Assessing English Standards in Malaysia: An Analysis with the CEFR

Often in Malaysia, people talk about how our standard of English is either sufficiently good that it is the basis of a thesis for investment, or they say that our English is abysmal and needs drastically to be improved – discussions go on and on, and people fight, oftentimes in what seems like a battle for the soul of our society.

But what does it mean, actually, that our English is good or our English is bad?

Some say that Malaysia aligns itself to international standards in creating its curricula, but others squabble day in and day out, constantly complaining about the quality of English amongst graduates who come into the workforce, observing that many of them lack basic skills that they would expect graduates to have. How can it be possible that Malaysia calibrates itself to international standards while at the same time its graduates languish in terms of their English language proficiency?

But at the end of the day, who’s right? 

As it turns out, investigating a little further tells us that the answer is both.

Here’s where the subject of our blog post for today comes in: The Common European Framework for Reference, otherwise known as the CEFR. 

The reason that I’m making this comparison today and telling you about CEFR is that Malaysia uses it to calibrate SPM writing standards. 

The CEFR operationalizes language proficiency in accordance with six dimensions, from A1 up until C2. It is an international standard that is utilized by examining bodies across the world in order to designate proficiency levels and descriptors that students attain after courses of study, and it is used also in designing curricula so that students can reach a certain defined standard.


CEFR operationalizes English proficiency according to numerous level descriptors, providing explanations of what a user of the English language should be able to do at every single possible level that has been defined under the CEFR framework. 

As you can see in the image below, here is what English proficiency as demonstrated by a proficient user, aka C2, should be able to do.

As you can see, this is a relatively intuitive sense of what we would want a competent communicator in English to be able to do, to summarize, to understand, to be able to comprehend complex and even abstract topics in the context of a discussion without any effort whatsoever, and to be able to, in turn, produce language in such a way that there are no difficulties in receiving meaning at all on the part of a listener. 

Moving beyond this intuition, however, we can begin to identify distinct categories as we move down the scale. 

As we can see in the level descriptors for B2 instead, a B2-level communicator can understand the main idea of a text, but may not be able to necessarily understand every single thing, or may find difficulty in catching the nuances of what is being presented to the extent that they may not be able to accept, process, and deal with finer shades of meaning to the extent that they can give an informed response. In other words, there is a difference in communicative competency as well as in extent of comprehension as we move through the levels.


Relevance to Malaysia

Where this gets interesting is what you consider that the CEFR is used for. There are various clear examples of this, both in the Cambridge IGCSE exams and also in the present subject of our discussion, which is the Malaysian Curriculum as operationalized in SPM Writing Grading Guidelines, both of which I will show in the next section. 

Let’s first consider how CEFR is used in calibrating SPM standards. 

Consider the document available at this link. (

This is an examiner’s guide for teachers who are in charge of marking exam scripts for SPM English writing examinations; it can be easily found on Google when you google “CEFR Malaysia SPM”. It outlines the different sections of the SPM English examination and also establishes a scale of achievement that is measured by every individual component of the exam. 

Consider the following section that tells us about the curriculum design and the intended scope of assessment covered by the SPM writing exams.

Based on this, you can see that the main focus of the SPM English examination is to assess students within the B1 to B2 level range. 

As an external curriculum, and therefore as a motivator for students, we can, by extension, guess that this is the standard to which the Ministry of Education of Malaysia wishes for students to aspire towards. As the criteria also indicate, assessment spans from A1 to C1 according to the CEFR scale, which suggests that at the very top range of the candidates that take the SPM examinations, we could expect communicative competency to be at the C1 level. 

This might not seem too relevant to you, but a small comparison may help you see why is relevant to you, particularly if you’re choosing the schooling system that you would like your child to be a part of. 

This is why we will compare this CEFR guidance for the SPM English examinations with the Cambridge IGCSE First Language English examinations. Consider the picture below, taken from the website of Cambridge Assessment International Education.

Recall for a minute that the SPM English Assessment Scale indicated that the scale went from A1 up until C1 at the very highest possible level, and also indicated that the core focus of the curriculum was from the B1 to B2 level. 

Now, have a look below.


As you can see, in the First Language English curriculum, you will see that a C1 in Competency corresponds to a Grade B, while the very bottom level of achievement for a B2 is a Grade E for the Writing exam. What does this mean?

This means that the SPM English exam is targeted in such a way that the majority of candidates who take it and succeed in obtaining the qualification, barring the top levels of achievement, can be expected to achieve a Grade range from G until C on the IGCSE First Language English examinations. 

Considering that the IGCSE First Language English exam doesn’t account for people who are perfect in English either, is it really a surprise that most SPM candidates are, by people’s modern estimation, not particularly competent in the English language?

Even if you just barely passed the IGCSE First Language English exam, you can be expected to demonstrate a level of communicative competency that is on par with or exceeds the level that would be expected of people who are scoring at the A level for the SPM English exams. 

Now, this doesn’t mean by any means that the people who are all doing the SPM are all of an equally bad standard by no means. It just means that even if a particular student scores an A+, then it simply means that they are at a B2 level or higher. 

It is entirely possible that they could be at a higher level of communicative competency, but it’s simply that the test does not measure the level of capability that is correspondent to that level of achievement. It also means, by extension, since exams serve an extrinsic motivating factor for students to study and to direct their efforts, while simultaneously serving as the framework of ground truth and bar of excellence to which students should aspire, and accordingly teachers act in order to operationalize and develop, students in Malaysia are collectively aspiring to a lower standard relative to their international counterparts. 

This is the case both in terms of the level of expectation that is hoisted upon them by their curriculum, and accordingly the level of instruction that is delivered by instructors who are playing towards that particular standard, and even then cannot be expected to achieve it to the greatest possible extent, introducing yet another potential inefficiency that lessens the prospects of the average student of English in Malaysia, reducing it down to the bare bottom.

In other words, this means that the curriculum and by extension the governance that operationalizes it as a whole does not serve, necessarily, a causative impact in helping students to reach a level that is concordant with what we would call international standards, except on the level of lip service, simply because it operationalises the curriculum to fulfill CEFR B1 to B2, which is not a high standard and does not concord with standards that would place Malaysian students on a level that would allow them to meaningfully compete with their counterparts in an increasingly internationalized workforce that has lost almost all of its insulation from the forces of globalization. 

One could very well make the case that English is a second language for most learners in Malaysia, and hence that this is just the expected result that we should accomplish and that there is no need to go further. But if you truly believed that, you wouldn’t come out in such droves in order to talk about how English proficiency is lacking in this country. 

You would not be writing to our newspapers talking about how we need to improve our English. 

You would not be constantly wondering why people are unable to perform the most basic tasks in English when in fact your national curriculum and what you have allowed it to become is not concordant with the needs of the internationalised world that you live in and cannot avoid by simply saying that you are a Malaysian citizen and do not need to aspire towards international standards because you are not insulated from the world, you are very much a part of it and claiming national identity and pride in it while at the same time falling short of the standards you need to achieve in order to reach the goals that you aspire to attain in other areas is unfeasible and will not ultimately lead to the result that you want.

Accordingly, with respect to the paradigm of international competition, the curriculum in and of itself, despite what the Ministry of Education has said or has not said, is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of English language communication in the modern era, even if English is taken as a stand-alone subject, even beyond the consideration of taking it away from English-medium consideration altogether, sidelining it, and making it only the province of the rich, powerful, and supremely educated.

Of course, this is not counting the students who perform at the very top levels of achievement (A+ for SPM), who clearly demonstrate communicative competency at at least the B2 level. 

Of course, such students might do well according to the grade that they receive, but there are several dangers associated with being grade-conscious in this case. For instance, if students receive an A+, and think that they are at the highest possible level already, that would suggest that they are only basic communicators in the English language, able to hold conversations and understand main points with no issues, but incapable of communicating deeper shades of meaning. 

Accordingly, the curriculum would restrict them from reaching the higher levels of attainment that one might expect from highly effective communicators. Secondly, we might expect also that the relatively low standard of the curriculum means that if students simply aspire to the bare minimum of following what has been told to them, that they will not extend their abilities far beyond where it is that they need to go. Accordingly, the net result would be that they might stagnate in their progress, and not go any further, which reflects a disservice performed to them and to Malaysia as a whole, even as the countries around us aspire for the world standard.

So what have we discussed so far? We’ve discussed the CEFR framework. We’ve discussed where Malaysia’s education system places in the context of that CEFR framework. And we’ve looked at a comparison between the Malaysian education system and the Cambridge First Language English exam system, which allowed us to develop an understanding of the relative level of the SPM curriculum to the IGCSE, which operationalizes where we are in the context of the world.

What is clearly shown is that Malaysian students are expected to perform only to a lower level compared to their counterparts in international schools, and that’s not even speaking about how our teachers are recruited and whether or not they are able to successfully deliver the curriculum in the first place.

Having said that, this doesn’t mean that excellence can’t exist in Malaysia, because there will always be people who will push the boundaries and go beyond expectations to reach international standards on their own. 

What’s clear to see though is that levels of ability that exceed the norm aren’t expected by this system, and neither are they well-served by this system, which caters poorly to people who wish to go above and beyond, forcing them to find excellence in English outside of its confines rather than within it, as is right and proper.

On Facing Judgment’s Shadow

Picture this.

You’ve written a post that you want to share on social media, or you’ve made a video somehow or another. You’re sitting there on the edge of your chair, just about to click post, but you look at what you’ve written, what you’ve made, you notice that final error, you question yourself, thinking about the manifold ways in which people could be judging you silently and from afar, contemplating in your mind’s eye the dialogues that must be taking place.

“Oh my gosh, this person wrote this?”
“Oh my gosh. Did he really make that grammatical error?”
“Wow, this is boring. Why am I even watching?”
“How could he make such a video?”

And so the thoughts come out, percolate like coffee through filter paper, and eventually crystallize into little gems of self-doubt, blocking the nervous signal that would have caused you to click. You turn away from your plan, and you declare:”Maybe later, but not now.”

Before you know it, the entire project is abandoned.

If you’re anything like me, you may have faced this, this feeling of wanting to do something, but realizing, or at least thinking that you weren’t good enough, that the manifold imperfections that existed in you would come out, and that people would judge you one way or another.

Well, here’s a fact, though. People certainly will judge you. I mean, how could they not? Everyone encounters something as a first glance, thinks about it, and evaluates it on their own terms.

That’s just how it is. The judgment will happen.

There is absolutely nothing that you can do about it, and your feeling certainly is right. The thing is though, that even though it is right, this isn’t a valid reason to run away. Because truly, the only way to get past it is to face your fears, to accept judgements as they come, no matter how people see you. To push forward anyway, knowing that people may not enjoy what you create, and what you decide to make, for a million different reasons, related to who you are, how the thing was written, and their prior experiences with your content and with you as a human being.

This has been tough for me, and in many ways, terrifying, because it feels almost as if every time I publish a piece of content out there, my entire soul is being put on trial from the eyeballs that surround it, that look at it, that question, evaluate, contemplate, and ultimately judge the person that must have created it.

In the sum totality of things, I think it is easy for a person to simply declare that this sort of judgment doesn’t take place, or to understate its impact by simply saying that it doesn’t matter because nobody is watching.

I think, contrary to the way that some influencers present it, that this sort of judgment is very real, and unlike the very same influencers, I don’t believe in denying it. Because whether we like it or not, people do care.

Where I do align, however, with what many popular YouTubers and creators that parrot the idea that people don’t care and you should go forth anyway, is indeed that one should push forward anyway. However, my underlying thesis for why one should move forward on my part is a little different.

I think that we should acknowledge that people may care. And you must acknowledge that people may hate what you create, because that is a real possibility. Denying it totally, I think, cuts out a great part of what makes up reality. Because although it’s true that the vast majority of people on this planet won’t care about what you produce, it’s true that there may be some people out there who just dislike it on balance. And that may be what your heart is afraid of. It’s not that it’s not valid, because it’s a real possibility, and it could be that truly you just fear that outcome.

Certainly you might say that at the end of the day, what you need to do remains the same – you must push forward. And yes, I get it. Even if people do judge you, or if they don’t judge you, neither of those outcomes is really consequential to what you have to do, which is to simply push forward, accepting that somehow or another, what you have to share has value that extends beyond all of those considerations, which ultimately shouldn’t constitute a major part of what motivates you or impedes you from what you choose to do.

But I don’t think that’s a valid reason to just get rid of those fears altogether or say that they don’t exist. Because what you truly need to do and what is truly going to matter is acknowledging these fears and battling them head on. Hitting publish even if you know clearly that people can hate what you’re saying and that they may not enjoy it. Knowing that you are on a quest to make yourself better at expressing yourself, articulating what you are intent on saying, and doing so better and better each time. This is true because I think ignoring people’s perspectives and choosing to go forward just leads to a situation where a person grows stagnant and simply does things for the sake of doing them and does not question meaningfully how to make things better. This is anathema towards growth. And it’s not something that I can abide. Still, to those of us who face those valid fears, there are various choices out there. The first is simply to give in to the possible and real hatred and to choose not to publish. This is something I cannot abide either, because if you choose not to expose yourself in the first place, then people will never see what you’re thinking about, what you’re writing about, what you’re considering, what you’re contemplating in the very first place.

I’ve told myself this a thousand times. To not look at where I am right now, or how I will be judged, because certainly I will be judged. That is a fact – after all, being comfortable with being judged in the very first place, I think, is the very cornerstone of success: One that comes right after being able to establish a habit of creating in the first place, and putting yourself out there on the stage.

Once that stage has come to an end, here we begin to deal with the entire theater of human opinion, ideas, beliefs, wants, and desires. And it is here that we are put to the acid test, which determines how what we create is going to fare. The reality, though, is that whatever judgments people have in this world, shouldn’t be the primary determinant, I think, of why a person does something or chooses not to do something. Because, frankly speaking, the act of self-expression is about, in the very first place, choosing to use your voice for different things that matter to you, that come out in the way that is most natural to you and shouldn’t, therefore, be subjected to the self-editing faculty constantly, at the expense of being able to produce something out there for the world to see, to evaluate, and for yourself to understand what it’s like to actually have your thoughts interact with those of the world.

In many ways, I think that this is part of growing as a person, understanding how to put yourself out there, to understand that even if you should face rejection, that it ultimately is inconsequential, that rather than pining over any rejection, denial, or otherwise, that one should take in the entire world and simply aspire to create something better the next time, continuing to do things not because they are directed towards some sort of extrinsic or imagined idea of success or fame, but rather because it was something that was meaningful and that the person enjoyed in the very first place.

For me, I think that that’s been the hardest part, knowing how to just go out there and just share things without regard, fear, favor, or any of those little inconvenient trinkets of human temptations that could otherwise spoil the broth that is genuine motivation with other elements that don’t ultimately matter. I don’t think that everybody is necessarily suited towards sharing their voice, and I think that in many ways, people learn how to do it through experiences, reflections, and different moments of time in which they grow through different incidents. On my part, I think that it takes a courage to share and that I haven’t fully gotten to that stage just yet for different reasons, but I feel that with each thing written, article published, thought released into the world, that I am moving forward one step at a time.

Work, Life, World.

One of the things I’ve come to really appreciate learning in college is the ability to just work, and work, and work. Sometimes I feel like my work ethic is just unending, and I can continue doing everything that I’m supposed to do, just efficiently and continually, almost like a machine. 

I start, I take breaks specifically for the purpose of making sure that my work efficiency is maintained, then I begin again. The cycle continues, and life proceeds just in that way. 

It’s one of the miracles that has come about, I think, from being trained in an environment where people were constantly working hard, and a place where people would not just work hard, but also have the right motivation, initiative, and desire for it. 

Somehow or another, it influenced me, and rubbed off on me. And before I knew it, I was one of those workaholics out there, just casually pulling long hours without even questioning things, completely by my own volition. 

It sounds bad, but I’ve come to appreciate that part of myself quite a bit. 

It’s one of the many reasons that I respect myself, and appreciate the person that I’ve become. Because it’s become an enduring facet of my personality, and something that I know that I can look to whenever I think about my identity as a person, but at the same time, I think it’s come with at least two different disadvantages. 

The first of these is that when I think about work, I just continue on and on. It takes hold like a vice grip, consuming almost every single aspect of my mind and my thoughts. 

The result? 

I just carry on doing things in the way that I feel most natural. Ignoring different things, socializing, hanging out, spending time with people, messaging…The list goes on, and I don’t know how many different things I’ve missed out on, just because I have this inclination within me that somehow or another just pushes me to carry on going on. 

Both a blessing, yet also a curse in various ways. 

The second of these things is that sometimes I’m inefficient on at least two different dimensions. The first of which is that in the midst of my work, I sometimes find distractions, one after another, that appeal in my life for the simple reason that I have many different things that I want to do, accomplish, and put into play. 

This translates, I think, into moments of distraction or inefficiency, and just generally having to spend more time in certain circumstances on work which may have taken another person less time to do. This is something that I’m continually refining, and something that I hope to get a little better at in the time that I do have. But there’s one more aspect of that, which is perhaps more pernicious and pressing, and that is not knowing what exactly to work for. One thing I’ve learned about time is that work expands to fill the time that you allocate towards it, but at the same time it also shrinks. 

The small and subtle things that a person does while they are working can change the entirety of their schedule, how well they can do things, how efficiently they can do things, whether or not they plan to do certain things. 

Not knowing what to work for is anathema to progress, and oftentimes I think that that is my greatest flaw. 

I find myself thinking about what to do before I get distracted into doing things that I feel are productive but actually are not. I do things that seem as if they are carrying me forward but in reality aren’t truly contributing towards my deeper purposes. It is this that yields wonder sometimes on my part about the direction that things happen to go in, for the simple reason that I had not thought about the direction sufficiently. 

When I look back and evaluate the entire scope of my personality so far in relation to work, I can be thankful for at least a few things. I am thankful now that I see work as a natural expression of personality, inclination, and effort. I am thankful also for the way that it has just expanded over time to include so many different and interesting activities, opportunities to speak to different people, to teach, to learn, and to in part grow and ultimately develop as a person through the expansion of my mind on the basis of the quid pro quo from expanding the minds of others. 

It is something that I deem positive, desirable, and meaningful on multiple different levels. At the same time though, when I think about work, I think that on multiple levels there are things that I can improve. 

There can be parts of myself which I think are addictive in the sense that they continue forward with a single activity with narrow-minded focus. At the same time, there are parts of my personality that do not focus on the right things. 

On the other hand, I can identify at least also a part of my brain that has yet to orient or direct my activities towards the right areas of focus in the very first place. And therefore, without the aim and in the absence of the target, there is no journey and destination. 

In the past year, I’ve learned a lot about how to start projects, to move forward continually, even in an informal sense, and to just push forward unrelentingly with each day. I think that that has carried me in many ways across different projects, across many different plans, but I feel in various ways that it is not enough. 

I look back and evaluate everything thus far, and I’m overcome with a sense of gratitude, because it feels like it had all just come to pass without me thinking too extensively about it, but I see also that the flip side of that is that maybe, because I didn’t think extensively about it, that there’s much more room to grow because there must be a new horizon ahead. 

There always has been, and while it’s not guaranteed that there will continue to be, every time I thought that there was not, I found myself confounded, unable to disconfirm the reality of the new territories that lay ahead. 

As time passes, I know that I will continue to grow. And as that happens, the part of me that seeks out growth will continue to push forward. I can only hope that he will not simply work relentlessly, but also take a moment once in a while to look back, to consider the broader picture, to see the flowers around him, not only in the service of finding out which direction to head in, but sometimes to be at peace with himself as well, and to become comfortable just doing absolutely nothing at all. 

The journey continues.