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Assessing Listening and Speaking Proficiency

Updated on October 6, 2020
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul has spent many years teaching English as a foreign and second language. He has taught EFL in Taiwan and Thailand, and ESL in the U.S.

The Author as EFL Teacher

The author as an EFL teacher in Thailand in 2009.
The author as an EFL teacher in Thailand in 2009. | Source

Listening and Speaking Proficiency Ratings

Listening and speaking proficiency ratings for EFL and ESL K-12 students should reflect on how well pupils function using aural-oral communication skills in real-life situations. It is not enough to assign proficiency ratings by focusing solely on academic achievement-oriented formats. This hub will examine the U.S. Government's Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) language skill level descriptions, and suggest how they might be employed to better rate the listening and speaking proficiency skills of EFL and ESL students.

Present State of Assessing Listening and Speaking Proficiency Ratings of ESL Students

Based on my EFL and ESL teaching experiences in Taiwan and Thailand, most private and public schools treat EFL and ESL as an academic discipline. English is not learned for satisfying basic needs, but rather as a tool for obtaining knowledge from other academic subjects like science and social studies. This being the case, students' listening and speaking proficiencies are assessed in most cases through achievement-oriented formats. These formats use paper and pencil tests in which the student, for example, has to take dictation on learned vocabulary and grammar and answer listening comprehension questions about stories and articles. Students are then given numerical scores ranging from 0-100 to record achievement.

Some schools have special listening and speaking classes that attempt to teach English for survival and social needs. Teachers in these classes try to rate listening and speaking skills through role-plays and individual student interviews. The problem here is that most classes have 30-60 students, and there isn't enough time or thought put into accurately measuring a student's listening and speaking skills. Teachers arbitrarily assign scores without looking at any kind of rubric for guidance.

English Language Assessment in Canada

What are ILR Language Skill Level Descriptions?

The ILR language skill level descriptions were documented in 1985 for foreign language proficiency ratings of United States government employees. These descriptions were formulated by a joint panel of representatives from the State Department, CIA, FBI, and other agencies that employ foreign linguists. The descriptions rate language proficiency on a scale 0-5 in which 0 means no proficiency in a language, and 5 implies functioning with native proficiency. A rating of 1 signifies Elementary proficiency while a 2 rating means limited working proficiency. General and advanced professional proficiency does not occur until a person reaches the 3 and 4 levels respectively.

So what does each skill level description mean as it applies to the average individual? The following information on ILR skill level descriptions is taken from ILR documents.

A rating of 0 in listening and speaking implies that a person has no proficiency in a foreign language. In other words, the individual has no practical understanding of a language. Any understanding a person has is limited to occasional isolated words, but he or she can not understand spoken utterances in general. You will see this in tourists who can only say "hello" and "thank you" in the native language of the foreign countries they are visiting.

ILR has a rating of 0+ which signifies memorized proficiency. Persons who have this rating can understand memorized sentences in areas of immediate need; however, the sentences understood are short in length. This rating would apply to a vendor on the streets of Bangkok who can understand "How much?", "the red one," and "Come down with the price.", but not much more.

If a person has a listening and speaking rating of 1, it means that he or she has beginning proficiency. The person has adequate comprehension to understand sentences about basic survival needs, minimum courtesy, and travel requirements. For example, the individual can ask and answer simple questions about meals, lodging, transportation, time, and directions.

If someone has a rating of 1+, that person has some flexibility beyond basic survivability. He or she can understand more time form sentences and ask more questions. This speaker, however, needs sentences to be repeated before reaching understanding.

A listening and speaking rating of 2 shows that a person has limited working proficiency in a foreign language. At this rating, one can understand conversations on routine social demands, everyday topics, personal and family news, well-known current events, and distinguish among current, past, and future events. When a person reaches a rating of 2, he or she can understand the factual context, but can't understand and read between the lines. The native language also causes less interference in understanding.

When a person gets to a rating of 2+, one can sometimes detect emotional overtones and has some ability to understand implications and inferences.

A rating of 3 in listening and speaking implies one has general professional proficiency. At this rating, a person is starting to think well in a foreign language. He or she can understand hypothesizing and supported opinions. One has a wide range of vocabulary such that explanations and paraphrasing aren't required when speaking. At this rating, one can start to understand oral reports and also radio broadcasts. A person, however, can not understand natives if they are speaking fast and using slang. The major point of this rating is that by understanding abstract words, one can detect emotional overtones and understand implications. However, the 3 rated person can't understand native speakers if they are speaking rapidly or using slang.

At a rating of 3+, a non-native learner can comprehend all general topics but misses nuances and subtleties in speech. The learner is also understanding accented speech, editorials, and literary topics better.

By the time a non-native learner reaches a 4 rating, he or she is classified as having advanced professional proficiency. This means one understands persuasion and negotiating, as well as the subtleties and nuances of speech. Although at this rating one can't comprehend extreme dialects and slang, one can follow the unpredictable speech.

By a rating of 4+, a person is handling extremely difficult and abstract speech and is almost functioning with native proficiency.

At a rating of 5, a learner is functioning with native proficiency. He or she can converse like a well-educated native speaker, and understand how native speakers think as they create speech.

Using ILR Skill Level Descriptions in Rating Listening and Speaking Proficiency Skills of ESL Students

An interview with an examiner knowledgeable of ILR skill level descriptions is the best way to rate the listening and speaking proficiency skills of EFL and ESL students. During the interview, it is desirable to have two witnesses in addition to the examiner to make the assessment more objective. One should be a teacher who speaks the same native language as the examinee, and the other an EFL or ESL teacher who has learned English as a foreign or second language.

At the beginning of the rating session, the examiner and witnesses will all introduce themselves. Following this, the examiner begins with 0 level remarks and 0+questions such as "Good morning," "How are you today?", and "What's your name?" If the examinee doesn't understand, and can not answer these questions, he or she is at a 0 level in listening and speaking.

Next, the examiner will proceed with level 1 questions such as "What do you like eating?", "Where is your house?", and "Where do you want to go now?" If the examinee can answer correctly all of these questions, he or she is at the 1 level and the examiner may move to level 2 questions.

Level 2 questions would include such things as "What do you do before you go to school in the morning?", "Describe your house to me.", and "Where are you going on your vacation next year?" the examiner may also use a series of pictures as is done in the Cambridge University test, and have the examinee tell a story after looking at the pictures. The questions for level 2 stress concrete, factual matters, and sequencing. If an examinee has no difficulty answering these questions, he or she is at a 2 level.

For level 3 questions, the examiner would move to abstract questions such as "Which is better, democracy or communism?". The examinee would then have to defend the answer. Also, the examiner might have the examinee talk about greed and why it is bad. Starting at level 3, the examiner should be speaking at a normal rate of speech as when speaking with a native speaker.

if an examinee can handle level 3 questions quite well, the examiner should move on to higher-level questions such as "What does it mean to sell someone down the river." and "Why does a woman get mad if you call her an old "bag". There should be an emphasis on questions with slang, idioms, nuances, and subtleties of language.

By using this interview method for assessing listening and speaking proficiency, one can arrive at ratings such as 2+-2 and 3-2 for listening and speaking skills. These ratings will tell a lot more about a student's proficiency than the ratings which are used in schools such as 4 for excellent, 3 for good, 2 for average, 1 for poor, and 0 for needs improvement. In some schools, the administration dictates that every student must get a 2 or average rating. What does this tell us about the true listening and speaking proficiency level of students?

Assessing Listening and Speaking Proficiency Ratings

Which is the best way for assessing listening and speaking proficiency ratings?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn


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    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      7 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thank you very much for reading and commenting on this hub. I especially appreciate you voting this hub up and sharing it.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      7 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA.

      Very informative learning about the proficiency ratings for ESL and EFL students and what the numbers denote. Very useful information, Paul.

      Voted up and pinned, tweeted and shared.


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