Which is better: IELTS or TOEFL?

by David Petrie

If you teach exams, you are probably familiar with the acronyms IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and TOEFL iBT (Test of English as a Foreign Language – internet based test).  These are possibly the most popular English language exams in terms of annual candidate numbers though, as candidate numbers are quite difficult to find, it’s hard to be certain, but IELTS claimed over 2.5 million test takers in 2015 and data from the TOEFL website suggests about 1.5 million a year.  Which is a lot of tests.

Why do people take them?  These are both high-stakes language tests that are used by governments and organisations around the world for visa purposes, for employment opportunities and for entry into universities and academic organisations.  Very often, you can go to a university website and find equivalency tables that say to be accepted, for example, you either need an IELTS score of 6.5 OR a TOEFL iBT score of 91.

Similarities and Differences

The fact that you can find such score equivalencies so easily suggests that the two exams are very similar, but really they are only similar in terms of the way they are used.  When you look at the way they are constructed and what they test, you see that they are actually quite different.

Both exams are based around four different papers:  Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing.  There is no overt test of language knowledge as this is embedded into the test as, in the receptive papers, candidates face texts of increasing difficulty and complexity.  In the productive papers, candidate answers are partly assessed for linguistic complexity and sophistication.

The task types used in the exams are quite different.  In fact they only share four features – both exams use multiple choice and multiple matching tasks in the listening paper, multiple choice in the reading paper and both ask candidates to write an essay.  This isn’t necessarily a problem though as all it really means is a different structure.  We also need to look at what is tested.

To do that, we can use the ALTE (Association of Language Testers in Europe) checklists.  These list possible test features and the different testing aims we might have.  They don’t necessarily include everything though and having reviewed both exams I expanded the checklists to add in the extra features I found.  I ended up with 55 distinct items, such as: retrieving factual information, identifying the function of a text, identifying paraphrase, expressing possibility, summarising, and so forth.  Of these 55 items, I found that only 23 (or 42%) were the same in both IELTS and TOEFL iBT.

So What?

The implications are not particularly startling.  The most obvious implication is quite simple – these are different exams.  They have different structures, they have different task types and there is considerable variance within the testing focus of each exam.

At the top of this piece I asked the question “Which is better?”, but I’m not sure how easy it is to answer that, as what the analysis tells me is that the answer will change depending on the context and the student.  Very often the student will have a choice – more and more institutions accept either exam and so students need to make a principled choice.  Convenience and cost may be some of the more obvious factors, but where the student is trying to maximise their score, they should be thinking about which exam plays to their particular strengths.  Which exam are they likely to score better in and which exam do they find easier to access and answer?

Equally, teachers need to be more fully informed about the options available to their students and probably need to think about how to more fully understand what each exam entails.  Very often we have a practical working knowledge of the exams we teach that comes from our familiarity with course books and test books, and we tend to recommend exams based on our own experience.  But if we want to help our students to maximise their potential, we also need to have a good idea of how their strengths and weaknesses fit to the different exams on offer.

Practical steps forwards 

The obvious suggestion for students is that they do some kind of diagnostic testing – with both exams.  In practical terms, the only way for a student to decide which they think is easier or more accessible is for them to do a compare and contrast exercise that asks them to think about how prepared they felt to do the different papers, how easy it was to understand what was required of them in each section, and whether they could see what was being tested in each section.  Any feedback from such a survey then needs to be compared to the student’s test scores, to see whether their attitude matched their performance.

My advice for teachers is to get under the hood of the exams – not only the ones you teach, but perhaps more importantly the ones you don’t teach.  Start looking at some of the score equivalency research – or even do some of your own!  After all, if you are asking students to do both exams in order to see which they prefer, you should start getting some interesting comparison data.  Try analysing components of the exams with the ALTE checklists (see below) and comparing your thoughts and findings with your colleagues.  This will not only help you understand the exams in more detail and help you to offer more specialist advice to your students, it will also help you to critically assess some of the tasks and activities in course books and preparation materials.


ALTE Checklists: http://www.alte.org/projects/content_analysis_checklists

IELTS exam information:  https://www.ielts.org/teaching-and-research/ielts-for-teachers

TOEFL iBT information: https://www.ets.org/toefl/teachers_advisors