ISLPR Language Services Blog

How your Language Proficiency is Assessed in an ISLPR® Test

Posted by on Apr 20, 2021 at 9:52 AM

This is not a short blog post like our usual posts, so please allow yourself a few minutes to read and absorb what has been written. This week’s blog post is not a new topic either. In fact, everything in this blog post can be found on our website. However, many candidates continue to ask “how is my test marked?”

Dr Ingram has written today’s blog post to emphasize the important information already available on our website here.


How is your language assessed in an ISLPR Test?

In an ISLPR® test, we assess your overall proficiency in each macroskill of speaking, listening, reading and writing separately. Proficiency is a highly complex concept. There are many features that contribute to what we call language. Many of these are listed in the table, Key Features of Each Macroskill. However, we cannot just test one or two or even a few of these features and say that that is your proficiency. Proficiency in a language comes about from the interaction between the features that make up each of the macroskills, better, from the co-occurrence of these features.

In other words, someone might have very good formal knowledge of grammar but his or her articulation (pronunciation) might be very different from a native speaker’s and so comprehensibility to another speaker of the language might be very low and this would have an adverse effect on the overall proficiency rating in speaking. On the other hand, speakers from a language linguistically closer to English may pronounce words very clearly and precisely but their knowledge of grammar and their ability to put words together to make meaning in English may be much less and this would similarly affect the overall proficiency rating.

Here is another example. In assessing ESL speakers who are already highly educated with, for example, a Bachelor degree and one or two Master degrees and who are familiar with publications and research from the English-speaking world, we commonly find that their use of register (matching language to tasks and contexts) is very good, they have already learned how to develop an argument and structure a text and so their use of register, modality, discourse, discourse marking and argumentation is quite good or even very good and yet the basic grammar in their writing may be quite aberrant (i.e not like a native speaker’s grammar).

Thus, briefly again, proficiency comes about from the interaction between and co-occurrence of the many features that make up a language. Formal knowledge of each of the features or even the ability to use individual features may still leave candidates unable to convey meaning in fluent speaking or writing and so their proficiency may be quite low or certainly lower than any test of one or more of the individual features would suggest is likely. That is also why traditional language tests that focus on grammar, for instance, fail to indicate a learner’s real practical proficiency. Proficiency, again, comes about from the interaction between all of the features as the language is used in real-life communication.

This is also why language courses that traditionally focused on formal grammar left learners unable to communicate in the language. That is also why test preparation courses that focus on very specific criteria, often just a few elements of the language such as discourse markers, end up with results that are misleading and candidates find, for example, that they get into university courses but are still unable to cope with the demands of university study. That is also why, when you take tutorials with ILS, we emphasise that you must also get out into the real world and use the language to communicate with native speakers. Our popular online course always ended each booklet with real life practical activities. This is also why we emphasise how important it is for learners to read a lot and listen a lot to fluent native speakers such as you can hear at any time on ABC radio or on the ABC webpage (

David’s Real-life Experience

Let me give you a personal example of this issue. I am a native speaker of Australian English and I learned my second language, French, in quite formal traditional classes at school and at university. I became a teacher and had taught French also fairly traditionally for some years both at the Secondary School level and at university. I had great formal knowledge of French language and literature, having majored in French and done several years of post-graduate study. However, when, some years later, I first went to France, I found I was quite unable to communicate in everyday contexts about everyday things. My knowledge of the elements of French was very good but my practical ability to put them all together to communicate in everyday situations was quite poor.


Thus, candidates who complain that we don’t give them explicit criteria that they can “learn” for a test do not understand the nature of language or language proficiency.  


A language is not just knowledge but importantly involves the ability to put all of that knowledge together in communicating. Many students are used to university courses where they can be given very specific criteria that they can follow or that can guide them to bone up on specific topics or even write an assignment in a specific way. That is simply not the nature of real language or language proficiency. In an ISLPR® test, we assess each candidate’s real life, practical language ability, not just their formal knowledge but how they can put all the parts of each macroskill together to communicate and understand in real life contexts.

The International Second Language Proficiency Ratings (ISLPR®)

The acronym, ISLPR®, refers to a detailed scale that describes real-life language behaviour at 12 levels from zero to native-like proficiency. The tester’s task is to observe a candidate’s real-life language behaviour, consider all the features that make up language, and consider how or to what extent they work together successfully in the candidate’s use of English (if that is the target language or even in another language, since ISLPR® is equally applicable to other languages). That is a complex task and our testers are thoroughly trained with a higher degree (Master or Ph.D.) in linguistics and language teaching and then have specific training in the ISLPR®.

You may download a Summary of the ISLPR from our website here.