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What are English Proficiency Levels?

If you want to learn the English language thoroughly and use it just like any native English speaker, it is not enough to learn the basics. Learning the language requires you to be proficient in using it effectively and confidently. 

Being proficient with the English language requires more effort since you need to master the primary skills in reading, speaking, listening, and writing. And various language proficiency levels range from mastery to elementary or beginner level. 

These proficiency levels will help you assess which level of proficiency your language skills belong to. And for you to have an accurate evaluation of your English skills, there are many language proficiency exams available that will help you evaluate your proficiency level and know your limits in using the English language. 

However, if you already have an excellent command of using the English language without any struggle, there are many opportunities for proficient users like you. 

And to help you understand more about the different English proficiency levels, how to determine your level, what are the various English language exams that you can take, and more. We have come up with a complete guide about English proficiency levels. 

What is English Language Proficiency?

English language proficiency describes how well an individual can use the English language with accuracy, precision, and coherence in any setting, whether in an academic, community, or workplace.

It also indicates the capabilities of an individual to understand and comprehend different English words, terms, and phrases that range from easy to complex contexts. 

One’s language proficiency also indicates how one can confidently and efficiently use the English language and incorporate it into one’s everyday communication. And if you also have a high proficiency level, your language skills are comparable to that of a native English speaker. 

In addition, you should also know that when you are proficient in the English language, it means that you have excellent language skills in the following areas: writing, listening, speaking, and reading. 

And in order to know your English language proficiency level, you need to take a standardized language proficiency exam to assess your language skills fully. These exams help you determine your strengths and weaknesses in using the English language and give you an idea of your proficiency level status. 

Why is it Important to Know Your Proficiency Level

Learning the English language is essential today since it is mainly used in educational institutions, business, government, workplace, entertainment, and more. And most countries worldwide have adopted it as a global language for easy communication. 

Knowing your English proficiency level is essential as it will help you determine whether your skills are sufficient.  And suppose you need to develop your language abilities.

You can do so by taking up English language pathway programs offered in different academic institutions or enrolling in language courses online. 

It is also essential as it opens a lot of opportunities for you, especially if you plan to work abroad and if you want to study in prominent universities and colleges in any English-speaking country.

Moreover, it is also the top requirement for prestigious institutions such as those Ivy League Schools

Aside from that, your English language proficiency assessment result is needed as proof of your language proficiency level if you plan in migrating to any English-speaking country abroad, especially in Canada, Australia, the United States of America, and more. 

How to Determine your English Proficiency Level

There are many possible ways to determine your English proficiency level. One is using a language proficiency benchmark or scale, and the other one is taking a language proficiency exam

And you should also know that proficiency means having mastery of a specific area or ability. Thus, language proficiency involves all of your language abilities and not just a selected skill that you are an expert in. 

In other words, you should not only excel in one, but you need to be proficient in all of your  English language abilities, including writing, listening, speaking, and reading. 

These four primary language skills will be assessed using a language exam to determine proficiency. English language proficiency exams have different test sections that correspond to specific language skills. 

There are many standardized language proficiency exams that you can choose from that will measure your English language skills. Some language exams are offered and accessible online, which means that you can easily take them from the comfort of your home. At the same time, others need to be taken at their official testing centers. 

The widely used and highly accepted language proficiency exams include TOEFL, IELTS, Duolingo English Test, OET, PTE, EF SET, CAE C1, CELPIP, and many more. 

These language exams are trusted and highly recognized by various universities, colleges, government agencies, migration offices, and multinational companies worldwide. It is also preferable to take not just one but more language tests to evaluate your language proficiency level. 

Note that you are allowed to take one or two more proficiency exams, given that you follow their guidelines for retaking the test since these tests have different rules for retakes. And also have the freedom to choose what language proficiency exams we have enumerated earlier that you can take.  

However, some universities and colleges require their applicants to take a specific language proficiency exam as part of their admission requirements. So it is best to know beforehand what particular language proficiency exam your preferred institution requires. 

4 Different English Levels of ELL 

Below are the different English Proficiency Levels using different standardized language proficiency scales or benchmarks. 

  • ELL English Language Learners
  • CEFR Common European Framework of Reference for Languages
  • ILR — Interagency Language Roundtable Scale
  • CLB — Canadian Language Benchmarks

ELL: Quick Overview

The ELL, which stands for English Language Learners, is a term commonly related to a more general subject, ESL (English as a Second Language). And the term ELL generally describes an individual who is a non-native English speaker currently learning the English language, including students, professionals, immigrants, and other individuals whose native language is not English. 

And also, the ELL has six general proficiency levels, including beginner, lower intermediate, intermediate, upper-intermediate, advanced, and native speaker

You can check the table below for each ELL Proficiency Level descriptor.

ELL Proficiency LevelsDescriptors
Native SpeakerUsed only to describe individuals whose first language is English. 
Advanced Students display excellent writing, speaking, listening, and reading skills.

Has the ability to use professional and technical English terms with coherence under any given familiar or unfamiliar situation and in different settings. 
UpperIntermediateStudents can establish cohesiveness and an excellent flow of communication.

However, there are still consistent and noticeable grammatical errors, mispronunciation, and wrong word choices. 
IntermediateAt this level, students can deliver simple conversations using the language.

Can use it also in day-to-day communication but only limited to very familiar words and phrases. 
Lower-IntermediateStudents who belong to this level have sufficient vocabulary and enough basic knowledge of grammar rules.

Can also establish communication using only very simple words in a familiar setting.  
BeginnerELL students are considered under this level if they are just starting to learn the basics of the English language.

Those students who are classified as beginners are those who do not have any exposure to the language. 

However, in some instances, they are able to use only isolated and very simple English terms such as yes or no. No comprehension, accuracy, or precision. 

Other international standardized proficiency systems are used to give a clearer and more accurate description of the English language learner’s (ELL) proficiency levels. 

It includes CEFR, ILR, and CLB, these language proficiency benchmarks are highly recognized worldwide, especially in English-speaking countries. 

In the next section, we will give you an overview of the mentioned language benchmarks and the different scales and levels they use to describe an individual’s language abilities. 

Understanding English Levels with CEFR

To better understand one’s English proficiency levels, we will be using the CEFR. It is a standardized language proficiency benchmark or language reference that is internationally recognized to give us a systematized description of an individual’s proficiency level. 

It is commonly used and recognized by educational institutions, multinational companies, and government agencies worldwide. And also, the CEFR scale provides reliable descriptions for the four language skills, which are listening, speaking, reading, and writing. 

CEFR, or the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, is a highly distinguished and trusted standardized language proficiency benchmark.  It provides accurate and reliable descriptions of the different English language proficiency levels. 

There are six proficiency levels on the CEFR scale, including C2, C1, B2, B1, A2, and A2 proficiency levels, and these are also grouped into three broad levels, the Basic User, Independent User, and Proficient User

And the highest level for this scale is the C2, which specifies a mastery of the language, and the lowest scale is A1 which is the elementary or basic user level. 

CEFR Level Three Broad Levels
C2 Proficiency LevelProficient User
C1 Advanced LevelProficient User
B2 Upper – Intermediate LevelIndependent User
B1 – Intermediate LevelIndependent User
A2 – Elementary LevelBasic User
A1 – Beginner LevelBasic User

Understanding English Levels with CLB

Another proficiency benchmark that is used to describe English proficiency levels is the CLB. This standardized language proficiency benchmark is preferred in Canada to describe one’s language proficiency level, especially if you plan to work, migrate and continue your studies there. 

The Canadian Language Benchmarks or also known as CLB. It is a standardized English language proficiency descriptive scale mainly used in Canada and other countries worldwide. 

It provides reliable and accurate language proficiency descriptions for the four primary English skills, including writing, listening, speaking, and reading. 

And the CLB contains 12 language proficiency scales that describe the language proficiency level of an individual. 

These 12 CLB language proficiency scales are grouped into three stages, including Stages 1, 2, and 3. And each of these stages contains four proficiency levels. 

The first is Stage 1, which indicates basic language ability, including CLB levels 1 to 4.

While Stage 2 describes an intermediate language ability that includes CLB levels 5 to 8. And Stage 3 indicates an advanced language ability of an individual, and it contains the CLB levels 9 to 12

Stage 1 – BasicStage 2 – IntermediateStage 3 – Advanced 

Understanding English Levels with ILR 

The ILR or Interagency Language Roundtable Scale is another language proficiency scale that describes the proficiency level of both native and non-native English language speakers. 

The ILR is used and created by the Federal Government in the USA to describe their applicant’s and workers’ language proficiency levels. Aside from the USA government sector, it is also highly accepted by various educational institutions, companies, and other private organizations for language proficiency descriptors. 

And also, the ILR Scale language proficiency scale contains six based scales that characterize an individual’s language abilities. These six ILR-based scales also have plus scales including 0+, 1+, 2+, 3+, and 4+ at each level that helps accurately describe the different language proficiency levels. 

The plus scales are included in the scale but only used or assigned when the individual’s proficiency level exceeds the current level but is not qualified for the next proficiency level. Thus, the ILR scale has 11 language proficiency scales in total. 

ILR Based Scale
with Plus Scales 
5Functionally Native Professional Proficiency
4+Advanced Professional Proficiency
4Advanced Professional Proficiency
3+General Professional Proficiency
3General Professional Proficiency 
2+Limited Working Proficiency
2Limited Working Proficiency
1+Elementary Proficiency
1Elementary Proficiency
0+Memorized Proficiency 
0No Functional Proficiency

Converting Language Exams Results 

If you have taken any language proficiency exams, you will have an assessment result of your English language skills. Know that the English language exam that you have taken has its own score interpretations and description used to evaluate your skills. 

But to have an accurate and standardized description of the proficiency levels of individuals we will use the available English language proficiency scale or benchmarks such as CEFR, ILR, or the CLB

Most English language proficiency exam results can be converted and compared to these mentioned proficiency scales. It will give us a clearer and standardized proficiency level description of the individual’s English skills, including writing, reading, listening, and speaking. 

For example, TOEFL and IELTS test results can be converted to a CEFR or CLB proficiency scale. It depends on what language exam you have taken. And you might think that this will affect your proficiency level or it will change your proficiency level in some ways. 

You do not have to worry since the language proficiency benchmarks are highly reliable and standardized descriptions of one’s language proficiency level. So you can assure of quality evaluation and interpretation of your English level. 

And also, it depends on the institution on what they will use to convert your language test results. Some will use the CEFR, ILR, or CLB to give a description of your English proficiency level


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