The GSE: How Pearson is addressing the ‘missing’ levels

gse missing levels

We are changing how we describe our learning products and the levels that our learners obtain through using them.

In this post, Ian Wood, Portfolio Director of Secondary, Test preparation and Readers at Pearson English talks us through the rationale behind these changes and what it means for teachers using our course materials.


You are probably already familiar with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, or the CEFR as it’s more commonly known. The CEFR is a framework used by students, teachers, schools, exam boards and publishers to define language competency.

It’s broken down into three groups – basic users (A), independent users (B) and proficient users (C) – with two levels for each ‘user’ group.

Figure 1 – CEFR levels and labels

Each level has a number of ‘can-do’ statements which outline what the learner should be capable of doing at that stage of their language journey.

How we’re improving on the CEFR

When the CEFR was being developed in the mid-nineties, around 2,000 teachers were involved in selecting, sorting and rating speaking-related can-do statements using sources from around the world.

Each one of these original can-do statements was given a numeric difficulty value and ranked accordingly. After examining the list, researchers led by Brian North noticed that the statements fell into clusters of approximately nine groups. Cut-off points were added and nine levels were created.

Figure 2 – the original CEFR levels, labels and difficult ratings

While there were originally nine CEFR levels (ten if you include ‘Tourist’ level), if you compare the tables above you will see that A2+, B1+ and B2+ are not included in the more familiar table in Figure 1. This is because various stakeholders, including exam bodies and publishers, thought that a six-level model would better reflect their course book catalogs at the time.

In the long run, this compression of the levels has created problems for the students using these course books because they are often moved to the next level before they have had sufficient time to master the competencies in the can-do statements at these two levels. This often leads to failure, which can leave learners demotivated.  

You also have to consider that, as a student makes progress and their proficiency increases, it takes them longer to move to the next level. This is because, as well as the things they ‘can do’ in a language, you must also consider how well they are able to do these things, and in how many different contexts they can do them.

This isn’t reflected in the number of hours offered by language schools which are generally the same, whether a student is studying at A1 or C2.

More information about how long it takes to learn a language can be found in this informative research paper published in May 2017.

How is Pearson adapting to meet the needs of students?

Global Scale of English

We developed the Global Scale of English (GSE) to help teachers measure learner progress more accurately than is possible with the current six-level CEFR model.

Professor John de Jong, who was originally opposed to removing the three levels from the CEFR, converted Brian North’s original data to a positive scale from 10 to 90. This turned the complex difficulty ratings (which had decimal places and negative values) into something more accessible and motivating for students and teachers.

The GSE not only brings back the three ‘missing levels’ which were removed, but the newly-developed GSE Learning Objectives extend the current CEFR can-do statements to provide more information for each of the four skills; reading, writing, listening and speaking.

By aligning our courses with the GSE, we are giving learners more hours of exposure to the target language. This allows them to move through the levels in a realistic amount of time with fresh can-do statements that have been rated by over 6,000 teachers worldwide.

GSE Teacher Toolkit

To help teachers make sense of the new scale we developed the GSE Teacher Toolkit which can be used when planning curricula, writing lesson plans or creating assessments for students. It outlines exactly what students should be capable of at each level and contains learning objectives for the four main skills, as well as a grammar and vocabulary database that makes it easy to check that what’s being taught is relevant.

Pearson exams

We’ve also been developing several assessment solutions that report scores accurately on the Global Scale of English. These are:

The Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE-A) is ideal for those who want to work or study abroad and are looking for a certificate which truly reflects their ability. As it is all done online, it means that they receive their results quickly and it can be done at any of our 250 plus test centers around the world, over 360 days a year.

Our placement tests give instant and accurate results allowing teachers to place students in the right English class faster.

With our progress tests (start, middle and end) teachers can measure their students’ progress across the duration of a course, testing all four skills.

Course materials

All of our courseware has been aligned to the GSE for a while now. The following products have been developed to take into account the reworked level structure:

View our 2018 catalogue, download a free sample or contact a local representative and explore our vast range of ELT materials written with your students’ needs in mind.

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