Understanding the stages of learning English for non-native students

Do you know how good your child’s English is?  Where are they compared to their classmates on the English proficiency ladder?  If she owns a PET certificate, what is her equivalent score in IELTS, TOEIC, or even TOEFL?  Knowing your child’s English level will help you explore a range of support and resources specially matched to them.

There are many different levels of learning English.  It’s like stepping up a ladder.  For example:

  • Young learners of English usually start with very simple things like numbers and colors. 
  • Next, they might learn vocabulary and grammar linked to everyday topics, such as animals, family, food and drink, sports, and games.
  • Then, they might start to read about their favorite animal, write about their brothers and sisters, listen to a song, or talk about the games they enjoy playing. 

So, what exactly are the different levels of language learning? 

Getting your child to acquire native-like fluency in any language is hard in itself if you’re only focused on the end game.  However, if you break the entire process of reaching the highest level of English language mastery into multiple stages, then it’s suddenly a much easier picture to paint.

In this article, we introduce to you the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) as a benchmark for qualitative aspects of English usage against international standards.  Hopefully, it will outline the stages that children go through when acquiring an additional language and give suggestions about how practitioners can support them in this journey within an inclusive environment.

First, what is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)?

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is an international standard for describing language ability.  It describes language ability on a six-point scale, from A1 for beginners, up to C2 for those who have mastered a language.  Each level has a series of descriptions of what a user at that level can do across the skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

The CEFR was created by the Council of Europe to provide “a common basis for the elaboration of language syllabuses, curriculum guidelines, examinations, textbooks, etc. across Europe” (2001a:1).  It was envisaged primarily as a planning tool whose aim was to promote “transparency and coherence” in language education.

The framework now isn’t just used in Europe.  It’s used all around the world.  It is a practical tool that can be used for anyone involved in language teaching and testing, such as teachers or learners, to see the level of different qualifications.

To help you understand the relationship between the six CEFR levels and other multi-level tests such as IELTS, TOEFL or TOEIC, we created a map drawing on the interrelationship between these standardized tests and other Cambridge Assessment English qualifications.

What can children do at each level?

The CEFR is a very practical way to show how learners progress through the levels.  The table describes some skills that learners can do at each level.

CEFR level Listening skills Speaking skills Reading skills Writing skills
A1 Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.  Can take part in basic, factual conversations. For example, “Where does your rabbit live?”-  “It lives in my garden.” Can introduce themselves and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where they live, people they know, and things they have. For example, they can go to a shop where goods are on display and ask for what they want: “Can I have this drink, please?” Can understand simple information, familiar names, words, and very simple sentences, for example on notices and posters or in catalogs. Can write a short, simple postcard, for example sending holiday greetings.  Can fill in forms with personal details, for example entering names, nationality, and address on a hotel registration form.
A2 Can take part in ‘small talk’ and express simple opinions. For example, ‘This looks like a good party.’ ‘Yes, and everyone’s wearing funny clothes.’ Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can ask for what they want and exchange basic information with others. Can read very short, simple texts.  Can find specific, predictable information in simple everyday material such as advertisements, prospectuses, menus, and timetables and can understand short simple personal letters. Can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters in areas of immediate needs. Can write a very simple personal letter, for example thanking someone for something.
B1 Can understand the main points of clear standard speech on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.  Can understand the main point of many radio or TV programs on current affairs or topics of personal or professional interest when the delivery is relatively slow and clear. Can connect phrases in a simple way in order to describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes, and ambitions.  Can briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans. Can narrate a story or relate the plot of a book or film and describe reactions. Can understand texts that consist mainly of high frequency everyday or job-related language.  Can understand the description of events, feelings, and wishes in personal letters. Can write simple letters stating facts and events.  Can write simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can write personal letters describing experiences and impressions.
B2 Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.  Can take part in conversations on a range of topics. For example, conversations about events currently in the news. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst traveling in an area where the language is spoken.  For example, they can bargain for what they want and ask effectively for a refund or exchange an item. Can read articles and reports concerned with contemporary problems in which the writers adopt particular attitudes or viewpoints.  Can understand contemporary literary prose. Can write letters expressing opinions and giving reasons.  Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
C1 Can understand extended speech even when it is not clearly structured and when relationships are only implied and not signaled explicitly.  Can understand television programs and films without too much effort. Can present clear, detailed descriptions of complex subjects integrating sub-themes, developing particular points and rounding off with an appropriate conclusion Can understand long and complex factual and literary texts, appreciating distinctions of style. Can understand specialized articles and longer technical instructions, even when they do not relate to their field. Can express themselves in clear, well-structured text, expressing points of view at some length.  Can write about complex subjects in a letter, an essay or a report, underlining the salient issues. Can select a style appropriate to the reader in mind.
C2 Have no difficulty in understanding any kind of spoken language, whether live or broadcast, even when delivered at fast native speed, provided they have some time to get familiar with the accent. Can present a clear, smoothly-flowing description or argument in a style appropriate to the context and with an effective logical structure that helps the recipient to notice and remember significant points. Can read with ease virtually all forms of the written language, including abstract, structurally or linguistically complex texts such as manuals, specialized articles, and literary works. Can write clear, smoothly-flowing text in an appropriate style.  Can write complex letters, reports, or articles which present a case with an effective logical structure which helps the recipient to notice and remember significant points.  Can write summaries and reviews of professional or literary works.

How do I find the right level for my child?

To define which level your child is at, the simplest way is having her complete these quick, free online tests for young learners or online tests for school-aged learners offered by Cambridge Assessment English.  You’ll see your child’s CEFR level at the end of the test.  On a more important note, having a good level of English does not automatically mean your child will get a good score. Your child will need to get used to the format of the test and also prepare some practice questions before taking the real test.  Parents can also use this information to find practice activities and exams at the right level:

>> Learn more about Cambridge exams for teenagers (KET, PET, FCE…) here: https://blog.e2.com.vn/most-common-acronyms-used-in-the-us-uk-education-system/

Taking an International English exam not only means that your child gets an internationally recognized certificate, but it also provides your child with the experience of preparing and taking an international exam.  This can help increase your child’s confidence and self-belief as well as motivating them to take higher-level English exams or improve their score. However, it is important to remember that the process of learning an additional language can take several years and is different for each bilingual child.

For children entering a setting where a different language is spoken, it can take three months for them to begin to understand.  It may take two years before they can hold a conversation and up to seven years to have full cognitive understanding of the new language.

Testing is not everything

The CEFR is often used by employers and in academic settings as a general indicator to assess the English level.  It would be very useful for those moving out of the country and seeking for full-time jobs abroad, or pursuing higher education in a different country.

However, outside of the professional or academic realm, CEFR levels are not as important.  The CEFR has the advantage of being internationally known, but until now, it had the distinct disadvantage that it had been written for adults, and not for children.  Because of that, there were no descriptors of language interaction for the very young learner.  CEFR tests are really only necessary if you want to define where your child is compared to the target language.  However, don’t let that “testing culture” result in severe stress or pressure for your child.

In a more casual language-learning environment, when you let your child learn English just because she enjoys it, then CEFR levels are just another tool to gauge where your child is at, so that we can more clearly define what she needs to work on, and work out what she would like to achieve in her target language.

Children need to feel that they are making progress.  They need continual encouragement as well as praise for good performance, as any success motivates.  Parents are in an ideal position to motivate and help your children learn, even if you have only basic English skills yourselves and are learning alongside your young children.

At the end of the day, exams and scores are just one of many measures that should be used to evaluate your child’s English ability, and offer them a positive, confidence-boosting exam experience that motivates them to continue learning English.

Should you have any concerns or any topics you want us to cover, feel free to leave your comments below.  You can subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest updates delivered straight to your inbox, and find more parenting coverage at https://blog.e2.com.vn/category/parents/


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