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TOEFL or IELTS – Which is Better?
Because universities want to make sure you have the English language skills needed to study at their school, almost all higher education institutions require you to take an English test. And TOEFL and IELTS are the two major standardized tests of the English language. One of the most frequent questions I hear is which exam is easier or which exam is better. The answer depends on what types of tests you excel at as well as where you plan to apply. This article breaks down the differences between the two tests so you can make your own decision.
The IELTS test is administered by the British Council, the University of Cambridge, and IELTS Australia. That is, it belongs to the British government and was traditionally used by British universities, as well as universities in New Zealand and Australia, to determine the language ability of foreign students. TOEFL is administered by the US-based non-profit ETS and is widely used by American and Canadian universities. However, nowadays, to make it easier for international students, universities around the world take both TOEFL and IELTS. When checking with the specific university you want to apply to, usually any school in the USA, UK, Australia or New Zealand will take test scores. So that’s one worry off your mind. Choose the test that you think will be easiest to complete. To do that, you need to know the structure of each exam.
Structure of the TOEFL
As of last year, the official TOEFL is almost universally given in the iBT (Internet Based Test) format. It consists of four sections:
The TOEFL Reading section asks you to read 4-6 university-level passages and answer multiple-choice questions about them (multiple-choice means you choose an answer from the options provided). The questions test you on your understanding of the text, main ideas, important details, vocabulary, inference, rhetorical devices and style.
The listening section consists of 2-3 long talks and 4-6 lectures. The situations are always related to university life, such as finding research materials or a conversation between a student and a librarian about a history class lecture. The questions are multiple choice and ask about important details, inferences, tone and vocabulary. Conversations and lectures are very natural and include informal English, interruptions, filler sounds like “uh” or “uhm”.
The speaking segment is recorded. You will speak into a microphone and the grader will listen to your answers at a later date and grade you. Two of the questions will be on familiar topics and ask you to give your opinion and/or describe something familiar to you, such as your city or your favorite teacher. Two questions will ask you to summarize information from the text and conversation – and may also ask for your opinion. Two questions will ask you to summarize information from a short conversation. Again, the topics of conversation are always university-related.
Finally, the TOEFL consists of two short essays. Someone will ask you to write your opinion on a broad topic such as whether it is better to live in the country or the city. One will ask you to summarize information from a text and a lecture–often the two will disagree with each other and you will need to either compare and contrast, or synthesize contradictory information.
IELTS has the same 4 sections, reading, listening, speaking and writing, but the format is very different.
The reading section of IELTS gives you 3 texts, which can be from academic textbooks or newspapers or magazines – but all at the level of a university student. One will always be an opinion piece – ie an argumentative text for a point of view. The variety of questions in IELTS is quite wide, and not every text has every question type. One question type asks you to match headings with paragraphs of text. You may be asked to complete a summary of the passage using words from the text. Or you may have to fill in a table or chart or picture with words from the text. There may be multiple-choice questions that ask you about key details. A difficult question type presents statements and asks you whether these statements are true, false, or not contained in the text. You may also be asked to match words and ideas. Finally, some questions are short-answer but the answers will be taken directly from the text.
Some questions come before the text and may not require careful reading to answer. Others come after the text and may expect you to read the text thoroughly.
IELTS has four listening sections. The first is a “transactional conversation” in which someone may be applying for something (a driver’s license, a library card) or asking for information (an advertisement or a call for more details about a hotel). The second section is an informational lecture of some sort, possibly the dean explaining university regulations. The third is a conversation in an academic context and the last section will be an academic lecture. For all sections you may be asked to fill in a summary, fill in a table, answer multiple-choice questions, label a diagram or picture, or classify information into different categories. You are expected to fill in the answers as you listen.
Academic IELTS has two writing tasks. The first asks you to summarize a table or chart in about 300 words. You will need to identify important information, compare or contrast different data, or describe a process. The second task asks you to express your opinion on a statement about an open-ended topic such as: “Women should take care of children and not work” or “Many people are moving to cities and rural areas are suffering.”
Finally, the speaking section will be conducted on the remaining day of the exam and on a separate day in the presence of a trained interviewer. The questions are the same for all examinees but some parts may be more conversational than single word. The first part of the test will be a brief introductory talk followed by a few short questions about familiar topics. The interviewer may ask your name, your job, what sport you like, what is your daily routine, etc. In the second part, you will be given a card with a topic and some specific questions to address. You will have to speak for two minutes on this topic, which can be about your daily routine, the last movie you went to see, your favorite part of the world or a similar familiar topic. In the final section, the interviewer will ask you to discuss a more abstract aspect of the topic in Part 2–why do people like daily routines? Why do people like movies? How does travel affect local life?
Which is better for me?
So now you have some understanding of what each test entails, but you’re wondering which one is best for you. Maybe while reading about the structure, you thought, “Wow TOEFL sounds so easy,” or, “Oh IELTS sounds kind of fun!” That can be a good sign that one test will be easier for you than the other. More concretely, there are key differences between the tests.
British vs. American English
While both the UK and the US accept both tests, and while British English and American English are not as different as some might think, the fact of the matter is that IELTS uses British English and TOEFL exclusively uses American English. In IELTS, this difference will have a big impact because spelling counts, and this is one area where the UK and the US don’t always see eye to eye. Obviously if you have trouble with a British accent (and the test can cover a variety of accents including Australian, New Zealand, Irish and Scottish). On the other hand, an American accent can throw you off. Certain terms are also different and you don’t want to waste time in your speaking test asking what is flat or lorry. So whether you’re using British or American English is definitely a factor. If you are more comfortable with US English, TOEFL is a good bet but if you are used to British English and pronunciation, you will do better on IELTS.
Multiple Choice vs. Copy Down
For the reading and listening sections, the TOEFL gives you multiple-choice questions, while the IELTS usually expects you to copy words from a text or conversation word-for-word. Multiple-choice questions require a little better abstract thinking, but IELTS favors people with better memories and more concrete thinking. The good thing about multiple-choice is that it’s easy to pick out the wrong answers, while the good thing about copying is that the answer is sitting in the text. You have to find it and repeat it. So, concrete thinkers tend to do well in IELTS and abstract thinkers tend to excel in TOEFL.
Predictable or different every time
Of course, TOEFL is also more predictable than IELTS. IELTS throws many different types of questions at you, and the instructions are often slightly different each time. Which makes it difficult to prepare. The TOEFL, on the other hand, is the same test every time–choose A, B, C, D, or E. On the other hand, IELTS definitely keeps you on your toes and it can keep you more alert. .
A person or a computer speaking?
Another big difference is how the speaking section is run. For some people, it is more comfortable to record their answers on the computer because it feels like no one is listening. You try your best and forget about it until you get your grade. Since the IELTS test is taken in an interview format with a native speaker, you may be nervous or feel that you are being judged. And they take notes: Oh my God, did he write something good or something bad? On the other hand, you may feel more comfortable having a conversation with a person there to explain if you don’t understand a question or just looking at a face instead of a computer screen. It can also be helpful to get feedback from a native speaker to correct mistakes and improve during testing. So it depends on what you are more comfortable with. If you like to talk to people, IELTS is a good bet. If you want to be alone and not feel judged, the TOEFL will be more comfortable for you.
Overall vs. criteria
Finally, the speaking and writing sections of the TOEFL are graded as a whole. The grader assigns points based on the overall quality of the essay, including vocabulary, logic, style, and grammar. In contrast IELTS is marked by individual criteria and you are scored individually for grammar, word choice, fluency, logic, cohesion, and dozens of other criteria. In other words, if you write well but have a lot of small grammar mistakes, your TOEFL score may be very good because the graders will overlook the small mistakes if the overall essay is logical and detailed. IELTS does not ignore bad grammar. On the other hand, if your grammar and vocabulary are strong but you have trouble expressing your ideas or organizing an essay, you may end up with a low TOEFL score but the IELTS will give you a good score for language use. So it may seem like IELTS is very difficult because it grades you in everything, actually if you are strong in many areas you can score well. TOEFL emphasizes the ability to put together a logical and detailed argument (or summary) and looks at clarity, word choice, and style above all. If you don’t feel comfortable writing essays but you have excellent grammar and vocabulary and are a decent writer overall, IELTS will be easy for you.
I hope this essay was helpful in making your choice. Anyway, I recommend you visit the IELTS and TOEFL websites to get some more details on each test, and also try some practice problems yourself.
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