ESL Exams: A Teacher's Guide

If they intend to study or work using English, or sometimes just for their own personal satisfaction, students often want to take some sort of internationally accredited exam. But which one? Keith Taylor takes a look at some of the exams on offer.

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

ESL exams fall broadly 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 Cambridge exams every 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 reading and writing, listening, and speaking components, and are most often used to assess progress or to prepare for the next exam in the series. The PET is also recognized by some employers and universities. KET and PET have two pass grades, Pass with merit and Pass.

Next up from 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 so is very popular with students who want to study or work abroad.

Many universities and employers, however, prefer the CAE (Certificate in Advanced English), which is the next level up. This exam shows that a student is capable of following a university course or can function in a range of business contexts.

After the 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 every English speaking context. The CPE is also a typical requirement for non-native speakers who want to train as English teachers. Students typically 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, A-E, of which A-C are passes.

Cambridge also has a series of General English exams for Young Learners aged between 7 and 12 (YLE). There are three exams in the series, Starters, Movers and Flyers. They are taken mainly as a means of measuring progress, and also as preparation for the KET and PET. There is no pass or fail - students are awarded 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 exams in each of the four skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking). Students can choose which of the exams they want to take, according to their strengths and requirements.

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

Business English

Every year four and a half million people take the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), run by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The TOEIC is a multiple choice exam in two sections, listening and reading, each scored out of 445, giving a total of 990. Many companies and government agencies use TOEIC as a criterion for recruiting or promoting staff, or for sending staff abroad. Some universities also use TOEIC, requiring their business school students to achieve a particular score prior to graduation, for example.

Cambridge also has a series of business exams called the BEC (Business English Certificate). BEC comes in three levels, Preliminary, Vantage and Higher. The types of exam task are similar to those in the Cambridge Main Suite, but test language ability in a business context. They are recognized by many employers worldwide, and students take them to demonstrate language skills required for international business. There are two pass grades for BEC, Pass with merit and Pass.

Other Business English exams

Cambridge offers BULATS (The Business Language Testing Service). BULATS is designed specifically for companies and organizations to test the language ability of employees who need English in their work, and for students and employees on language and business courses.

Pitman has a three-level series of exams called English for Business Communications, which tests business writing ability, and English for Office Skills, a two-level series designed to test the ability to carry out office-related tasks where accuracy in writing and following instructions is important.

Academic English

A common question from students is "What's the difference between TOEIC and TOEFL?" Well, both are run by ETS, but whereas TOEIC evaluates language skills for the workplace, TOEFL evaluates language skills in an academic context. It is therefore used primarily as a prerequisite for admission to universities and colleges. More than 5000 colleges and universities in 90 countries recognize the exam. During 2005 and 2006, TOEFL is phasing in a new internet-based test (iBT), which will replace the current computer-based and paper-based exams. 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 students and universities are used to working with the paper-based total of 677, or the computer-based total of 300!

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

Comparing levels

One of the most common questions from students is how exams 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? Luckily, 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 enables us to compare all the ESL exams according to these levels.

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

Here's a quick comparison of exams at the different levels. Bear in mind that this is a general guide only -- students' scores in 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, BEC Preliminary, 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 Higher Intermediate, TOEIC score 701-910, BEC Higher, 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.

There is of course much more information about these exams on the Cambridge ESOL, TOEIC, TOEFL and Pitman websites -- you will find the links at this ESL exams resource.

Keith Taylor is the founder of, providing free resources, information and advice for TEFL teachers, as well as the latest job opportunities and a directory of TEFL courses worldwide. He also maintains the eslbase language exchange, an easy way to practise any language online.
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