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TOEFL Tip #76: What Is IELTS?

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 18, 2010

We at Strictly English have been curious about other English proficiency tests that compete with the TOEFL (in particular the IELTS and the PTE), so we’ve done some research ourselves, and we’ve also asked professional tutors who specialize in these other tests to write about them. What follows below comes from Alanna Carysforth, founder of lead tutor at Best IELTS. If you have any questions about IELTS, please visit her website!

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) examination is primarily designed to assess the ability of candidates to study at a higher education level in the English language.

The examination lasts 2 hours and 45 minutes and consists of 4 tests in the following skills; listening (approx 30 minutes), reading (1 hour), writing (1 hour) and speaking (approx 15 minutes).

The IELTS test is available in two different formats; Academic or General Training.  Academic IELTS is usually used to determine the suitability of a candidate to study at undergraduate or postgraduate level.  General Training IELTS is used for candidates wishing to continue their studies to diploma level or complete their secondary education in an English-speaking country and also for immigration to Australia, New Zealand and Canada.  The listening and speaking tests are the same for both formats but the reading and writing tests are different.  The reading and writing tests for General Training IELTS are less demanding than for Academic IELTS.

There is no pass or fail grade in IELTS; the institution to which you are applying informs you of the IELTS Band Score they require.

You are given a grade between 0 and 9 for each of the four skills tests and this is then averaged out for an overall band score.


Listening          6

Reading            5

Writing            5.5

Speaking          6

Total                   22.5

So the overall band score would be 5.5       (5.63 rounded down)

In my experience, universities often require an overall score of 6.5, and often specify a particular band score in certain skills.

Here are the IELTS band score descriptors; it is worth noting, however, that the IELTS test is pitched at intermediate level.

Band 9: Expert user: has fully operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding.

Band 8: Very good user: has fully operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriacies. Misunderstandings may occur in unfamiliar situations. Handles complex detailed argumentation well.

Band 7: Good user: has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.

Band 6: Competent user: has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.

Band 5: Modest user: has partial command of the language, coping with overall meaning in most situations, though is likely to make many mistakes. Should be able to handle basic communication in own field.

Band 4: Limited user: basic competence is limited to familiar situations. Has frequent problems in understanding and expression. Is not able to use complex language.

Band 3: Extremely limited user: conveys and understands only general meaning in very familiar situations. Frequent breakdowns in communication occur.

Band 2: Intermittent user: no real communication is possible except for the most basic information using isolated words or short formulae in familiar situations and to meet immediate needs. Has great difficulty understanding spoken and written English.

Band 1: Non-user: essentially has no ability to use the language beyond possibly a few isolated words.

Band 0: Did not attempt the test: No assessable information provided.

How is the IELTS test marked?

The IELTS Listening and Reading Tests are marked absolutely objectively.  The IELTS Writing Tests and IELTS Speaking Tests are marked by a certified examiner.

I have had a number of people ask me my opinion on the objectivity of the writing and speaking scoring.  What I do know is that the examiners have to follow strict criteria when assigning their grades and I understand that examiners are also monitored from time to time (the speaking test is recorded).

The assessment criteria that examiners use are strictly confidential and do not leave the test centre.  There are, however, public versions of these descriptors:

IELTS Speaking Test Band Descriptors

(There are two IELTS Writing Tasks to complete)

IELTS Writing Test Task 1 Band Descriptors

IELTS Writing Test Task 2 Band Descriptors

The public versions of these descriptors give some idea of the criteria involved in different band scores.

TOEFL Tip #75: What Kinds Of Idioms Does TOEFL Want

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 8, 2010

You can find many webpages and books promising to teach you all the important idioms necessary to score high on the  TOEFL iBT writing section, but the kinds of idioms they are teaching are not really what TOEFL is looking for. In all fairness, it’s not really the writers’ or publishers’ fault. I guess they saw the word “idiom” somewhere on an ETS TOEFL document (I think the Official Guide to the TOEFL mentions “idioms” in its grading rubric), and decided to write a book or a website about idioms.

But one has to remember that there is a wide range of “idioms” in English. On one end of the spectrum you have idioms like, “it’s raining cats and dogs”. These are more metaphorical in nature. Dogs and cats are not really coming out of the sky. The image of dogs and cats suggests VIOLENCE (because dogs and cats typically fight each other). So this idiom means that the rain was very violent.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, you have phrasal verbs such as “look up”, as in “I looked up a word in the dictionary”.  This is not quite as metaphorical as “it’s raining cats and dogs”, but it does still (like the metaphoric idioms) mean something different from what the actual words say. When you LOOK UP a word in the dictionary, most likely your eyes are LOOKING DOWN at the dictionary. So the “up” doesn’t mean “over your head”. In fact, the “up” means nothing at all on its own. What the “up” does is change the meaning of the word “look” from “see” to “research”. When you look up a word, you are “researching” its meaning.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the quirky parts of the language that do not have a dependable system of rules to justify them, most notably: articles, prepositions, and word forms. Why do we get IN a car, but ON a bus? Why do we TALK ABOUT or DISCUSS work, but we do not DISCUSS ABOUT work?  And what’s the difference if I like “the flowers” “a flower” or “flowers”. Even more frustrating, why do colleges offer a degree in “communications” but not a degree in “communicating”?  There are no rules to help you here. Or, if there are rules, they are so dependent on logic and context that you have to be a philosopher more than a grammarian to get it right.

The uses of language on this end of the idiom spectrum are often talked about in terms other than as idioms. They are called (as I identified them above) articles or prepositions or word forms. And even if I were to agree and say that they are not proper “idioms”, their use is, nevertheless, idiomatic. And these are the “idioms” that will help you score high on the TOEFL.

To recap: I’ve identified three types of idioms: metaphoric idioms (“it’s raining cats and dogs”), phrasal verb idioms (“look up” as in “to research”), and what I will call “idiomatic conventions” (I got ON the bus and TALKED ABOUT my relationship). And what I’m arguing is that most TOEFL idiom books focus on metaphoric idioms, whereas you would be better preparing yourself if you focused more on phrasal verb idioms and idiom conventions.

Let’s face it. If you try to cram a metaphoric idiom into your TOEFL essay, it most likely will sound silly or forced. For example, if you’re writing about how you prefer having a guarantee instead of having a possibility, you could try to fit the expression “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” into your essay, but what if in the process, you mess up all the more subtle idioms and write, “the bird on my hand makes the same as a couple by the bush”.  YOUCH!  So, how many points do you think you’re going to get because you 1/2 memorized an idiom. Not many.

I’m sure some of you are saying, “But what if I memorize the idiom and use it correctly?”  Okay. let’s say you do just that. What you might have then is a beautiful idiom surrounded by a bunch of writing that is full of mistakes in conventional idioms or phrasal verb mistakes. In addition, how many metaphoric idioms will you have to have memorized to be sure that you’ll have the perfect idiom for the essay prompt you get on test day?  This just seems like too much work for too little payoff.

Therefore, we at Strictly English really encourage you to focus your attention on the two non-metaphoric idiom categories. If you can get those right, TOEFL graders won’t care about  the lack of metaphoric idioms. All of our highest scoring students do not use metaphoric idioms. Instead, they have a solid understanding that students get “final grades at Boston College” and not “final scores at The Boston College” and that their friend “took ill late Sunday night” and not that their friend “made illness in the Sunday night”. THESE are the idiomatic parts of the language you need to be focusing on and not that some Boston College student “aced his finals” or that your friend “puked his guts out”. As admirable as these metaphoric idioms are, I think you’ll go coo-coo burning the midnight oil trying to pigeonhole each metaphoric idiom so that you’ll knock the socks off of your TOEFL rater!