Updated: May 28, 2021
In a driver’s test, an achievement test would represent the paper and pencil questions that one answers, while a proficiency exam determines how well the person can actually drive the car.
It's a Skill Mix
Unlike a test say in biology, testing for language ability really means to assess all four language skills of listening, reading, speaking and writing.
But that’s rarely done. Instead most only test the reception skills of reading and listening – as a proxy for overall English ability – ignoring the production skills of speaking and writing.
Proficiency is the ability to perform an action or function. In language terms, it refers to one’s ability to use English for real world purposes to accomplish specific tasks, across a wide range of topics and settings.
Proficiency Testing is Different
The tests we took at school were mostly achievement tests. These tests measure knowledge of specific information (what a person knows). A proficiency test targets what an individual can do with what one knows.
In a driver’s test, an achievement test would represent the paper and pencil questions that one answers, while a proficiency test determines how well the person can actually drive the car.
So a language proficiency test is much more than just an achievement measurement of what a user knows. We also need a scale of what they can typically do with a language at different levels and in different contexts (general, social, work and study).
And while these statements of ability can get much more detailed – and specific to each one of the four language skills – below is a general summary table.
Categorization Level Summary 'Can-Do' Descriptors
The Common European Framework of Reference – the CEFR – was developed as an easy-to-use six-level system to measure anyone’s language proficiency.
The CEFR distinguishes between four kinds of language activities: reception (listening and reading), production (spoken and written), interaction (spoken and written), and mediation (translating and interpreting).
Understanding the CEFR
But the CEFR is much more than just a measurement scale. Over two decades of research have gone into the creation and verification of its ability statements which tell us what users can specifically do at each level.
These 'Can-Do' descriptors is a key reason the CEFR has become the industry standard for assessing language proficiency and increasingly, for establishing educational policy worldwide.
A Rich Example
Take the word ‘rich.’ An elementary English speaker (A2 level) will understand the statement: “My uncle is rich" in that he has a lot of money.
But if you tell them that "the chocolate cake is rich," they’ll probably be scratching their heads, trying to figure out how a cake can have money. Indeed, that particular usage or meaning of ‘rich’ requires a B2 level of proficiency.
Defining the Goalposts
So when we want our employees or students to speak better English, using the Can-Do Statements can help us define what specific level of proficiency is required for the task at hand.
We can even ask – in a benchmarking study – what levels of English proficiency in all four language skills does a specific position or job require? And then recruit or train staff to those proficiency levels.
For individual training, once we know where the goalposts are, then the question becomes about how much study is needed to reach a certain CEFR level.
We've written about that here.
About the Author
I’m the Managing Director at Vantage Siam, an authorized Cambridge English Exam Centre and management training firm.
We offer English language training via blended learning to both students and professionals in Thailand.
And we also provide American accredited TEFL Certification in Bangkok.