The IELTS or International English Language Testing System examination is an English proficiency test for learners of English as a second language which is administered by the University of Cambridge ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Examination Board. It is an English language assessment recognized by educational institutions, government agencies, businesses and professional organizations in over 135 countries.
The test, which is taken by over 1.4 million candidates each year, consists of four sections, each of which is designed to assess one of the four language skills of listening, reading, writing and speaking. It uses authentic materials and attemps to duplicate real world tasks as closely as is possible in an exam situation.
The total test time is 2 hours and 45 minutes, and candidates take each section of the test in a prescribed order.
The listening test is given first. It is 30 minutes long, and there are 40 questions, each worth one mark. Candidates listen to a CD, which is played once only, and answer the questions as they listen. The audio includes different varieties of English, and speakers may be native or non-native English speakers. After the audio has finished playing, test takers are given 10 minutes to check their answers.
The listening test is followed by the 60 minute reading section, which contains three sections and 40 questions, each worth one mark.
The third section, the writing test, also takes 60 minutes. Candidates complete two tasks which assess different writing styles, and they are not given a choice of questions. Writing is assessed for task achievement, coherence, vocabulary and grammar by a certified IELTS examiner.
The questions in each section become increasingly difficult as the test progresses. Candidates write all answers for the first three sections in a special booklet which is collected by the examination invigilator at the end of the test.
The speaking section is a live 11-14 minute interview with a specially trained speaking examiner. It begins with a short warm up discussion. The candidate then speaks for one to two minutes on a selected topic and holds a follow-up conversation with the examiner. The examiner assesses fluency, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation based on specific IELTS criteria.
A Sample IELTS Speaking Test
This Young Lady is a Very Strong Candidate
This Man is an Average Candidate
Comparison of the Academic and the General IELTS
There are two versions of the IELTS test. The General IELTS is for candidates who plan to migrate to an English speaking country for education, work experience or training. The Academic IELTS is designed to assess candidates who plan to study at an English speaking post-secondary institution. Some universities use Academic IELTS test results as part of their admission requirements, and these may also be used to determine whether an individual can register with certain professional organizations.
The listening and speaking sections are the same for both versions. However, there are crucial differences between the general and academic reading and writing sections.
Both reading sections consist of three parts, and both formats assess a range of reading skills such as reading for gist, reading for main ideas, reading for detail, understanding inferences, recognizing a writer’s opinion and following an argument. However, the type of material in each version is selected to suit the purpose of the test.
The reading section of the general test includes texts from newspapers, magazines or books. The first section contains short texts, such as advertisements, which might be encountered in the course of every day life in an English speaking country. The second section contains two short business-related texts, and the third section contains one longer general interest text.
The reading section of the academic test also contains three sections, but all three sections contain a single long text. All the texts concern general interest academic topics, and may contain diagrams, graphs, or illustrations.
The writing section in the general IELTS is again based on real life situations. It contains two tasks. The first task asks candidates to write a letter requesting information or explaining a situation, and the second task requires candidates to write an essay in response to a point of view or problem.
The academic writing section also contains two tasks, but requires a more analytical approach. In the first task candidates describe information presented in a graph, chart or diagram. The second task is designed to assess the candidate’s ability to justify an opinion, to compare and contrast evidence, and to evaluate and challenge ideas. For this task, candidates are expected to write an essay in response to a general academic issue. No choice of topic is given.
The appropriate register, or degree of formality, should be used for each writing task. For the general test, task one may be written in a personal, semi formal or formal style, and task two may be written from a personal point of view. However, for the academic test, all writing should be written in a formal and impersonal style.
Preparing for the IELTS
Study options include self study, studying on-line, or studying in a classroom setting. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to each method, but self study does not provide speaking practice, and the type of speaking practice offered on-line could be quite limited. In order to get the best all-round preparation which includes practice in the four language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, it is best to work with other candidates in a traditional classroom environment.
A good IELTS course should offer ample opportunity to practice all four language skills, to broaden vocabulary, and to improve grammar production. It should also focus on specific skills and strategies that will be assessed in the examination:
- Listening skills include the ability to understand a variety of accents, to understand main ideas, to recognize a speaker’s opinions and attitudes, and to follow the development of an argument.
- Reading skills include reading for gist, main idea and detail, understanding inferences, recognizing the writer’s opinion, attitude and purpose, and following the development of an argument.
- Writing skills include the ability to organize ideas, to use a range of grammar and vocabulary, to write letters requesting information or expressing an opinion, and to write a well structured 250 word essay.
- Speaking skills include organizing ideas, expressing and discussing opinions, speculating, and being able to speak for up to two minutes on an assigned topic.
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Course material should include official IELTS materials so that candidates can practice the various question types that appear in the listening and reading sections. These include multiple choice, matching, sentence completion, and labeling of a diagram or picture. Candidates also need exposure to a variety of writing tasks on a range of topics. Speaking test preparation should include both speaking at length and in-class discussions to allow class members to discuss ideas, express their opinions, and speculate about imaginary situations and outcomes.
Applying For and Taking the Test
Candidates must apply at a registered test center by submitting the IELTS application form along with a copy of their current passport or national identity card (information is available on the IELTS website referenced at the foot of this article). The test center informs the candidate of the location, date and time of the examination. The speaking test may be offered on a different day and time, possibly up to 7 days after the other sections.
On the day of the test, candidates should bring the original of the I.D. they submitted with their application. No backpacks or electronic devices are allowed in the examination room. The only items allowed in the examination room are pens, pencils, erasers, and identification, which will be checked by the examiner. All other personal belongings are placed in a separate designated area.
IELTS is not a pass/fail test. Examinations are marked according to a 9-band system from one (the lowest) to nine (expert user). Test results are mailed to the candidates 13 calendar days after the test. There is no limit on how many times a candidate can take the test, so if you are not satisfied with your results you can take it again. However, it is a good idea to take another course of study before registering for another examination.