There is a lot of confusion when discussing Aviation English assessment around the topic of the “construct”. Here we’d like to consider the idea of what we mean by the construct “Aviation English”, and then consider ways of testing it.

The notion of a "construct" is essential in understanding what we are testing in language assessments. It refers to a theoretical entity or concept constructed by the mind, shaped by ideology, history, or social circumstances. It is generally accepted that the construct of Aviation English encompasses two primary areas: radiotelephony (RT) and Plain English communication.

Radiotelephony, often referred to as standard phraseology, is the simplified language used in most radio communications between pilots and air traffic controllers. It provides a standardized framework for exchanging critical information efficiently and safely.

Aircraft Control Panel

Photo by Dan Lohmar on Unsplash

On the other hand, Plain English involves a broader range of language use, allowing communication beyond the constraints of RT when necessary. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) identified six key language areas critical to Plain English communication: pronunciation, grammatical structure, vocabulary (within certain "lexical domains"), fluency, comprehension of other speakers, and interactions.


When assessing someone’s “Aviation English”, then, the challenge lies in determining how to effectively test these distinct language aspects. There are four potential options:

  1. Both the ability to communicate in plain English AND the ability to communicate in RT separately
  2. Both the ability to communicate in plain English AND the ability to communicate in RT in the same test
  3. Only the ability to communicate in plain English
  4. Only the ability to communicate in RT in English

Options 3 and 4 both seem unsatisfactory, since they leave out a crucial component of someone’s Aviation English. But should we test people’s RT ability and Plain English at the same time, or separately? There are arguments for and against.

Arguably the most powerful argument in favour of combining these in assessment is that this is how the interplay between the two aspects occurs in the real-world.  Pilots and ATCs must seamlessly switch between use of RT and Plain English as the situation demands, so it does not seem unreasonable to attempt to assess this ability in the test room, likely through means of a role-play. Indeed, recent developments seem to point towards the insistence upon the use of a role-play in Aviation English tests, in the hope that this will inevitably lead to more reliable assessment.

But while this may seem like a convincing argument for Option 2 above, there are reasons to pause.

Firstly, there are deep practical problems in the design of a task that effectively achieves the desired outcome: role plays have quite serious limitations in that in order to maintain fairness between candidates and consistency across test versions the task needs to be heavily controlled in a way that real life is not. This reduces the validity of the claim that the role play reflects an “authentic” situation.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, plain English and RT are two quite distinct “constructs” in themselves, and inability at one or the other has quite different implications and remedial actions. This makes interpreting the result of a mixed-format test difficult at best.

Consider 4 candidates who take a test containing a mixed RT / Plain English assessment:

  • Alex demonstrates excellent proficiency in Plain English but lacks adequate RT skills, putting strain on ATCs with lower proficiency levels.
  • Beatrice possesses a great working knowledge of English, excelling in both Plain English and RT norms.
  • Claudia struggles with both general English command and RT.
  • David is highly skilled in RT but faces challenges in expressing himself creatively in English beyond the RT framework.

If we were to conduct a combined test, Beatrice would pass, but Alex, Claudia, and David would all fail, making it challenging to differentiate their specific language needs.

However, with separate assessments for RT and Plain English, we gain a clear understanding of their strengths and areas for improvement:

  • Alex would pass the Plain English test but fail the RT test, indicating a need for focused training in RT communication.
  • Claudia would need assistance in both Plain English and RT, and a tailored remedial program could address her language gaps effectively.
  • David requires support in improving his proficiency in Plain English, as his RT skills are already satisfactory.

By conducting separate tests, we can better identify and address individual language challenges, ensuring that training programs target specific needs accurately.

Code Switching

While the benefits of separate testing seem evident to us, there is a potential argument for an additional construct: "code-switching."

Some aviation professionals, it is hypothesised, might excel in RT and Plain English individually but struggle when transitioning between the two.

The existence of this phenomenon would imply that testing both language aspects together may introduce a new dimension that cannot be captured by separate assessments.

Consider the hypothetical case of Eric, who is highly proficient in English and can communicate effectively using RT. However, when required to switch to Plain English, his ability to communicate deteriorates significantly.

If, indeed, it can be shown to be true that “Code-switching” is a part of the Aviation English construct, then it would indeed be necessary to test for it. But as far as we are aware, this construct is ill-defined and difficult to test for in theory. How do we know that it is Eric’s code-switching that is lacking, when he fails the role play, as opposed to either his plain English or RT, unless we also test those separately?

Our interest has always been, and remains, fair and accurate assessment of someone’s Aviation English ability. We continue to make the case for assessing the twin constructs of RT and Plain English separately, and avoiding the confusion caused when trying to assess them together, and await further evidence to cause us to change this view.

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