Language levels – beginner, intermediate, advanced

Students of a foreign language are typically classified into three bands based on competence: beginner, intermediate, advanced. In my experience, progression is not strictly cumulative, but requires returning often to the same contents until the student integrates it. For that reason, most students are at an ‘intermediate’ stage, which is also the most difficult to teach. Language is a performance, like sport or music – you don’t only ‘know’ a point of grammar or the word for a certain object or action, but you can apply it in a setting to perform a communication or expression task. This is very common knowledge. Less often understood is this second point. Each language is a system, and forms a totality. Therefore, each new element we learn needs to find its proper place in the system. Tenses or word order rules, for instance, form a whole, but so does vocabulary. For that reason, language learning requires three very different activities:

  • ‘Growth’. Learn new words or refine the meaning of known words, learn more advanced grammatical patterns, improve pronunciation accuracy, and develop more adapted rhetorical skills.
  • ‘Clarification’. Correct errors in pronunciation, grammar, use of words; fill up gaps in certain semantic or pragmatic areas, so that the learner will understand and correct recurring errors. This clarification phase could also be called ‘systemic integration’, as what needs to happen is a fast check of the whole system every time an error is detected.
  • ‘Endurance’. Automate whatever is known already: the same task should be done with less effort and more quickly, with more distractions present, or in a more stressful setting.

Based on this analysis, I would advocate for a radical rethink of language teaching pathways, while keeping the traditional division between beginners, intermediate and advanced learners.

Beginners should have a clearly articulated pathway to grammatical and core vocabulary building. I base my teaching on quickly developing basic syntactic patterns for localising and naming the immediate environment, expressing modality (I want, I can, I must), and simple interactions (a similar method is described in this blog post). In classes, growth, clarification and drills should be balanced, to ensure quick integration of the core structures. The beginner stream should finish by one or two sessions of systematic revision focusing on automating question and assertion; time, space, and aspect; persons and possession; modality and causality. Meanwhile, beginners’ vocabulary may be limited to a few essential objects, family names, and core action/relational verbs.

Distinguishing intermediate and advanced students is in itself a challenge, but I would propose the following criterion: advanced students are autonomous language learners, which means they can progress on their own without a teacher or structured method, through sheer immersion, while intermediate learners still require scaffolding from a teacher, a book, or any structured learning system.

Advanced students still benefit from the presence of a teacher or structured environment, along two different lines. On the one hand, advanced students can particularly benefit from a few targeted one-on-one sessions that will focus on correcting remaining errors in pronunciation, syntax or semantics. On the other hand, classes on a topic of interest delivered in the target language by teachers aware of linguistic difficulties can be particularly beneficial to build endurance, nurture motivation, grow vocabulary in specific areas, and clarify some confused pockets – particularly in semantics. But mostly, advanced students will strongly benefit from a stay in-country, where their existing levels will allow them to enjoy full immersion, and practice informally in all sorts of social settings – while building up confidence and training their endurance.

Intermediate students present by far the biggest challenges to teachers – mostly along two distinct lines:

1) Intermediate students are extremely diverse. All have a thing in common: they have major gaps in their linguistic knowledge to fill. However, not all have the same gaps, because not all followed the same beginner’s track – or any track at all – and not all integrated the same parts of whatever they learnt. That’s before even considering their individual motivations and learning styles. Even though institutions do their best to stream intermediates into various bands, each class will have massive discrepancies that have to be dealt with.

2) Intermediate students need very strong internal motivation. On the one hand, their level is still too low for them to enjoy a film, a book or even a conversation in the target language, unlike advanced students. On the other hand, their progress is less perceptible than beginner students; and since perceived progress is one of the strongest motivators for further studies, their risk of dropping out is very high.

I haven’t cracked the code yet of how to best teach intermediate students, but I believe the ultimate solution is to find ways of reducing the time students spend at ‘intermediate level’. My personal style is to delude myself into believing that I’ve reached an advanced level very soon, so that I can sustain motivation through direct encounter with quality contents. But less confident learners may feel discouraged by materials or situations too hard for them – and lack the generic cross-linguistic skills I’ve developed through years of language practice. Another possibility would be to remain in the beginner track longer, and ensure that bases are extremely solid, so that ‘intermediate’ studies mostly focus on growth.

Do you have any experience of teaching intermediate students? Please share them here!

I used grammarly to proofread this post. I’m not a native speaker of English and sometimes still wonder if my grammar’s all OK. They do a great job of spotting minor mistakes, and it means I can save my native friends’ brainspace for more in-depth advice on the contents of my writing. 

14 thoughts on “Language levels – beginner, intermediate, advanced

  1. Pingback: Perspective Collective | Julien Leyre « Language Boat

  2. Sir, I am not a real teacher at school. I am only a instructor at a public course in my city. But, now I am going to write an academic writing about pre-intermediate learners. That’s why I am eager to consultate with you Sir about who actually the learners at pre-intermediate level and what are their needs for English learning. Thank you so much Sir for sharing ideas to me.


  3. Intermediate students are my favourite to teach. With beginner students a lot of it is non-verbal and going through the basics. With advanced, although I like the level of conversation, they usually are so adept that it’s a struggle finding areas to improve! Intermediates have that nice balance of comprehension with enough room to grow.

  4. Hi ! Your link to a blog post leads to many different posts – what blog post did you exactly mean?

    Great points you have, but I disagree in your opinion on intermediate learners are the most difficult to teach.
    I find the beginners the most difficult to teach – simply because they don’t have any background knowledge on the grammar or sounds of the language.

  5. Thank you for this. I have been a beginning Spanish student for a LONG time, primarily self-study. I’m trying to design a program to get me to intermediate status. I’m trying to find a definition that would include what I should know or be able to do to be able to call myself an intermediate student. Maybe it isn’t important but I’m getting ready to have a one-month Spanish intensive (self-directed) and would like to focus on the most important things and recognize my gaps.

  6. Hi, I’m Astghik from Armenia. English isn’t my native language either, but I am an English teacher and enjoy teaching beginners.
    I’ve been asked to start an intermediate group for grammar and speaking. And it’s really different and difficult as the learners are diverse as you mentioned. This article helped me feel I can start with them as beginners and then see how to develop. I hope everything works well.

  7. I ran across this while looking for whatever about advanced learning.
    Regarding language learning, I always believe in motivation. The self-motivated learners are different from those passively learning in classrooms.

    The self-motivated ones will look for their own ways and paths.
    The passive learners wait to be fed and spit out what they didn’t like.

    I have found that re-writing or paraphrasing be a good way to generate fun and interests.

  8. I see advanced learners are those who could and would raise questions about what they learned or what they try to add through learning, with or without instructors.

    I found that composition is the best way to move on and enjoy language learning. The trap is that the conventional teaching of composition demands the perfection writing from the learners and become very frustrating.

    A globally effective way of language learning is like how the infants learn “regardless of accuracy or correctness.”

  9. Pingback: Plateau in language learning and how to overcome it

Leave a Reply to julienleyre Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s