Five things you can do to identify the English level of your students

Five things you can do to identify the level of your students (2)September is for many of us the start of a new academic year, back to work and back to school. New students bring new challenges and objectives for both teachers and learners, and the first thing we need to know is: What level of English do they have? And secondly: How can we measure their ongoing progress?

Here are five ways to identify the level of your students ranging from informal home-made observation classroom activities to more scientific commercial products which have been carefully designed to identify levels of English.

1. Placement and diagnostic tests. Most course books come with abundant test packages these days. If your course does not provide a placement test there are a lot of free online options. Be aware that many standard placement tests often test knowledge of grammatical structures and don’t give you information about students’ abilities across the four skills. They are, however, easy to administer and can be useful to form initial groups or see the range of levels within a large class which has been organised by age i.e. state school classes.  For a luxurious top of the range alternative to the standard placement test,check out the Pearson Versant Placement Test. This test will give you an accurate measure of a student’s speaking, listening, reading and writing abilities. It uses speech processing technology and the science of linguistics and is highly reliable.

2. The class mingle. Once you have been assigned a class, this activity will give you a rough overview of the level of your students and may help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of individual students. It’s ideal for classes with up to 18 students and from Elementary to Advanced levels.Your objective is to get an impression of your students’ knowledge of English and communicative abilities. Before the first class, consider which learning points they are likely to have covered the previous year and make a list of questions that they would be able to ask each other. For example,  at the start of a pre-intermediate level we could assume that students will be able to give basic personal information about themselves using to be and basic verbs like live, work while at upper intermediate that they could use the second conditional to talk about hypothetical situations. In class, brainstorm the questions and possible answers to the questions that you want them to ask each other. Make sure you get all students to participate in the brainstorm, this will give you a lot of information about what they already know. Secondly, once you have established a list of 5-6 questions, get the students to mingle and exchange information. Make sure you get to hear each student taking a turn. When the spoken interaction is completed, ask them to write down the questions and their answers on a piece of paper, which they`ll hand over to you on completion. While they are writing, write down a few notes on each student marking out of 1-5 for example: Control/Use of language, Knowledge of language, and Overall performance. The written sheet will also provide you with additional information. While this is not a scientific method of assessing your students’ level of English,it will help you‘tune into’ their current abilities, and for your new students, it’s a great ice-breaker!

3. Questionnaire, writing task and tutorial. This is a process that’s better used with Upper- intermediate to Advanced students. Design a questionnaire asking students question such as the following:

How do you rate your ability out of 5 for: reading, writing, speaking and listening?

What aspect/s of English do you find most difficult?

What would you like to improve during the course?

What do you think your current strengths are? etc.

In class time, set a writing assignment for example:‘Write about what you did in your summer holidays or your idea of your ideal summer holiday(150-180 words)’. While the students are doing the task, speak to them individually working through the questionnaire they will have filled in previously. Hold an interview of a maximum of 5 minutes and agree three personal objectives with each student for the course; they should write these at the bottom of the questionnaire. You can record the interviews and later make a copy of the questionnaire and agreed objectives. The written assignment will also give you more information about each individual student’s level of English. At the end of term or the school year you can repeat the process to complement any formal tests that you normally set.

4. GSE, Global Scale of English. There are lot of well-established and reliable measures out there to identify your students’ level of English but  perhaps the most effective in terms of ease of use and accuracy is the international system the GSE. The system measures the four skills and is aligned to the CEFR and other important exams such as IELTS or TOEFL. The aim is to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses to inform both learners and teachers and subsequent learning objectives. The system provides you with:

The GSE scale

GSE Learning objectives

Course materials


Check out this link to learn more and to download resources and brochures.

5. Online Progress tests. Many courses provide management systems like the Pearson MyEnglishLab platform which allow you to select, generate and post progress tests. Additionally they come with automatic marking and create records of student scores to make your life even easier! Here’s a new exciting product for adult and young adult learners: Progress.

Progress - Pearson ELT

Progress is an online test package which you can access via the MyEnglishLab platform. You can assign tests to students, which they can do in class or at home. The tests focus on integrated skills on how language is used in natural contexts:

1. Listening and reading

2. Reading and writing

3. Speaking

4. Reading and writing

Right now there are 6 levels available from GSE level 15 (A1 CEFR) to GSE 80 (C1 CEFR). This is the first ever online, fully automated and institutionally administered progress test! If you think this could be a solution for your progress testing needs, check out the following link.

*This article was written by Tim James Roberts

You might also be interested in…

– 10 best practices for tackling English language exams

– Top tips for passing the FCE (First Certificate in English)

– Top tips for passing the CAE (Cambridge Advanced English)

– 7 tips for English exams to help you prepare

– PTE, TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC, Cambridge exams… Which English exams should I choose?

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