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How to select and prepare for English proficiency test

By Dr Norman

Many places require you to sit a test of English proficiency.  A proficiency score gives governments and institutions an indication of your level of English, so that they (and you) can make decisions. Clearly, you want to do something that involves being able to communicate in English. You may, for instance, want to migrate to particular English speaking country, to work in an English speaking workplace, or to study in an English speaking workplace. To achieve your goals as quickly and efficiently as possible, you need to select the right test, and you need to prepare for English proficiency test in the most effective way.  But what is right for you? There are 2 important questions that will give you that answer.

1.      What do you need to prepare for English proficiency test?

First, you need to have a plan. What exactly do you want to do? Let’s say you want to go to a particular English speaking university. What is your ‘back-up’ plan if you don’t get in? Make sure you have a list of places that you are interested in.  Once you have this list, you can start to make decisions.

A.      Determine which test/s you will do.

Most places will give you a list of tests that they will accept. Some are unique to a particular institution or government, and some are accepted more widely. Start by considering tests that are accepted by a wide range of places. This gives you some options if you do not get into the place that is on the top of your list, or if you change your mind later. Often you can only use the score you get for a certain period of time. Make sure you check how long your score will be valid for once you have sat the test. This will help you plan which test to do, and when it will be best for you to take the test.

B.      Determine the level and score you need.

Next, look at the score or level of English you need to demonstrate in order to be accepted. Make sure that you understand what the scores in each of your chosen tests mean.  Each score or band of scores is usually accompanied by a description of a level of English. Find the descriptions for the total score, as well as the descriptions for each of the separate areas being tested: speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Sometimes it can be tricky finding all the descriptions for the scores. I suggest that you go to the organisation that writes and administers the test. Remember, different testing organisations have different names for these descriptions. Look through their website, and search for words and phrases such as ‘descriptors’, ‘band scores’, ‘assessment criteria’, ‘band descriptors’, ‘scoring guide’ and ‘guide to understanding scores’. This should give you what you need.

Now you will be able to answer the next question and start to prepare for English proficiency test.

2.      What is your current level of English?

In order to prepare in the most efficient and effective way, you need to have a good understanding of your current level of English, and how it would be described. Look through the descriptors that you found for your chosen test/s and rate yourself. Do you have an idea of which score or band of scores you might be able to achieve?

Sometimes, judging yourself based on the descriptors alone can be difficult. You need to know how difficult (or easy) the tasks are for you in order to know what you are able to achieve. So find a past test on the internet. Look at the reading, writing, listening and speaking tasks. Think about how you would manage these, and then rate yourself against the descriptors. You could also do a trial test and see what score you get. There are usually free options available for checking your level on the internet for the most well-known tests.

With a good idea of your current level of English, you are in a good position to decide what to do next.  If you can reach all the necessary levels in all parts of the test, then I suggest that you start studying for the test.

If, however, you can’t reach the levels you need in all parts of the test, then I suggest that you work on your English. Trying to improve your English by studying for the test is not efficient. You will progress much faster and much more effectively if you get your English to the right level first and then study for the test. See the blog articles on ‘How to choose the best course for you’ and 'How to choose the best teacher for you'.

5th September 2016

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