What is the IELTS test,
- May 15, 2018
- Posted by: Learn IELTS Online
- Category: IELTS Info
“IELTS” is what we call an acronym, which simply means that it’s a word made up from the starting letters of a group of words.
Very often, an acronym is pronounced with each letter separated from the rest. You probably already know several famous acronyms like that, such as the “BBC”, pronounced “bee-bee-see”, which is short for the “British Broadcasting Corporation”, or the “WHO” (double-yoo-aitch-oh), which stands for the “World Health Organisation”.
Sometimes, an acronym is pronounced like a word in its own right – take “Unesco”, for example, which stands for the “United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation”.
“IELTS” falls into this second category: it’s pronounced like “eye-else”, and it stands for the “International English Language Testing System” (which is a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?).
OK, that’s established what the name “IELTS” means, but what’s it for? Who needs it? And why?
Well, let’s start by thinking about what it means when someone says they can “speak English”. You’ll often find that taxi drivers in many countries speak some English. They’ll recognise words like “hotel”, “airport”, “railway station”, or “bar”. Talking of bars, waiters very often know a few phrases of English, such as “the fish is off today”. (By the way, that could mean two very different things:  the fish hasn’t been cooked today and so it’s not on the menu; and  the fish has gone bad!)
But if these taxi drivers and waiters went to live and work in an English-speaking country, do you think they’d be able to cope? While it might be easy for them to go shopping in a supermarket, would they be able to understand the cashier? Especially if that person had a strong regional accent – say Scottish, Essex or Geordie?
And supposing those people wanted to improve their education in an English-speaking country, whether it’s at a college or a university, or a medical school, or a hotel training facility. How would they manage then?
Let’s look at it from the point of view of the university for a moment. The person in charge of admissions … who says “Yes, you can come and study here” or “No, sorry, not this time” … How can that person know whether the would-be student, the “applicant”, will be able to cope with the demands of high-level study all carried out in the English language?
Well, quite obviously, there needs to be some sort of standardised test, which will be exactly the same all over the world, so that would-be students – no matter where they come from, or what their background is – can demonstrate just how well they can understand English when it’s spoken to them, or when they see it in print, as well as being able to produce spoken and written English themselves. If the test isn’t just a matter of “Pass” or “Fail”, but has a number of different levels of achievement, then those people who provide study courses – or even potential employers – can see what level of proficiency a candidate has achieved (in other words, how weak or strong that person’s skills are in English).
Most universities in English-speaking countries insist that anyone from a non-English-speaking country who wants to study there absolutely must reach a certain level of competence or proficiency. This is measured in the IELTS test and reported as a band score. There are 9 possible bands, ranging from 0(which basically means you didn’t show up for the exam!) all the way up to 9 (which would mean you’re as close as you can possibly get to being as good as a well educated native speaker).
For undergraduate, bachelor’s or first-degree courses, a university would normally expect you to score around band 6. This is actually a kind of average, which is worked out from the scores achieved in the different parts of the test – more on that later. Most medical professionals are expected to get an overall band 7 – but it’s a bit more complicated for them, as they usually have to get a minimum of band 7 in every single section of the test. (Who said life was fair?)
So, I’ve mentioned the different sections of the test, but what exactly do I mean by that?
Well, I suppose I’d better start by mentioning that it’s generally recognised that there are four main language skills that we all need to master, whether it’s in our own first language or in a foreign language that we consciously have to learn. These are subdivided into Receptive skills and Productive skills, but don’t let the technical terms put you off!
Basically, the Receptive skills are the ones where you don’t seem to do very much yourself – somebody else seems to be doing all the work. What that’s really referring to is the skills of Listening and Reading, because what you mainly do is to receive what somebody else produces. (Actually that’s totally untrue! When you’re listening or reading, you’re actually doing quite a lot of work, but we’ll come onto that a bit later.)
You’ve probably guessed by now that the Productive skills are the ones where you have to produce samples of language yourself – in other words, Speaking and Writing.
By now, it’ll come as no surprise to you that the IELTS test is made up of four different sections, or components, in this order:
- A listening test
- A reading test
- A writing test
- A speaking test
It does actually get a little bit more complicated than that, because the reading and writing tests come in two distinct varieties. For people who want to go and study in an English-speaking country, there are questions which are more targeted towards that kind of language. It’s a lot more formal, and things like grammar and vocabulary become very important. You’ll have to write two different kinds of essay. We call that the Academic strand – so there’s an Academic Reading Test, and an Academic Writing Test.
For people who don’t particularly want to take up a course of study, there’s something called the General Training strand. (No, that’s got nothing to do with training to be a general! Armies tend to have their own training facilities!) So we have a General Training Reading Test, as well as a General Training Writing Test.
You’ll be relieved to know that the Listening and Speaking tests are the same for both strands, but it is absolutely important for you to know right from the start which strand you want to take. Firstly, you should ask the university where you’re planning to study whether they need an Academic or a General Training band score (and double-check which band). You should also double-check with the people who’ll be giving you a visa. It has been known for them to expect an Academic band score, even when the candidate simply wants to be a car mechanic