Assessing English Proficiency

The following steps can be integrated into a standard interview conversation that a PI / Department might conduct with anyone joining a program or applying for a position. A PI/Department seeking more detailed guidance in English proficiency assessment should contact the VISA Office at or 216.368.6964.

Assessing English proficiency in listening and speaking

  • Speak at a natural speed, but avoid using too many idioms and slang expressions.
  • Open with U.S.‐style small talk. The scholar’s ability to make small talk may indicate how easily they can cope with everyday English and function independently in the community.
  • Ask open‐ended questions (what, when, why, where, how) to which the scholar can develop a two‐ to three‐minute response. Use multiple questions, and ask follow‐up questions.
  • Ask questions in the style of a behavioral job interview (e.g., “Could you tell me about a time when…”). These questions can show how well the scholar can explain a work/research‐related experience from the past and how a scholar has handled setbacks, pressure, teamwork, independent work, etc. in the past.
  • Note if the scholar responded inappropriately to any question apparently due to not understanding it. If the scholar is unaware that they have misunderstood something, it places a greater burden on conversation partners to ensure successful communication.
  • Note if the scholar asked for questions to be repeated and/or rephrased. While this indicates that they do not understand everything, it also shows that they can take initiative to ensure more successful communication.
  • Note if the scholar gave unnaturally short answers or tended to pause unnaturally while speaking. A scholar with effective communication strategies will find a way to talk around the impasse to convey their point. A scholar with less effective communication strategies will place a greater burden on their conversation partners to elicit information.
  • Note if the scholar’s pronunciation interfered with comprehensibility. An accent in itself is not a concern. However, consider how the scholar’s pronunciation will impact their success in communicating.

Assessing English proficiency in reading and writing

  • Emails are not generally useful for assessing writing skills for academic/professional purposes. A scholar’s writing in emails may be either weaker or stronger than their  writing in research‐oriented writing.
  • To assess writing, consider requesting writing samples. However, in evaluating them, recognize what you do or do not know about the circumstances under which they were produced. Did the scholar draft and revise them independently or did they have a considerable amount of help? How long did it take them to complete?
  • Ask the scholar about their experience with the types of reading and writing (in English) required in the scholar role. For example, you could ask, “What is the most challenging writing project you have ever completed in English? How did you approach it?”
  • To assess reading, consider sending the scholar an article before the interview. Discuss the article in the interview, letting the scholar do as much of the talking as possible.
  • Ask the scholar to describe their reading process. This can help reveal how much time the scholar needs to spend on reading, how deeply they engage with the content of the reading, how frequently the scholar needs to look up vocabulary, and more.
  • Consider how much responsibility the scholar will be expected to take in drafting and revising writing projects. Will they be expected to work independently, or will someone assist them? How much assistance is appropriate and realistic, considering department resources and university resources?

General Considerations

  • Assess both listening/speaking and reading/writing. Strong skills in one area do not guarantee strong skills in another.
  • Let the scholar do the talking as much as possible. If you’ve been doing a lot of the talking and the scholar has just been listening, check comprehension by asking the scholar to summarize what you have said.
  • Verify that the person you are speaking with is the person whose application you are considering. When speaking with someone via video conference, compare a picture to the passport. When speaking with someone on the phone, ask for identifying information or have a trusted colleague at the other end verify the person’s identity.
  • Vary the questions you ask, readings you use, etc., from one prospective scholar to the next.