IELTS is the International English Language Testing System examination which tests the four skills – listening, reading writing and speaking.
There are four tests done in the following order: Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking.
4 sections, 40 questions
30 minutes + 10 minutes transfer time
3 sections, 40 questions 60 minutes
2 tasks (150 & 250 words) 60 minutes
11 to 14 minutes
Total exam time
2 hours 55 minutes
The first thing you must do to prepare for this exam is to become familiar with what you are expected to do. See how many of the FAQs you can answer on the next page before reading the information on pages 3 and 4. Then focus on one skill at a time and work your way through the booklets in the SAC – How to prepare for IELTS – Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing.
1. How many times is the tape played?
2. What kind of texts do we listen to?
3. How many questions are there?
4. What kinds of questions are there? Are there multiple choice questions? 5. Are we given any time to read the questions?
6. Are we given any time when the tape is switched off?
7. How much reading do we have to do? 8. How many questions are there?
9. What kinds of texts are they?
10. Where do the texts come from?
11. What kinds of questions are there?
12. How many pieces of writing do we do?
13. How long should we spend writing each one?
14. How many words do we have to write for each one? 15. Do we get the same percentage of marks for each one?
16. How many people are in the room at the same time? 17. What are the different parts of the test?
18. Can we make notes during the test?
19. Do we have time to prepare during the test?
The tape is played once only.
• There are four sections.
• The first two sections are concerned with social needs.
• The last two sections are related to educational contexts.
• There are 40 questions. 10 questions per section.
• The texts and the tasks increase in difficulty as the test progresses.
• There are a variety of text types – monologues and dialogues between
two or more people.
• There are a variety of task types including multiple choice, short-answer
questions, notes/chart/table completion, sentence completion, labeling a
diagram, classification and matching.
• There will be more than one task type in each section.
• You are given about 30 seconds before each section to read the questions.
• You are given about 30 seconds at the end of each section to look over
• You are given an additional 10 minutes at the end of the test to transfer
your answers from the question booklet to the answer sheet.
There are three sections with three reading passages.
• Each reading passage is between 700 and 1000 words long.
• There are 40 questions. 13 to 14 questions per section.
• The texts are academic in style but of general interest.
• There may be a text with diagrams, graphs or tables.
• There will be one text with a detailed logical argument.
• The texts and tasks increase in difficulty as the test progresses.
• The types of texts include descriptions, critical reviews, discussions of
theories and data, case studies, narratives etc.
• The texts come from books, academic papers, magazines and journals.
• There are a variety of task types including multiple choice, short-answer
questions, notes/chart/table completion, sentence completion, labeling a diagram, classification, matching lists/phrases, choosing suitable paragraph headings from a list, identification of writer’s views/attitudes & summary completion.
• There will be more than one task type in each section.
• You are not given any extra time to transfer your answers from the
question booklet to the answer sheet.
• There are two tasks.
• You have to write at least 150 words for Task 1.
• You have to write at least 250 words for Task 2.
• You should take about 20 minutes over Task 1 and 40 minutes over
• In Task 1 you have to look at the information in a table or diagram
and present the information in your own words.
• You are assessed on how you describe data, describe the stages of a
process, describe an object or event or explain how something works.
• In Task 2 you are given an opinion, an argument or a problem and
you have to write an essay in response.
• You are assessed on how you present a solution to a problem, present
and justify an opinion, compare and contrast evidence and opinions,
evaluate and challenge ideas and give evidence and argue your case.
• Task 2 carries more weight than task 1.
There is one examiner who asks all the questions and also assesses you.
• There are 3 main parts.
• Part 1 is the introduction and interview and lasts about 4 to 5
• In Part 1 you are asked general questions about yourself.
• Part 2 is the individual long turn and lasts about 3 to 4 minutes.
• Part 2 you are asked to talk for one to two minutes on a topic the
examiner gives you.
• You are given one minute to prepare to speak in Part 2.
• You can make notes on paper provided by the examiner.
• Part 3 is the two-way discussion and lasts about 4 to 5 minutes.
• Part 3 is a discussion of more abstract issues related to the topic in
What is the difference between the Academic and General Training variants?
Targeting of reading item/task difficulty to level of candidate ability is important in achieving response validity. For example, the Academic Reading module has more items pitched at bands 5-8 whereas the GT has more items pitched at bands 3-6. The GT scale has a lower SEM at ranges below Bands 5-6, whereas Academic has a lower SEM at Bands 5-8. This is a reflection of the different demands of Academic and GT discourse for language learners. Academically oriented discourse is suitable for testing higher levels of proficiency; however it is more demanding for learners below band 5 and this partly explains why academic institutions typically require a minimum proficiency at band 6 and above in the Academic version.
Research exercises are carried out to monitor the levels on both modes (bands 4-6) using vertical anchoring techniques that ensure the scale does not drift overtime. Common anchors are used in these exercises as a measure to determine the relative difficulty.
Khalifa and Weir (forthcoming) are currently writing a volume on assessing second language reading which addresses in detail some of the issues concerned with targeting texts and tasks at different proficiency levels.
For Writing, the Academic and GT modules are differentiated in terms of the content and nature of the two writing tasks;
the cognitive demands of the tasks;
the contextual parameters of the tasks.
In a recent volume on assessing second language writing, Shaw and Weir (2007) discuss in considerable depth the many different parameters involved in writing tests and how these can be manipulated to achieve differentiation across proficiency levels and domains.
Despite the clear differentiation described above between the Academic and General Training modules for reading and writing, there are some common features across the two variants:
the time allocation
the number of reading items and writing tasks the length of written responses
the writing assessment criteria.
In addition, both modules report scores on a scale from 1-9, with half-bands. However, given the level of differentiation described above, this clearly does not mean that the scores across Academic and GT Reading or Writing modules are interchangeable.
All IELTS candidates take the same Listening and Speaking modules; separate Academic and GT modules are not available for Listening and Speaking. This reflects both the historical legacy of the test and also the fact that a distinction between ‘academic’ and ‘general’ literacy has traditionally been seen as most marked in relation to reading and writing skills.
However, the common Listening module does contain some material and tasks relevant to an academic study context. It is also true that the more socially-oriented language skills which are tested in the common IELTS Listening and Speaking tests are equally important in an academic study or professional context.
Alan Davies’ recently published book on the historical development of various tests designed to assess academic English proficiency offers a helpful discussion on the complex issues in this area (Davies 2008), and research studies which have informed the dev
Both Academic and GT modules report scores on the same scale from 1-9, with half-bands.
When it was introduced in 1989, IELTS followed the example of its predecessor ELTS and reported the overall band score for the whole test on a 9-band scale. Subscores for the Listening, Speaking, Academic Reading and Academic Writing modules were also reported on a 9-band scale. At that time, however, subscores on General Training Reading and Writing, however, stopped at Band 6.
In 1995 IELTS was revised to ensure that it would remain a valuable and reliable assessment instrument and that it would continue to meet the needs of all stakeholders, both test-takers and score users. Amongst other changes to the GT Reading and Writing modules, the length of the band scale for these was increased from 6 to 9 bands, in line with the scale used to report scores on the other modules. This removed the Band 6 ceiling for the GT Reading and Writing modules, thus allowing higher-scoring candidates to be credited rather than penalised. It also allowed for a more balanced contribution of the GT Reading and Writing band scores to the overall band score, which is computed and reported from the four band scores for reading, writing, listening and speaking.
This means that both test variants – Academic and GT – are now able to reflect the full range of ability from non-user to expert user on a reporting scale of 0-9 (0 for those who did not attempt the test, 9 for the most proficient users).
Once again, however, it is important to recognise that neither the individual Reading and Writing module scores nor the overall IELTS band score are interchangeable for theAcademic and GT variants given the different content and task demands they make in the reading and writing components (see above).
The IELTS Test Report Form (TRF) shows test score users whether the candidate took the Academic or General Training modules for Reading and Writing. The online TRF Verification service also makes this clear.
The IELTS Handbook recommends that a Test Report Form which is more than two years old should only be accepted as evidence of present level of language ability if it is accompanied by proof that a candidate has actively maintained or tried to improve their English language proficiency. This recommendation is based upon what we know about the phenomenon of second language loss or ‘attrition’, a topic which is well-researched and documented in the literature.
The level of second language competence gained and the extent of opportunity for subsequent practice both affect how much language is retained or lost over a period of time. Research points to two types of attrition. At lower proficiency levels, rapid language e loss occurs soon after the end of language training/exposure (for approximately two years) and then levels off leaving a residual competency (Bahrick 1984; Weltens 1989); at higher proficiency levels the reverse pattern can be observed (Weltens and Cohen 1989) – a few years of non-attrition (an ‘initial plateau’) followed by steady loss. It appears that a critical period exists after disuse;
although the nature of this may differ for high and low proficiency users, a two-year limit has been selected as a reasonable ‘safe period’.
The two-year period also parallels ETS recommendations for the use of TOEFL scores (used in a similar way to IELTS): ETS suggests that non-native speakers who have taken the TOEFL test within the past two years and who have successfully pursued academic work in an English- speaking country for a specified minimum period of time (generally two years) with English as the language of instruction may be exempted from providing TOEFL test scores.
IELTS is designed to assess a candidate’s overall English language proficiency within a specified time-frame. This is achieved by asking candidates to provide evidence of their reading, listening, writing and speaking abilities at a certain point in time: the Listening, Reading and Writing modules are administered on the same day; for logistical reasons the Speaking module can be administered up to 7 days before or after the other components. The four component modules are not offered as separate tests to be taken at different times; in this sense IELTS is not a modular test.
Performance in the four skill areas is combined to provide a maximally reliable composite assessment of a candidate’s overall language proficiency at a given point in time. Scores on the four component modules are computed to provide an overall band score; the four component scores are also reported separately for their diagnostic value, to indicate a candidate’s relative strengths and weaknesses.
All the texts and tasks in the IELTS modules are designed to be widely accessible and to accommodate as far as possible candidates’ prior linguistic, cultural and educational experience irrespective of nationality or first language. Removal in 1995 of the thematic link between the Reading and Writing modules was in part for this reason (see above). Topics or contexts of language use which might introduce a bias against any group of candidates of a particular background (e.g. due to gender, ethnic origin) are avoided at the materials writing/editing stage. Pre-testing procedures prior to live test construction monitor feedback on texts and topics and so provide another safeguard in this regard. An external study by Mayor, Hewings, North and Swann (2000) which investigated the written performance of different L1 groups found no evidence of significant cultural bias due to task.
O’Loughlin (2000) used the IELTS Oral Interview to investigate the potential impact of gender in oral proficiency assessment and found no evidence that the test was a strongly gender differentiated event. He concluded that IELTS interviewers and candidates ‘generally adopted a more collaborative, co-operative and supportive communicative style irrespective of their gender or the gender of their interlocutor’ (p 20). Furthermore, he found no empirical evidence of significant bias due to rater/candidate gender with regard to the rating process and the scores awarded. The introduction of the revised IELTS Speaking Test in 2001 was partly to minimise even further any potential for examiner language or behaviour during the test to be a source of bias.
IELTS/IELTS was originally designed as an English language proficiency test for students who had already completed their secondary education and who wished to undertake further academic study in an English-speaking country, at first degree or post-graduate level. In this sense it was targeted at adults, i.e. those in their late teens or above. This is particularly true for the Academic modules (Reading and Writing) which tend to assume a level of cognitive maturity normally not achieved until early adulthood.
The cognitive demands of the Academic Reading and Writing tasks were demonstrated during a series of native speaker trialling studies conducted in 1993/1994 as part of the 1995 IELTS Revision Project. One study involved administering IELTS subtests to 148 English native-speaker students at sixth-form colleges, universities and technical colleges in the UK.
and Australia; this sample population included both 16–17 year olds (pre-university) and 18– 21 year olds (undergraduate). Results showed that the tests were able to discriminate effectively within the native speaker population: the Listening subtest attracted generally high raw scores – with a mean of Band 8/9; however, the spread of scores for the Academic Reading and Writing modules showed that native speakers responded with varying degrees of success, depending in part on their age and experience.
The IELTS General Training (GT) modules, however, were developed to suit the needs of a slightly different population – those wishing to undertake further study/training of a non- academic, vocational nature, or as a bridge between school and university. Post-test analysis shows that significant numbers of candidates in the younger (16–18 year old) age group take IELTS GT each year; no significant problems have been noted in terms of content or difficulty and analysis of live test performance by age indicates that 16 and 17 year olds perform better than some other age groups (e.g. candidates aged between 18 and 21). This also appears true for Academic candidates and is a phenomenon observed with other Cambridge ESOL exams. One possible explanation is that 16 and 17 years olds are still in full time education so are well used to the demands of studying and test-taking.
A study under the IELTS grant-funded program investigated the performance and attitudes of a specific group of 15–17 year old candidates on IELTS General Training. Merrylees (2003) found that most students in the study coped reasonably well with the demands of the sub- tests in terms of mean scores achieved; students reported finding Listening sections 3 and 4, and Reading section 3 most challenging. An impact study conducted in Australia in 2003 (see Jan Smith’s article in this issue) confirmed the accessibility of the IELTS General Training module content to the 16–17 year old population.
The available evidence sugge
‘IELTS is accepted by more than 10,000 organisations worldwide. These include universities, immigration departments, government agencies, professional bodies and multinational companies.’
‘IELTS is jointly owned by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English. International teams of writers contribute to IELTS test materials. Ongoing research ensures that IELTS remains fair and unbiased. Test writers from different English-speaking countries develop IELTS content so it reflects real-life situation
‘There are two types of the IELTS test: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. The IELTS Academic test is for people applying for higher education or professional registration in an English-speaking environment. It reflects some of the features of academic language and assesses whether you are ready to begin studying or training.The IELTS General Training test is for those who are going to English speaking countries for secondary education, work experience or training programs. It is also a requirement for migration to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.The test focuses on basic survival skills in broad social and workplace contexts. Listening and Speaking are the same for both tests, but the subject matter of the Reading and Writing sections differs depending on which test you take.’
‘Please go to https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/take-ielts/what-ielts and read the description of the Academic and General Training tests. Individual organisations have different requirements. Make sure you check which IELTS test the organisation you are applying to recognises. Note that you must know which version to take when you complete the online application form.’
‘What is the test format and how long will it take’
‘Our official IELTS test centres can help if you have visual, hearing, speaking or learning difficulties. If you need a modified version of IELTS, please give the test centre three months notice. If special arrangements (for example, extra time) need to be made then please give the test centre six weeks’ notice. Your English language ability will be assessed objectively, regardless of any disability or special needs that you may have.’
‘IELTS has a set fee for its test. The Academic and General Training tests are the same cost. When you apply online, you will be told the fee.”
‘If you postpone or cancel your application more than 5 weeks before the test date, you will receive a refund minus an administration charge. If you postpone or cancel within 5 weeks of the test date, you will be charged the full fee unless you have a medical reason. If you provide a medical certificate within 5 days of the test date, you will receive a refund minus the local administrative cost.’
If you are absent on the test day with no prior notice, you will lose your full fee. However, if you provide a medical certificate within 5 days of the test date, you will receive a refund minus the local administrative cost.’
‘The Listening, Reading and Writing tests are always completed immediately after each other and with no break. The Speaking test will be held either on the same day or seven days before or two days after that, depending on local arrangements.’
‘Only pens, pencils and erasers. You must bring the passport/national identity card you used on the IELTS Application Form to the test. You must leave everything else outside the examination room. Mobile phones, pagers and electronic devices of any kind must be switched off and placed with personal belongings in the area designated by the supervisor. If you do not switch off your phone/pager or any other electronic devices, or keep it on you, you will be disqualified. Personal watches are not allowed in the test room.’
‘You will take the Listening test first, followed by the Reading and Writing tests (there are no breaks between these tests). Your Speaking test will be held either on the same day or seven days before or two days after that, depending on local arrangements.’
‘As IELTS is an international test, a variety of English accents are used in both of these tests.’
‘As IELTS is an international test, a variety of English accents are used in both of these tests.’
‘Yes. At the beginning, you hear instructions and a sample question. Then you read section 1 questions, listen to section 1 and answer the questions.’
‘No. The Reading test is one hour, and you must write all your answers on the answer sheet in this time.’
‘No. You must do it in pencil. The answer sheet is scanned by a computer which cannot read pen.”
‘Yes. The IELTS Examiner will not see your question paper.
‘The Speaking test is a conversation with a certified IELTS Examiner. The Speaking test is made up of three sections. It is recorded on an audio cassette or a digital recorder.
‘You must bring the same identification documents you supplied on your IELTS Application Form and used for the rest of the test. Your ID will be checked before you enter the interview room. Personal items, including electronic devices and watches, are not allowed in the Speaking test room.
‘IELTS uses a 9-band scoring system to measure and report test scores in a consistent manner. You receive individual band scores for Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking and an Overall Band Score on a band scale from one to nine
‘There is no pass or fail in IELTS. Scores are graded on the 9-band system. Each educational institution or organisation sets its own level of IELTS scores to meet its individual requirements’
‘Your Test Report Form will be posted to you 13 days after your test date. Some test centres also provide SMS alerts and an Online Results Service. Keep your Test Report Form in a secure place as you only receive one copy
‘Test Report Forms are valid for two years. Copies cannot be sent to test takers but IELTS will forward a Test Report Form to your relevant institution or embassy. Up to five copies will be sent free of charge. Additional copies will incur a small administration charge. Talk to your test centre for further details’
‘There is no limit on sitting the test. However, IELTS recommends you do additional study before taking the test again. Some test centres offer preparatory courses and language classes. You can also improve your skills by using the IELTS Official Practice Materials – ask for details.’
‘If you would like to make an enquiry about your test results, you need to apply at the centre where you booked your test within six weeks of your test date. You can choose which sections of the test you want to have re-marked. There is a charge for an enquiry on IELTS test results, however this charge will be refunded if your score increases for any section of the test. Your result will normally be available in 2-21 days, depending on several factors including the number of sections requested for re-mark.’
‘The test centre may offer you a test on the next available test date.’