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What is a Proficiency scale?



A proficiency scale is a set of descriptions of what you can do in a language. Each level in the scale describes a stage in your development of competence.


Proficiency scales are beneficial when

  • setting language learning goals, or
  • evaluating your progress.
  Here are two Proficiency scales:

Proficiency scales are useful in the following ways:

  • to decide what to aim for
  • to know when you achieve your goals.
The ILR (FSI) Scale

The five-level ILR scale was originally developed by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the United States government. The scale describes the language proficiency needed by the diplomatic corps to carry out their duties in embassies and to carry out other official business. Eventually, other U.S. government agencies adopted the same scale, so it is now called the Interagency Language Roundtable scale, or ILR scale. The scale describes overall proficiency from 0 (no proficiency) to 5 (mother-tongue speaker).


Although very useful and widely referred to, this scale has two drawbacks for language learners and teachers:

  • It refers principally to speaking ability and does not directly mention the skills of listening comprehension, reading, and writing.
  • There are only five steps in the scale and the distance between them is very large. Also the steps are not the same size.

    • It takes much longer to get from Level 1 to Level 2 than it does to get from Level 0 to Level 1.
    • It takes even longer to get from Level 2 to Level 3.

    Most language learners would be happy to achieve Level 3: working professional proficiency. This level represents quite a high achievement and is as far as most organized language study programs can take you. Therefore, many educators feel it is helpful to have more divisions in the lower proficiency levels.

ACTFL guidelines

In 1982 the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) set out to develop a scale compatible with the FSI scale. The scale describes all four language skills (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) and has more divisions in the lower levels. It was better defined in 1986 and that is the scale used for reference here.


Correspondence of proficiency scales to see how the ACTFL guidelines correspond to the FSI scale.

Context for this page:

Go to SIL home page This page is an extract from the LinguaLinks Library, Version 3.5, published on CD-ROM by SIL International, 1999. [Ordering information.]

Page content last modified: 15 September 1998

© 1999 SIL International