Learner Levels‏ for English Language Students

Learner Levels in TEFL

TEFL/TESOL teachers talk about students being Beginners, Intermediate, Advanced and so on. But what does that really mean?

There is no single method used to describe the learner level of an English‏‎ speaker, however this article will provide a rough idea of how to classify a student and how they are generally classified in TEFL.

Note that no single system is definitive and there are overlaps and variations with all the systems used. Schools in different countries may well have their own system but if you look at most books for students you will find that the level is classified using one of these system below.

Overview - Approximate Levels

Informally you'll often hear students of English being referred to as:

  • Beginner
  • Pre-Intermediate
  • Intermediate
  • Upper-Intermediate
  • Advanced

As a very rough guide...

Beginners

Beginners are starting out learning English. They can talk about the present, give their name, have simple conversations and so on.

False Beginners are students who have had perhaps some exposure to English and have a very limited grasp of the basics. They have either learned English many years before (perhaps at school) and are coming back to the classroom later in life, or perhaps they have had some contact with English speakers but no formal training.

False Beginners often learn faster than Total Beginners who may well know nothing at all of English. On the other hand, False Beginners may well have imperfect English embedded in their minds and this can take some work to correct.

However, remember that certain words are almost universal: internet, computer, pizza, taxi and so on will be understood by almost all nationalities so it is sometimes difficult to find a complete and utter beginner.

See also the full article, Beginners‏‎.

Intermediate

Students at intermediate level can talk and read about a wide number of subjects using appropriate vocabulary‏‎ and fairly correct, if basic, grammar‏‎. They can confidently use all the main tenses‏‎, and are beginning to use phrasal verbs‏‎, modal verbs‏‎, and suchlike.

Tone and style are not refined yet but there is an awareness of pronunciation and what it entails.

An intermediate level students have generally enough knowledge of the language to branch out to more specific English courses, such as Business English‏‎ or English for Academic Purposes‏‎.

When you speak to an intermediate level student you will hear mistakes and sometimes the verb tenses and forms get a bit confused, but generally you can have an extended conversation with them.

See also the full article, Intermediate.

Advanced

Advanced students can hold extended conversations and write extended texts.

They are aware of differences between formal and informal English and whilst they may make occasional mistakes and their pronunciation is obviously not like a native speaker, they have little difficulty in communicating on everyday topics as well as specialized subjects.

See also the full article, Advanced.

Classification Bodies

The classification above is very general. However, several major examining bodies have developed their own system of classification which tries to place students in certain bands depending on their level of English. Two popular ones are:

ALTE is the Association of Testers of Europe. They use the following to describe those levels discussed above:

  • Elementary: Basic command of the language needed in a range of familiar situations, for example: can understand and pass on simple messages.
  • Lower intermediate: Limited but effective command of the language in familiar situations, for example: can take part in a routine meeting on familiar topics, particularly in an exchange of simple factual information.
  • Upper-intermediate: Generally effective command of the language in a range of situations, for example: can make a contribution to discussions on practical matters.
  • Lower advanced: Good operational command of the language in a wide range of real world situations, for example: can participate effectively in discussions and meetings.
  • Upper Advanced: Fully operational command of the language at a high level in most situations, for example: can argue a case confidently, justifying and making points persuasively.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages uses these levels. An abbreviated list is here:

  • A1: Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases.
  • A2: Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to everyday subjects.
  • B1: Can understand the main points on familiar subjects encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • B2: Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.
  • C1: Can understand well a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognize implicit meaning.
  • C2: Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.

The CEFR system is becoming more popular and has been adopted by many institutions around the world.

Comparison of Classifications

As well as ALTE & CEFR there are other organizations which have offered more formal classifications for students. This is an approximate comparison of levels using criteria from those different organizations.

Note that UCLE, TOEIC and TOEFL are examining bodies.

General Terms CEFR ALTE UCLES TOEIC iBT TOEFL‏‎
Beginners‏‎ A1 Breakthrough        
Pre-Intermediate A2 Waystage   Key English Test    
Intermediate B1 Threshold 2 Lower Intermediate Preliminary English Test 405-500 57 - 60
Upper Intermediate B2 Vantage 3 Upper Intermediate First Certificate in English‏‎ 505-780 61 - 89
Advanced C1 Proficiency 4 Lower Advanced Certificate in Advanced English 785-900 90 - 106
Advanced C2 Mastery 5 Upper Advanced Certificate of Proficiency in English‏‎ 900+ 107 - 120
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