What do the terms beginner, intermediate, and advanced really mean?
Unfortunately the definitions vary among institutions. The following guide for
oral communication ability, though subjective, may be useful if your program
does not have its own definitions of performance standards:
Very limited communication in English
Uses gestures and 1-3 word
Communicates with difficulty and many errors
Very simple, unelaborated answers
No ability to extend conversation
Uses simple grammar & vocabulary
Communicates understandably with some errors
Simple answers and little elaboration
Attempts interactive conversation
Attempts more complex grammar
Communicates fairly well
Some elaboration, especially on familiar topics
Can converse with errors and some
Uses more complex grammar & vocabulary
Communicates well with occasional errors
Converses with lots of elaboration and
Errors don't hinder communication
Uses advanced grammar & vocabulary
The Canadian College of Business and Language has developed the following
series of ESL level descriptors that encompass reading, writing, listening, and
Your volunteer program may or may not have its own system for assessing
student language levels. If you work with a student one-on-one, knowing the
'level' is not as critical as knowing the student; you will soon discover
strengths and weaknesses and develop a sense of what your student can or can't
handle. However, if you work with more than one learner, your task will be much
easier if they are all near the same language level. For this reason, many
programs test language levels for all new students for placement purposes. The
following is a sample intake test based on the above performance descriptions.
Testing instructions are found on page two. An accompanying page of drawings has
not been included due to copyright.
Sample Intake Test
Sample interview test for oral communication ability from International
Students Inc. at Colorado State University; used by permission.
Two standardized language assessment systems widely used in adult education
are the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS) and the Basic
English Skills Test (BEST). More information on these is available below.
CASAS - Comprehensive
Adult Student Assessment System
The "Life Skills Assessment" is used in many adult ESL programs to measure
English ability in listening, reading, writing, speaking (interview), and
math. It is appropriate for all English levels. Training is required to administer
the test. Contact CASAS for cost information.
BEST - Basic English Skills Test (Center for Applied Linguistics)
Several states including Colorado utilize the BEST for their adult ESL
programs. Scores are correlated to 10 performance levels zero ability through
native speaker. There is a 15-minute oral interview section scoring
communication, fluency, pronunciation, and listening, and a 1-hour literary
skills section scoring reading and writing. A short form of the oral interview
is available scoring communication and fluency through performance level 7. A
test administration training video is available. Contact the Center for
Applied Linguistics for cost information.