Can conversation topics be categorised according to CEFR levels?

At the start of every lesson plan published on this site, it says that they are suitable for intermediate and advanced level English learners. This covers the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) levels B1, B2, C1 and C2.

Many will wonder why I’ve done this, or how it is possible that a conversation topic suitable for a C1 level student could also be suitable for a B1 level student. Afterall, we are all used to seeing topics categorised this way in coursebooks and on other websites.

I’ve chosen not to follow suit for a number of reasons that I hope to explain in this article. The intention of this article is not to convince anyone that they should not grade conversation topics according to CEFR levels, and hopefully there is some useful information on how to do this below, but to try and explain my reasonings for not doing so.

At what CEFR level can a student maintain a conversation, and what can they talk about?

According to the CEFR, a student at A2 level “can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going”, while a student at B1 level “can enter unprepared into conversation on topics that are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life.” B2 and C1 students can speak with “fluency” and “spontaneity”. From this, we can see that B1 is the level when students are able to maintain a conversation.

But what about specific topics of conversation? We can see above that B1 students can maintain a conversation if they are familiar with a topic, and above that level, on topics they may be less familiar with. We can see this higher-level use of language in action when a native speaker gives their opinion on topics they are completely ignorant about on social media!

So how do you decide whether a conversation topic should be categorised as level B1, B2, or C1? For some topics, it’s more obvious than for others. Whenever I have a new student, I always start the course with ‘travel’, ‘shopping’, and ‘social media’ because these are familiar topics for everyone, and everyone has an opinion on them.

With that said, the topic that has caused my students the most problems is ‘art’. Yes, art. Some students are so unfamiliar with the topic they can barely give a short answer; one even asked me to change the topic! Yet many of my other students actually are artists and can go into incredible detail when speaking about the topic. So, should ‘art’ be categorised as B1, B2, or C1?

Don’t get me wrong; I probably wouldn’t start a course with ‘genetic engineering’ or ‘artificial intelligence’, as these lesson plans contain a fairly high proportion of C1+ level vocabulary in the questions. But does that mean a B1 level student cannot give their opinion on these topics? Perhaps these subjects are familiar or of personal interest to the student; after all, they are topics commonly written about in the news.

On that note, the CEFR says that a student at level B2 “can explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.” All the lesson plans on this website focus on one topical issue. Does this mean that none of them, not even ‘genetic engineering’ or ‘artificial intelligence’, despite their high proportion of C1+ vocabulary, would be considered more than level B2?

Another consideration to take into account from the CEFR when determining a student’s ability to talk about a particular topic is the depth and complexity of their response to those conversation questions. The CEFR says that a student at B1 level may “briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions”, while a student at C1 level may “present clear, detailed descriptions of complex subjects integrating sub-themes, developing particular points and rounding off with an appropriate conclusion.”

You could therefore ask the exact same question to two students at different levels and receive a response of some kind. The depth of that response would be a determining factor of their CEFR level, rather than the particular topic they were asked about.

B1 level students will be expected to give shorter responses to questions, and as they progress through a learning programme and gain confidence and fluency, their responses will become longer and more complex. This is not too dissimilar to the way the speaking section of a language proficiency test like the IELTS works, which was actually one of the reasons I began creating these lessons in the first place.

So, based on the CEFR, we could present arguments that no topic on this website should be considered higher than level B2, and potentially any topic could be used with B1 students. We could also use any topic with C1 students, who would be expected to give more in-depth responses and use more flowery vocabulary.

However, if we do decide to categorise conversation topics by CEFR levels, we can see two methods for achieving this: 1) student familiarity with the topic and 2) the vocabulary level for the topic. As we shall see below, both of these methods have their flaws.

Categorising conversation topics into the CEFR by student familiarity

Many coursebooks, ESL websites, and other organisations regularly categorise topics according to the CEFR. Many of these classifications seem somewhat arbitrary or related to other ways of determining CEFR level such as grammar.

Take the Market Leader coursebook series for example. There are five coursebooks from elementary (A1) to advanced (C1), each of which is divided into 12 units focusing on a different business topic. They would hardly be able to sell the coursebooks as a ‘series’ if they didn’t do this.

This means that ‘conflict’ has been categorised as a B1 topic, and ‘online business’ as a C1 topic. But is that right? Are B1 level students really expected to be able to discuss how to resolve conflicts in the workplace, yet incapable of giving their opinions on Amazon and Netflix?

Ok, so it’s obvious that the CEFR level of these coursebooks is not determined by the topics, but by the grammar points presented in each one (there really isn’t much difference between the listening, reading, writing and vocabulary activities in each book). And grammar does follow a logical order to be taught in and fits nicely into the CEFR.

Skipping the grammar sections of Market Leader’s coursebooks allowed me to use any of the topics and their associated vocabulary, listening and reading activities to create lessons for my business English students at B1 level and above. As with my own lesson plans, I supplemented these lessons with my own grammar programme applicable to the students’ level.

Another organisation that has determined what topics people at different levels in the CEFR should be able to discuss is the European Consortium for the Certificate of Attainment in Modern Languages, which provides a standardised test for the languages of the European Union.

From their list of conversation topics, we can see that ‘public transport vs using cars’, ‘online shopping’, ‘emails vs letters’, ‘global warming’, and ‘celebrities’ have all been classed as C1. But is it really that unreasonable to suggest that students with a B1 level couldn’t also give their opinion, brief as it may be, on any of these topics if asked about them?

When we look at other topics that have been classed as C1, such as ‘problems of social integration’, ‘genetics’, and ‘the role of the EU in world politics’, it is quite easy to see that these are in fact topics many people, including native speakers, would be unfamiliar with. Students might, therefore, struggle to talk about them.

But what if a person with a B1 level actually works for the EU or is studying international relations at university? All of a sudden, it becomes much easier for that person to give their opinion on the role of the EU in world politics because they are familiar with the topic.

Coursebooks, ESL websites, and other organisations who categorise conversation topics according to the CEFR all suffer from the same problem. How can they know if a topic is familiar or not to an individual student? They can assume, and often they will be correct, but this will never be applicable to 100% of English learners.

Instead of restricting, or advising, which topics a student should be able to speak about at a certain level, and which topics they shouldn’t be able to speak about, a better method would be to let the student(s) decide that for themselves by sending them the list of conversation topics before the start of the course.

Presumably, they will choose topics they are familiar with or have a personal interest in. As the course goes on, and they begin to improve their fluency with these topics, you can start to introduce the topics they are not so familiar with to build up their ability to speak with the element of spontaneity required at levels B2 and C1.

Categorising conversation topics into the CEFR by vocabulary level

Another way to categorise conversation topics into CEFR levels would be to analyse the vocabulary contained within each topic. However, there are a number of factors to take into account when categorising conversation topics this way:

  1. The CEFR doesn’t actually mention which vocabulary is needed at each level.
  2. Vocabulary is categorised based on what students know, rather than what they are required to know at each level. There are no restrictions on what vocabulary items a student can learn whatever their level of language.
  3. Conversation topics contain a range of vocabulary from A1 to C2, so a student would simply be expected to use the vocabulary appropriate to their level when discussing a particular topic.

Many academic studies have attempted to categorise vocabulary according to the CEFR. One that I find particularly interesting is Cambridge English’s Vocabulary Profile. Cambridge analysed hundreds of thousands of examination scripts written by English learners, along with evidence from coursebooks, teaching materials and examination vocabulary lists.

From this, they determined which words learners at each level of the CEFR were using in order to create a vocabulary list categorised into the CEFR. For example, ‘diet’ is a B1 word, ‘climate change’ is B2, ‘genetic’ is C1, and ‘antibiotic’ is C2. We could perhaps use this to categorise the topics ‘healthy eating’, ‘global warming’, ‘genetic engineering’, and ‘medicine’ into appropriate CEFR levels.

However, as a former data analyst myself, I know that averages are based around a range. While the majority of learners that use the word ‘antibiotic’ may be at C2 level, that is not to say a learner at B1 level didn’t have a medical situation in an English-speaking country and had to learn the word as well.

And Cambridge themselves are very clear to point this out too. They state that their aim is “to reflect what learners DO know, not what they SHOULD know.” The Vocabulary Profile may be useful for determining a student’s vocabulary score in the IELTS (referred to as “less common vocabulary” in the scoring criteria), but this doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the vocabulary words a student should learn or be taught at each level.

Likewise, various studies have sought to show the size of vocabulary a student at each level of the CEFR is likely to have. For example, research by Milton and Alexiou (2009) concludes the following vocabulary sizes for learners of English:

CEFR LevelVocabulary Size
A1< 1,500
A21,500 – 2,500
B12,750 – 3,250
B23,250 – 3,750
C13,750 – 4,500
C24,500 – 5,000

Of course, in each level there will be core vocabulary required for a person to fully express themselves and form coherent sentences according to that level, and vocabulary lists do exist for each of these levels. Originally, the CEFR contained such vocabulary lists, but this was phased out in favour of the skills-focused assessment that makes up the current version of the framework.

Cambridge English produced some of these vocabulary lists in tandem with the CEFR in the 1990s and still use them today for their exam levels. Their A2 (Waystage) list contains around 1,000 words, and their B1 (Threshold) list contains around 2,000 words, for example (Milton and Alexiou, 2009).

It is worth pointing out that these lists are not exhaustive and are not necessarily a requirement for a student to be categorised according to each level. Milton and Alexiou also point out that vocabulary size is an indicator of what learners at each level have, rather than what they should be required to have.

But we have moved away slightly from the original focus of this article which was not to ask whether individual words can be categorised by CEFR level (they can), but to ask whether conversation topics can be categorised that way.

Conversation topics and topics of public debate don’t have vocabulary limited to just one CEFR level but a range of levels. When talking about these topics, students at different levels will be expected to use the vocabulary appropriate to their level.

For example, if the conversation topic is food, students at different levels may produce the following replies to the question, “What is your favourite food?” according to their knowledge of vocabulary:

  • My favourite food is pizza. (A1)
  • I really like fast food. (A2)
  • I love beef pie. (B1)
  • I know it’s bad for you, but I love junk food. (B2)
  • I’m utterly addicted to pastries! (C1)
  • I have nostalgic memories of my grandma’s casseroles, so I’ll say that. (C2)

On the other hand, if the question is, “Should junk food be banned?” then beginner level students would probably not be expected to know how to reply due to their limited knowledge of both vocabulary and grammar.

A B1 level student, however, might ask what ‘junk food’ and ‘banned’ mean as these are words that are expected to be known at B2 level. Once explained by the teacher, there is nothing to stop that B1 level student from giving their opinion, even if that opinion is not fully expanded.

There is no reason why a lower-level student should not learn higher-level vocabulary should they be introduced to it by whatever means, either in the classroom with their teacher or in their personal life when reading articles on the internet, for example.

It is quite reasonable to expect a football fanatic at A1 level to know the words ‘penalty’ (B2), ‘referee’ (B2), and ‘foul’ (C2) as they are likely to have come across them in their personal life, despite these words not being taught, nor expected to be known, at A1 level.

Another example of this is with the word ‘hail’, classed as a C2 word. I happen to live in an area where hailstorms are fairly common, and every time it happens during a class, all my students, whether they are at a beginner, intermediate or advanced level, always ask, “How do you say that in English?”

But perhaps the greatest current example is with the word ‘vaccine’. According to the Vocabulary Profile, this word is (or was) mainly used by students with a C2 level of English. But after a certain global event, it would be almost impossible for anyone learning English who has given even the briefest of glances to an English-language news site not to know this word today.

My lesson plan on ‘genetic engineering’ contains five C1 words (e.g., ‘extinction’, ‘modify’, ‘genetic’) and six C2 words (e.g., ‘dominant’, ‘eradicate’, and ‘ethical’) in the conversation questions. A student discussing this topic who has a level lower than C1 would be expected to ask for the definitions of these words, but there is nothing to stop the teacher explaining and the student learning – this is how you build up your vocabulary size.

Very simply, the more vocabulary words a conversation topic contains that is above the student’s expected vocabulary range, the more vocabulary explanations the teacher will have to give in the classroom.


So what level is the topic ‘genetic engineering’? Well, based on vocabulary, it is probably a C1 level topic. Based on the fact it regularly appears in the news, it could be considered a B2 level topic. If your students are interested in the topic, it will be a level B1 topic.

My main piece of advice would be to send your students the list of lesson topics and let them choose which ones they want to discuss in the class (as an added bonus, this keeps the classes interesting and can help avoid subjects your students may consider controversial). As the course goes on, and they build up their confidence and fluency, you can begin to introduce topics that they might not be so familiar with to help improve their speaking level.

You should also expect to explain any new vocabulary words the students come across as you would in any other situation. These new words can be explained and learned regardless of your students’ language level.

The aim of this article was to show my reasons for not categorising the lesson plans according to CEFR levels. That’s not to say conversation topics shouldn’t be categorised in this way, and hopefully there is some useful information in this article on how to do that.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

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