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ESL Testing: A Teacher’s Guide

It is the end of another class and a student has stayed. No problem, you think, maybe an easy grammar question, or a comment about how they enjoyed the class (or not!) … or maybe it’s a question about an ESL test. “What is the difference between TOEFL and TOEIC?” “Should I take the FCE?” “Who recognizes the IELTS?” So if you don’t know your BEC from your KET, or your CAE from your CELS, here is a short guide to the most popular ESL exams.

The ESL exams are divided into three main categories: General English, Business English, and Academic English.

General English

Probably the most popular in this category are the Cambridge ESOL exams. One and a half million people in 135 countries take the Cambridge exams each year. There are five General English exams, sometimes referred to as the “Cambridge Main Suite”.

The first two levels are the KET (Key English Test) and the PET (Preliminary English test). The KET and PET have components of reading and writing, listening and speaking, and are most often used to assess progress or to prepare for the next exam in the series. PET is also recognized by some employers and universities. KET and PET have two degrees of approval, Pass with merits and Pass.

The next thing about the PET is the FCE (First certificate in English). The FCE has five sections, reading, writing, use of English, listening and speaking. It is widely recognized by employers and educational institutions and therefore very popular with students who want to study or work abroad.

However, many universities and employers prefer FALLS OFF (Certificate in Advanced English), which is the next level. This exam shows that a student is capable of pursuing a college course or can function in a variety of business contexts.

After CAE comes the CPE (Certificate of Proficiency in English), the highest level in the series. Students who pass this exam have the ability to function effectively in almost all English-speaking contexts. The CPE is also a typical requirement for non-native speakers who want to train as teachers of English. Students generally need 3 years of study after passing the FCE to reach this level (depending, of course, on how often they study and other factors).

FCE, CAE and CPE have five grades, AE, of which AC are approved.

Cambridge also has a series of General English exams for young people between the ages of 7 and 12 (YLE). There are three exams in the series, Starters, Moving and Frills. They are taken primarily as a means of measuring progress, and also in preparation for KET and PET. There is no pass or fail: students receive up to five “shields” for each component (reading and writing, listening, speaking).

Other General English exams

Cambridge also offers CELS (Certificates in English Language Skills). These are individual tests on each of the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking). Students can choose which of the exams they want to take, based on their strengths and requirements.

Pitman, part of the British City and Guilds Group, is another examining body with a series of General English exams. Tea ESOL international covers listening, reading and writing, and ESOL spoken international It is a structured one-on-one interview. Both have six levels, from basic to advanced.

Business English

Each year, four and a half million people take the TOEIC (English test for international communication), by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The TOEIC is a multiple-choice test in two sections, Listening and Reading, each with a score of 445, for a total of 990. Many companies and government agencies use the TOEIC as a criterion for hiring or promoting staff, or to send staff abroad. Some colleges also use TOEIC, for example, and require their business school students to achieve a particular score before graduation.

Cambridge also has a series of business exams called BEC (Business English Certificate). BEC comes in three levels, Preliminary, Advantage and Higher. The types of exam tasks are similar to those in the Cambridge Main Suite, but they assess language ability in a business context. They are recognized by many employers around the world and are worn by students to demonstrate the language skills necessary for international business. There are two degrees of approval for BEC, Pass with merits and Pass.

Other Business English Exams

Cambridge Offers BULATS (The language testing service for companies). BULATS is specifically designed for companies and organizations to assess the linguistic ability of employees who need English in their work, and for students and employees in language and business courses.

Pitman has a series of three-tier tests called English for business communications, which tests commercial writing skills, and English for office skills, a two-tier series designed to test the ability to perform office-related tasks where precision in writing and following directions is important.

Academic English

A common question from students is “What is the difference between TOEIC and TOEFL?” Well, both are administered by ETS, but while TOEIC assesses language skills for the workplace, TOEFL assesses language skills in an academic context. Therefore, it is mainly used as a prerequisite for admission to universities and colleges. More than 5,000 colleges and universities in 90 countries recognize the exam. During 2005 and 2006, TOEFL is gradually introducing a new Internet-based test (iBT), which will replace the current computer-based and paper-based tests. The iBT has 4 sections, Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing, each with a score of 30, giving a total score of 120. This is likely to cause some confusion for a while, as most of the Students and universities are used to working with a paper total of 677, or a computer total of 300!

Cambridge also has an academic exam, the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), managed jointly with the British Council and IDP: IELTS Australia. IELTS is recognized by universities and colleges, as well as by employers, immigration authorities, and professional bodies. The exam has components of listening, reading, writing and speaking. For reading and writing, students can choose between an academic and a general option. The IELTS is scored on a scale of 1 to 9.

Level comparison

One of the most common questions asked by students is how the tests in the different categories compare to each other. Is the FCE equivalent to one of the BEC exams? If I have the CAE, what TOEFL score can I expect? Fortunately, we have a reference guide to help us here, called the “Common European Framework of Reference for Languages” (CEF). The CEF divides language learners into six levels and allows us to compare all ESL tests according to these levels.

The six levels are A1 (Breakthrough), A2 (Waystage), B1 (Threshold), B2 (Vantage), C1 (Effective Operational Proficiency), and C2 (Mastery).

Here is a quick comparison of the exams at the different levels. Please note that this is just a general guide – student scores on different exams will, of course, depend on many factors, such as preparation time and motivation.

A1: YLE Movers, Pitman ESOL Basic, IELTS score 1-2.

A2: KET, YLE Flyers, Pitman ESOL Elementary, TOEIC score 246-380, TOEFL iBT score 32-42, IELTS score 3.

B1: PET, TOEIC score 381-540, preliminary BEC, TOEFL iBT score 43-61, IELTS score 3.5-4.5.

B2: FCE, Pitman ESOL Intermediate, TOEIC score 541-700, BEC Vantage, TOEFL iBT score 62-91, IELTS score 5-6.

C1: CAE, Pitman ESOL Upper Intermediate, TOEIC score 701-910, higher BEC, TOEFL iBT score 92-112, IELTS score 6.5-7.

C2: CPE, Pitman ESOL Advanced, TOEIC score 911-990, TOEFL iBT score 113-120, IELTS score 7.5-9.

Of course, there is much more information about these tests on the Cambridge ESOL, TOEIC, TOEFL and Pitman websites; you will find the links in this ESL exam resource

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