IELTS - International English Language Testing System

International English Language Testing System

By Jess Baker,

Being multi-lingual opens doors to areas of work and education which might otherwise be closed to you. If you're learning the English (or, indeed, any) language, it's important to make sure the accreditation from your English language course is secure, reliable, and right for your requirements. IELTS is perfect for students hoping to become part of a university in an English-speaking country, so here's a quick guide on what the testing system involves.

The IELTS, or International English Language Testing System, is an internationally endorsed test of proficiency in the English language, jointly managed by the British Council (promoting lasting relationships between the UK and other countries), University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations (the leading provider of exams for people learning English), and IDP Education (who offer student placement in not only the UK, but the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, too). Over 8,000 organisations worldwide accept IELTS as proof of an ability to use the English language for professional, educational and social purposes.

There are two branches of the IELTS: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. If you want to study at university at either undergraduate or postgraduate level, or join a professional, English-speaking company, you should take IELTS Academic. While some universities might accept both versions of IELTS, they all have their own entry requirements, so it's important to check:

  1. Who accepts IELTS, to make sure you apply to the right places
  2. Which version of IELTS you should take. Contact universities directly if in doubt.

The IELTS assesses the four core areas of language proficiency: listening, reading, writing and speaking. The listening, reading and writing tests are taken back-to-back, in that order, in one day without a break. The speaking test can be given either following a break on the same day, or up to seven days afterwards depending on the test centre. Everybody takes the same listening and speaking tests, but the reading and writing sections will differ depending on whether you choose IELTS Academic or IELTS General Training. Both tests take under three hours; the listening section takes 40 minutes, reading and writing each take 60 minutes, and the speaking test can range from 11-15 minutes in duration.

You cannot fail the test

The whole point of IELTS is to determine the level of English language skills regardless of proficiency. There is no pass, and there is no fail. Each of the four skills are scored on a scale of 1-9 in either a whole (2.0,3.0) or a half (4.5,5.5) band. These scores will then be translated into an overall score. Obviously your proficiency in a language can fluctuate, so it's important to take the test close to the time of applying to the university you're interested in. If a long period of time lapses, a university is within its rights to question whether your skills remain at the same level. Different university courses will require different proficiency levels depending on their content, so it's crucial to understand the band system. Most UK universities have requirements between 5.5 and 7.0. A full and detailed breakdown of the finer points of the difference between bands is available on the British Council IELTS website, but the crude terms are as follows:

Band 9 - Expert user
Band 8 - Very good user
Band 7 - Good user
Band 6 - Competent user
Band 5 - Modest user
Band 4 - Limited user
Band 3 - Extremely limited user
Band 2 - Intermittent user
Band 1 - Non-user
Band 0 - Did not attempt the test.

Tests run up to once a week in over 130 countries, so booking the test can be done at your convenience. IELTS Academic runs on 48 days per year, and IELTS General Training on 24 days per year. Of course, dates may vary due to local demand. Usually the listening, reading and writing tests take place on Thursdays or Saturdays, and the speaking test will either follow immediately, or seven days after.

IELTS is, of course, not the only system of English language testing, but most tests follow the basic structure of assessing the four core components of language skill. In recent times the world has realised the importance of communication between languages, and there is a constant shift in emigration and immigration. Now is the time to get to grips with language testing, not just for English but for other languages too, so that if you decide to take the plunge and leave the comfort of your own language, you do so with all the right information!