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Study Abroad: Cracking TOEFL, IELTS

Gouri Nanda

A good academic record,   a strong purpose and a solid recommendation are the ingredients of a successful admission to a foreign university. But to even get the attention of the admissions committee, an above average test score is crucial.

You have broadly two kinds of tests, one tests your aptititude (GMAT, GRE ) and the other your language skills. And good scores in both are crucial for your success.

The language tests have been designed to measure the English language proficiency of such people whose native language a different one Careers360 takes a look at two such tests in depth, Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and International English Language Testing System (IELTS) which are time-honoured tests and also Pearsons (PTE), the recent entrant in this domain.   

Who should take the English Language Test (ELT)
The tests are primarily meant for students who are planning to study at a higher education institution. The need for taking the tests arise since an undergraduate, graduate or postgraduate programme anywhere in the world does require students to demonstrate their ability to communicate in English as an admission requirement.

For Indian students their destination could be the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Australia, Singapore, Japan or anywhere in the world provided the institution in that country recognises the scores of the ELT you take. Others, who opt for ELT, do so as they wish to apply for scholarship and fellowships. Further, there are others who apply for residential and work visas; and those who need professional certification as desired by a few medical and licensing agencies outside their home country. Needless to mention some people appear for ELT to track their English language learning progress.

IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System and is jointly managed by British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations (Cambridge ESOL). IELTS too has graduated from being a multiple choice test-the English Proficiency Test Battery (EPTB) in the 1960s primarily for the purpose of screening international applicants to the UK’s educational institutions by the British Council, to the English Language Testing Service (ELTS) in the 1980s, and finally to a more innovative format today. According to IELTS administrators, ELTS was influenced by the growth in ‘communicative’ language learning and ‘English for specific purposes’. The present version of IELTS is a result of major revisions.

The 1989 format introduced the candidates to two non-specialised modules, Listening and Speaking, and two specialised modules, Reading and Writing. While the non-specialised modules tested general English, the specialised ones assessed the candidate’s skill in three discipline fields namely Physical Science & Technology; Life & Medical Sciences and Business Studies & Social Sciences (Module A, B & C respectively). In 1995, the field-specific modules A, B and C were replaced with one Academic Reading Module and one Academic Writing Module. Also, measures were taken to gather data on test performance and candidate background to factor the issue of fairness. Further in 2001, the revised IELTS Speaking test was introduced and in 2005, new assessment criteria for the Writing Test were made operational. The same year, computerised version of IELTS was also introduced. 

Assessing the test and the test score
IELTS uses a unique nine-point scoring system to measure and report test scores. You get a score for each language skill or sub-tests (listening, reading, writing & speaking) and an overall band score (OBS) on a band scale from one to nine. These scores are reported in whole or half bands. Each of the sub-test scores is equally weighted and the OBS is calculated by taking the mean of total of the four individual sub-test scores.

According to IELTS administrators, the test is advantageous for candidates because it is fair and unbiased. This is due to international teams of writers contributing to test materials and ongoing research. The test writers from different English-speaking countries, who develop IELTS content, also add to the real-life situations in different countries.

The  ‘testing of English as a foreign language (TOEFL)’  is  administered by , the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a private non-profit organisation and College Board from 1965 onwards. If you would ask your parents or those a generation above you about the TOEFL they took, you would realise that there are a sea of changes in the present version. TOEFL has graduated from only paper based test (PBT) initially to computer based test (CBT) in 1998, to internet-based test in 2005 (iBT). The paper-based version of the TOEFL (PBT) continues to be administered  on specific dates in some countries, particularly in areas where accessibility to the TOEFL iBT is a concern. This includes select centers in Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Myanmar, Norway, Russian Federation, South Africa and even the US to name a few.

Taking the test
The first step is to decide where (the location) one should take the test. The decision would enable you to opt for one of the two formats: TOEFL iBT or PBT. All test centers in India offer the TOEFL iBT.

TOEFL iBT assesses all four language skills-reading, listening, speaking and writing-that are considered important for effective communication. According to the test administrators, the objective of internet version emphasises integrated skills such that academic institutions are better informed about the test taker on their ability to communicate in an academic setting and their readiness for academic coursework.

Candidates have up to four hours to complete the test atcareers360_cmsting all the four sections on the same day. You need to be familiar with certain features on the computer. For instance, on the computer screen, you are aided by a tool bar which lets you know what question you are answering and how much time is left in the section. The ‘volume’ button enables you to adjust the volume of the listening material and ‘Next’ makes way for the next question. ‘Help’ gives you a way to get relevant help. But remember, when you use the ‘help’ feature, the clock does not stop.

In the Reading section, for some questions, you need to click ‘view text’ to see the entire reading passage. You can also see all your answers by clicking on ‘review’, which permits you to change your answer. In the Speaking section, you need to wear headphones and speak into a microphone to respond. The responses are recorded on the computer and sent to ETS’s Online Scoring Network. The Writing section consists of two tasks. In the first task, you need to type your answer in response to material you hear and read. In the second task, you have to compose an essay in support of an opinion.

The above sections have questions that integrate two, three or all the four sections. This implies that you have to read a passage, listen to a short lecture about the topic, and then speak or write in response. Those who register to take TOEFL iBT also get access to a link (TOEFL iBT Sampler), when the registration is complete, which gives them access to questions from all four sections. While the Reading and Listening sections are interactive, sample responses are provided for the Writing and Speaking questions.

For the Paper based Test (TOEFL PBT), the total test time is approximately two and one-half hours. This consists of three separately timed sections: Listening Comprehension, Structure and Written Expression and Reading Comprehension. The questions in each section are multiple choice, with four possible answers or options per question. For those taking the TOEFL PBT test, the Test of Written English (TWE) is required.

Assessing the test and your score
According to TOEFL administrators, the TOEFL score is more objective and reliable. This is because the candidate’s speaking responses are recorded and evaluated by three to six ETS raters rather than only one rater from a local testing site. ETS adds that students choose TOEFL for “its reputation for quality, fairness and 100 percent academic composition. Moreover, of the 7500 institutions that accept TOEFL scores for admitting students, they are among the top 100 universities in the world”.

ETS uses both human raters and automated scoring methods. As per ETS administrators, “human raters are needed to attend to a wider variety of features, such as the quality of ideas and content as well as form. ETS raters are trained extensively; pass a certification test and are calibrated daily”. The calibration includes task familiarisation, guidance on scoring the task, and practice on a range of responses. When you finish taking the test, you can opt to cancel your score. But you cannot cancel your score for one section and have scores for other sections reported. Canceling the scores simply implies that they will not be reported to you or any institutions. In this case your test fee will not be refunded. You can also reinstate the cancelled score. One is able to view the scores online in about 14 days after s/he takes the test. 

Tips for ELT
For Reading, read regularly, particularly textbooks, newspapers and/or materials that cover various subject areas. Increase your vocabulary using memory cards, skim quickly to identify important points in a passage and draw inferences. For Listening, watching movies and television, listening to the radio and to the resources available on the internet, helps a lot. Also attend lectures or talks and try to outline the key points. For speaking, practise with native speakers of English or join a club whose members converse in English about travel, movies, music, culture etc.

Prepare salient points to start with and practise giving responses for a minute to gradually increase the time. For improving writing skills; list out familiar topics and practise writing about them. Increase your word power, knowledge of idiomatic speech and grammatical structures so you can use them naturally when writing. One must plan to take the ELT two to three months before your earliest application deadline, so that your scores arrive at your institutions in time. One should ideally start preparing for the test at least eight weeks before the opted test date.

Score Scale
Expert user
Very good user
Good user
Competent user
Modest user
Limited user
Extremely limited user
Intermittent user
Did not atcareers360_cmst the test

Taking the Test

The first step is to opt for either of the two formats: the Academic module or the General Training module. While the first is for candidates willing to get admission to study or train in English at a UG or PG level in an educational institute; the latter is suitable for candidates who wish to undertake work experience/training programmes, or for immigration requirements (primarily to Australia, Canada and New Zealand). This format is also for those who plan to complete their secondary education in an English-speaking country. The test is either a paper-based or computer-based (CB IELTS), depending on the country you are in.

Both the IELTS formats are made up of four sections – Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. One has to appear in all the four sections to receive a test result. The difference is in academic text for reading/writing in the Academic Module while test material is based on training for the second module. The Reading section assesses the test taker’s skill in reading as s/he answers the questions (multiple choice, sentence completion, summary writing, matching information, short-answers etc.) after reading one long text in each of the three sections.

The texts are taken from books, journals, magazines and newspapers on academic topics of general interest which may also have non-verbal materials such as diagrams, graphs or illustrations. The Listening section has four sub-sections. The first one is a conversation between two people set in an everyday social context. Second is a monologue or a speech. Third section is a conversation between up to four people set in an academic setting and the final one is a monologue on an academic subject, for instance an academic lecture. Each section is heard only once.

The speaking test which is recorded consists of three parts that simulate a face-to-face oral interview with an examiner. The first part is Introduction and interview wherein the examiner introduces him/herself and asks the candidate a few questions on familiar topics like home, family, work, studies and interests. Part two is the Individual’s turn that asks the candidate to talk about a particular topic. The test-takers are given 1 minute to prepare their talk, and are allowed to make notes.

They are then asked to speak for 1-2 minutes on the topic and also respond to one or two questions. Part-3 is known as Two-way discussion where the candidates are asked further questions that are connected to the topic in Part 2. These questions give the candidate an opportunity to discuss more abstract issues and ideas.

The writing section has two tasks. The first task requires the test takers to take a look at any data, graph, chart or diagram and describe, summarise or explain the implied meaning or information in their own words. In Task 2, candidates are asked to write an essay in response to a point of view, argument or problem. The responses to both the tasks have to be written in a formal style.

About Pearson’s Test of English (PTE)

PTE Academic is delivered through Pearson VUE. At present there are fifteen Pearson VUE test centres in India delivering PTE Academic. The test is available between two to eight times a week at each of these centres. According to John K Philip, Regional Director (SAARC Countries) of Pearson Language Tests, the test takers are able to register and schedule their test online at a date and time that suits them. Pearson VUE test centres are equipped with biometric security gadgets including palm vein scanners and digital cameras. The fee for PTE Academic is competitively priced and the fee for India is US$160. The test itself measures four communicative skills: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening. Uniquely it also measure six enabling skills like vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, etc. Score receiving institutions and embassies are also presented with a speech sample of each test taker. To prepare for PTE Academic, apart from a printed Official Guide to the test, practice tests are available online for test takers to predict how they will score on the actual test.

The benefits of PTE in a nutshell are:

  • One can schedule the test up to 24 hours before the test.
  • Receive the results within 5 business days.
  • One single 3-hour test session.
  • Accepted by institutions worldwide.
  • Free unlimited score reports for 2 years from your test date.

International English Language Testing System (IELTS): An overview
Score range total score: 1 (lowest) to 9 (highest)
Possible number of
questions; timing
Each correct answer equals 1 mark. The scores out of 40 are converted to the IELTS 9-band scale *
Indicative Score**:
Raw score 15 = Band Score of 5; 23=6; 30=7 and 35=8
40 questions; 3 sections
(2,150-2,750 words): Each
section contains one long text on academic topics of general
interest; 60 minutes
The tasks primarily assess your skills in
1. Reading for gist, reading for main ideas & for detail
2. Understanding inferences and implied meaning
3. Recognising a writer’s opinions, attitudes and purpose
4. The development of and argument
Each correct answer equals 1 mark. The scores out of 40 are converted to the IELTS 9-band scale *
Indicative Score**:
Raw score 16 = Band Score of 5; 23=6; 30=7 and 35=8
40 Questions- 4 sections; nearly 30 minutes (plus 10 minutes’ transfer time)
The tasks are based on listening to lectures, classroom discussions and conversations based on which a range of listening skills is assessed:
1. Understanding of main ideas & factual information
2. Recognizing opinions, attitudes & purpose of the speaker
3. Ability to follow the development of an argument
4. Ability to connect and synthesise information
Assessment as per four criteria of the IELTS Speaking Test Band Descriptors (fluency and coherence, lexical resource, grammatical range & accuracy, pronunciation). e.g. you get 9 if you speak fluently with only rare repetition or self-correction; speak coherently;
develop topics fully and appropriately; use vocabulary with full flexibility and precision; use full range of grammar structures naturally, and use a full range of pronunciation features with precision and subtlety
Three parts: Introduction and interview (4-5 minutes);
Individual long turn
(3-4 minutes); Two-way
discussion (4-5 minutes).
Total-11-14 minutes
A wide range of speaking skills is assessed:
1. Ability to communicate opinions & information on day-to-day topics and common experiences
2. Ability to speak at length on a given topic using appropriate language and organising ideas coherently
3. Ability to express and justify opinions
4. Be able to analyse, discuss & speculate about issues
Candidates are assessed according to four criteria of the IELTS Writing Test Band Descriptors (task achievement/ response, coherence & cohesion, lexical resource, grammatical range & accuracy) e.g. you get 9 if you fully satisfy all requirements of the task; use cohesion in such a way that it attracts no attention; use wide range of vocabulary with very natural and sophisticated control of lexical features; use wide range of structures with full flexibility & accuracy
Two tasks: writing at least 150 words for Task 1 and at least 250 words for Task 2; 60 minutes
In Task 1, the candidates are assessed on:
1. Their ability to organise, present & compare data
2. Ability to describe the stages of a process; to describe an object or event or sequence of events
3. Ability to explain how something works
In Task 2, candidates are assessed on
1. Their ability to present a solution to a problem
2. Ability to present and justify an opinion
3. Ability to compare and contrast evidence, opinions and implications and
4. Ability to evaluate & challenge ideas or an
Task 2 contributes twice as much as Task 1 to the score

* Score out of 40 are converted to the IELTS 9-band scale and the band score boundaries are set so that all candidates’ results relate to the same scale of achievement.

** Based on 2006 tests, the mean raw scores achieved by candidates at various levels in Listening and Academic Reading tests provide an indication of the number of marks required to achieve a particular band score.

Testing of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL): An Overview
Score range
total: 0-120
Possible number of
questions; timing
High (22-30)
Intermediate (15-21)
Low (0-14)
3–5 passages (700 words
each approximately),
12–14 questions each;
60–100 minutes
The tasks primarily assess your performance as you read the passages
1. To effectively scan the text for key facts and important information
2. With increasing fluency and rate
3. Comprehending main idea (s) to state implied inferences
4. To learn its organisation and purpose
5. To understand relationships between ideas
High (22-30)
Intermediate (15-21)
Low (0-14)
4–6 lectures (each 3-5 minutes long), 6 questions per lecture; 2–3 conversations (about 3
minutes long), 5 queries per
conversation; 60–90 minutes
To measures test-taker’s ability in understanding spoken English as it is used in educational institutes. The tasks are based on listening to lectures, classroom discussions and conversations based on which you are assessed for:
1. Comprehending the main idea, important points and details
2. Pragmatic understanding wherein you recognise the speaker’s attitude and purpose
3. Connecting and synthesizing information
T E N        M I N U T E S        B R E A K
0-30 score scale. Each task is rated 0-4. The sum is converted to a scaled score 0- 30
Good (26-30) Fair (18-25) Limited (10-17) Weak (0-9)
6 tasks: 2 independent & 4 integrated; 20 minutes. Integrated task involves reading a passage (75–100 words) & then listening to passage (60–90 seconds) that comments on the issue in passage
The section assesses your ability to speak English in the manner you would usually speak in colleges and universities. You get to know how well you have developed your topic and delivered your message (with own ideas & experiences) in English. In integrated tasks, you first read and listen, and then speak in response
0-30 score scale. The two tasks are rated from 0 to 5
Good (24-30) Fair (17-23) Limited (1-16)
1 integrated task; 20 minutes; 1 independent task (writing from experience & Knowledge); 30 minutes
The section measures your ability to write in a way that is appropriate in an academic setting for understanding the course work. It is a function of how well you have integrated writing task for development, organisation, grammar, accuracy vocabulary and its completeness

Concordance estimate of PTE Academic; IELTS and TOEFL iBT scores*

*based on preliminary score comparison of 10,000 test takers worldwide who took the recent IELTS, TOEFL iBT and PTE
(source:  Interpreting the PTE Academic Score Report by Pearson, accessed at www.pearsonpte.com  September 04, 2010

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