Are you thinking about taking an English proficiency test to check your language level? Or do you need the result for a job, to move to another country, or start university? Two of the most important, well respected, and popular exams are TOEFL and IELTS. Which one should you take? Let’s talk about it in this episode of Thinking in English!

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Vocabulary List

To naturalise (v) – to make someone a legal citizen of a country that they were not born in

My sister is a naturalised US citizen

Acronym (n) – an abbreviation consisting of the first letters of each word in the name of something, pronounced as a words

IELTS is an acronym for “International English Language Testing System”

Specific (adj) – relating to one thing and not others; particular

The virus attacks specific cells in the brain

Proficiency (n) – the fact of having the skill and experience for doing something 

That organization requires employees to have proficiency in at least two different languages 

In a nutshell (idiom) – very briefly, giving only the main points

“What went wrong?” “In a nutshell, everything”

To type (v) – to write using a machine, either a computer keyboard or a typewriter

She asked me to type a couple of letters

Contrasting (adj) – very different 

That artist likes to use contrasting colours in his paintings 

Airport fiction (n) – airport fiction is a genre of literature that is a fairly long and fast paced; you read it for the plot and the fast pace, not for the style of writing

She only likes to read airport fiction

To reiterate (v) – to say something again, once or several times

She reiterated that she had never seen him before

So you’ve been listening to my podcast for a while now, studying English regularly, and you want to test your ability level? Or maybe you have an amazing job offer in a foreign country? Or an opportunity to enrol in an English language university programme? Or maybe you have been living in an English speaking country for a long time already and want to naturalise your citizenship? Well, one thing common with all of these options is the need to take an English language exam!

However, which exam should you take? There are so many different tests to choose from! IELTS, IELCA, TOEFL, PTE, the Duolingo test, the Cambridge English exams, and hundreds of different regional and national exams around the world such as the Japanese Eiken! There are a lot of complicated acronyms and boring test names. Each test has different benefits, requirements, and purposes. However, today I’m going to introduce the two most famous, popular, and important exams: the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). 

IELTS and TOEFL are generally the most commonly accepted exams for the English language entry requirements in academic settings. TOEFL is an exam provided by an US based company, while IELTS is supervised by the University of Cambridge in the UK. IELTS is also commonly used for visa applications in countries like Canada and Australia. In fact, there are actually two versions of IELTS, the IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training, which have slightly different purposes. So which one should you choose to take? What are the differences between the two tests? What do I recommend? 

There are some key points to consider before you make the decision over which exam to choose. Obviously, if the place you are moving to, the company you are applying to, or the university you are entering, requires a specific exam then that must be the exam you take! If your new job requires IELTS, you clearly need to take IELTS. However, if there are a few options available, or no specific requirements, you need to think about your strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles. 

The first thing to consider is whether or not you need to take an English proficiency test for academic English? Is it needed to enter a University or school? If you don’t need it for academic purposes, you should take the general version of IELTS. The IELTS General Training exam is significantly easier than the academic version and the TOEFL. So it is perfect if you need a visa for immigration purposes. If you do need a test for academic reasons – both are good options. You should also check out episode 76 for my guide to the differences between academic and business English. 

The next point to consider is which type of English are you most comfortable with? Have you been studying British English or North American English? I made a guide on the differences between British and American English a few months ago which you all should listen to! It is linked in the description and on the blog! In a nutshell, if you have more experience with British English accents and vocabulary, you should take the IELTS exam. As IELTS is a British based exam, it generally tends towards British English. On the other hand, TOEFL is far more suitable for learners of American English. 

The next thing to think about is what type of exam you like, or are best at taking. What do I mean? Well, there are some key differences between the questions styles and ways of answering. TOEFL and IELTS both test the four key skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. However, they do so in different ways! If you like to type your assignments and essay responses you should consider TOEFL as they require a typed answer for the written section. IELTS instead requires you to handwrite your answers. Furthermore, IELTS has a wide range of question types including matching exercises, filling gaps, and multiple choice; TOEFL is almost completely multiple choice. And finally, the TOEFL exam is four hours long while IELTS is under 3 hours. These differences make the two exams very contrasting experiences to take! 

So, what are the major differences between each section of the exam? Let’s start with reading. In many ways, IELTS and TOEFL reading are quite similar. Both are academic in nature, so make sure you are reading articles from respected newspapers, magazines, and blogs. If you just read cheap airport fiction or tabloid papers, you will not be prepared to take either test. TOEFL has 3 to 5 reading sections taking about 20 minutes each, while IELTS always has 3 sections that take 20 minutes. The big difference, as I already mentioned, is the question types: TOEFL just uses multiple choice while IELTS is more varied. 

In the writing parts of the exam, both tests have two different tasks. IELTS starts with a short essay of about 200 words, and then you need to summarize information from a graph or a chart. In TOEFL, the first task is a five paragraph essay of between 300 and 350 words. The second task requires you to take notes from a set of readings and lectures on one topic, and then you need to respond by incorporating information from both the reading and listening parts. 

Speaking of listening, there are big differences between IELTS and TOEFL. In fact, these are the largest differences. TOEFL requires you to listen to up to 60 minutes of conversations and lectures. You need to take notes and then respond to multiple choice questions. IELTS again has a wider selection of question types, which you need to answer as you move through the exam. So just to reiterate, in TOEFL you answer questions after you have listened to a long selection, while in IELTS you answer questions while you are listening to the exam.

Finally, there is the speaking part. This again is vastly different between the 2 tests. TOEFL requires you to answer 6 questions by recording responses on the computer. IELTS has a slightly shorter speaking test, but you are examined by a real life human examiner instead of a computer. You first warm up with a little small talk, then need to respond to an image of some kind, and then discuss a related topic!

Final Thought

In this episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to show you all the key differences between IELTS and TOEFL. These are the two most important and widely accepted English proficiency tests, with different questions types and language types! If you like handwriting your answers, speaking British English, and answering a variety of different questions then IELTS may be more suitable. If you like American English, computer based exams, and multiple choice questions perhaps you should look at taking TOEFL. However, the choice is completely up to you! Both are great exams, so whichever you take should be fine for most purposes. Just make sure you know the differences!

Have you ever taken an English proficiency exam? Which would you prefer to take, IELTS or TOEFL? 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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