English Levels and Exams for children - how to choose an English course for kids


You feel what they do at school is not enough. You realised the course you had chosen with a mother tongue teacher wasn't as effective as you expected. English is everywhere, in arts, games, shows, cinema or tv, and you don't want your children to experience the frustration of not understanding and of not being good enough. When it comes to English learning, you feel your children are constantly missing out.  

 But what kind of courses are good enough? Who can you trust to teach English to your child? How can you be sure the tutor, course or teacher you have chosen will do their job? In this guide, I will show you what to take into consideration when you are looking for a tutor or a course for your children. And I want to do it by talking about English levels and exams for children. 


 In Europe, when we talk about language levels, we talk about CEFRthe Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. It is a guideline used to describe the achievements of learners of foreign languages across Europe and, increasingly, in other countries. The CEFR is also intended to make it easier for educational institutions and employers to evaluate the language qualifications of candidates to education admission or employment. It was put together by the Council of Europe as the main part of the project "Language Learning for European Citizenship" between 1989 and 1996. Its main aim is to provide a method of learning, teaching and assessing which applies to all languages in Europe. In November 2001, a European Union Council Resolution recommended using the CEFR to set up systems of validation of language ability. The six reference levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) are becoming widely accepted as the European standard for grading an individual's language proficiency. (source: Wikipedia) 

CEFR is applied to younger learners of English too. The reference levels taught to children from 8 to 12 are A1 and A2. If we take Cambridge Yle as a reference, we can see three levels: starters, movers and flyers. The Starters Level prepares for a pre-A1 level, the Movers level to A1 and the Flyers Level to A2. To understand what these levels mean in terms of skills, grammar and language, I prepared a list of abilities children should acquire at the end of each path.

Starters will be able to:

  • describe everyday items by using demonstrative adjectives (this, these, that, those)
  • answer the question "How many...?" and remember irregular plurals (sheep, mouse, fish ... etc)
  • use numbers from 1 to 20 in reading, speaking and writing
  •  refer to undefined quantities using a lot of , lots of, some
  • answer to the question "Where is...?" by using prepositions of place (in, on, under, in front of, behind, next to, between) He/she can also describe a picture and talk about the position of different items in it.
  • ability of using verbs to be and to have got + adjectives for describing people - friends and family - (ex, My mother's name is ..., she is.... years old, she has got brown hair and blue eyes, she is nice)
  • use the possessive S (ex. Tom's mother)
  • talk about what she/he eats for lunch, dinner and breakfast
  •  talk about his/her favourite food and ask for some (use of I like... I would like...)
  • answer the question "What is she wearing?" or "What are you wearing?"
  • describe toys, people and animals using the verbs to be and have got + adjectives
  • answer the questions "What is he/she doing?" or "What are you doing?"
  • answer the question "What do you do in the morning/afternoon/evening?"
  • use possessive adjectives (my, your, his, her etc) and pronouns (mine, yours, his etc)


Movers will be able to:

  • use all the skills and grammar listed in the STARTER list
  • use numbers from 1 to 100 in reading, speaking and writing
  • answer questions with "Why?"
  • use ordinal numbers from 1 to 100
  • dire che cosa è bravo a fare utilizzando "to be good at"
  • compare things, people and animals using superlative and comparative adjectives (Ex. The dog is smaller than the cat. or The red apple is the biggest)
  • talk about hobbies and activities and use adverbs of frequency (never, sometimes, often...)
  • use shall, need, have to, must
  • tell a simple story based on pictures using the simple past (regular and irregular verbs), conjunctions (like then, after that, at the end) and prepositions of time
  • use the infinitive of purpose ( ex. I go to library to do my homework)
  •  use relative pronouns (ex. This is the hotel where I slept./ This is the shell which I found/ This is the girl who was with me)
  • build sentences with inderect object (ex. Daisy bought Jack a milkshake)
  • build simple sentences with indirect speech (ex. Jack invites Daisy to go to the park)
  • use adverbs of manners (ex. The dog is barking loudly)
  • know the differenence between countable and uncountable nouns (ex. Some chocolate, some bread, one pear, a lemon)
  • use all of these skills and grammar in reading, speaking and listening activities

Flyers will be able to:

  • use all the skills and grammar listed in the STARTER and MOVERS lists
  • use numbers from 1 to 1000 in reading, speaking and writing
  • use indefinite pronouns (everyone, somewhere, nothing, anyone ....)
  • use the verbs look like, sound like, smell like and taste like
  • build sentences like "Running makes me tired." or "When I saw my cake it made me happy!"
  • tell the time
  • use the future with will and be going to
  • use question tags (ex. You are happy, aren't you?)
  • make sentences with if. Ex. If it rains, I take my umbrella (zero conditional)
  • use might and should
  • tell a simple story based on pictures using past tenses (past simple regular and irregular verbs, present perfect, past continuous), conjunctions like then, after that, at the end...) and prepositions of time
  • express opinions about a familiar topic (holidays, hobbies, school, family)
  • use all of these skills and grammar in reading, speaking and listening activities

I have also prepared a checklist for you to download and to refer to anytime you are looking for an English course for your child, planning English lessons for your homeschooling kid, or interviewing a new tutor. Make sure these skills are included in the syllabus, and when you interview your next English teacher, ask her/him about CEFR levels for kids.



 When talking about levels, thoughts also run to exams. My approach towards exams for children is very open, I don't force any of my children to take them, but I don't demonise them either. 

I don't want my children to be traumatised, stressed or assessed. I know that every child has their own pace when it comes to learning, and at first glance standardised tests don't appear to fit into this assumption. But I've spent the last eight years preparing children between 8 and 10 years old for the Cambridge Young Learners exams and the last two years examining them, so I'd like to explain why there is no need to be afraid of them.

  1. There is no obligation to take the exam (you can enrol in a course and decide later on whether to take it or not, it's up to you and your child, considering the individual needs and feelings about the experience). The Cambridge Program for Young Learners is AMAZING! Children who start learning English when they're eight years old are on their way to speaking, writing and reading at the Elementary level (Europe CEFR A2) by the age of 10.
  2. There is no pass or fail. There are no marks. The result is given in symbols that indicate the level your child has reached in each skill. It is up to the teacher to decide whether the child is ready for the next level or not. "Why assess if there is no pass or fail?" you may ask yourself… children, in particular, shouldn't just be motivated by the exam itself. Putting too much emphasis on it as we approach the end of the course could negatively affect kids. We must find motivation in children in fun, socialisation and curiosity. (I've talked about the reason here and here.) I suggest children get to know about the exam a couple of months before the end of the course. I usually explain that the exam is designed to see how well children are progressing, what they've learned and what they need to revise. Saying: "Would you like to take a test and see how far you've come?" is different from saying: "I want to test your English and see how many mistakes you make!". In this way, everyone passes the exam because in the end, they've all learned something despite having made mistakes or overcome difficulties. Taking an exam in this way can only boost self-confidence and teach the child to overcome their fears.
  3. It is child friendly. The topics are suitable for children. Their attention span is respected, it's not a long exam, and the Speaking test examiners are trained to be particularly sensitive to the children's needs. (Believe me, I am an examiner, and during the training session, not everyone could handle children…and not everyone passed…).

As you can see, a positive attitude is the key. There is no need to be afraid of Cambridge Young Learners Exams if the teacher and school you choose have this positive approach. If you want to know everything about Cambridge English Young Learners certifications, have a look at my EASY GUIDE TO YOUNG LEARNERS CERTIFICATIONS

 Now you know how to choose a course for your child, what skills they should aim at and what exams for children are. I would be happy to hear your opinion and experience about this topic. If you want to give online courses a try, you could sign your child up for my free seven-week online course: Busy Bee English


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Noemi Bessone

I help homeschooling families find English a second language curriculum and resources for their children (8 to 12 y.o.)! My motto is: At Home Doesn’t Mean Alone! In my international online community. You can find fun activities, inspiring lessons, conversation classes, games and higher-level courses. I'll be glad to have you and your children there! 


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