Your goal may be to attend university, work at an international company, or build a new life in a country where English is the native language. 

No matter your goals, clear communication in English requires speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. That means you need an ESL course that helps you build practical skills in all four of those skill areas, from filling out forms to writing academic English essays, from talking with a doctor to using business English in a workplace.

Beside English skills, you need to understand the cultural norms, expectations, etiquette, values, and other surprises in an English-speaking environment.

That’s why an intensive ESL course in the USA is so useful. An intensive English program provides a daily structure in which to develop not only communication abilities but also cultural knowledge.

In an ESL course you practice English face-to-face in a realistic setting. You build interpersonal, problem solving, and critical thinking skills as well as English grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation skills.

Yes, today’s universities and businesses expect you to master the small stuff like punctuating sentences, editing emails, and formatting documents– but technical skills are not enough. You need soft skills too, like cultural fluency and flexibility.

To be a well-rounded job candidate or college applicant, you should demonstrate a balance of soft skills such as teamwork, creativity, initiative, and time-management. 

To build both hard skills and skills, a good ESL program in the USA involves speaking English with partners and in groups to collaborate on projects. You have to share tasks, ideas, and goals.

Even better ESL programs in the USA allow you the freedom to choose topics that are important to your career and interests. You control your choices, direction, and deadlines.

Language bubbles with many international greetings.Finally, the best ESL courses also emphasize the importance of culture. Language and culture are deeply connected–you can’t learn one without the other. 

ESL classes should introduce you to cultural concepts related to living, working, and studying in the USA–everything from sports to arts to politics to holidays. You find common ground for conversations ranging from small talk to deep discussions.

In addition to learning how to chat and debate in English, you practice the nuances of nonverbal communication, such as tone of voice, gestures, body language and facial expressions, all of which can vary across cultures.

If you’re aiming for an American university, key things to practice include active classroom participation, essay writing, and avoiding plagiarism. The academic environment in the US may be shockingly different from schools in your country, so you may be surprised by campus facilities and grading policies. Academic English training in an ESL course in the USA can ease the transition. 

The same goes for the benefits of taking business and academic English courses for the US workplace.  An Intensive English program provides you with language training for communicating with coworkers, participating in meetings, and networking with peers.

What does ESL stand for?

Get ready for a little alphabet soup: ESL, EFL, ESOL, ELL, ESP…

These acronyms refer to people learning English, but there are technical differences. Here’s what you need to know.

The acronym ESOL in map filled block letters.ESL stands for English as a Second Language. This refers to people learning English in a country where English is the official or dominant language. So if you’re from China or Guatemala and you study English in the USA or Canada, you can be described as an ESL student.

But what if English is not your second language–but actually your third or fourth?

That leads us to ESOL, which means English to Speakers of Other Languages. Maybe you speak several languages besides English, right?

ESOL is more inclusive, acknowledging the variety of multilingual language learners around the world. An ESL program in the USA may also use ESOL to be more inclusive, but it’s mainly a matter of personal preference.

Then there’s EFL, which stands for English as a Foreign Language. In contrast to ESL, EFL means you’re studying English in a country where English is NOT the main language. Technically, you’re an EFL student if you’re taking English classes in your home country, say, China or Guatemala. 

However, not everybody knows or cares about these technical differences. For all practical purposes, you can say you’re an ESOL student or an ESL student and it means basically the same thing–namely, English is not your native language and you’re studying it. 

Ultimately, if you’re interested in studying English in the USA, you may apply to English schools that use any variety of phrases including ESL course, ESOL programs, Intensive English Program, ESL classes in Massachusetts (or other US location), and so on.

Besides ESL and ESOL, the other acronyms mentioned above probably won’t pop up too much in your life. But just so you know…

ELL means English Language Learner in K-12 (Kindergarten to Twelfth Grade in High School). ESP (English for Special Purposes) applies to learning English for specific fields or professionals, such as law, engineering, or medicine. In other words, ELL goes with kids in school, and ESP goes with adults pursuing a narrow field.  

How many levels are there in ESL classes?

Learning English is an ongoing journey, but it’s helpful to measure the trip in steps.

To examine how many levels there are in ESL classes, let’s start with the number 3. (Spoiler alert: later we’ll talk about the number 6)

Every story has a beginning, middle and end, so your English tale goes from Beginner to Intermediate to Advanced.

The goal of a Beginner level class is simple: to improve English well enough to move up to ancolorful stairs going up with an arrow. Intermediate level class. 

As a Beginner, you’ll use simple materials to learn the basic English of daily activities, such as shopping for necessities, visiting the doctor, and sharing likes and dislikes.

The goal of an Intermediate level class is to survive in the real world. Notice the key word is “survive”–serious challenges remain for success in school and work.

As an Intermediate user, you may need extra support to live, study, or work in the US. You’re becoming more independent and able to handle less simplified texts and more authentic materials. 

The goal of an Advanced level class is to succeed in the real world–especially at a university or in a workplace. That means learning more than just English in your ESL class, but also US academic culture, professional norms, and career skills.

So, that’s the three-part foundation of English levels in an intensive English program: Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced. Common sense, right? 

If the idea of only three levels seems a little too simple, you’re right. But it’s the right place to start to understand how ESL programs are organized. 

For a deeper understanding, take the number 3 and double it. Now you have 6 levels. (If only learning English were as easy as multiplying 3 X 2…)

The most common number of English levels used by schools around the world is six.  

You can understand the 6 levels of English by looking at the Common European framework (CEFR.) The 6 CEFR levels are used to measure proficiency in any language, not just English. The skills described in the 6 CEFR levels apply to any language from Russian to Turkish to Spanish to Japanese.

Here’s how the 6 CEFR levels work:

  • The Beginner level consists of A1 and A2. Basically, A1 is Beginner and A2 is Upper Beginner (or “pre-intermediate,” in CEFR-speak.)
  • The Intermediate level consists of B1 and B2. As you might guess, B1 is Intermediate and B2 is Upper Intermediate. 
  • The Advanced level consists of C1 and C2. Yep, C1 is Advanced and C2 is… Mastery (in CEFR-speak).  C2 means you’re almost like a native speaker, with some limitations when it comes to idioms, accent, and cultural references.

Setting aside C1/C2 speakers, realistically-speaking, the majority of students in ESL courses are A1/A2 and B1/B2 level. You’re probably one of those 4 levels.

Since C2 users are so fluent, they may not need ESL classes at all. Instead of taking ESL classes, a C2 user might want to take regular, native-speaker level college classes, such as those offered by a local community college, to improve the finer points of the English language arts. Arguably, this may also be true of many C1 users.

Important note: most universities accept IELTs and TOEFL scores that are equivalent to B2 level. Therefore, once you demonstrate B2 proficiency, you can usually leave your intensive English program and start college, if you’re so inclined. Jobs that require communicating with customers or clients usually call for C1/C2 proficiency, 

What can I expect from a typical English lesson in an ESL class?

You should expect to be in a student-centered classroom. That means you and your interests are the focus of the lesson. The focus is not on the teachers.

Students in a class working in pairs.The teachers and students work together like partners to build English communication skills. The best English programs make sure that the students, not the teachers, speak most of the time.

An ESL course in the US may differ from English classes in your country. ESL classes in the U.S. do not have the teacher leading and lecturing and the students following and memorizing. Instead, the teacher listens as well as guides, and the student leads as well as participates. 

As an ESL student in the US, you’re actively involved in the lessons, asking questions, choosing topics, and making projects. The atmosphere tends to be less formal and more fun. 

But that doesn’t mean the ESL class isn’t serious. In fact, you can learn English faster when you take control and enjoy the learning process. Boredom helps nobody.

In a typical ESL class, your ESL instructor may present grammar and vocabulary by asking you questions, showing you pictures, giving you a game, and getting you to move around the room. Students are not sitting around on their phones– unless the activity is to share photos from your life and talk about them in English.

International students holding hands and shouting hurrah!As a participant in an ESL class you are expected to volunteer to speak. You shouldn’t wait for the teacher to call on you. You’re expected to bring your own experiences and interests to the classroom.  

A wide variety of opinions makes ESL classes exciting.  You’re encouraged to give your own opinions, even if it means disagreeing with the teacher.

The best intensive English programs get you working with many partners from different countries around the world. 

You’re encouraged to make mistakes. They’re a natural part of learning.  ESL classes are not about making “perfect” English according to some book of rules–there’s no such thing. The best Intensive English Programs help you improve communication skills without getting worried about mistakes.

Most intensive English programs consist of ESL classes 5 days a week for a total of 18 or more hours. The ESL classes should  combine listening, reading, speaking, and writing.

The best ESL classes have you do multiple skills at the same time, like listening to audio, writing notes on cards, analyzing simple texts, and discussing questions with a partner–all in a single activity. As a community, you and your classmates do hand-on activities, complete projects, and share ideas. 

You’re not passively receiving information; you’re actively acquiring knowledge.  

Online ESL classes use platforms like Zoom or Google Meets for live instruction. Similar to on-campus English programs, online ESL classes get you to participate in group discussions and collaborate with partners. Video sessions are usually supplemented by an LMS (Learning Management System) like Google Classroom or Moodle.

What makes Northampton in Massachusetts an ideal location to learn authentic English skills? 

One of the best ways to learn English is to join an Intensive English Program in a warm, welcoming city like Northampton, Massachusetts.

When you walk down the street, enter a shop, or visit a museum, people smile and say hello. A friendly, open-minded place, Northampton gives you opportunities to interact with native English speakers in real life, making Northampton an ideal location for ESL classes in Massachusetts.

Come join local festivals, attend farmer’s markets, and start conversations in small shops. You can meet native speakers at dance clubs, cafes, music stores, and bakeries. Local residents are interested in cultural exchange with international students. 

The local public libraries are another big benefit, free and open to all. You can do research, borrow materials, even join yoga classes and discussion groups. For example, Forbes Library in Northampton is a community center offering not only books and audiobooks but also free activities and community services.

To experience authentic U.S. culture, the Northampton area offers a wide variety of arts and entertainment, from Smith College Museum of Art to The Parlor Room music venue. In fact, on the second Friday of every month, Northampton holds an Arts Night Out with free outdoor and indoor art events downtown.

The sense of community means people like getting together for special events to do things like raisePeople in rainbow costumes on stilts. money for charity, celebrate a holiday, or support a cause.  For instance, you can attend Noho Pride for LGBTQ+/allied communities, the Hot Chocolate Run fundraiser addressing domestic violence, or the Paradise City Arts Festival exhibition of New English crafts, sculpture, furniture, and more.

The community is diverse. Because Northampton is a college town with top schools such as Smith College and UMASS Amherst, there is a mix of students attending different social events on and off campuses. In addition to international students, immigrants and refugees from around the world are welcomed by Northampton residents.  Local coffee shops, tea houses, and restaurants offer spaces for new friends from your ESL classes to hang out, talk, and study. 

Since Northampton is a college town, Northampton values education. For example, the International Language Institute in Northampton offers free volunteer tutor opportunities while you’re taking an ESL course. That means after your ESL class, you can meet a local resident to practice speaking English, have a conversation about culture, or discuss interesting topics. 

For ESL classes in Massachusetts, Northampton has it all: educational facilities, culture, and fun.

Can a student learn English in one year? 

How much English you can learn in one year depends on your English level, your personality, and your goals. No two journeys are the same.

Remember the 6 levels? If you’re an A1/A2 beginner you should be able to reach B1 in one year (or less) if you immerse yourself in the language. 

The best way to go from beginner to intermediate in one year is to join an Intensive English program online or on campus. That way you are immersed in English so that you think in English more and translate from your language less.

As noted above, the goal of your Beginner class is NOT to apply to college or a job–that comes later. When you’re a beginner, the goal is to spend several months adapting to life in your new environment, mastering basic vocabulary and grammar, and preparing for an Intermediate class in the future.

Once you’re B1 Intermediate, your main goal is to advance to B2. However, you can now start thinking about college or volunteer jobs outside the classroom.  You’re moving from survival to success.

The closer you get to B2, the more you transition from general English to academic and business English. This means you practice things like essay writing, independent research, and job interviews. If you begin your studies as a B1 (and NOT an A2) you may be able to reach B2 in a year. 

To sum up, if you’re currently B1 and your goal is to attend an American university, then it is possible to learn English in one year. 

However, if you’re A1 or A2, you will need more than a year to adapt to independent life in a new country and build the English skills necessary for college success.

How about working and living in the USA? If your job requires communicating with customers or clients in English, then employers will usually want to hire Advanced (C1/C2) English speakers. A B2 speaker might struggle to communicate accurately and persuasively among native speakers with ease. Universities are prepared to support B2 speakers, but companies expect their employees to use English comfortably without extra support.

For that reason, most English learners may need more than a year living and studying in an English-speaking country before landing a good job. In the USA, the most successful job candidates have a green card and C1 level.

That said, there are plenty of exceptions, depending on the company and the job. Many international companies look for bilingual and multilingual employees. In that case, the B1/B2 level may be fine–it all depends on the job! 

For instance, a Spanish-speaking candidate with A2 French and B1 English may bring more value to a company than a candidate with just C1 English and no other languages. It’s a truly global job market, after all!

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Bringing decades of passion as educators, at ILI Massachusetts we believe in open access to education for language learners around the world, regardless of race, religion, gender identification, physical and mental abilities, economic standing, documentation status, and educational levels.