The bluffer's guide to level checking

Summary: A quick guide to putting someone in the right level, giving a good impression, and finding out other vital information as you do so.

By:|Audience: Teachers |Category:Teaching English

As far as I remember, none of my teaching qualifications have covered level checking. That’s strange when you think that interviewing students is the thing that many teachers do in the first day of their first job. As well as the first duty, it is also in some ways the most important thing that teachers have to do, because it is the first impression that many students will get of the school, in some cases even before they have decided if they actually want to join. And there will be an avalanche of bad consequences for the student, their classmates, their future teacher and the school if the teacher messes up the level check.

This article aims to quickly get you up to speed on the topic of level checking if your training was as deficient as mine was, as well as a brief reminder for those with more experience. While helping you quickly and accurately put students in the right class, this article will help you make sure you give a good impression to the students, find out other useful information about them, and give them some useful tips and language during the process. My top tips are:

Keep a (one-page) level guide with you 

Think about students and classes that you know

Ask mostly about studying and using English

Push your speaking speed and language as high as they can cope with

Use combinations of easy and difficult questions

Consider strengths and weaknesses as well as general ability/ Think about what level they will get most from

Try to judge how quickly they might improve

Don’t get thrown by one thing

If in doubt, ask the student

If in doubt, put students lower

Write stuff down

Don’t get stuck on question/ answer/ question/ answer

More details on all those below.

 

Keep a (one-page) level guide with you 

Even after 20 years of level checking, I still like to have a (single) piece of paper with me to help with difficult to place students. Here is my attempt at a brief but useful summary:

Bluffer’s guide to different EFL levels

Beginner level

Can rarely or never say what they want to say in English and can only reply to the most basic questions, often with one-word or very short answers, or just body language and gestures. Very unlikely to be able to complete a simple interaction such as a shopping roleplay without giving up or resorting to L1. No use of continuous, past or future forms.

Elementary level

Can cope okay with very simple topics and roleplay situations, but often have to give up when speaking about anything else. Some use of (fairly basic) whole sentences but very inconsistent use of past and future forms. Sometimes rely on body language and gestures when language would be more appropriate, e.g. to show lack of understanding. Have some use of communication strategies and phrases such as asking for repetition, but usually ones which are too direct or impolite and/ or direct translations from L1.    

Intermediate level

Can just about cope with most topics and communicative situations, and fairly easily with common topics and situations. Struggle to express themselves and pause a lot with more difficult topics, but rarely completely give up (perhaps simplifying what they say instead). Use communicative strategies such as checking/ clarifying, but usually repeating the same phrase each time and sometimes with phrases which are inappropriate and/ or influenced by L1. Usually avoid use of present forms to talk about the past and future, and some use of more complex forms like conditionals, but quite a lot of confusion between different forms. Little or no impressive language such as idioms and complex grammatical forms.   

Advanced level

Although they still regularly make mistakes, including perhaps some quite basic ones at times, they can speak about basically any topic and deal with basically any communicative situation. Sometimes use some language such as idioms and grammar such as mixed conditionals which makes you go “Wow”, but often in quite a forced way and/ or in a slightly unnatural context, and sometimes mixing up informal spoken forms and formal written ones. Use a good range of different grammar such as different future forms, but still some mixing up between them. Rarely have problems understanding or responding to questions, and have a range of communicative strategies and phrases if they need them. Rarely make pronunciation mistakes with individual words, apart from words that they have probably read but never heard. However, often still quite a strong influence of their first language on their English pronunciation.   

Proficiency level

Very impressive and natural use of language makes up for any continued basic mistakes. May still have some problems with individual sounds, but stress and intonation clearly different when they speak English and when they speak their first language. Can produce whole phrases and sentences smoothly without any seeming effort, probably meaning without needing to translate in their heads. Although still get some things confused while they are communicating, understand (consciously or subconsciously) quite subtle distinctions between English words, phrases and grammatical forms. Quite often know both a more formal/ written form and a more informal/ spoken/ idiomatic alternative, although perhaps still mix them up while speaking. Have probably learnt by a combination of studying English and picking it up more naturally (by reading, through interest in a favourite sitcom, by spending time abroad, etc). Can usually express almost exactly what they want to say, but also know when it is best just to say something different than what they would say in L1 when communicating in English. Often say that their personalities are different in English and L1.

The levels in between those above (Pre-Intermediate and Upper Intermediate) are difficult to actually define, but they are simply people who come between the descriptions above, i.e. have a mix of characteristics of both the category above and the category below.

 

Think about students and classes that you know

If it is difficult to compare a level check student to even a simplified guide like that above, the best approach is to think of a student and/ or class you know that has a similar level and place them in the same level of class.

 

Ask mostly about studying and using English

Perhaps the best cheat of all when level checking is to ask students what the level of their last class was. I still sometimes do that, but I can usually avoid such an obvious cheat by making most of my questions in the level check about their past, present and future use of and studies of English. It’s quite easy to get a range of language into such questions to fully test students’ grammar, listening and speaking, e.g. second conditional in “How would it change your life if you had better English?” In addition, you can use questions about their other English skills to make up for any lack of testing of those skills in the level checking process, e.g. “How difficult is it to read the articles (that you just mentioned)?” about reading and “What are your weak points and strong points in IELTS Writing?” about writing.

Three other advantages to this approach are:

- talking about studies and using English can appear more professional to students than just chatting about their friends and family

- you can slip in some useful self-study tips such as recommended websites (to make a level check test a kind of teaching opportunity as well)

- you can find out useful information about their needs that could help with teaching them.

If you run out of questions on using English at work, self-study, etc, it’s easy to just switch to “Do you have any hobbies?” for the last few minutes of the level check.

 

Push your speaking speed and language as high as they can cope with

Many schools only have an interview to decide a student’s level, so a few complex and/ or quickly spoken questions can be a useful test of students’ listening, vocabulary, etc. More importantly, their ability or inability to use a range of phrases to ask to you to repeat, ask for further explanation, etc will force them to reveal their range of communicative strategies and language. However, you don’t want to scare them off, so see Point 5 below for plan B.  

 

Use combinations of easy and difficult questions

Although I of course make sure I keep an open mind right until the end, I often find I can make a good guess about how someone will perform during the rest of the level check from their reaction to my first question, which is usually “What do you do?” Students who understand the question and respond in depth are often Advanced or at least Upper Intermediate. With those who don’t understand the question, I can often learn just as much about their level from whether they answer “I’m fine, thank you”, stare at me blankly, or instead use some nice phrases like “Sorry, do you mean today?” to check what I mean. I then have the back-up questions “What’s your job?” and “Are you working or are you a student?” up my sleeve. This pairing up of difficult and easier questions can be done with lots of pairs, perhaps ones that you have prepared in advance, like “Do you have a large family?”/ “How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

 

Consider strengths and weaknesses as well as general ability

Students who have good communication but rely on the same (often simple) phrases and communication strategies almost certainly need pushing into a higher class to get them past the Intermediate plateau, even if their simple language makes their production no better than Intermediate. In contrast, students who already have good language knowledge but lack fluency and/ or confidence are likely to gain from a class where the grammar, vocabulary, reading and/ or listening are too easy for them so they can concentrate on improving their speaking speed, cutting down on silence, turning passive knowledge of language into an ability to use it in speaking, etc. 

 

Try to judge how quickly they might improve

It you think a student is somewhere between Intermediate and Upper Intermediate, it will be fine to put them into the higher class if the challenge will mean that they quickly reach more or less the level of the other students. However, some students who are pushed in this way will be overwhelmed in the class and fall further behind. You can’t find out which of those two groups people will fall into just from their language level, so you need to find out about other relevant factors like:

- Lots of passive knowledge that will quickly become more active (e.g. people who do a lot of reading and/ or listening but rarely talk, or people who lived abroad a long time ago)

- Level of motivation

- Previous speed of progress in English studies

- Being bright, lively and quick to understand new things during the interview

- Previous level of (general) academic studies

 

Don’t get thrown by one thing

When I teach a student who is clearly in the wrong level, I often notice something about their English which is unlike most other EFL students, which is presumably what threw their level checker and so caused this problem. For example, I’ve had actors and opera singers who had had accent training that made them sound near native but who should have been in an Intermediate class anyway due to every other aspect of their English being much less impressive. In the same way, please bear in mind that students who are from different countries to most of the people who you level check (e.g. Brazilian students in Japan) obviously lack the weak points of those students, and so it can be very easy to put them in class which is too high.

 

If in doubt, ask the student

Although the tips above are usually enough to easily decide if a student is Elementary or Pre-Intermediate, I occasionally get a student who seems to be half Elementary and half Intermediate, or even half Elementary and half Upper Intermediate. In such cases, I usually just tell them what is going through my head and see if they can clear up my confusion, and surprisingly often they can. For example, a couple of weeks ago I had a student with good pronunciation and good understanding of my questions but whose answers all used Present Simple and similar overly simple language. When I admitted my confusion, out came the very relevant information that he’d lived abroad as a young child and had been losing his bilingual ability ever since, something he’d been too embarrassed to say earlier in the interview. Problem solved!

 

If in doubt, put students lower

It’s much easier and more motivating to put students up later because they were put in  a class that was too low than it is to put them down because they are too rubbish to cope in the class which they were initially put in. Therefore if none of the aspects mentioned above help you put them clearly into Elementary or Pre-Intermediate, they should probably be in Ele.

 

Write stuff down

Although it is tempting to avoid a pen and paper to relax the students and so get more natural language out of them, I strongly recommend taking at least some notes. As well as appearing more professional, it can focus a teacher who has is getting tired after a long day of level checking. Any notes you take can also help you continue to think about the right level of class even after the interview finishes, including in discussion with someone else such as a school manager if you need advice on the best level for someone.

If you asked the kinds of questions that are recommended in this article, you should also have found out vital info of the student’s motivations for learning English, previous studies, etc that could be invaluable to their future teacher. In two of my schools we introduced systems for handing that info onto the future teacher. If you don’t have such a system (yet), it can still be worth keeping your notes for a couple of weeks in case the teacher wants to ask what you remember about a student who ended up in their class.

 

Don’t get stuck on question/ answer/ question/ answer

Level checks often consist simply of answering personal questions like “What do you do in your free time?”, which is not a particularly good check of level, especially for people who have a real-life need for English such as Business English students. If you can’t decide their level or still have some time left at the end of the test, it’s well worth adding other activities. The easiest way of shaking up the question/ answer format is to get them to ask you questions for a few minutes, but I personally find the transition to this a little forced and the temptation for the teacher to waste time by answering at length is difficult to resist, so I prefer elicitation of language, roleplays and/ or something based around a worksheet. I most often use the first of these, usually moving smoothly from asking about their use of English to eliciting some examples of language they do or could use in those (real) situations, e.g. a typical email if they often write them at work or phrases for starting conversations with foreign visitors if that is their motivation for studying English. You can also roleplay such real-life uses with them, with the student as themselves and you are the foreign person who they communicate or will (probably) communicate with. It’s difficult to prepare worksheets for this, because it depends on each student’s uses of and needs for English. However, if you don’t have the confidence to improvise eliciting and/ or roleplays, you can cover most bases by taking one worksheet each on meeting people, emailing, telephoning, business meetings and travel English into every level check.  

Copyright © 2017

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com