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Levels (again)

September 24, 2008

Hello again,
The issue of language levels is always a tricky one as I have noted here before. The Common European Framework gives some very helpful descriptions of levels for the key language skills of listening, reading, speaking and writing. It is also very useful in being adaptable to the sphere in which a learner wishes to demonstrate ability. But the problem...

... with all attempts to define level of language attainment is that no one student progresses in the same way as another or in a uniform way. One student might be a basic user when it comes to listening comprehension but an independent user when it comes to reading. Discrepancies can occur between all the skills. To give a personal example, I feel competent to speak, read and understand spoken French, but I know my writing skills are way below the others.

Of course there is nothing to stop the teacher taking note of this both in the way s/he teaches and in the assessment of the student at the end of the course. But there is a problem with course books. Most course books are organized according to levels. Teachers’ resource books are too, although these allow more flexibility. This means that in any one group, some of the exercises, texts and tasks will suit some of the students some of the time, but none will suit all the students all the time.

I deal with this first by assuming that everybody actually knows more than they think. In other words, I would rather use material that may seem to be above the stated level than below it. I then manage the differences among the students by demanding different things of them, according to their ability.

Perhaps the issue becomes most complicated when students fall into that ragbag level: intermediate. You can sure that every intermediate group will have range of levels across the skills. To deal with this I try to get students to identify their personal weaknesses and goals so that they can participate in planning their work.

In general I only think about levels at two points: when the student first joins and then when he/she leaves and an assessment is needed. Once the course is under way I find the issue is largely redundant. I’d be very interested to hear your views.

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  1. Eric Roth Says:

    Good article.

    It would have been more helpful, however, for ESL administrators and teachers if you had included a link to the Common European Framework guidelines again.

    Again, thank you for the ever important and controversial topic of level placement and advancement. Personally, I believe that class context, student goals, and individual choice should remain be far more important than estimated vocabulary command or skill answering grammar questions on a fill-in blank test.

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