There are five generally recognized levels of ESOL students worldwide and these are reflected in the curriculum materials available to students and teachers in the form of book series.
The levels are often designated as follows:
- Level 1: Starter (or beginner)
- Level 2: Elementary
- Level 3: Pre-Intermediate
- Level 4: Intermediate
- Level 5: Upper-Intermediate
Note: Levels above these standard levels are typically called ‘advanced’ and are not generally taught in mainstream situations.
It should be noted that some curricula cover these levels differently. An example would be the Touchstone series (from Cambridge) which uses a four level scale for their books. These four levels however cover the same content as a typical five level scale.
Another popular series by the name “Cutting Edge’ has six levels, as there is also a book at advanced level as well as the five standard levels.
For each of these levels we will look at some typical syllabus contents. These examples are from the Cutting Edge series 3rd Edition published by Pearson.
Level 1: Starter (or beginner)
As this level will include true beginners (those with zero knowledge) this level starts with the alphabet, works through parts of speech and covers the first of the tenses (present simple). Other topics include possessives and the verb ‘to be’.
Level 2: Elementary
Present simple tense using positive, negative and question form. Article types and their usages. Can and can’t for possibility. This, that, these, those. There is, there are. Regular and irregular verbs and an introduction to the past simple tense.
Level 3: Pre-Intermediate
Past simple, positive, negative and question form. Should, shouldn’t and can, can’t for obligation. Adverb of frequency phrases. Present simple and present continuous. Present continuous for future arrangements. Plans and intentions. Introduction to present perfect.
Level 4: Intermediate
Past simple and past continuous. Used to and would. Comparatives and superlatives. Present perfect and present perfect continuous. Future forms. Future clauses with if and when. Past perfect. Reported speech.
Level 5: Upper-Intermediate
Uses of auxiliary verbs. Forming adjectives, nouns and gerunds. Narrative tenses, continuous aspect. Use of the passive. Passive forms with ’have or get’. Review future tense forms. More complex question forms. Perfect tenses.
Level testing and progression
In a mainstream school setting, the students in each year group will generally all be studying English at the same level, though some streaming may exist in larger schools. For adults learning in a language school setting, they will need to undertake a level test when they first start, unless they have some form of certification which shows their language level (IELTS for example).
The level test will determine which of the five levels they are best suited to. As each level builds on the one before it, it is important that students can demonstrate a full understanding of a particular level before deciding where they should be placed.
Progression between the levels will depend upon the policy of the language school, but a fairly typical process would be for students to attend a full course (which will cover all the work in one book level) and then move on to the next, if they have shown understanding by some form of testing.