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Celpe-Bras: Ideas for English Language Testing

Celpe-Bras: Ideas for English Language Testing

Celpe-Bras stands for Certificado de Proficiência em Língua Portuguesa para Estrangeiros (in English: Portuguese Language Proficiency Exam for Foreigners). It is the only proficiency exam in Portuguese accepted by the Brazilian Government. Celpe-Bras, though, has an atypical pattern when compared to other language exams, such as TOEFL, IELTS, DELE (Spanish), and the ones by Cambridge, for instance.

This article is a result of a research conducted on the exam in 2015 and is intended to provide you with more details regarding the exam in order to help you come up with new ideas when testing English.


Abilities and Competences: Theory

The exam is based on the idea of abilities and competences. Perrenoud understood that human beings in general study in order to act. They go to school to be, therefore, “armed for life”. It is to say that they constantly look for the utility of what they are learning.

Having understood that, we can now go over the concept of competence. According to Gillet:

a competence is a system of pieces of knowledge both theoretical and practical organized in operational schemes that allow us identify a task/problem and its solution through effective means

In other words, a competence is the use of organized pieces of knowledge in order to solve a real life task.

For Moretto abilities, on the other hand, have to do with “know how” [savoir faire]. One might know how to perform a specific operation which, alone, would not be sufficient for solving a real life task.


Abilities and Competences applied to Language teaching

In a language the abilities would be reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The use of some, or eventually all of them, may form many different competences (e.g. ‘give directions’, ‘tell an anecdote’, ‘answer questions in a job interview’, etc).

For us, ELT professionals, these concepts are frequently used in our teaching. Perrenoud confirms that when by stating that

Language teaching is more focused on the competences than on pieces of knowledge.


The exam itself: characteristics

Celpe-Bras differs from other proficiency exams for two main reasons:

  • The abilities are always assessed in integration, and
  • Elements of  Brazilian culture are strongly present throughout the test.


The written part

The test is composed by two parts: written and oral. The written part assesses writing skills by using four tasks as per the following items.

Task 1 – Students watch a video twice, usually a piece of authentic news from TV. They are allowed to take notes while watching. The video is played twice. Candidates, then, are asked to write an essay answering a question about the video and are expected to use the data collected from it in order to support their essay.

Task 2 – Students listen to an audio twice, usually a piece of authentic news from the radio. They are allowed to take notes. It is also played twice. Candidates, then, are required to write an essay answering a question about the piece. They are also expected to use some data collected from the video to support their essay.

Tasks 3 and 4 – Students read a text, usually a piece of news from a newspaper or magazine. Students are then asked to write an essay answering a question about the piece. They are expected to use data from the text to support their ideas.

We can see that the abilities are definitely integrated in every task of the first part as per the following table.

Task Reading Writing Listening Speaking
1 Yes Yes Yes No
2 No Yes Yes No
3 and 4 Yes Yes No No


The reason why this model of evaluation is adopted is because in real life we hardly ever use the abilities in isolation. When writing an article, for instance, we read or watch things in preparation. For us to take notes while on the phone, we have to listen to something and then write it. The applicant’s manual confirms this idea.


The oral part

The oral part also follows the same philosophy.

Task 1 – Known as an ‘ice breaker’, the objective here is to get to know the candidate by asking them personal or professional questions based on a questionnaire answered during the subscription for the test. One person is in charge of talking to the candidate and evaluating the interaction during the conversation. Another examiner is in charge of evaluating grammar, pronunciation, lexis, register and other features of language.

Task 2, 3, and 4 – The examiner picks one of the twenty “elementos provocadores” (literally, “provoking elements”, i.e. kick-off texts) which is used to start a conversation about different topics. They are texts (verbal and/or non-verbal) which are quickly read in order to start a conversation. The examiner checks the candidate’s questionnaire in order to choose a proper theme.

The abilities are, therefore, integrated in every task of this second part as per the following table.

Task Reading Writing Listening Speaking
1 No No Yes Yes
2, 3, and 4 Yes No Yes Yes


The cultural element

Unlike some other proficiency exams, Celpe-Bras might be a hard exam if you are not acquainted to  Brazilian culture.

Costa says that it is crucial that the candidate know how to build the correct meaning by correlating the pieces with its discursive community, which is in this case Brazilian people.


Final considerations

Having gotten to know the exam throughout the article, it is noticeable that Celpe-Bras is different from the exams which we are used to in ELT. It does evaluate the candidate’s abilities in integration.


Follow-up questions
Please, let’s discuss them below!
What is your opinion about the exam’s philosophy?
Would you apply it somehow when testing English? Why (not)?



COSTA, A. S. A composição das imagens dos elementos provocadores e a interação na parte oral do Celpe-Bras. O exame de proficiência Celpe-Bras em foco, Campinas, 2014.

DOCKING, R. (1994). Competency-based curricula – The big picture. Prospect, 9(2), 8-17.

GILLET, P. Construir la formation: outils pour les enseignments et les formateurs. Paris: PUF, 1991.[

GUILLEVIC, D. Psychologie du travail. Paris: Nathan, 1991.

KRAMSHC, C. Language and culture. New York: Oxford, 1998.

LE BOTERF, G. De la compétence: essai sur un attracteur étrange. Paris: Les Éditions d’organisation, 2000.

MORETTO, V. P. Planejamento – Planejando a educação para o desenvolvimento de competências. Petrópolis: Vozes, 2013. 9. ed.

PERRENOUD, P. Desenvolver competências ou ensinar saberes: A escola que prepara para a vida. Porto Alegre: Penso, 2013. 224 p.

PONCIANO, L.; LONGORDO, M. Representações da Cultura Brasileira nos elementos provocadores do Celpe-Bras em 2013. O exame de proficiência Celpe-Bras em foco, Campinas, 2014.

SKEHAN, P. A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford University Press, 1998.

SWALES, J. M. Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

______. Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

TARDIF, J. Le transfert de compétences analysé à travers la formation de professionels. In: DEVELAY, M. et al. (Dir.). Le concept de transfert de connassainces em formation initiale et em formation continue. Lyon: CRDP, 1996. p. 31-46.

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