IELTS or TOEFL: which exam should I do?

First of all, there are similarities between the IELTS and TOEFL exams. Both test your reading, listening, writing and speaking. Both give you a score in each of these areas. Both are a way of proving your English level for university courses, jobs and/ or long-term visas. They are both available worldwide, and the cost depends on where you do the test (usually at a local language school or college).

However, I’ve taught a lot of students who had to choose between these exams, and there are enough differences to make it an important decision. If you’ve got the option of taking either exam, it’s worth thinking about the main differences between them.

KEY DIFFERENCES – ORGANISATION

Let’s look first at the basics of how the test is organised and administered. The practical arrangements of booking a test – especially during Covid – might make your decision for you.

1. Test Format

IELTS: The order of the test papers is Listening, Reading, Writing, without a break. It’s possible to do the speaking test before or after the exam, even on a different day. The total time, including speaking, is 2 hours 45 minutes.

TOEFL: All of the test is taken in one day, and the order is Reading, Listening, a 10-minute break, Speaking, Writing. The timing is around 3½ hours.

Recommendation:

  • If you are not used to sitting long exams, do the IELTS!

2. Paper or Computer?

IELTS: It’s possible to do a paper version or a computer version. Not all test centres offer both types, so check while booking.

TOEFL: The test is done by computer – that’s the only option.

Recommendation:

  • If you’re comfortable typing with a computer, either exam is fine.
  • If you absolutely have to use pen and paper, the IELTS is your only possibility.

3. Covid arrangements: doing the test from home

IELTS: There’s a new ‘IELTS Indicator’ test available online. This is not the official IELTS test. If you’re planning to use it to apply for universities or jobs, you’ll need to check whether the IELTS Indicator is valid for where you want to apply, or whether you have to wait until you can go to an IELTS test centre for the standard in-person test. You’ll also need to check the software and internet speed requirements; if you’ve an older computer, like mine, then you will need to find a way to upgrade or borrow.

TOEFL: There’s also an online version of the TOEFL. This is the same as the normal TOEFL test and you’ll get the same certificate as if you did the test at a test centre. You’ll need a software programme called ProctorU, which checks that you’re not looking away from your screen. I did hear of a student whose online TOEFL session was delayed while the examiners tried to sort out their own software issues; however, I’m sure such problems are rare.

Recommendation:

  • TOEFL seems the better option if you can’t get to a test centre. They’re planning on offering the test online even after the pandemic, so universities and employers shouldn’t have a problem accepting it.
  • If you can go to a test centre to do the TOEFL or IELTS in person, you should! This will cut out any worries over software not working.

KEY DIFFERENCES – CONTENT OF THE EXAM

Now, let’s look at some differences in what’s inside the exams and the main differences in content.

4. British or American English

IELTS: Although the listening test will contain a variety of accents from around the world, you’re more likely to hear British than American English. The reading texts will use standard British spellings and grammar, as will all instructions. In the writing test, it’s no problem to use standard American spellings or British spellings, but don’t mix them. For the speaking test, any accent is fine so long as you can be understood.

TOEFL: The basis is in American English, both for the reading and listening tests, although sometimes the test-makers include a different accent in the listening materials. As with the IELTS, you can use either American or British English in the writing test, and speak with your own accent.

Recommendation:

  • As far as the speaking and writing tests are concerned, this is not such a big issue as students sometimes think. However, if you have a strong preference for hearing and reading British English, you’re likely to prefer the IELTS, and if you much prefer American English then it’s certainly a better idea to do the TOEFL.

5. Speaking Test Procedure

IELTS: The speaking part of the exam is face-to-face, with an examiner. They ask you the questions and listen to your answers, so you’ll need to interact. They also make a recording of the test in case it needs to be checked later. The middle part of the test is a monologue, but you start and finish by answering questions.

TOEFL: The computer tells you what the questions are. You speak into a microphone (privately) and the examiner listens to the recording later. You don’t meet the speaking examiner and there is no interaction. All the questions are in a monologue format (speaking for 45 seconds or a minute).

Recommendation:

  • It depends! Are you more comfortable interacting with a stranger (IELTS) or speaking into a mic (TOEFL)?

6. Topics

IELTS: There are two types of IELTS exam: “General Training” and “Academic”. The listening and speaking are the same for both types. Even the Academic IELTS tends to be quite general in the type of reading topics you’ll find, and you don’t need to be a student or graduate to be able to do it. You will need to be prepared for the Writing test: the first question will be either letter-writing (General Training) or comparing two graphs (Academic).

TOEFL: The exam is designed for people intending to study at an American university. You’ll certainly be reading academic articles, listening to lectures and hearing conversations about campus life. You’ll need some vocabulary relating to American university education e.g. “major”, “semester”, “dorm”. You can prepare by listening to academic lectures online and reading books or quality magazines in English.

Recommendation:

  • I’d say the TOEFL’s a bit more specialised here: if you’re applying to universities in the USA or Canada, or in other countries where the lectures are in English, studying for this test will be useful preparation for your course.
  • If you’re not in education, you might prefer the IELTS.

KEY DIFFERENCES – STRATEGY AND SKILLS

To do any exam, you need certain skills, and also a strategy for maximising your chances within the exam format. There are certain differences with the types of question you’ll be asked, and these affect the balance of listening versus reading skills that you’ll need. Are you ready for a detailed look into these areas?

7. Question and Instruction Format

IELTS: In the reading and listening parts, each text or recording most often has 4-5 questions with it. These questions are all of the same sort, with one instruction at the top; the next text or recording will have a different type of question. The instructions tend to be short and minimalistic, for example “Choose your answers from the box and write the correct letter A-E next to questions 1-4”, or “Complete the sentences below. Choose ONE WORD ONLY from the passage for each answer”. As clear as these instructions are, there’s the risk that if you don’t understand what to do, you could lose all the marks for that section of the test.

TOEFL: Each text in the reading test has ten questions, and each recording in the listening has 5-6 questions. The questions are all multiple-choice with four possible answers, but each question is differently worded. For example, “What does the student imply about the interlibrary loan service at his last school?” or “Which of the following is NOT mentioned in paragraph 1 as a change that occurred in the fauna of the Mediterranean?”. You’ll need to take time to read every question carefully, including every “NOT” and every time you’re asked to select two answers. Also, it’s important to understand the difference between mention and imply. On the other hand, if you don’t understand a question you can move on and only lose one or two points: unlike with the IELTS, your answer to question 4 doesn’t depend at all on your answer to questions 1-3.

Recommendation:

  • The most important point here is that you should practise with exam-style reading and listening materials, to familiarise yourself with the type of instructions and questions you’ll meet. You don’t want any surprises in the exam! For the IELTS you can find sample exercises here, and for the TOEFL you can download test questions here.
  • In my opinion, the IELTS is a little easier to follow. If you haven’t got much time to study with exam materials, this is the better option for you.

8. Dependence on Reading Skills

IELTS: Reading texts vary in length, and the longest can be over 800 words. It’s up to you to find the part of the text that relates to each of the questions, so you’ll need to be ready with your speed-reading skills.

TOEFL: The texts are around 700 words. The big advantage of TOEFL is that most of the questions are asking about a particular paragraph, sentence or word. The exam writers tell you where to look in the text, even highlighting the sentence or word they want you to consider. You’ll have to read around these a little, and as I’ve already mentioned, you need to take care to notice every word in the question, but in general it’s a much more bite-size approach compared to the IELTS.

Recommendation:

  • If you’re a slower or less confident reader, the TOEFL might be the more comfortable choice for you.
  • For either test, it’s a good idea to practise your reading subskills, such as skimming, scanning and recognising cohesive devices. If you’re not sure about these, book a lesson with me!

9. Dependence on Listening Skills

IELTS: The listening test is worth 25% of the marks. In the speaking test you’ll also need to be able to follow verbal instructions and answer questions by the examiner.

TOEFL: The listening test is worth 25% of the marks. Additionally, for the speaking (questions 2-4) and possibly for writing (question 1) you will also have to listen to a lecture or conversation and take notes on it. You only find out the question you’ll be asked once you finish listening, so taking good notes is very important.

  • Recommendation: If you find listening or note-taking difficult, it makes more sense to do the IELTS.

CONCLUSION

Overall, the IELTS and TOEFL are quite evenly matched in difficulty, and both have their advantages in terms of organisation and format. My recommendation would be to check when and where you can do the tests in your region, find out the prices – this might rule out one of the exams. Then consider your abilities and preferences, including the points I made in this article.

Once you’ve made your choice, there are two effective ways to prepare, and I recommend doing both!

  • Buy a self-study book. Both exams have an “official” book, written by the organisers. This is the IELTS preparation book, and this is the TOEFL one. There are cheaper books out there, but they vary in quality and usefulness, so if you’re spending money it’s better to get the official book. If you’re buying second-hand, try to get the most recent version you can, because the question formats and topics have changed over the years. You can do the reading and listening by yourself, and record yourself speaking.
  • Find a teacher who knows how to help you prepare. It’s better to take one-to-one lessons, so that you can get help with the things YOU find difficult and the teacher can point out YOUR speaking and writing mistakes. In fact, I’d say one 3-hour session of one-on-one training with a good teacher is better than 10 hours of a typical language school ‘exam prep’ course where you’re stuck with a whole class, all with different levels and different abilities.

Top photo by RF._.studio from Pexels.

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