Language learners and proficiency levels: What is their level?
By Erick Herrmann

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This is the second of a two-part article on language learners.

Once students have been identified as having an influence of a language other than English — done at registration through some form of Home Language Survey — they are tested to determine to what degree the influence has had on their English proficiency.


Is it difficult to identify the proficiency level of your students?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

There are numerous measures used in schools across the country that categorize English learners into proficiency levels. While the names and number of proficiency levels vary according to the state, it is important to understand what the proficiency levels tell us about students and what they are able to do in our classrooms. While each state sets its proficiency levels, the following descriptors (from the Oregon Department of Education) can be used as a general guideline:
  • Level 1: Students demonstrate minimal comprehension of general meaning; gain familiarity with the sounds, rhythms and patterns of English. Early stages show no verbal responses, while in later stages one- or two-word responses are expected. Students respond in single words and phrases, which may include subject or a predicate. (bear, brown)

  • Level 2: Students demonstrate increased comprehension of general meaning and some specific meaning. Use routine expressions independently and respond using phrases and simple sentences, which include a subject and predicate. (The bear is brown. He is eating.)

  • Level 3: Students demonstrate good comprehension of general meaning; increased comprehension of specific meaning; respond in more complex sentences, with more detail using newly acquired vocabulary to experiment and form messages. (The brown bear lived with his family in the forest.)

  • Level 4: Students demonstrate consistent comprehension of general meaning; good understanding of implied meaning; sustain conversation, respond with detail in compound and complex sentences; actively participates using more extensive vocabulary, use standard grammar with few random errors. (Can bears live in the forest if they find food there?)

  • Level 5: Students' comprehension of general and implied meaning, including idiomatic and figurative language. Students initiate and negotiate using appropriate discourse, varied grammatical structures and vocabulary; use of conventions for formal and informal use. (Would you like me to bring pictures of the bear that I saw last summer?)
Can you think of students in your classes who fit the proficiency level descriptors listed above? Are all of them English learners? Consider your native English speakers; do some of them fit into the Level 4 or even Level 3 descriptor? If you work in a bilingual program, these descriptors can be useful when determining the language level of both native speakers of the target language, as well as native English speakers learning the target language.

Once the proficiency level has been determined, it is important to reflect upon what that means for us as teachers. One useful tool is the Can Do Descriptors, defined by the World Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortium, a group of 27 states, for guidance on how to adjust instruction and the tasks students complete in class. The descriptors focus on what students are able to demonstrate at each proficiency level.

But knowing the proficiency level of a student does not guarantee what the student knows or will be able to do. As mentioned before, English learners are a diverse population. Students' success on academic topics will vary depending on a variety of factors, just as it does for any other student group. Background knowledge, or what a student already knows about a particular topic, students' level of education and schooling, and other factors will have a large impact on students' success.

How are English Learners identified in your schools? What are the most common proficiency levels in your schools?

Erick Herrmann is an educational consultant specialized in teaching English learners, and he runs Educating English Learners. Erick has worked with thousands of teachers across the nation to help them improve their instructional practice and increase academic achievement for all students.