? Which test is more difficult?
For most people this question is irrelevant, as most people know many Universities or colleges will specify which test you must take. Most institutions will accept one but not the other, although the number of schools which accept both seems to be increasing gradually.
If you are one of the people faced with the choice, there are a few differences which you might consider before making your decision.
Overall the two tests are actually quite similar. They both involve a long and exhausting test session. For many people these two tests will be the longest “exam sitting” they have experienced.
Obviously both tests now include the same 4 modules (Speaking, Writing, Listening and Reading) although these are broken down into sub-tests quite differently, TOEFL preferring a larger number of smaller test modules (e.g. 6 separate speaking sub-tests).
Another clear similarity is that for both the speaking and writing tests these two testing systems use very detailed and precise marking systems. This is where the real differences exist, in the actual way that the scores are given.
The Speaking Test
When you analyze the marking criteria for the two tests it starts to become clear that these tests are quite different.
If you consider the scoring system overall, the key difference is the band scores. TOEFL Speaking awards scores on a scale of 1 to 4 whereas as IELTS uses 1 to 9.
The important thing to realize here is that the differences between the scores or the “score boundaries” will be quite different. Because TOEFL only awards scores from 1 to 4, candidates in the score region of 3 for example can actually have quite different levels of ability. In contrast, for IELTS candidates, people in the band level of 6 will have very similar overall Speaking abilities.
How do the scores relate to each other? A commonly asked question is whether a TOEFL Speaking Level 4 is the same as an IELTS Speaking Band 9. The answer is that the scores are not parallel. It is not easy to calculate but an intelligent estimation would be that a TOEFL Level 4 is approximately the same level as an IELTS 6.5.
However, as I explained the TOEFL score is wider, so in fact any IELTS Speaking candidate with a score of 6 – 9 would most likely be awarded Level 4 in TOEFL.
What does this mean for the candidate? One way that this could be relevant is for very high level candidates. A candidate with excellent Spoken English would really be given the recognition that he or she deserves, for example a Band Score 8 or 9. If that same candidate took the TOEFL test they would only be able to score Level 4 in each question, putting them in the same category as some one who is only an IELTS Band 6.
I witnessed this situation recently. A student from one of my TOEFL classes scored very high in the TOEFL Speaking Test and then two months later took the IELTS test and scored 6.0 for Speaking.
From this point of view it can be said that it is easier to achieve high scores in TOEFL Speaking than it is in IELTS Speaking.
What are differences in the marking systems?
One thing that we must remember is that both systems are testing your ability to use spoken English in an academic context. This means that on a fundamental level they are both testing the basic elements of speaking: vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, fluency, error frequency, consistent mistakes and expression.
However, one distinction in the marking systems is that the focus is not the same. If we take a very simple view, it could be said that TOEFL Speaking works in this way; if you take a non-native English Speaker and put them into an English Speaking Academic Environment (e.g. a university lecture on economics) how well would the candidate be able to interact with other students and the lecturer.
The TOEFL Speaking test is much more focused on your ability to use English in relation to academic tasks and to express your ideas clearly.
So really TOEFL Speaking takes the approach that candidates do not need to be “expert users” of English, they just need to be competent in using English to participate in academic discussion.
IELTS does not follow the same pattern. The scores for IELTS Speaking focus much more on colloquial language ability. IELTS does not put your speaking ability into the “classroom context”.
The higher scores for IELTS are testing your ability to produce certain features of spoken English that are typical of native-speakers.
This means that IELTS Speaking is actually less academically focused that TOEFL. To achieve a high IELTS score candidates must demonstrate the ability to use “native-speaker style language”, this includes things like slang, uncommon vocabulary and conversational devices (spoken linking words).
To summarize this we can say that IELTS is about speaking English in a natural native-speaker style and TOEFL is about using English in relation to academic tasks.
?Are the tasks similar?
TOEFL Speaking Questions 1 and 2 are very similar to IELTS Speaking questions. Many of the topics used are identical and it is difficult to say who is copying who, many of the newer topics in both IELTS and TOEFL are exactly the same.
Questions 3-6 in TOEFL are Task-based so they require the candidate to have some ability to read and listen. This is another difference, a student with terrible listening and reading skills would still be able to achieve a high score in IELTS speaking but this student would have problems with TOEFL questions 3-6.
?Will my accent make a difference?
This is one of the most common pronunciation questions. Quite simply the answer is that accent is not actually marked in either test.
Of course if you have a British, American or Australian accent your pronunciation will be much clearer and easier to understand (regardless of where your examiner comes from). Some students believe that they will lose marks if they use an American accent or in IELTS or a British accent in TOEFL, this is not true.
If we return to the marking system, in IELTS the highest pronunciation score is Band 8 – to achieve this score you need to produce some kind of accent “similar to native speaker” (but any kind of native speaker is acceptable). TOEFL Speaking Level 4 does not require an accent – you just need to be “understandable”. So again it is clear that if you have a beautiful British or American accent you will be given more credit for this in IELTS than in TOEFL.
To summarize all of this we can conclude that if you really believe that you have excellent spoken English you will be rewarded more in terms of scores with IELTS.
I think it’s true that with the Writing Tests, IELTS and TOEFL are quite similar.
The obvious similarity is that both exams have two writing questions and they are both similar in length although TOEFL answers need to be slightly longer.
Again, it must be said that these are language tests and they are testing your ability to produce good quality written English.
Many students seem to focus too much attention on the “whole answer” and forget that what is really being marked is your ability to produce written sentences.
A detailed analysis of the marking system does reveal some differences. TOEFL scores in writing are more focused on your ability to write in relation to the task, so again we see that TOEFL is more academically inclined. IELTS writing scores are focused less on the task and more on the quality of the language produced.
One important thing to remember for both IELTS and TOEFL is that there is never one “correct way” to answer a question.
Look at the following example questions.
The increase in the use of technology in our lives is having a negative effect on society. Do you agree or disagree? (IELTS Academic Task 2)
Technology is having a negative effect on our ability to communicate. Do you agree or disagree? (TOEFL Independent Writing Question)
Students often come to me with questions like; “Should I take one side or discuss both sides?” “Should I write two main ideas or more?”
You must understand that in both tests the actual format of your answer of your answer is not being marked.
For both questions there is actually a lot of freedom in the way that you write your answer. It would be perfectly acceptable in both IELTS and TOEFL to produce the following styles of answer.
Agrees (or disagrees) with the answer and produces two main ideas to support your opinion.
Agrees (or disagrees) with the answer and produces three main ideas to support your opinion.
Agrees (or disagrees) with the answer and produces four main ideas to support your opinion.
Agrees and disagrees with the question statement, produces one agree idea and one disagree idea.
Agrees and disagrees with the question statement, produces two agree ideas and one disagree idea.
As you can see there are so many different ways to answer these questions and they are all as good as each other. There is no “standard correct way” to answer any of these questions.
Whichever style of answer you choose to write, just remember the following; use good quality sentence structures (a variety of different structures); a good range of complex vocabulary; keep the ideas directly relevant to the question.
In relation to scores, again the levels are slightly different. The highest score in TOEFL is level 5 and this is approximately the same as an IELTS Writing Band 7. To achieve the higher scores in IELTS (Band 8 and 9) your answer needs to be almost perfect in terms of language quality. You can achieve a level 5 in TOEFL with quite a lot of mistakes in your answer.
In summary, we have seen that IELTS is more about language and less about tasks. TOEFL is centered on language in relation to academic tasks. So which test is easier – my only advice would be to try two complete sample tests and decide for yourself – some people prefer IELTS others find TOEFL easier.