By Michael Grundy (English Language Teacher)
For those wishing to study abroad for whom English is a second language, the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) will be a familiar name. It is the most popular English language test for the purposes of both higher education and immigration. Based on a testing system that can trace its roots back to the early 1960s, it has in the last twenty years proved increasingly popular as a method for testing the ability of those who need English skills for study or for work.
But what exactly does it entail? Its unique approach to grading is something worth considering. It is not a test in the strict sense of the word, as it cannot be passed or failed. Instead, the IELTS is scored on a nine-band scale that rate the candidate’s proficiency in English in order to provide an idea of what kind of English user they are. Those taking the test are assessed on listening, reading, writing and speaking, and rated separately on each of these which contribute to an overall score. The nine-band scale ranges from 9 (Expert User) to 1 (Non-user), with 0 meaning that the test was not attempted.
This testing method holds clear advantages for institutions as well as for candidates. Different universities and academic institutions typically set a minimum IELTS score for enrolment, the highest normally being around the 7.5 mark and the lowest around 6.5. In this way, universities can determine what level of English they need for enrolment on their courses, and applicants can gain a clearer understanding of what is required of them.
The format of the test itself is probably the strongest factor behind its success and popularity, as it is predominantly based on the practical and communicative nature of English. There are four test components: listening, reading, writing and speaking. In the listening part of the test, candidates are tested on their ability to draw out factual information and to recognise the attitude, opinions and purpose of the person speaking on the recording that is played, and to follow the development of an argument. In the reading section, a wide range of skills are assessed, including reading for gist, reading for main ideas, and reading for detail. The highly successful candidates should be also be able to understand inferences and implied meanings in the texts presented to them, as well as to follow the development of an argument as in the listening section.
In the writing part of the test, candidates are assessed on their ability to interpret various piece of information they are presented with. This may involve explaining data from a chart, table, graph or diagram. It could also take the form of describing the stages of a process or an event. They are also asked to write an essay responding to a point of view, opinion or problem.
The ability to communicate opinions and express oneself competently is assessed in the speaking part of the test, which involves a face-to-face interview with an examiner that typically lasts around 15 minutes. As well as there being a two-way discussion, candidates are expected to discuss and speculate on topics at length.
One real advantage of IELTS is its status as a genuinely international test. It is accepted in practically all of the English-speaking world, including the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Institutions in the United States and Canada are following suit as this method of assessment becomes increasingly popular as a method of English testing for academic purposes. The global appeal of IELTS can also be seen in the fact that it recognises both British and American English in spelling, grammar, and the choice of words used by those taking the exam. This wide currency that IELTS enjoys throughout the world, together with the fact that results are made available with 13 days (something useful for students working to university application deadlines), make it a very attractive option for both students and universities.
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