What are the Five Student Levels in ESL Teaching?

There are a number of different systems for classifying the English Language level of Speakers of Other Language (ESL) students. Here we will look at one of the more common five level classifications. Having a good understanding of what each level indicates as a knowledge base for the students is vital in the planning of a lesson, a series of lessons and creating a syllabus. It is important to note that the level statements are ‘additive’ meaning that level 2 assumes a full knowledge and understanding of level 1, as well as all the statements in level 2 and so on.

Beginner or Starter Level

Students who are classified at the beginner level have limited or no English language proficiency.

As such they will need to be taught from the level of the alphabet upwards. Here teachers will need to cover foundational subjects such as, the parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adverbs and others), simple grammatical items may include the subjects of a sentence and conjugation rules needed to structure foundational sentences such as the present simple.

If appropriate to the teaching situation, some simple coverage of phonetics may also be done.

Also read: How do ESL students learn best?

Elementary Level

Students have a basic understanding of English but limited fluency and accuracy. At this level teachers will aim to develop speaking and writing skills and improve pronunciation.

More complicated vocabulary and grammatical structures can be introduced as well as other grammar items.

It is important to build confidence at this level of both speaking and writing through interactive activities which promote these things.

Pre-Intermediate Level

Students can communicate with some fluency, but will still struggle with accuracy and more complex language tasks.

Here it is important to build on all four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking.

More complex grammatical items such as the full range of tenses should now be covered, as well as more complex items such as modals and conditionals.

Also read: What are the best books for ESL teaching?

Intermediate Level

Students have a high level of fluency and accuracy, but may still encounter challenges with nuanced language use.

Here the teacher will build the students' knowledge of more complex grammatical features such as active and passive voice, relative clauses and direct and reported speech.

Comparison of tenses and their usage in certain situations and the ability to use more complex terminology will be built upon, both written and verbally. Analysis of more complex texts will also be covered.

Upper-Intermediate Level

Students will have near-native fluency and can effectively communicate in English.

Teachers will focus on students gaining mastery in academic discussions, analyzing literature, and honing writing skills at a native-like level.

If appropriate, study of international testing systems such as IELTS and TOEFL may also be covered giving practice in all aspects of the examination systems.

Also read: What level of English is required for TESOL?


As can be seen, the teaching of English to speakers of other languages requires teachers to be able to cover the full range of student knowledge from zero, to near native speaker level.

Teachers should focus their strategies on support of students appropriate to their level and needs.

A classroom environment that encourages trial and error over caution and interacting as often as possible will help students move through these levels to their desired outcome.

Also read: What are the different types of ESOL programs?