Aug 12

ELT Language Levels Explained

FAQs about elt
What do the CEFR, Cambridge and IELTS have in common?
How do you know if your learners are elementary or pre-intermediate and what does C1 mean? If you're confused by the plethora of different terms and scales used to measure language level, this video will help.
Video transcript

What level is your English language? It’s a question that’s important to know- both for learners and for teachers. But it can be really confusing.
There are a couple of problems here. The first one is people often have what’s called a spiky profile. This means that their level in speaking or listening might be significantly higher or lower than their level of reading or writing. The other difficulty is that there are a whole plethora of different scales used to measure level and as a novice teacher, you might not know what these mean... If this is you and you’re wondering what these levels mean- stick with me. I’ll try to explain.

I’m Jo Gakonga. I’ve been teaching English since 1989 and training teachers for over 20 years. I’m a CELTA Trainer and assessor and I’ve got a website at that makes material to help teachers just like you along their English teaching journey.

You probably heard some of these terms. Elementary, B2, Cambridge First, IELTS BAND 5 and you might be wondering how these relate to your learners and how they relate to each other.

Let’s start with the basic level of description - the one that seems the most obvious- the least opaque. This starts with learners at beginner level-this is exactly what it says on the tin although learners will often be ‘false beginners’- people who’ve learnt English before but maybe a long time ago and don’t feel as if they remember anything (although it’ll probably come back). Then the scale moves up to elementary, pre-intermediate, intermediate, upper intermediate and advanced. By advanced level, learners should be proficient in the language and won’t need much help from you anymore although there’s always that vocabulary mountain to climb.

The problem with these levels is that there are no particular set descriptions about what learners can and can’t do at these levels, so how do you actually know if you’re intermediate? Welcome to the CFR.

The Common European Framework of Reference levels address this issue. It was devised by the Council of Europe and you can find more about it here if you’re interested. There are six levels and they broadly map onto the levels we’ve already seen in this way. There are can-do descriptions for each of the levels that state what learners are able to perform in the language at any of those particular levels, (you can see these statements and download a searchable excel file of them at the other link below, too) so that’s quite helpful.

You’ll usually see that coursebooks these days are labelled with these levels as well as or instead of the traditional elementary/pre- intermediate type labels.

So those are helpful to know but as well as these levels, we have exams that map to them. Let’s start by looking at Cambridge because it’s such a common exam board for people to follow when they’re doing General English.

The most popular and widely taken Cambridge exam is Cambridge B2 First. This used to be called Cambridge First and before that FCE- first cert in English and it obviously maps onto upper intermediate level of English or B2. It’s popular because it’s really well recognised by employers, so you might well be asked to prepare learners for this test. Above this, we’ve got Cambridge C1 Advanced and Cambridge C2 Proficiency. Below that there are B1 Preliminary and A2 Key.

Then there are other important exams such as IELTS and TOEFL. These are slightly different because they have a specific purpose- Academic English- and they’re mostly used by people who want to study in an English speaking university, although they’re also sometimes required for immigration. As a rule of thumb this is how the levels map onto the CFR and there’s no ‘pass mark for these but most universities would ask for level 6 or 6.5 for IELTS and 90-100 for TOEFL.

If you want to see a comparison of all of these, here you go…

I hope this gives you a bit of an insight and understanding as to the levels, and if you want great ideas for teaching at all levels and head over to my website for lots of inspiration, methodology, ideas and activities.
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