university.

Following expressions of interest, proposals from ten universities - Birmingham , Bristol , City University London, Durham , King's College London, Liverpool , Loughborough, Nottingham Trent, Southampton and Warwick - were selected for funding. One other university (London School of Economics) decided to participate without funding as it was already working in this area. The overall aim was to evaluate the usefulness of the ELP in a range of learning contexts and for different types of learners. Three mini-projects looked at the use of the ELP with learners on continuing education and evening programmes whilst others looked at its use with language undergraduates, non-specialist linguists (on, for example, business, journalism, science or engineering degrees) and post-graduates on MBA programmes. The languages being studied were varied and covered both European and non-European languages. In most cases the use of the ELP was optional for learners, however, in three cases the use of the ELP was designed as an integral component of the course. A number of students were able to meet with language advisors; some were invited to sign a learning contract which committed them to meetings with the advisor.

Implementation took place during the first semester of the academic year 2003/04 although many mini-projects continued the use of the ELP until the end of the year.

A half-day workshop was held at the beginning of the project (June 4, 2003) so that the plan for each mini-project could be presented. One partner from every mini-project was funded by the project and it was generally felt that the event offered the ideal opportunity to explore common areas of interest and exchange ideas. Everyone found it particularly useful to hear about the use of the ELP in teaching contexts different from their own.

Towards the end of the project, a common student evaluation questionnaire (Appendix 11) was distributed to the mini-projects so that results could be used in the final reports. Some mini-projects added their own questions. Reports were to be around one thousand words in length and were to include aims and objectives, learning and teaching context, outcomes, mini-project evaluation and future plans (see Appendices for the report from each partner). Mini-projects were also invited to submit case studies to the Subject Centre online Good Practice Guide. A final project workshop (February 9, 2004) which aimed to disseminate the main findings of the mini-projects was funded by the Subject Centre and was open to the whole HE sector. A paper was also presented by one of the project participants at a conference on Independent Language Learning held by the Open University in December, 2003.

3.0 Project findings and outcomes

Through the ten mini-projects, over 300 adult language learners from a wide range of backgrounds and with a wide range of purposes for learning participated in the project.

According to the final mini-project reports, learners in all categories, whether they had chosen to use the ELP or whether they were using it as a compulsory component of an accredited course, had varied and opposing views on the usefulness of the ELP. Comments were similar for each of the two versions in use. A significant number seemed to appreciate the way that it helped to structure learning and develop reflective practice:

"Structuring and systematising self-studying have brought me a lot of confidence in the results of my learning process... I've obtained a definite awareness on what I know and what I don't know."

A few thought that the ELP would be useful to show to future employers as evidence of their language competence but only if it was "widely recognised".

Most negative feedback was to do with the complexity of the ELP. The three components (Biography, Dossier, Passport) were said to be confusing and many students felt that filling in the different sections was too time-consuming and not worth their while:

"...too long + complicated too much to read + to fill in. (Future job) Interviewers would certainly not study a document like this".

It was felt by one project partner that continuing education students were particularly likely to find the ELP burdensome as they find it a) not relevant for their jobs (many are retired), b) too complex and c) it places a barrier on learning as it negates the fun and enthusiasm of learning.

Teachers were in the main positive about the usefulness of the ELP, particularly in helping to develop learning skills, and as an aid to planning and reflection. It was also seen as a useful tool in helping learners to think about their language learning history especially for those who spoke community languages and who had no formal qualifications in the language. However, it was also felt that the use of the ELP added a considerable additional workload to both staff and students the additional staff workload was calculated by one project partner as at least 10%. The work involved in using the ELP meant that it was difficult to recruit and retain students where its use was optional and led to complaints from students for whom it was compulsory but did not count for assessment purposes. Staff would also have liked to have seen the ELP available electronically and in more languages at the time of the project it was only available in French and English.

Good staff training and dissemination of information was felt to be an important consideration if the ELP was to be introduced successfully, but this would also be time-consuming. One partner felt that, as with most innovation, there needed to be a considerable change in departmental culture if the use of portfolios was to be expanded. This no doubt relates to issues around the changing role of the teacher associated with moves to a more learner-centred education.

4.0 Conclusions

This project was timely in that it enabled a number of university departments who were contemplating the use of the ELP to either introduce it or further expand its take-up. The project has also encouraged and enabled useful discussion amongst participants, something which is not always possible when trying out new initiatives. The reports themselves (see Appendices) provide a rich source of interesting ideas and data and will be a ready source of information for those contemplating the introduction of portfolio work, or for those who are simply looking for good ideas (footnote 5).

Despite a number of final reservations, every project partner felt that the ELP serves as a valuable reflective and reporting tool for use with a range of learners. Every partner was committed to continuing the use of portfolios in some way after the end of the project and would be interested in continuing research and development in this area. In some cases the format of the ELP had already been adapted or simplified for local use, especially where it is being used as a compulsory component of the course. This adaptation is seen as contributing to its success and it is likely that others would follow suit or only use one component of the ELP, such as the Biography or the Dossier. Although the development of variants will mean that they are no longer recognised as the Council of Europe accredited version, their use will go a long way to promoting learner autonomy and to developing good language and lifelong learning strategies.

5.0 Update

Although the use of the accredited version of the ELP may not be as widespread as in the rest of Europe where a number of different versions in different languages have now been developed (footnote 6), it would not be fair to say that there is no activity in this area in the UK . In 2006, there seems to be considerable enthusiasm amongst teachers (and learners) for a tool which promotes the development of learner responsibility and learner autonomy and many universities have now introduced some element of portfolio work. Developments in technology have led to the use of the e-portfolio and more use of virtual learning environments and it is likely that Modern Languages are leading its use in the general educational field. Language advisors, which learners visit on a one to one basis to discuss their individual needs, are much more commonplace in higher education than they were a few years ago and learner training for independent learning is actively promoted.

The ELP itself may not have become an everyday tool but the Common European Framework has become a common reference point in the UK , in Europe and in many countries around the world (footnote 7). Many university curricula make reference to it (footnote 8). The Languages Ladder (accredited as Asset Languages) (footnote 9), which is being introduced in the UK also makes reference to the Common European Framework, and will further strengthen its position. Unlike the ELP which is not yet available in all the languages of the EU, the Languages Ladder will soon be available in twenty-three languages and will go a long way to strengthen interest in a much wider range of languages.


I am very grateful to the Nuffield Foundation for their financial support for this project and to everyone, both project partners and language learners, who have helped make this project so rewarding.
March 2004, updated February, 2006.


Download appendices (Word, 650Kb)

  • Appendix 1 University of Birmingham
  • Appendix 2 University of Bristol
  • Appendix 3 City University London
  • Appendix 4 University of Durham
  • Appendix 5 King's College London
  • Appendix 6 University of Liverpool
  • Appendix 7 Loughborough University
  • Appendix 8 Nottingham Trent University
  • Appendix 9 University of Southampton
  • Appendix 10 University of Warwick
  • Appendix 11 Student evaluation questionnaire


1. European Language Portfolio

2. Nuffield Languages Inquiry

3. CILT: European Language Portfolio for Adult and Vocational Language Learners

4. Confédération Européenne des Centres de Langues de l'Enseignement Supérieur
European Confederation of Language Centres in Higher Education

5. For example, the idea of preparing a CD Rom portfolio with images and video presentations to be sent alongside a CV to prospective employers is an idea which might motivate many students (see Appendix 3).

6. The EAQUALS-ALTE European Language Portfolio
Available in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Basque, Bulgarian, Croatian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Greek and Arabic. Further languages are in preparation ; there is also an electronic version. The European Language Council ELP for HE ( is available in English and French.

7. In a recent trip to Mexico (January 2006), the Common European Framework was used as a reference point in many conversations with university language staff when referring to learners' language levels. Until very recently English language examinations acted as a reference point for these conversations but were not easily understood by those not familiar with them.

8. University of Southampton: Overview of language stages (pdf document)

9. Asset Languages

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