The use of metaphor in written English language examinations by learners of English

Professor Jeannette Littlemore received funding (as Principal Investigator, working with colleagues from the UK and Holland) from Cambridge ESOL to investigate the use of metaphor by learners in their written English language examinations reflecting different levels of language ability within Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

The CEFR, which forms part of a wider EU initiative, is a series of descriptions of language abilities which can be applied to any language and can be used to set clear targets for achievements within language learning. It has now become accepted as a way of benchmarking language ability all over the world. There are six levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2). Each level contains multiple ‘can-do’ statements, which describe the various functions that one would expect a language learner to perform in reading, writing, listening and speaking, at that level.

Two hundred essays written by Greek and German-speaking learners of English were examined for their use of metaphor. The findings were that the overall density of metaphor increases from CEFR levels A2 to C2. At lower levels, most of the metaphoric items were grammatical items, consisting mainly of prepositions, but at B2 level and beyond, the majority of metaphoric items were content words. Metaphor was used to perform increasingly sophisticated functions at each of the levels. At B2 level significantly more errors started to be perceived in the metaphorically-used words and there was more evidence of first language influence. This is an important finding because B2 is the baseline level of English that is required by many universities across Europe. If this is the level at which students are being most experimental with metaphor, and consequently making the most mistakes, then this needs to be reflected in the marking criteria: it is often the more ‘adventurous’ students who try things out and make mistakes who go on to become the best students. The project has provided descriptors for CEFR levels A2-C2 regarding the use of metaphor. These descriptors will be used by Cambridge ESOL into their scoring criteria. This will hopefully lead to a greater focus on metaphor in language classrooms around the world as Cambridge ESOL exams are administered at over 1300 locations in over 113 countries.

A detailed report containing a number of recommendations, is available on the Cambridge ESOL website: