It’s a question we are often asked. Thankfully, it’s something we cover on all our ACTDEC accredited Global English TESOL courses. However, if you want to get a brief idea, then read on…
Firstly, DON’T go and pay for expensive tests or send your learners to confusing apps that might or might not give them an accurate indication of their level. It will only test their reading ability, and if it's a multi-choice test then there is the luck factor involved as well.
Instead, let us show you an easier way. We have been testing students for 25 years using this simple method.
It’s called an interview…
Sit down with your learner, make them feel as comfortable as possible, and begin asking them some questions. Start simply, asking their name, age, and why they want to learn English. What do they like? Do they have any interests?
Then ask questions that go a little deeper, to discover a little more about them. You could ask about where they come from, when they started learning English, what their hopes are for the future.
Following this, ask them about things that get them to use the present perfect simple, such as “Have you ever been…” or conditionals, such as “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?” Their responses will enable you to see their level of English.
The interview should take no longer than 10 minutes, and you'll have everything you need to know where they are with their spoken and aural English.
We assess level based on four criteria; grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and fluency (or communicative ability). Blending these together will give us a good idea of the level of each student. So as they answer, be listening forensically. What do you hear in terms of what they say and how they say it?
Let’s look at what we might expect a learner be able to do at each level. We have included the respective Common European Framework Reference Levels for each one as well.
At the beginner level, your student will have difficulty using even basic grammatical structures. They won’t know any past forms, and they may even have problems forming the present simple (I like, I speak, I am, etc. )
When they speak, they might perhaps be difficult to understand, with heavy mother tongue (L1) influence, so their language may be heavily accented and certain sounds are impossible for them to make. When you are asking questions, you might find that they can only comprehend basic words and can’t name common objects, so you’ll see that they have a very limited range of vocabulary. There will be minimal communicative ability here, so you will have very little interaction possible. It may also be they they have a low level of confidence in their ability to communicate.
Beware that there may be other factors here – it could be that they are afraid to communicate for a range of differing reasons. However, if you encounter a learner who exhibits the above characteristics across the four areas we outlined, you are dealing with a beginner learner.
Here you will find that the basic grammatical structures are understood, but they encounter problems with anything more than the present tense. In their pronunciation you may find that there are frequently native speech patterns from the L1, which interfere with intelligibility. They may know enough words for a few sentences, but beyond this, their ability to understand or use language more widely will be very limited. Communicative interaction will be possible, but only on a basic level and they cannot communicate on more advanced topics.
There will be a significant step up from the beginner, and perhaps a little more confidence, but they will be reluctant to experiment with the language.
Here, you will see that they have a basic understanding & use of present and past forms, but often you would find errors with irregular past tenses, like write/wrote, speak/spoke, eat/eaten, for example.
Again, as with elementary, more advanced structures may not be attempted.
There still will be some first-language influence in their pronunciation, and while they perhaps can use some everyday phrases well, the but range and scope of these is still limited.
Basic interaction in response to questions is good but still comes with a lot of hesitation and this student will struggle at more sophisticated levels of communication.
This is probably where you’ll find the majority of English language learners and it’s also the level at which most students plateau, struggling to advance beyond this level. There will be a good use of most structures but problems with a few past tenses and perfect forms.
Their pronunciation shows a good degree of clarity but still some first-language interference. They can understand and name everyday objects well, but experience problems encountered with more advanced language. In terms of communicative ability, this will be good, but with some hesitation, and certainly less fluency with advanced structures.
If your learner is that this level, you will note that they have a good understanding of most tense structures, although there may be some confusion with some of the more advanced perfect forms and conditionals.
When they speak, they will probably be easily understandable, with good stress and intonations patterns, although you still might find some first-language interference, particularly if they come from a country where English is dubbed into the L1.
This learner will demonstrate a good range of vocabulary, may try for more difficult words without being sure of their use or meaning. They will most likely possess confident communication skills, attempting to interact and share information, but you still will find a little repetition and hesitation.
At this stage you can expect to see someone with a comprehensive understanding of all the key grammatical structures. You should find accurate and creative use of tenses, and quite often this will be accompanied by a near native-level speech, although a few issues with intonation and stress might be present.
Your advanced level trainee uses words and phrases only expected of a near native speaker, generally in an appropriate context. They most likely will communicate with confidence with minimal hesitation.
However, you’ll still have opportunities for practising more complex language structures and vocabulary, such as unusual collocations, phrasal verbs and idioms, and they might find the quirks of the language interesting, such as the subtle differences between which verbs take gerunds or infinitives, or British vs American English. Don’t worry, there will always be something to teach this learner!
So that’s it – our initial guide to assessing learner spoken and aural ability. We hope it’s helpful as you think about how you assess your students!
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