This tutorial compares important features of IELTS and TOEFL.
This will provide you with sufficient information for you to:-
- decide which exam meets you educational or vocational needs
- decide which exam best suits your personal style
Is it better to take IELTS or TOEFL? Let’s look at the facts and then you decide.
What can you do with your IELTS or TOEFL certificates? Are both equally valid worldwide?
Many people believe that because IELTS is not a test created in the USA, then it won’t be accepted there for study purposes. Likewise, they imagine that TOEFL would not be universally accepted in the UK, Australia or New Zealand. Well, neither belief is 100% true. A brief fact check:-
- IELTS is accepted by universities and colleges worldwide
- TOEFL is also accepted in all countries EXCEPT the UK
- Institutions in the USA sometimes prefer you to have the TOEFL
For immigration purposes:-
- IELTS General Training is a prerequisite for those applying for residency in the UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
- To obtain a work, study or resident visa for the UK, you may be told to take IELTS UKVI.
Length of validity:
- Both IELTS and TOEFL certificates are valid for a period of 2 years after the test date.
An overview of factors such as cost, availability, frequency and the results process:-
- Costs are around the same
- IELTS is offered at over 1,100 locations in 140 countries
- TOEFL can be taken anywhere in the world
- IELTS has 48 test dates per year; TOEFL a total of 50.
- Results of both are published around 2 weeks after the test date.
Comparing format, content and scoring
IELTS and TOEFL are similar in that the test is divided into 4 sections: Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. But there are differences in terms of exam version and length, the content sources for each test, the predominant types of questions asked and the scoring system, although perhaps most noticeable is the lack of any face-to-face contact in TOEFL. Let’s compare these aspects beginning with the last one:-
Computer or paper:
- IELTS’ candidates can take the paper based test or the less common computer delivered version. In both the Speaking section is done face-to-face with an examiner.
- TOEFL is predominantly computer delivered through what is known as the TOEFL iBT version. Everything, including the speaking part, is done online. A paper TOEFL version, in countries where internet connections are unavailable, is held just 4 times a year and the Speaking part is not included.
Sections, exam version and length:
- As mentioned above, there are two versions of IELTS: Academic or General Training, the latter suited for those applying for immigration or for work purposes. In both, the first three sections – Listening, Reading and Writing – are taken on the same day. The test lasts two hours, thirty minutes with 30 minutes devoted to Listening and 60 minutes each to the other parts. The Speaking test takes around 15 minutes and is usually taken one or two days before the main part of the exam. Total exam length: 2 hours 45 minutes.
- TOEFL iBT follows a Reading, Listening, Speaking, Writing sequence. Exam length may vary because in both Reading and Listening the number of tasks and questions is not always the same. So, Reading can last a minimum of 54 minutes, a maximum of 72; Listening from between 41 to 57 minutes. Then, after a short 10 minute break, the exam continues with Speaking, 17 minutes and 50 minutes for Writing. In total, we are looking at 2 hours 42 minutes minimum or 3 hours 16 minutes maximum.
Content and question types
For anyone aiming for college or university entrance, the Academic IELTS and the TOEFL are both rigorous assessments of English proficiency. Let’s see how they compare in terms of content and question types by first looking and the Listening and Reading sections before going on to Writing and Speaking.
Listening and Reading
- IELTS Listening has four parts which follows a pattern of 2 speakers. You will listen to four recordings of native English speakers and then write your answers to a series of 10 questions on each. Recording topics are everyday social contexts in the first two, followed by two on academic topics. Recording one is between 2 speakers and the third can have as many as 4. Recordings 2 and 4 are always monologues. The Reading test consists of 3 passages and a total of 40 questions. Texts are taken from a variety of sources including textbooks, journals and magazines and are of general interest and non-specialist.
- In the TOEFL test, all the listening and reading tasks are based on academic type contexts. In Listening, candidates hear 3 or 4 short university lecture style talks followed by 2 or 3 conversations on academic topics (always with a maximum of 2 speakers). Reading passages, either 3 or 4, each around 700 words in length are typically taken from university textbooks. Ten questions are set on each part.
- Question types. Here there is a stark contrast. TOEFL only uses multiple choice questions in both parts. IELTS offers a broad range of question types including note completion, summary completion, sentence completion, matching, true/false as well as multiple choice, among others.
Writing and Speaking
- IELTS writing comprises 2 tasks. In Task 1 you have to describe and comment on some data presented in graphic form (a pie chart, line graph, flow chart, plan or map) in a minimum of 150 words. Task 2 is an argumentative essay on a given title in a minimum of 250 words. Candidates are recommended to spend around 20 minutes on the first task and 40 on the second. Both parts are assessed by a certified external examiner according to descriptive band scales in four areas: task achievement or response; coherence and cohesion; lexical resource and grammatical range and accuracy.
- Speaking in IELTS is likewise graded by the certified oral examiner along similar descriptive guidelines though in the case named fluency and coherence, lexical resource, grammatical range and accuracy and finally, pronunciation and intonation. The test has three parts: in the first part, lasting 5 minutes, the candidates answer a series of questions on general topics before being asked in part two to speak for 2 minutes on a given topic. The third part is a discussion between the candidate and the examiner on points of interest emerging from the topic given in part 2. An example of a Part 2 topic is:
Describe an app you use on your mobile phone.
You should say:
- what it is
- how you use it
- what benefits do you get
- and explain why this mobile app is important to you.
- TOEFL writing also has two parts, the first of which (20 minutes) involves what they call an “integrated” task where you a topic is presented first via a reading text, then a short listening passage. You then have to write a summary of what you have read and heard. Task 2 (30 minutes) is a 300-350 word essay in response to a question.
- The TOEFL Speaking test has 4 parts, 3 of which are called “integrated” as in writing, involving as they do listening and or reading something before being asked to speak for up to 1 minute on the topic after 15 to 30 seconds preparation. The fourth part is “independent” and follows the same time frame guidelines. Here’s an example: Which of the following technological developments has made the greatest impact on students’ lives? (1) Electronic books (2) Online classes (3) Smart phones.
- IELTS Part 3, the discussion phase is similar to the Independent TOEFL speaking activity. The IELTS Part 2 example given above could easily develop partly into a similar discussion as the TOEFL example. The difference is that in IELTS the discussion is two-way and thus possibly more fluid and natural.
- IELTS is graded from 0-9 and each test taker will receive an overall Band Score which represents the average of the 4 scores on the same 0-9 scale in each section of the exam. In Listening and Reading, the band score is based on the number of correct answers out of the total of 40. In Writing and Speaking the band score is the average of the four scores given for each assessed ability.
- Generally speaking, universities will require you to obtain an overall score of at least 6.0 and probably higher in the case of more demanding institutions so a score of 7.0 or higher is good.
- TOEFL is scored on a maximum of 30 points per exam section, a total of 120 points.
- The TOEFL equivalent of an IELTS score between 7.0 and 8.0 is a score of 95 to 120, both rated a C1 on the CEFR scale. A higher IELTS score, 8.5 to 9.0 would be considered perfectly bilingual, a C2 on the CEFR scale. (for more detail on these equivalences, read this article from the International Journal of English Linguistics: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330740868)
Making the choice
IELTS and TOEFL are the world’s most reliable and respected tests of English proficiency. The choice between one and the other may well depend on personal or external circumstances. The personal angle might include a preference for the undoubted “human” element in IELTS or feeling more comfortable with a keyboard and screen rather than pencil and paper. One way to get a feel for the tests is to check out official sites and take a practice test at https://www.ielts.org/about-the-test/sample-test-questions or https://www.ets.org/toefl/test-takers/ibt/prepare/tests/.
You can download or listen to the audio version here: