What Are the ELL Proficiency Levels?

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  • 0:03 ELL Proficiency Levels
  • 0:23 Six Levels
  • 3:29 IELTS
  • 4:31 TOEFL
  • 5:08 CEFR
  • 7:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jesse Richter

Jesse holds two masters, a doctorate and has 15 years of academic experience in areas of education, linguistics, business and science across five continents.

This lesson describes the standard ELL proficiency levels and provides examples for each level. Additionally, the American State system and various internationally recognized systems are also discussed.

ELL Proficiency Levels

In this lesson, we explore the different proficiency levels and discuss how to determine the levels of your own English language learners (ELLs). The acronym ELL is an umbrella term that includes more specific acronyms such as ESL (English as a second language) and EFL (English as a foreign language).

Six Levels

There are six ELL levels:

The lowest is beginner. This is where all ELL students start their journey. Beginner-level students are those who have had zero previous exposure to English or have the ability to use only isolated words, common phrases, and basic pronunciation features. These students will be able to understand, but may not be able to produce, simple language such as 'yes,' 'no,' 'good,' 'bad,' and in many cases the numbers 1-10.

Lower Intermediate. Students on this level will have enough vocabulary and grammar to communicate at a basic level in familiar environments. Examples would be: 'My name is...,' 'I am from...,' and 'Good morning, how are you?'

Intermediate. At this level, ELLs can maintain a simple conversation and/or execute day-to-day functions, but only with high frequency (common) words and in familiar contexts. For example, these students would be able to give directions in a taxi, order food in a restaurant, and understand general meaning when watching videos in English.

Upper Intermediate. Students at this level can manage a cohesive, flowing conversation, but with consistent mistakes in grammar, pronunciation, and word choice. These ELLs are able to provided elaborate answers to questions such as: How do you feel about globalization? What are the pros and cons of technology?

Advanced. ELLs at this level have strong skill sets in all areas of speaking, writing, listening, and reading. They are able to use a range of professional and technical words and maintain the ability to coherently communicate even in unfamiliar areas. For example, these individuals are able to conduct international business negotiations, author a publishable paper, and engage in public speaking with accuracy and confidence.

Native Speaker. This level is reserved for individuals who hold English as their first language. It is important to note that many people grow up in bilingual or multilingual language environments, so it is common to see have students with multiple mother tongues.

Now, despite the fact that native speakers come from many countries, the term native speaker implies that the individual is from one of the popularly known English language speaking countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada. Unfortunately, many other nations which are home to native speakers such as South Africa, Singapore, Nigeria, and Belize are under-recognized.

We also must understand that there is a vast variety of different systems designed to determine the level of an ELL. In the United States, each state is given autonomy by the federal government to determine the criteria for developing proficiency level standards. You may find this information by visiting a specific state's department of education website.

In addition to state government systems, independent companies have also developed proficiency level standards that may be adopted by certain institutions, such as private schools or corporate language training centers.

It is prudent to mention that other countries around the world have their own internally defined proficiency level standards. However, countries who have not developed their own standards have adopted internationally recognized systems of standards. Let us explore these systems next.

IELTS

IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System. IELTS is a UK-developed system that is recognized by almost all schools, employers, and technical institutions around the world. IELTS uses a 9-band system ranging from non-user (Band 1) to expert (Band 9). Basically, we can say that Band 1 is someone who has zero English language ability, and Band 9 is a native speaker or has become fluent in English from a different language. The IELTS also has a possible band of 0, which is assigned to individuals who registered for the test but did not attend. IELTS tests in the four areas of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. In order to officially determine an ELL's proficiency level, the ELL must register for an official examination, which is administered by an authorized professional at an authorized test center. IELTS provides evaluation services for the two categories of General Training or Academic Training.

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