The traditional labels used in our industry ranging from Elementary to Advanced beg for a constant myriad of issues to arise for program coordinators, teachers and students.  Whenever they come up during a session, it seems like the best solution would be to abandon these labels altogether, but doing so would raise different problems, solutions for which seem to be placing labels.  It’s a cyclical conundrum which does not evidently have one nice, tidy fix. Hopefully through some dialogue, we can expose each other to a variety of ways we’ve dealt with the problems.

Issue #1 – “I want to change my class.”
It’s rare that students who aren’t in advanced levels actually accept that they can benefit from a lower level, especially if it collapses the shaky legs of decade+ previous study into a pile of grammatical rubble.  There’s something about being labeled a low intermediate language learner, for example, that doesn’t sit well with the majority.  As a program coordinator, on the first day of class I’m faced with an endless queue of students wishing to needlessly move up levels.  As a teacher, facing even one or two students who feel they’ve been inaccurately placed into my class, however appropriate it is, can be a big affective barrier to break through.

Issue #2 – Descriptors don’t match up with other descriptors
Have you ever opened a book labeled intermediate and thought that whoever did so, based on the language used in activities or even instructions, was out of their mind?  I have.  Although there tends to be a generally accepted level of grammar, vocabulary and content that qualifies as low, intermediate and high, when it comes to finer tuned labels, like high beginner, upper intermediate and low advanced, lines become blurred between not only publishers, but even teachers and school benchmarks.  It can be challenging for curriculum planners and teachers to reconcile these differences when they’re printed right on the book.

Issue #3 – No one fits a label perfectly
No matter how hard you try to place students into the correct level, no matter how foolproof your placement test is, no matter how successfully a learner masters the language prescribed for a level, language learning isn’t so perfectly compartmentalised.  I’ve rarely come across a student whose reading, writing, speaking and listening proficiencies fold neatly into the low intermediate box.  This causes the also artificial boundaries set by curricula to work for some in some areas and not others in others.  Still, you have the label, it must mean something.  But for which skill?

Issue #4 – Advanced is never really advanced
This is a two-fold problem to me.  A) Students in this level are rarely advanced, at least if you compare the term to a relative scale of native-speaker like proficiency.  This can give learners a false sense of arrogance (ok, confidence to speak at any level is a good thing, but we’ve all encountered students who feel they’re better than everyone else) and entitlement.  When they go out into academic study after an “advanced” level class, eyes may be abruptly opened. B) Resources that claim to cover advanced grammar rarely do.  Then again, do all teachers agree on what advanced grammar is?  Perhaps not as it tends to fall under academic writing contexts rather than general ESL coursebooks.

Any advice or solutions you’ve found work?
What’s the solution?  Abolish descriptors altogether?  Unfortunately we need some common understanding to communicate.  Make a secret, coded system of colours for your levels instead?  Maybe students would figure out that red means low, blue means intermediate and purple means high anyways.

Have you had any success in handling the issues these descriptors raise?  I’d love to know what works for you.

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36 Responses to Rethinking level descriptors

  1. Sabridv says:

    Hi Tyson,
    I have to admit I have no solution for this problem.So looking forward to be enlightened. I have to admit that I have given up altogether. I just explain to my students that having “finished” a book that is advanced doesn’t mean anything. It all depends on how they have worked with it and how much they have been able to internalise. Apart from that, we are all different and therefore, we may be very proficient at one skill (e.g. speaking) and very poor at another one (e.g listening). So in the end, levels are relative. They may have “finished” lots of grammar books and have never spoken a word in English. In that case, I doubt we can say that student is at an advanced level. In spite of all this, I know we need some kind of parameter to establish students’ level… I’m not sure whether there is a solution for all this mess.
    Kisses and hugs from Bs. As.

  2. Hi Ty…

    Sorry to say I have no magic answer or formula. I feel exactly the same and have conversations on the issue at least once a week – more at times like now, in the beginning of term. Students who come from other courses who are disappointed with the result of their placement tests, students who failed the previous level, students who think what they are seeing in class is just “too easy”… I mean, I feel your pain. I see myself in the situations you describe above.

    My approach is similar to what Sabrina said in her comment… I talk to them and reason. What is important to them: to SAY they have reached XYZ level or to know and use the language at XYZ level? Sometimes it’s easier, even if they are just embarrassed to admit it’s the first. (Funny how people get hung up on labels, how much they matter and how it can hurt their pride eh? hard to understand)

    But sometimes it’s harder… they don’t quite see the difference. They think the name of the level and their actual language use is the same thing. Maybe because it should be??

    What’s the solution? I don’t know… Using more general fluency frameworks might be easier, because they can be more widely adopted and are not linked to any coursebook or school. But even if we did that, we’d still have some problems. Because the assessment of a student’s fluency and language levels is done by a person, and people are subjective.

    Reflecting upon it, I’m not sure there is an answer. Even if we were able to deconstruct what fluency in a language meant, with all its aspects, everything it encompasses, we’d still have some subjectivity.

    Is it possible to get rid of subjectivity altogether? Let me know if you find a way ;-)
    X
    Ceci

    • seburnt says:

      Yes, general fluency frameworks could be a possible alternative, but they are just that, general. I’ve always thought that the can-do statements on these types of frameworks directly help teachers identify what language points to cover and are definitely (by definition) open to interpretation. I guess that’s a good thing, but for less experienced teachers, they need that constructive and definite guidance that curricula provide.

      Two things I have noticed contributes to the issue of students feeling misplaced are:
      a) Teachers going easy on the first day of class – this tends to give students the feeling that the level is too easy.
      b) Students seeing a communication point (e.g. vocabulary, grammar, etc.) that they’ve done before and immediately self-assessing that they know it all already, having been exposed to it in an earlier level or elsewhere. It’s a good place for teachers to utilise task-based teaching to firmly identify gaps in knowledge and give students that bit of “buy in” that they need to feel satisfied.

  3. So true!
    I especially related to the part about students not being “advanced” or “intermediate” in all skills equally. I see this all the time.
    Color coding doesn’t help as everyone quickly picks up on what the colors signify.
    The fact that in recent years I have been teaching in a format of a learning center has helped a bit. The students are still working on different levels of materials and they all know that. But they also do things together “cross level” and that makes the ones at the lower levels feel much better. Unfortunately, I don’t see how that is possible in most teaching situations.

    I love the way your posts seem to highlight elements of teaching I don’t often stop to think about!

    • seburnt says:

      I sometimes feel that the ‘learning centre’ style you suggest would actually work with students instead of levels, by somehow incorporating more project-based learning, so students with different levels of proficiency can work together. Too often, newer teachers start off the lesson by suggesting like, “today we’re going to talk about when our actions in the past were interrupted by something” or god forbid, “today we’re going to learn how to use past continuous”.

  4. sue annan says:

    Quite agree with everything you’ve said.
    I have started to use the descriptors in the CEFR (Council of Europe Framework) instead of int, lower-int etc.
    Students appear to be more willing to be a .B1 or B2

  5. Evan says:

    Levels have long been problematic, especially when they are used to divide people into different classes. But I think it is worth pointing out that one of the most important aspects of the CEFR is that it recognises that people cannot be described by a single level. Rather it talks about profiles, where learners are described by a range of descriptors, depending on the situation and domain. The labels A1, A2 etc are at best rough summaries of these profiles, and need to be seen as such. If administrators in schools decide to use these summaries as a way of placing people in classes, and ignore other factors, there will inevitably be dissatisfaction. There are many ways of deciding who goes in which class, and depending on labels like A1 and A2 is a very simplistic (and presumably cheap) approach to a complex problem.

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks for the clarification regarding CEFR profiling. We don’t use it in Canada and I’m only vaguely familiar. I’m sure the best of intentions are behind it, but in reality, it is the existence of those summarising descriptors that both coordinators and students ultimately focus on. Humans like labels, however simplistic they are (and even are recognised to be). Let’s face it.

      I’d like to know some of the better ways you suggest exist for deciding who goes in which class. Time constraints between placement testing and actual placement often eliminate more complex decision making, just out of necessity.

      However, you bring up a great idea to me: maybe integrated skills classes really aren’t the best option. Maybe if a student profile shows strength is writing and weakness is listening, focused classes would put all those with weaker listening skills together. Interesting.

  6. Adam says:

    I agree with pretty much everything you say here, Tyson. Great post.

  7. Oh, Tyson – I so feel this pain… just recently working with a bunch of teacher-trainees had various rather complex issues mainly to do with ego but also to do with what happened in their previous classes and the labels they were given before.

    I had a B1 demanding to be a C1 and I had a C1 demanding to be a C2. Why?

    a) B1 guy with very shaky English was an English teacher so felt he was entitled to this level even though he could not communicate without pausing in between words while scrambling for the translation, used incorrect register in most communications…

    b) C1 guy had passed a written test at C2 level. I won’t even begin to go into what I think about these exams only, simply, because I don’t have a solution regarding what should ultimately replace them. Passing a grammar test and essay is not achieving native-level fluency.

    Sigh.

    • seburnt says:

      B1 guy has that lovely ego. Sorry buddy, being an English teacher doesn’t mean squat. Everyone needs to demonstrate acquisition.

      I hear you and sigh along with you.

  8. UK ESOL has the helpful system of levels, arranged here for you from lowest level to highest:
    Entry Level 1
    Entry Level 2
    Entry Level 3
    Level 1
    Level 2

    The logic behind these level names is to fit them into a national skills strategy where you have Entry Level and then Level 1, 2, 3 courses in different disciplines.

    Causes no end of confusion when a learner moves from Entry Level 3 to Level 1 sometimes (as they would see it as going from Level 3 to Level 1)

    !

    Mike

    • seburnt says:

      That’s a definite strategy – aligning it with some company-style progression. Still, you’re right: the confusion would be irritating to continuously explain to students (e.g. “No, Level 1 is higher than ENTRY Level 3… no no, you have it wrong, it’s higher. Does it matter?”)

  9. Lu Bodeman says:

    Guess I’m one more in the same situation, and I honestly don’t see how things can be otherwise — with regards to subjectivity. There’ll always be a certain amount there, which will have us pulling hairs at some point.

    Coincidentally (on misplaced students), just yesterday, there was a (12 y.o.) student of mine whose friends told her that she was misplaced, so she asks to be relocated to a higher level, and the girl’s mother calls and makes a formal request. Fortunately, the school checked with ME (her teacher) who had a say in the matter (whaddya know?!)… guess I should feel lucky to be a part in the decision-making. We don’t currently have a formal document…beyond textbooks. Sigh. But we’re pushing for them asap.

    Anyways, I defend descriptors (which IMHO should constantly be revised…together with test results) than not. Otherwise, how to know if they’re accurate??

    And I like to share these descriptors with students (transparency in aims from day 1) and keep a very focussed eye at the end of the term on what worked out or what did not. It’s just a huge shame that parents don’t show much of an interest (they just care to see that their kids are getting the grades they expect)… double sigh.

    Yep, still got a long way to go, but as long as descriptors are fair and a product of joint effort .. I vote YES!

    • seburnt says:

      You bring up a valuable point, that instructors ultimately have the most exposure to the students and their abilities. Instructors should always be included in the decision-making process this way. If they aren’t, there’s a fundamental problem with the priorities of the school or program.

  10. Evan says:

    Hi Tyson

    Just to follow up on your reply about CEFR – yes, your idea is exactly what the CEFR is all about. Except it doesn’t only look at skills like speaking, listening, reading and writing, but goes into a lot more detail. This is one of the reasons why it has become so influential in many parts of the world. It offers something more than simplistic labels.

    Incidentally, you can download it for free here:

    http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/cadre_en.asp

    Re your question about other ways to place people in classes, it really depends on the context you are teaching in. In my context (business English / ESP) people are placed after an initial needs analysis, which will take lots of factors into account, such as learning objectives, learning styles, role in the organisation (eg sometimes it makes sense to group engineers together, for example), job experience (pre-experience learners have quite different needs to people who have been doing the job for a while), national culture (different cultures may need to focus on different areas), and so on.

    Having said all that, there is always going to be compromise of some sort, but it is part of the job. Every class is mixed ability.

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks for the link, Evan. I am familiar enough with them that I have seen the scales document before that gives “can do” statements, much like the Canadian Language Benchmarks (http://language.ca/display_page.asp?page_id=215), both providing a framework on which curricula can be based. Personally, I’ve never found them that coordinated with most resources or curricula. More in depth reading and deciphering of them on my part is likely required.

      Still, whether there’s a framework basis or not isn’t exactly my complaint about level descriptors. It’s more that students don’t “like” the levels they are rightly placed in to, no level-based curriculum ever really works well with mixed abilities (as you say, every class is mixed ability) and egos get in the way.

  11. ElizabethA says:

    IMHO it is important to bear in mind that the CEFR descriptors were not created as English language level descriptors but rather as descriptors which can be applied to any language, since the Council of Europe was founded in 1949 in order “to achieve a greater unity between its members …”, It has 47 member states, and has been working on language recognition for a long time.
    I get most upset when it is confused with the European Union,which “stole” the Coucil of Europe’s flag and which excludes rather than includes countries.
    My solution to put the descriptors into perspective for my adult students is to make a jigsaw puzzle out of a relative section and get the students to put them into order, so that they really get a handle on what the thing is about.

    • seburnt says:

      Valid points, Elizabeth. Thank you. There’s a bit more of a political side to your comment than I know anything about, so I’ll just trust you on it. =)

      Could you tell me more about your jigsaw puzzle idea? I don’t quite understand what you’ve meant by “a relative section and get students to put them into order…”.

  12. ElizabethA says:

    Hi again,
    There are hundreds and hundreds of descriptors in the Council of Europe framework which cover specific situations (those of interest to me at the University are things such as “addressing audiences” or “writing reports and essays”)
    So by my somewhat Franglais relative section I meant a section relative to the course I am teaching;-)

    Otherwise of course you could take one individual column of the CEFR “can do” statements.
    So …I photocopy and cut up up the descriptors I have chosen and, towards the beginning of a course, get the students (in groups of 2s or 3s) to put them back into order. (especially because this involves close reading and speaking to each other etc.)
    In this way they really get a handle on what the B1 or B2 actually indicates, learning for example that B1 really is an independant user who can While a B2 means (Although more recent descriptors leave out the bit about “without strain on either party”!)
    My main aim in doing this is to convince the know-it-alls that although they can communicate in English there is room for improvement :-P

    • ElizabethA says:

      Oops – got my HTML tags wrong !
      that should read:
      B1 Can “enter unprepared into conversation on topics that are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life”

      While B2 means “Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that
      makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain
      for either part”
      sorry ’bout the mess

      • ElizabethA says:

        party

        …I give up

      • seburnt says:

        Thanks again for the explaining and struggling with the replies, Elizabeth. I understand better now what you meant by the jigsaw. I think my problem with any Can-Do statements, whether they be from the CLB or the CEFR is that often times I need to even read them very closely to really interpret different between one bechmark and another. They can often be convoluted because of their attempts to quantify ability. So if teachers need to struggle to interpret them (not to mention determine what language practice suits the communication outcome) then maybe they’re not that useful.

        Of course, I’m really not an expert on frameworks, but from the exposure I’ve had, that’s the impression I’ve gotten.

  13. ElizabethA says:

    yeah well – that’s the point isn’t it? Not black and white but rather attempts at descriptions.
    They do in fact need training to use – and also constant review to ensure, as far as possible, that we are talking about the same thing.

    For example, the training to be an IELTS examiner takes two full days, and is only valid for 2 years.

    The fact of discussing why one would attribute a B2 rather than a C1 to a given example of a learner’s conversational ability really starts to give one a feel for what these barbaric terms mean….

    This being said, I’m not advocating sticking them on someone unless there is a valid necessity/reason to do so.
    Thanks for bringing up this thought provoking subject Ty

  14. @NoraTouparlaki Hi Nora. Please refer to the new domain in future. Thanks! http://t.co/5Y67mYG

  15. Hi, and all of you are most welcome to Greece! no headaches or sighs about the level of sts’ English. Why? Because the ELT world is based on the CEFR and it’s exams-oriented. This means that we, as teachers, simply follow the above framework. If we are to assess a students level of English, we simply do this using placement tests available online. Well, to be honest, I don’t think many teachers or private institutes do this; since a student has taken a specific exam, let’s say B1 level, it’s unimaginable not to go on to the next level B2. Noone ‘s going to question his/her actual level. A simple certificate which shows B1,B2,C1 etc is more than enough. Students are satisfied with this, parents are satisfied too and the most impressive? Teachers feel they’ve done their job properly! And they’re not always to blame. DOs and especially language school owners wouldn’t like to dissatisfy a “client” (yes, I can feel your amazement, but that’s the Greek reality)doubting the level of a student, especially if it’s certified by a written exam. BUT…I chose the hard way. It’s the sense of responsibility that makes me assess my sts’ level during the whole school year round, using various resources from the web, or material I’ve already prepared, because I want to feel safe for the level. I’ve also got sts who are supposed to be at C1 level, according to CERF & the corresponding test which they’ve taken, but still lack in some parts of the English language. I take the risk of continuous assessment, doubting their level and informing them and of course their parents. Ok, you’ve got the point, I’ve lost some “clients” as I also run a language school, but I do not consider myself or my school a place where the only thing I do is to prepare sts to take exams.Otherwise, I wouldn’t call myself a teacher, but a ….facilitator:-)
    Nora
    PS thank you all for the ideas shared!

  16. seburnt says:

    I can understand your frustration (as can we all), Nora and applaud you for breaking away from (or trying to) the hypocrisy of standardisation.

    Why don’t we just abolish levels altogether? Why don’t we assess students as they come in and place them according to the number of students there are (ie. 100 new students, divide them into groups of 10 based on their assessment, but call the levels nothing)? Then do needs assessment in the class to determine the content of the curriculum for that class? Maybe it’s too ideal and not considerate of the constraints of space and staff. Fair enough, but some happy medium must be found.

  17. Louise Alix says:

    Interesting discussion and certainly one with which all (most?) teachers can identify. With regards to the CEFR – I would actually encourage dividing it down into the separate skills whereby someone could be a B2+ in reading and listening but an A1 in speaking and A2 in writing. This doesn’t help if you group students per level but certainly encourages appropriate task (input + output) differentiation.
    Incidentally there is currently a movement towards implementing a form of the CEFR in Canada led, I believe, still by Enrica Piccardo from the OISE in Toronto and Brigitte Patenaude from Vancouver.Perhaps they have more information?
    Good luck and if you come up with any solutions I would love to hear them!
    Louise

    • seburnt says:

      Hi Louise – thanks for commenting! I believe that CEFR implementation here in Canada is due to the exam popularity increasing more than the fact that the level descriptors are any better (the “can do” statements aren’t altogether different than the CLB ones, fundamentally). I do agree with your suggestion about subdividing by skill, which really is what IELTS already does. That’s great and all, but something which is often duplicated by an individual school’s own placement tests.

  18. Rona says:

    Interesting post, Tyson. Being a teacher of Beginners, (too low even for our level 1), I am bombarded with requests to move up in the first week of every session. They ALL think they should be in level 4, and many of them WERE in level 4, 5, 6, in their previous schools. Then they come here and get kicked down to level 0. It’s quite a blow to their egos! They hate it! I’ve had to develop a very thick skin, and learn to show no mercy! I spend the first week explaining that we are much tougher than other schools, and that our requirements are different. We don’t care if they can speak fluently if they cannot write a single simple sentence. So, in the first 2 days of class, we do diagnostic testing in 4 skills, plus grammar. I take the tests home and take a RED pen to them and mark up every tiny little error. Toward the end of week 1, I take it back and show it to them and explain that THESE are the errors of THIS level! THESE are the errors we will work on in this level! They cannot move up until they fix THESE errors! They usually get the message and stop badgering me. Luckily I work in a school where the teacher has the final decision, and management will not be swayed by any whining, begging, negotiation, bribery offered by students! I think our internal level descriptors are accurate for our context, but you are right that there are no standards in use in the industry in Canada. I wonder why we don’t all use the CLB’s? It’s not perfect, but at least it would provide a standard between schools, similar to what the CEFR does in Europe. Maybe we need some CLB’s developed especially for EAP? “EAPB’s” ??

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks for the commentary, Rona. =) Your method of destroying their ego with all the red is probably an effective one, as you say. It is largely ego.

      CLBs are meant for the settlement sector, honestly. Their communication outcomes are largely focused on survival skills, which aren’t altogether different than most English needs at basic levels, but the further you go up the scale, the more vague they get. Personally, I’ve never found them written in a way that is easy to process or build a lesson around. Plus, one reason many schools, particularly in the private sector, don’t use them is because virtually no resources are directly aligned to them. They certainly have nothing to do with EAP contexts.

      Besides, I’m not sure standardisation is the needed direction anyway.

  19. […] In my country, I was Intermediate. Here I am in low level. I should be Intermediate. Maybe the level descriptors that go along with what’s generally accepted as Intermediate don’t match up as well as […]

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