Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Students often ask me if they should take a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System) English assessment test. The first question I ask is, “What do you need the test for?”

For immigration, the Canadian government will grant up to 8 points in language proficiency based on an IELTS score. Canadian universities now accept IELTS results, although many US universities will still only accept a TOEFL score. For professional accreditation, the TOEFL is still a little more accepted in North America.

There are two types of IELTS: an academic version and an easier general version. The TOEFL only has an academic test. If a general IELTS score is acceptable, do that test. This may even be possible when applying to a graduate school in Canada.

On the academic level, both tests are usually accepted today; so, deciding which one to take depends on individual strengths and preferences. Both the IELTS and TOEFL have 4 sections—reading, listening, speaking and writing—but the formats of these sections are different.

The TOEFL listening and reading sections use multiple choice questions, but the IELTS uses a variety of different question types. The TOEFL reading and listening passages are on academic topics, while the IELTS has a variety of topics. Also, the TOEFL listening passages use a standard American accent; however, on the IELTS test, many different English accents from around the world can be heard.

Both the IELTS and TOEFL writing sections have a short essay, but the IELTS essay is marked individually for word choice, grammar, logic, fluency and cohesion. The TOEFL essay, meanwhile, emphasizes overall clarity and does not penalize the odd grammar or spelling mistake. Both tests have a summary task, but the IELTS’ is based on a graph or chart while the TOEFL summary requires combining information from a short academic reading and lecture. One more difference is IELTS tasks can be written by hand, but TOEFL tasks must be typed on a keyboard.

It is on the speaking section that the two tests are most different. IELTS' speaking section is a face-to-face interview with an evaluator, but TOEFL test-takers speak into a microphone. Although the IELTS has a time limit, timing is flexible. On the TOEFL, speakers have a strict time limit and must finish exactly on time or be penalized. Also, two of the TOEFL speaking tasks are to summarize academic lectures; if a test-taker doesn’t understand the lecture, it is very difficult to speak for a minute about it.

One advantage of the TOEFL is that it is more structured than the IELTS and, therefore, practicing the test over and over will improve scores. The IELTS is harder to prepare for.