It’s normal to feel a bit anxious if you know you have a language test coming up, or if you’ve been asked to show proof of your English level for a job interview or university application. To help you out, here’s a roundup of some of your most googled questions about assessment, so you can get the answers you really need before you walk into a test room!
How can I test my English level
Before you start looking for an English test, the first thing you need to do is make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to do, and where you want to go. For example, if you’re thinking of starting an English course, and you don’t know what the right level for you is, then you should take a placement test. This is the first thing that most language schools will do if you ask them for advice or information.
But if you want a certificate to show to somebody else, then you need to take a more complete test that will evaluate your ability to speak, listen, read and write in English, and give you clear results and a certificate which shows what you can do. This is what’s called a proficiency test, for example the Oxford Test of English.
What should I look for in an English proficiency test?
Once again, it depends on what you want to do. Why do you want to test your English level? Do you want to get a job, study somewhere in particular, or go on a study trip to another country? If you know exactly where you want to go, then you should find out what their requirements are regarding English language. What CEFR level are they asking for? What options do they recognise or accept for accrediting that level? When do they need to receive your certificate?
When you know what your options are, the next thing to do is compare them. When, and where, can you take those tests? How much do they cost? How much time will you need to prepare for the test – a few days, or a specific course lasting several months? When will you get the results? Will you have time?
If you aren’t quite so clear about where exactly you want to go but want credible proof of your level of English, you should consider the prestige of the institution which certifies your abilities. The Oxford Test of English is certified by the University of Oxford, so anyone you show your certificate to will know the assessment you took is of a high quality, which is bound to make a good impression!
How long is an English proficiency test?
Because proficiency tests go into more detail and produce a valuable certificate, they generally take quite a lot longer than placement or progress tests. Many of the oldest proficiency tests take three to four hours to do, especially if they are pen and paper assessments. The Oxford Test of English uses adaptive online technology, and this means that it takes only two hours to do, because it can measure English language ability more accurately, in less time and with fewer questions, than traditional exams. It also means the test never feels too difficult or too easy, because it adapts to your level.
How many English levels are there and what do they mean?
The most common levels that people, companies, schools, and universities talk about and use are those of the Common European Framework. There are six levels: A1, A2; B1, B2; C1 and C2: these go in order from the lowest level, A1, through to the highest, C2. They’re not only for English: these levels apply to all languages. They are determined not by how much you know, but by what you’re able to do, and they describe your ability according to the four skills: Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing.
If you have an A1 level of English, you can probably manage to get something simple to eat and drink, but not much else. But if you have a B2 level, for example, you can deal with almost all everyday situations fairly comfortably. And if you have a C2 level, you can use the language as well as a well-educated native speaker.
How should I prepare for my English assessment?
It really depends on what the test requires you to do. This becomes particularly important if the test gives results as a pass or fail, contains very specific or even peculiar tasks, and is expensive and available only a few times a year. This is why there are many language schools offering preparation courses which take several months.
However, if you choose a test in which you can’t fail, because it certifies the level you have right now, and is based on realistic and familiar tasks, and is available on many more dates, then preparing yourself is much easier and quicker.
As part of your preparation, the first thing you need is to make sure you have the right level of English. If a university or a company requires a B2, then a B2 level of English is the minimum you’re going to need. Don’t think of taking the test if you’re not sure that you have that level.
Another thing you need to do is familiarise yourself with the test. If you know what you’re going to have to do in each part, what comes next, and how best to answer, you’ll probably do better than if you take the test without ever having seen it before.
Also, when it comes to Speaking and Writing, you need to practise formulating ideas and opinions about a wide range of topics – even things you are not usually interested in – and then expressing them in English. You can use these Speaking and Writing Tips to help you prepare for these sections in the Oxford Test of English.
Check out our recent blog post for more tips on how to prepare for your language test.
How do you prepare for an English exam the night before?
It’s true that last-minute “swotting” might have helped you with simple tests in the past, but if you’re taking a general English test which is going to assess your overall ability in English, then there’s nothing much you can do the night before that will make you learn what you haven’t studied over the previous years.
Instead of trying to learn more English the night before, take a few minutes to familiarise yourself again with the test. Then relax and watch an enjoyable film or listen to some music in English, and get a good night’s sleep: being relaxed and well-rested will help you more than a late night under a reading lamp.
Do I have to retake all the modules of a proficiency test if I fail one?
In most English assessments, if you want to improve your result, you have to take the whole exam all over again. The Oxford Test of English is different because it’s modular. So if you want to retake only the module or skill where you got the lowest mark, you can do – you don’t need to take all the tests over again, and you don’t need to pay for a whole new test.
How long should I wait before I re-sit a proficiency test?
You could, if you wanted to, retake a proficiency test as soon as you want, but it probably wouldn’t be a good idea. If you have taken a quality English language assessment, and you’ve obtained a result which is lower than you need, you will almost certainly get a very similar result if you retake it too soon. What you should do is make a substantial effort to improve on the particular skill – or skills – where you need a better result, before you retake the test. So, for example, if you need a better result in Speaking, the solution isn’t to try again next week! The solution would be to take a conversation course, or a summer intensive course, or spend a month or two in an English-speaking environment, before retaking the module.
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Simon Ferdinand is Head of Market Development for ELT Assessment at Oxford University Press, where he is in charge of launching the Oxford Test of English worldwide. His career spans 26 years in the field of English Language Teaching, first as a teacher of English and French at a language school in Madrid, then as a sales rep and product manager with Oxford University Press working on English File and exams material.
Simon speaks six languages fluently and he is also the author of ‘Cómo negociar en inglés’ (How to Negotiate in English) which was published in Madrid in 2006 and has sold 27,000 copies.