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Methodology: level testing in EFL

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced

Advice on evaluating the level of new students.

What is the best way to test new students to evaluate their level? Most of the schools I know use a simple multiple-choice grammar test (for speed and convenience) which I find very unprofessional and frustrating for the teacher who then has to deal with groups consisting of people of wildly varying levels. Do you know of any good tests available for testing oral & written comprehension & expression, grammar & vocabulary? Or better still, for testing communicative skills in English?

E. Montoya

A language school placement test needs to provide an accurate method of selecting class levels for students who join a course. It needs to be accurate and to give a wide range of marks - e.g. from 0 to 100 - with marks at all scores between - and for these marks to easily be interpreted (e.g. via a table) into class levels. Obviously the longer and more thorough a test is, the more areas it deals with, the more accurate it is likely to be - but it typically has to be done in a very short period of time (20 - 50 mins) and in far from ideal conditions (e.g. perched in a corner of Reception, or with a girlfriend whispering the answers.)

If the test is faulty and the results are unreliable, it fundamentally undermines the entire school system. Your classes are even more mixed level than you intended; teachers and students are unhappy and the basic engine of the school stutters.

In addition to this need to be accurate, the test has a major role in characterising a school to its clients. For many people the test will be the first contact with the educational side of a school - and certain messages will be given by the test. Some of these are to do with "face" - i.e. how it looks - whether it seems to be a professional product - does it give out clear messages that it comes from an organisation that knows what it's doing. (What impression does a badly photocopied set of grammar questions make?)

Beyond this, the content of the test should (at least to some degree) reflect the educational beliefs and distinctive flavour of the institution - and I agree with the question writer that there is a potential problem with setting a purely grammar multiple choice test - it suggests to the client that traditional multiple choice questioning is at the heart of our language teaching, that declarative knowledge and grammatical accuracy is more valued than communicative ability etc.

The traditional notion that a student has "a level" is not really true. Learners have a range of "levels" - perhaps being very knowledgeable about grammar, weak at listening, having a limited knowledge of collocational patterns, writing very well etc. We need to find out as much as we can about as many of these as we can.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Yes, I too find this issue extremely frustrating. I have always found that the current placement tests available on the market only test students' grammar knowledge, but later in class I find their oral skills are generally much lower. This means that students are often assigned to a higher level based on the results of their placement test but their communication skills don't often match the level assigned. As my students are much more interested in improving their oral skills, it is vital I find an oral placement test. I feel this type of test would be much more accurate in assigning my students to the correct level for them. But where do I find Oral Placement tests??

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  • We currently don't have any level tests available on the site, however there is an article on diagnostic tests that will give you guidance in creating your own:

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  • I have just being given the task of teaching a 56 year-old Chinese gentleman English. I have taught English in China for a couple of years but mainly to young adults who already had some working knowledge of the language. The problem I'm facing is how to accurately judge his level, is he an (absolute)beginner or a false beginner, or perhaps even on elementary level? Not even the interpreter with him, can give me an answer to that question. I do not want to treat hime like a child, he is educated and it's just that he seems to have very little knowledge of English? How do I determine his level? How do you test someone if you fon't know if he really understands anything? Any comprehensive tests out there for lower level say, False Beginner? (my best guess)
    Etienne Terblanche

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  • I was wondering about this exact issue and was happy to have found E. Montoya's question here. I was hoping my one stop at onestopenglish would be enough. Unfortunately, it looks like I'll need to resort to Google to find an answer.

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