Why should you test students' levels?
It might seem obvious, but some academies skip an essential step with new students – the level test. Maybe you’ve seen it before, students who want a B2 title are put straight into a B2 group…and there they stay, sometimes course after course, their base knowledge still not enough to present for the exam they want. Nobody benefits. Not your academy, not your teachers and not your students.
A good level test is essential to create groups that work together well, facilitate co-operative learning and, importantly, it is the first step to building a personal relationship between your academy and students. When a potential student drops in, calls, or emails, the relationship begins. These first interactions will start the dialogue to get the key information.
What experience does the student have studying English? What is their objective? What is their timescale? That last question is important to help you manage the expectations of potential students and guide them to the best learning path.
Do they need a title soon? Have they just started university and need one in four years? Do they have a title? How long ago did they get it?
All this information is essential moving forward to the next step, that all-important level test. It shows that your goal is to provide the best service for each student. You’re showing them that no two students are the same, that you can adapt to their needs, and that they come first.
Which level test should you use?
The next question is what level test to use and how to deliver it. The answer is that there is no one-size-fits-all method. You should be ready to choose from a variety of tests depending on the information you have from the student.
There are many multiple-choice placement tests out there, especially for teenage and adult learners, that go from A1 to C1. These are great for students who have no real idea of their level but be careful if using them. They sometimes have up to 200 questions. Students with lower levels may be discouraged by seeing high-level questions and students who told you they have a higher level won’t want to prove they know basic grammar. After all, you spent time getting to know the student first!
For general learners, you can often split these tests into three. One to cover A1 to B1, one for A2 to B2, and one for B1 to C1. And everyone should do one, even if they say they know nothing. Many adult learners have had negative experiences learning English and they don’t have much confidence. I’ve lost count of the number of students that have come to me saying that they know nothing, but, after testing, I find they have an A2 or even B1 level. It’s all about their own confidence.
A well-targeted level test will also help some students see that they usually know more than they think. So, you’ve already put your academy and your service in a good light with them.
Level tests for exam candidates
What about students that want to do an exam? For these students, the main question is whether they need reinforcement before starting an exam-focused course, especially as your teachers will be showing them grammar, vocabulary, and in-depth exam techniques. For some, this can be a lot to take on if their level is not where it needs to be.
I’ve found that a combination of level-specific exam questions, some reading comprehension, combined with some multiple-choice grammar questions gives the best overview of a student’s level of preparation. If their objective is B2, I see how they do with B1+ exercises. If it’s C1, then how do they do B2 exercises? This approach works very well as a first assessment and identifies if they should reinforce their base first.
Having various level tests will help you get the best understanding of new students’ levels and form the best groups you can.
The only question now is how you deliver them. You always have the option of paper tests, but time can be precious for people. If you’re starting out, it will be for you too. The most efficient way to deliver them is via online links that students can access from home and that deliver results directly to you. It will need more time from you at the front end but will save more in the long run and help you keep a record of tests to follow up.
All level tests should have a spoken part too so you can confirm what you find from the first stage. For your academy, the speaking test gets people in. They meet you face-to-face if they haven’t already, and they speak to a teacher. All this process ensures that they receive a personalised service. Then, with all the information in hand, you can talk about what you see as their best learning path with respect to their needs and their timescales.
Level testing children
For primary school ages, the process is different, but we still need to have material from three levels, each corresponding to the young learners’ exams available. Most primary schools will leave students with a level between A1 and A2, but there are always those with higher levels and others who need more support. Have a conversation with the parents about how their children are doing in English at school first. Children should come into your academy to sit with a teacher for the test. This will help put them at ease and provide a great first impression for parents too.
It's best not to treat it like a test with them. It’s a relaxed conversation between teacher and student with some exercises to do. Be ready for anything! I’ve had a 6º of primary student who needed to start from zero and a 3º of primary student who could ace a Cambridge Flyers exam.
Happy students, happy academy
One of the most important things that brings in new students is word of mouth. A good approach to level-testing gives a wonderful first impression of your academy and happy students will spread the word!