Language Studies Abroad

  • The European Survey on Language Competences (ESLC) was a survey of foreign language proficiency organised by the European Commission. A total of fourteen European countries participated in the survey. (Belgium tested its French, Flemish and German communities separately, so there are results for sixteen jurisdictions.)
  • In England, ESLC was carried out on behalf of the Department for Education by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).
  • The ESLC was run by an international consortium, Survey Lang. The consortium is responsible for all aspects of the survey.
  • Strict standards are applied to all the survey procedures to ensure equivalence in sampling procedures, translation and adaptation of questionnaires and manuals, and survey administration.
  • The ESLC assesses pupils’ ability to understand spoken or written texts and express themselves in writing. The ESLC tests cover three language skills: listening, reading and writing. Each pupil is tested in two of the three skills
  • The languages included in ESLC are the five most widely taught languages in Europe: English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. Each jurisdiction tested their pupils in two of these languages. In England, pupils were tested in French and German.

          1)Participating jurisdictions tested pupils either in the last year of lower    secondary education (International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED).

        2) or the second year of upper secondary education (ISCED 3). In England, pupils were tested in Year 11 (ISCED 3).

  • In England, the main testing period took place between October and November 2011.
  • The ESLC tests are levelled against the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). The consortium defined the testable abilities for each of the proficiency levels A1 to B2. Results for each skill are shown as the proportion of pupils in each jurisdiction achieving each of the CEFR proficiency levels.
  • As well as tests for pupils, the ESLC includes questionnaires for participating pupils, teachers and schools. These contain general background questions, questions on attitudes towards foreign language learning and aspects of the teaching and learning of foreign languages.
  • This report presents the achievement data for England alongside the contextual information provided by the survey questionnaires.

The report also explores the relationship between a number of contextual factors and language proficiency.

  • Foreign language learning is not compulsory at Key Stage.
  • Therefore the pupil sample was a random sample of those pupils who have chosen to continue learning the target language (French or German) in Key Stage.
  •  This differs from the situation in most of other jurisdictions where foreign language learning is compulsory and therefore the pupil sample is likely to be drawn from the whole cohort.
  • Fifty-three schools and 1444 pupils participated in the French assessment. This represented 72 per cent of the sampled schools and a pupil participation rate of over 90 per cent.
  • Fifty-five schools and 1428 pupils participated in the German assessment. This represented 71 per cent of the sampled schools and a pupil participation rate of over 90 per cent.


  • Across skills and languages, England’s performance did not compare well with the global average. In the first target language, England had significantly more pupils at the lower levels (A1 and Pre-A1) and significantly fewer at the highest levels (B1 and B2). This trend was also evident in the second target language, although the differences were less pronounced, especially in writing. Globally, pupils performed relatively less well in the second target language, compared with the first. However, in England, performance was
    very similar in both languages.
  • In most jurisdictions (13 out of 16), the first target language was English. The remaining three, including England, tested in French. Performance varied widely by jurisdiction. The highest performers across all three skills were Sweden, Malta and the Netherlands. England and France were among the lowest performers in all skills.
  • The range of second target languages covered all five of the most widely taught languages in Europe. Again, pupils in the Netherlands performed well across all skills, as did pupils in the German and Flemish communities of Belgium. England, Poland and Sweden were among the lowest performers.
  • Direct comparisons between jurisdictions are confounded by a range of factors, including the different languages that were tested and the various grades in which pupils began learning these languages.
  • French was the first target language in England and the Flemish and German communities of Belgium. It was the second target language in Greece, Portugal and Spain. The reported onset of learning French varied between jurisdictions, from international Grade 1 (in the German community of Belgium) to Grade 7 in England.
  • Pupils in England performed similarly to those in Portugal in reading, listening and writing, with the majority of pupils at level A1 or below, and small proportions at B1 and B2. Conversely, in the German community of Belgium, the proportion of pupils at each level was significantly different from England across all skills. England had proportionally fewer pupils at B1 and B2 and proportionally more at A1 and below. England had significantly fewer pupils
    below A1 than Greece in French reading and writing.
  • Within most jurisdictions that tested French, performance was similar across skills. The exception was Spain, where pupils performed relatively less well in listening than in reading. Performance was consistently high in the German community of Belgium, where about 40 per cent of pupils achieved B1 or higher in all three skills.
  • Eight jurisdictions (the French community of Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, England, Estonia, Netherlands, Poland and Slovenia) tested in German. For all of these jurisdictions it was the second test language. The reported onset of learning German varied between jurisdictions, from international Grade 4 (in Croatia and Poland) to Grade 9 (the French community of Belgium and Bulgaria).
  • In reading, pupils in England performed significantly differently to those in the Netherlands, Estonia and Bulgaria at all levels. Pupils in England performed similarly to those in Poland in reading with the vast majority of pupils (80 per cent) achieving level A1 or below while less than ten per cent achieved B1 or higher.
  • There is a significantly higher percentage of pupils in England at Pre-A1 and A1 level, for listening, compared with Estonia, Slovenia, the French community in Belgium and the Netherlands. In the Netherlands (the highest- performing jurisdiction) 60 per cent of pupils achieved level B1 or higher, in England this number was significantly lower with less than ten per cent achieving the higher levels.
  • Within most jurisdictions that tested German, performance was broadly similar across reading and listening. However, in a number of jurisdictions the percentage of pupils achieving level B1 and B2 was lower for writing. This was not the case in England where performance as similar across all three skills areas.
  • Across the majority of jurisdictions, there was an overall effect of gender on writing proficiency for both target languages, with boys performing at a lower level (this effect was not seen for reading or listening). However, in England, gender does not appear to have any effect on proficiency in any of the three skills in either target language.
  • The overall effect of socio-economic status on language proficiency was pronounced. Across all jurisdictions, pupils with higher economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) performed at a higher level in all three language skills, in both target languages. However, this pattern was not reflected in England.
  • In England, socio-economic status has some effect on language proficiency. Pupils with higher ESCS perform at a higher level in Target Language 1 (TL1) (French) writing, and in Target Language 2 (TL2) (German) writing and listening. No significant effects were found in TL1 reading and listening, or for TL2 reading.
  • In England, pupils’ perception of the usefulness of learning the target language had a significant positive relationship with all three skills (reading, listening and writing) for both TL1 (French) and TL2 (German). That is, pupils who perceived the target language as being useful tended to perform at a higher level. However, for the majority of other jurisdictions this pattern was only seen for TL1 (English was TL1 for most participating jurisdictions), whereas for TL2 this effect this was only seen for reading and writing.
  • Across participating jurisdictions, pupils who liked learning the language ‘a lot’ performed significantly higher in listening and reading in TL1, and in reading and writing in TL2 (compared with pupils who hardly like or do not like at all learning the language). However, this was not the case in England where a significant positive relationship was only found for TL2 reading (pupils who liked learning TL2 ‘a lot’ had higher levels of proficiency in reading).
  • There was variation between jurisdictions in the findings for the association between intercultural exchanges and attainment. In England, pupils’ involvement in intercultural exchanges was found to have a significant positive association with TL1 writing skills.  Whereas, for the majority of jurisdictions there was no significant association between pupils’ involvement in intercultural exchanges and attainment in any of the TL1 skills. For the majority of jurisdictions (including England), there were no significant associations for TL2.
  • In terms of use of resources in lessons, in England there was a significant negative association between the frequency of the use of resources and proficiency in writing. This effect was not seen across jurisdictions.
  • There were several other pupil factors that were found to have a significant positive relationship with language proficiency for the majority of jurisdictions, but not England. These were:
  • Pupils ‘quite like’ learning a language (significant for TL2 writing skills)
  • Duration of language education (significant for TL1 all three skills, and for TL2 listening and writing skills)
  • Exposure to target language at home (significant for TL1 all three skills)
  • Parents’ knowledge and visits abroad (significant for TL2 listening skills)
  • Pupils’ use of target language (significant for TL1 all three skills)
  • Individual pupil activities used/teacher speaking to the whole class in lessons (significant for TL1 writing skills).
  • The school/teacher level factors that had a significant effect on language proficiency were not the same for TL1 and TL2.
  • For TL1 the factors that were significant for all three language skills were related to school policies/practices in terms of foreign language learning (the number of languages a school offers, and schools’ specialist language profile). Whereas, for TL2 the factors significant across all three skills focused on the training and experience of teachers (teachers’ experience of teaching TL2, teachers’ receiving training in Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR)).
  • For both TL1 and TL2 the number of financial incentives offered by schools for teachers had a significant association with two language skills (listening and writing at TL1, and reading and writing at TL2).
  • In terms of the school/teachers factors that were significant for just one language skill: the picture was again mixed between TL1 and TL2, with different variables having an effect on different skills across the two target.

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