English language proficiency

Language proficiency among non-native speaking international students varies considerably ranging from the minimum language proficiency levels required by the Oxford Brookes entry requirements to native-speaker-like levels.

While international students may recognize that limitations with language will cause some difficulty with managing exams, they are not always fully aware of the extent to which differences in reading and writing fluency and vocabulary and grammatical knowledge can impact on their performance. As a result, they themselves may underplay the importance of language proficiency in exam performance.

This section sets out some general information about the language proficiency exams used to gain entry to Oxford Brookes and provides a general profile of EFL students’ language knowledge in relation to the language requirements of university courses.

What does an IELTS score really mean?

The IELTS exam is the English language qualification most widely accepted by UK universities. IELTS classifies students by language proficiency into band scores ranging from 1 and 9. IELTS 6.0 – 7.0 is the band range most commonly required for university entrance. Below is a sample of descriptors.

IELTS score Overall band descriptors
5.0 Has partial command of the language, coping with overall meaning in most situations, though is likely to make many mistakes. Should be able to handle basic communication in own field.
6.0 Has generally effective command of language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.
7.0 Has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.
8.0 Has fully operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriacies. Misunderstandings may occur in unfamiliar situations. Handles complex detailed arguments well.

It is important to note that the band widths are very wide, so students at the low end of a band 6 may perform quite differently on language-related tasks than a student at the high end of the same band. In addition, the overall band score is an average of four separate proficiency ratings in listening, speaking, reading and writing. Therefore, while one student may be strong in listening – 7.0 and weaker in writing – 5.0, he will have the same overall score as a student who has scores of 6 in all four skill areas. Thus, the students in your modules will vary considerably in their language ability.

Another key point is that the IELTS exam assesses only language proficiency. This is also true of other language exams commonly used to meet university admissions requirements. They do not provide any information on students’ ability to apply their language knowledge to academic study tasks or of their ability to cope in a new culture. This is a major reason why research that attempts to use language test scores to predict student performance on university degree programmes is generally not very informative.

In sum, you will encounter students who have met the university’s English language entry criteria but are not familiar with British academic culture or well-practiced in the types of study tasks required by your programmes. These students may still experience significant challenge with language and study skills as they work towards meeting their course requirements.


Native-speaker vocabulary size is not easily determined, but there is general agreement that an adult native speaker of English knows between 15,000 and 20,000 word families. In contrast, an EFL student entering university may know as few as 5000 words. Research findings estimate that English language learners need to know at least 5000 word families to manage texts written for native speakers. Students studying at university must supplement this with the specialist vocabulary of their discipline.

A word family is different from a word in the following way. A word may be realised by a single token, for example sheep is one word.

A word family is made up of a single token plus all of its grammatical inflections and derivations.

See the word family for predict.

Research shows that even when EFL learners know one member of a word family they may not know or be able to use all of its other family members. This means that these students have fewer words at their disposal for comprehension and production.

Vocabulary knowledge is important because it is the springboard for learning new vocabulary, particularly the technical vocabulary of a discipline. If students do not have a strong base vocabulary, enough to cover 95% of the words in the texts they are reading, then they will have difficulty learning new words without explicitly studying them.


It is true that many EFL students have spent years studying the grammar of English. But it is also the case that the methods of study common in many parts of the world taught them more about how to describe the grammar of English than to use it practically in speaking or writing. This means they can explain the rules of verb tenses, prepositions and conditionals, but they may not be able to use these fluently. This is especially true when they are writing under exam conditions where they have to give most of their attention to subject content.

Students coming from Asian and Eastern European countries, in particular, may have had little opportunity to write in their English language classes. Writing practice in many parts of the world often consists solely of translating sentences. It is not uncommon to hear students say that the 250 word essay question on the IELTS exam was the longest piece of writing they had done in English prior to beginning their pre-sessional English or degree course studies.


Time limits and the need for speed are key features of exams. They are also the features most likely to lead to bias against EFL students. EFL students typically read more slowly than native speakers; they may read as much as three times more slowly.

EFL students also write more slowly than native speakers. Research clearly indicates that when more attention is given to fluency, accuracy and grammatical complexity tend to suffer.

Because time has a bearing on so many aspects of exam design and student performance, issues relating to language fluency will be discussed in several sections of this guide.


People to talk to:

International Centre for English Language Studies (ICELS) – staff here specialise in understanding the academic language needs of and requirements for international students.

They also run a number of pre-university and in-sessional language courses that in addition to teaching language assist students in learning about British academic culture and provide tuition and practice in study skills.

Useful things to read

De Vita, G. (2002) ‘Cultural equivalence in assessment of home and international business management students: a UK exploratory study’. Studies in Higher Education, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 221-231, May. ISSN 0307-5079