Practical tools, activities, and resources
to guide instruction

Oral Proficiency - Descriptors

Describing Adult Oral Language Proficiency

Student Performance Levels

Students laughingIn the field of adult ESL education in the United States, students’ language proficiency levels can be described in general terms according to Student Performance Levels (SPLs). Ranging from level 0 (“No ability whatsoever”) to 10 (“Ability equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level”), SPLs describe the continuum of oral language development across a range of components. See Student Performance Level (SPL) Descriptors for Listening Comprehension and Oral Communication for more information on the characteristics of each level.

Although one cannot identify an SPL based on a single speech sample, we have provided audio clips that illustrate particular developmental features of oral communication. Use the SPLs Audio Sampler to hear speech samples of students at different proficiency levels.

SPLs have been used in the United States since the early 1980s not only to describe adult learners’ English development but also to inform instructional decisions and to interpret standardized assessment scores. For example, the SPLs for Listening Comprehension and Oral Communication are used to better understand final scale scores on BEST Plus, which assesses conversational English ability through a face-to-face interview. With BEST Plus, the SPLs help teachers match an assessment scale score to a description of what a student can do at a particular proficiency level and what the student is still struggling with. The table below shows how SPLs align with BEST Plus scale scores.

Source. Center for Applied Linguistics. (2005). BEST Plus Test Administrator Guide (Section III, p. 8). Washington, DC: Author.

In the Instruction section of this module, you will learn about how you can design speaking and listening activities in your adult ESL class that are appropriate for different SPLs. Note that most federally funded adult ESL programs only serve students at SPL 6 and below.

Back arrowHome iconNext arrow



Teachers talking

Information iconStudent Performance Levels  for Listening Comprehension and Oral Communication Adobe PDF icon

Information iconThe SPLs Audio Sampler provides student speech samples that illustrate some of the most commonly seen SPLs in adult ESL programs. Use the SPLs Audio Sampler.