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IELTS vs TOEFL

by Hugh Nelson

The two main examinations of second-language-learners' English-language skills are IELTS (created by the International English Language Testing Service) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). The two are similar but by no means identical, and candidates for both tests regularly ask which is the better – and often which is the easier – of the two.

The similarities between the two are that both test writing, listening, and reading skills, in addition to one other skill area. In the case of IELTS, the additional area is speaking; for TOEFL, it is what the test-makers call 'Structure', which tests written expression from the standpoints of sentence completion and error recognition. One factor that makes many test-takers consider IELTS the more difficult of the two tests is its speaking module, which requires the candidate to participate in a formal interview with an examiner face to face.

IELTS rates candidates’ submissions with 'band' scores (0 to 9, including half-bands between), given first to each of the four skill modules and then averaged for one IELTS band score, which is the one university admissions programmes use as their determinant for accepting students. TOEFL, by contrasts, assigns numerical scores much like those of the SAT test to each of the skill areas and then totals them. The totals are the ones used to determine a candidate’s English skill level.

TOEFL has both a 'pencil' and a 'computer' version of its test, the computer version available to candidates in most but not all test sites. IELTS is developing a computerised version of its test, but it is not in use as yet – and could not be used for its speaking module without a high degree of technological development.

The pressing question for most candidates – which test is easier – is largely irrelevant. The level of difficulty is determined from everything from the candidate’s actual skill levels and the difficulty of the particular test taken. (Both tests are changed every time they are given.) Students who must take IELTS sometimes think the speaking task alone makes it the more difficult of the two. While both examinations are rigorous, the 'word on the line' is that IELTS is marginally the more difficult of the two, primarily because the standards by which it judges the self-expression tasks of writing and speaking are not spelled out clearly in advance and because the question types it uses in the reading and listening modules tend to be used in a way many candidates and IELTS-Preparation teachers deem 'tricky.'

The main reason the question is irrelevant is that few candidates can choose which test to take. Typically, universities decide which test candidates for admission must take.


About the author: Hugh Nelson is an e-learning and online marketing specialist who has worked in the education industry for more than 10 years. He currently lives in Hong Kong and is a director of UniRoute, a company that runs educational websites helping students prepare and successfully apply for post-graduate studies abroad.

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