ESL Exams – a Teacher’s Guide

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!).. 200-301. 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. 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).