Language proficiency is ‘the ability of an individual to use language with a level of accuracy that transfers meaning in production and comprehension’ (Wikipedia, 2021, para. 1). There is no singular definition however of English language proficiency and many organisations use differing proficiency ratings which can cause confusion and misunderstandings for both teachers and students alike.
One of the most commonly used levelling schemas is the CEFR or the Common European Framework of References for Languages. This framework details what language learners can do at their different stages of learning in the five skills: Spoken Interaction, Spoken Production, Listening, Reading and Writing. The framework is language-neutral, it works across all languages, meaning that it can be adapted for various contexts and different languages. These levels are used in teaching and learning as well as for assessing where students currently sit and what exactly they have to know and do to improve. Divided into three groups and six subgroups the CEFR starts with the Basic user at levels A1 and A2, moves up to the Independent user at levels B1 and B2 and finishes with the Proficient user at C1 and C2. Skills are progressively mastered as the student moves up in level and this can all be seen in the table below.
The CEFR Levels and general descriptions
Note. From Introductory guide to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for English language teachers (p. 2), by Cambridge University Press. Copyright 2013. Cambridge University Press.
The CEFR levels for students of the English language
CEFR levels specific to English have been developed and these Reference Level Descriptions (RLDs). Here, the specific aspects of English learned at every level is described so that educators are aware of what is appropriate for learning at each stage. This site also has two online tools: the English Vocabulary Profile Online and the English Grammar Profile Online. These searchable databases provide researched-informed English vocabulary and grammar that is appropriate for every CEFR stage. These are highly recommended and can be used to check that the materials and lessons you are using are pitched at the right level or to help you design your own materials at exactly the right level for your learners.
The English Vocabulary Profile Online offers findings in British as well as American English.
The English Grammar Profile shows how students become more proficient in grammatical form, meaning and pragmatic appropriateness as they progress and has grammar summaries for every level. Further resources on for the CEFR specific levels
The Six Proficiency Levels for English Language Learners (ELLs)
Another way in which students can be measured is in Language Proficiency Levels. These are not as commonly used world-wide as the CEFR levels are but they can be useful to understand especially as teaching English is a universal activity with many overlapping and similar expressions having shared terms therefore will help teachers and students from different backgrounds communicate together more effectively.
As the titles suggests each stage is an advancement in the proficiency level of the student. Learners develop in the language that they have available to use and the strategies they have for communicating. When students move from beginner to intermediate they learn compensation strategies which help them make the most of the language that they already know. Advanced learners will be able to be more spontaneous in their communication and use the correct language for specific situations.
The list below shows how much exposure to the English language learners at each level will have had, what they are able to understand, and what they are expected to be able to do with the language.
Note. From Study.com. https://study.com/academy/lesson/what-are-the-ell-proficiency-levels.html. Copyright n.d. J. Richter.
The benefits of having levels for English language students
For students levels show that language learning can be seen as a scale of what they can do with the language. Breaking learning up clearly like this helps the task of learning a new language seem less daunting and as something which can be accomplished step by step. For those students who need specific English skills for work, study or to travel, levels allow them to see and compare their ability with what is required by educational institutions or international companies.
For teachers the levels provide clear learning objectives for each stage, allowing us to plan what our students need to learn to progress. Surprisingly levels can provide motivation to students who find it encouraging to move up the language learning ladder, this helps teachers as motivated students are usually easier to teach than unmotivated ones. The levels help parents know where their child is at in their language learning as well as what their child is doing well at and what they need to improve. It provides a clear tool to help teachers talk to parents and is reasonably easy to understand.
Cambridge University Press. (2013). Introductory guide to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for English language teachers. https://www.englishprofile.org/images/pdf/GuideToCEFR.pdf
Richter, J. (n.d.). What are the ELL Proficiency Levels? Study.com https://study.com/academy/lesson/what-are-the-ell-proficiency-levels.html
Wikipedia. (2021). Language proficiency. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_proficiency