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What is the IELTS?

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Creation and History

The IELTS, or International English Language Testing System, is an international standardized test of English language aptitude for non-native English speakers. It was created in 1980 by Cambridge English Language Assessment (an exam board known as a non-teaching department of Cambridge University in the United Kingdom) and the British Council (an international organization promoting educational opportunities and cultural relations) and was first known as the English Language Testing Service. It was created in part to reflect changes in the way the English language was taught, and to mirror the way English was used in day-to-day living. The test was redesigned in the 1980s following low numbers of test takers and difficulties in administering the test. The International Development Program of Australian Universities and Colleges joined in the redesign and remains a key stakeholder in the contemporary system. The IELTS was launched in 1989 and went from 4,000 test takers in 1981 to 43,000 test takers in 210 test centres worldwide in 1995.

In 1995 the test underwent a further redesign, and more recent revisions occurred in 2001 and 2005. As of now there are two versions of the IELTS test: the Academic version for those interested in studying at a post-secondary level, or those who need professional registration, and the General Training version, which is mainly for those who wish to migrate to an English-speaking country. Today the test is administered around the world for a fee, which varies according to the region and test centre. Currently the IELTS test is written in more than 140 countries and in more than 1,600 locations. Generally, there are up to 48 test dates per year, but this can vary according to demand and to the test centre. The Academic test version is usually available 48 times per year, and the General Training version is available around 24 times per year.

The Test and Scoring

The IELTS test usually lasts less than three hours, and consists of four components:

  • Listening (contains questions about everyday social situations and education/training situations, based on recordings played once for the test takers)
  • Reading (contains short and long texts; content varies between the Academic and General Training tests. Test takers answer different kinds of questions, such as multiple choice or short answer, based on the content of the texts. Grammar and spelling are taken into consideration)
  • Speaking (this consists of a face-to-face interview between the test taker and an IELTS examiner. The test taker answers questions and engages the examiner in a discussion, among other components)
  • Writing (test takers must complete one short and one long piece of writing, the topics of which depend on whether the test taker is completing the Academic or General Training tests. The written work must consist of full sentences that relate to the topic)

The four components are scored, and the individual scores are averaged and rounded to attain an overall Band Score.

There is no pass/fail option in the IELTS; instead, the test results are organized into nine bands, with scores rounded to the nearest half-band. A test taker with a score of 9 is considered an Expert User with complete understanding and full command of the English language. Someone with a score of 5 is considered a Modest User, who is good with basic communication and has partial command of the language but is likely to make numerous errors. A score of 1 is considered a Non-User and would be for someone who knows only a few words of English and has no command of the language. Those who do not attempt the test receive a 0. Worldwide, approximately 77% of test takers took the Academic version of the IETLS and 23% of test takers took the General Training version. The average overall score in the Academic version was 6.04 for male test takers and 6.10 for female test takers. In the General Training version, the average overall score was 6.57 for male test takers and 6.63 female test takers. This information came from IETLS’ researchers, who undertook a widespread study of users in 2019.

The IELTS in Canada

The federal immigration department, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), considers the IELTS evidence of an individual’s aptitude with the English language. (The equivalent test for the French language is known as the Test d’évaluation du français, or TEF. It is accepted by IRCC as proof of proficiency in French.) The other eligible test in English is the Canadian English Language Proficiency Index Program, or CELPIP. A candidate for immigration must have completed at least one of these tests to be eligible for Canadian immigration programs.

The Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) is a theoretical framework used by the federal government and other institutions to judge the proficiency of an individual’s language skills if English is not their primary language. The French version is known as the Niveaux de compétence linguistique canadien (NCLC). CLB-based assessments generally cover the same four skills as the IELTS test: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. An individual must attain a certain CLB level depending on the immigration program they are applying for. Federal economic-class immigration programs such as the Federal Skilled Workers Program requires candidates’ language skills to be at a CLB level of 7, for example.

According to the Government of Canada, an individual’s IELTS results can be compared with CLB levels by using the chart below:

CLB Level             Reading                              Writing                 Listening              Speaking

10                          8.0                        7.5                        8.5                        7.5

9                            7.0                        7.0                        8.0                        7.0

8                            6.5                        6.5                        7.5                        6.5

7                            6.0                        6.0                        6.0                        6.0

6                            5.0                        5.5                        5.5                        5.5

5                            4.0                        5.0                        5.0                        5.0

4                            3.5                        4.0                        4.5                        4.0

The CLB requirement is also dependent on the type of occupation covered by the immigration program. The National Occupational Classification (NOC) measures the skill levels of professions based on the training required. Occupations with higher skill levels that require advanced post-secondary training may demand a higher CLB requirement for an individual than occupations that only ask for on-the-job training, as an example.

The May 2021 unveiling of six new immigration pathways in Canada meant a surge of interest in IELTS and CELPIP testing. The websites even crashed briefly on 15 April 2021 because of the increased traffic. Booking either test online can now be done without problems, though some test centres are fully booked for the near future.

The IELTS and COVID-19

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, which began around March of 2020, meant some in-person IELTS test facilities were closed for a period of time. Some began to reopen if allowed by the region, with appropriate safety and sanitary precautions in place. In a recent change, test takers also have the option to do part of the test on computer at a test centre. Though all four sections can be done on paper, the Listening, Writing, and Reading sections could be done on computer seven days a week, up to three times a day depending on the test centre. The content and questions are the same for these three sections regardless of which method an individual chooses to take the test. The Speaking section is required to be done in person regardless of how the individual completes the other sections. The option to take part of the IELTS on computer is not available in all countries but is available in Canada.

Preparing for the IELTS

The official IELTS website contains a section on preparing and practicing for the test and offers free preparation materials, including webinars and an app. Other third-party companies also offer practice tests and other materials, some for free and some for a fee. The IELTS site also reminds users that fraudulent IELTS tests exist, as do fake IELTS test certificates. These are not sanctioned by the organization and can render an individual ineligible for immigration programs if used. For the best possible experience, it is recommended that all preparation and booking be done using the organization’s website and resources.

To request information about immigration to Newfoundland and Labrador, please click here.