Adult English Standards 101 for Selecting Materials

Some teachers are lucky. They have fantastic textbooks that provide all the material one could possibly need to teach an English lesson. More often than not, however, we are stuck with books that don’t provide enough practice for students, provide little real-world experience using the language, or are just plain boring. So, we supplement with things we find here or there. Knowing a little about two of the most popular English teaching standard systems can help you find the resources you need faster and can ensure the resources you pick better meet your needs. In today’s blog post, I’m going to discuss and compare these systems.

Within English teaching for adults, many books are aligned with either the National Reporting Standards (NRS) or the Common European Framework (CEFR.) The NRS is used within the US mostly for adult education programs. These programs often receive government funding and focus on teaching students who live in the US full time. The CEFR is used frequently for Intensive English Programs (IEPs) which focus on teaching students from abroad who have come to the US to study. Europe and some South American countries often utilize this system.

The NRS has 5 levels-Basic Literacy, Low Beginning, High Beginning, Low Intermediate, High Intermediate, and Advanced. This document explains specific skill indicators of the given levels. Most English teaching books labeled with the heading “adult education” or considered ESL (English as a Second Language) use this system. Examples of books aligned with the NRS include Side by Side, Ventures, Workplace Plus, and Downtown. The focus in these books is often on vocational English and accomplishing day-to-day tasks within the US (such as opening a bank account or going to the doctor.)

The CEFR has 6 levels-A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. This document gives a basic overview of the can-do statements and skill indicators for these levels. Most materials designed for short term programs in the US or English programs taking place in other countries are aligned with the CEFR. Online materials connected to the British Council or Cambridge University use this system as well. Often these materials are labeled as EFL (English as a Foreign Language) textbooks. Examples of books in this category include Top Notch, World English and Passages. The focus in these books is on more general topics which often have a cultural focus—things such as weddings, music, and personality types.

The chart below gives you an idea of how these systems compare.

So, why is this information useful to you? I'll give you three reasons.

1) It helps you access a broader range of materials for your class.

Let’s say you want to supplement your NRS High Beginning class with a news article, but can't find anything that level in your books or online. Using the chart, you see that High Beginning is approximately A2 in the CEFR. Now, when you look for articles, you find twice as many possibilities on sites such as the British Council and Breaking News English . You decide on one of the many Level 1-2 (A2) articles from the latter site to spice up your class.

2) It helps you pick materials more appropriate for your student needs.

Imagine you are teaching an NRS High Intermediate class and need extra grammar practice. All of the extra grammar books in your closet are aligned with the CEFR. According to the chart, High intermediate is approximately high B1 in CEFR. Of the mix of books you have (Focus on Grammar 4, the Fundamentals of Grammar, and Murphy’s Basic Grammar in Use), you can determine that the Fundamentals of English Grammar (which is B1, low B2) would be the best match with the current level of your class.

3) It saves you time.

Most of us don’t have lots of time to review and level every piece of supplementary material ourselves. Knowing about standards can help us quickly eliminate those which aren’t at the correct level and that are unlikely to meet our needs.

For your reference, I’ve included two additional charts-one with CEFR and NRS levels of several popular grammar books as well as one with CEFR and NRS levels of a few different general English textbooks, so you can see how they all compare. Though these charts are not even close to being exhaustive, hopefully they give you an idea of how some of these textbooks correlate with each other.

Do any of your programs use these standard systems? If not, which other ones do you use?

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