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TOEFL VS IELTS: Which Language Test Do You Need

Taking a language proficiency test is arguably one of the most important steps if you are planning to be an international student at a university of your choice abroad. It is one of the basic requirements to get accepted into the university of your choice and to apply for your student visa. If you are someone from Pakistan, then probably you are not a native English speaker and hence you need to take a language proficiency test to prove your understanding of English as a language. However, there are a few different types of English proficiency tests that you can take for this purpose and at times it can be a bit cumbersome to decide which English proficiency test is best for your university and student visa application.

TOEFL and IELTS are two of the most common and widely accepted English Proficiency tests globally. At many instances you can take these tests interchangeably but in some very specific and unique circumstances you might be required to choose one over the other. Now, you might be thinking how to check if you need to take TOEFL or IELTS in your case. For this purpose, the first thing that you need to do is to check the requirements of the university that you are applying to and additionally you should also check the specific student visa requirements for the country that you are planning to go to.

The second thing that you need to do in order to make this decision is to understand the differences between these two tests. It is through understanding the differences in these two tests that you can make a decision based on your individual strengths and preferences. This article will explain all the differences between these two tests so that you can make an informed decision based on your specific situation.

Test Structure

The first thing that you need to understand is the difference in the structure of both of these tests and then you can decide which structure suits you the best. First, we will discuss the structure of these tests individually and then we will highlight and discuss the differences in their structure and the manner in which these tests are conducted.

TOEFL

TOEFL has multiple types and is offered by Educational Testing Services (ETS) which is primarily a USA based non-profit organization. It is the same organization that offers the GRE which is the main test for post grad education. For the purpose of this article, we will only focus on one type of the TOEFL which is TOEFL-iBT because it is the type which is mostly taken by students since it is widely accepted and known globally. TOEFL-iBT as it is clear from the name is an internet-based test which is delivered through a computer at various test centers in Pakistan. You can register for any test center in Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad.

TOEFL in TOEFL-iBT means “Test of English as a Foreign Language” and it tests your reading, writing, listening, and speaking abilities to determine your proficiency in English as a language. The test has 4 sections, and each section has a scaled score from 0-30. Your overall score is calculated from a total of 120. Given below is an overview of all the 4 sections of TOEFL-iBT.

TOEFL Reading Section

Reading section in TOEFL tests your ability to read and comprehend information in multiple ways. It contains two academic passages, and you are required to answer 10 questions against each passage. In total it should take no more than 35 minutes for you to complete this entire section.

Section Time No. of Questions Details
Reading 35 minutes 20 You are required to read passages and answer to questions

Following are the multiple ways in which the reading section of TOEFL tests your ability to read text:

  • Some questions require you to understand and identify the information directly given in the passage
  • Some questions require you to recognise the implied information which means you have to assess why something was written by the author
  • There are questions that check your vocabulary and require you to understand the obvious meaning of the written text
  • There are also some questions that require you to simplify a written text by selecting a shorter sentence that has the same meaning as a longer sentence
  • Some question requires you to insert a sentence in a paragraph where it would make the most sense
  • Lastly, there are a few questions which require you to summarize text by selecting 3 options that best describe the meaning of a passage.

The passages that are given in TOEFL are selected from academic writings. All of the passages are an introductory text to an idea and they do not require you to have any prior knowledge about the topic.

TOEFL Listening Section

The listening section of TOEFL is designed to test your ability to understand university lectures and classroom discussions. You have to listen to a few minutes of lectures and classroom discussions and then put in your responses. Following table gives you the complete information about the number of questions and total recordings that you have to listen to.

Section Time No. of Questions Details
Listening 36 minutes 28 You are required to listen to brief lectures and classroom discussions

In this section you are required to listen for the purpose of comprehending the ideas, understanding the speaker’s tone and level of certainty, and connecting information.

Specifically,

  • You will listen to 3 recorded lectures of 3-5 minutes each and then you will be required to answer 6 questions against each lecture
  • You will listen to 2 recorded conversation of 3 minutes each and then you will be required to answer 5 questions against each conversation

Moreover, following are the specific types of questions that you will get in this section

  • Recognising the main point of the conversation or a lecture
  • Getting specific facts from conversations and lectures
  • Understanding why something was said by the speaker
  • Understanding how a speaker feels about something
  • Understanding the reason behind the structure of a lecture
  • Predicting outcomes and understanding cause and effect relationship
  • Recognising information that is implied but not said directly

It is important to understand that all the recordings that you hear in this section are inspired from the conversations that you would expect to take place on campus in an academic setting.

TOEFL Speaking Section

The speaking section of TOEFL is designed to measure your ability to speak the language effectively inside as well as outside the classroom. The section has mainly 4 types of questions that measure your speaking ability in different ways.

Section Time No. of Questions Details
Speaking 16 minutes approx 4 You will be required to discuss a familiar topic and discuss some material that you read or hear

The table above gives an outline of what to expect on the TOEFL speaking section but let’s delve into further details to completely understand this section.

In total you will get 4 questions in this section. The first question will be different and the rest of the three will be similar in structure.

Question 1: In this question you will be required to use your own ideas, experiences and opinions to speak freely on a topic that you are familiar with.

Question 2-4: Question 2-4 will be based on integrated tasks, and you will be combining your reading, listening and speaking skills to discuss the materials that you read or listen to

You will get about 30 seconds to prepare your responses and then you will have to speak for about 60 seconds. One thing to keep in mind here is that unlike IELTS you will not be speaking to a person/examiner, but you will be required to submit your responses through a microphone.

TOEFL Writing section

The writing section of TOEFL tests your ability to convey and express your thoughts and ideas through writing. The section is specifically designed to test this ability of yours in an academic environment. Following is a breakdown of what you will get in this section on the test day.

Section Time No. of Questions Details
Writing 29 minutes approx 2 For 1 question you need to submit a response to a written passage and a recording and for another question you need to state and support an opinion argumentatively

There are two different types of questions in this section. Following are their brief details:

Integrated Writing Task: For this question you are required to read a short passage and listen to the recording of a lecture and then you will be asked to submit your response to what you read and heard.

Writing for an Academic Discussion Task: In this section you will need to state and then support an opinion in an online classroom setting just like you will have to do when you are on campus attending a lecture.

Above were all the brief details of the TOEFL structure that you need to understand in order to successfully prepare for the test day. Now let’s delve into the details about the structure of IELTS and understand how much it differs from TOEFL so that you can make an informed decision while choosing between the two

IELTS

IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System. It is a test that is written and administered by Cambridge Assessment English. The test centers for IELTS are globally run by the British Council and IDP. IELTS mainly offers two types of tests: IELTS Academic and IELTS General. IELTS Academic is the test that you need to take if you are planning for a student Visa. For the purpose of this article, we will only be focusing on IELTS Academic.

IELTS also has 4 main sections:

  • IELTS listening
  • IELTS reading
  • IELTS writing
  • IELTS speaking

It has 4 sections just like TOEFL, however question types, questions structure and the material that is used in IELTS is different from TOEFL. To understand this difference, we need to understand the structure of IELTS in detail so that we can see how it differs from TOEFL.

IELTS Listening

The listening section of IELTS has 4 parts with 10 questions each. Following is an overview of the structure of this section.

Section Time No. of Questions Details
Listening 4 40 – 10 questions/part Up to 10 different types

Time: 30-40 minutes

Each of the 4 sections of IELTS is designed for a different purpose. First 2 sections are designed to assess your ability to listen to instructions and collect information in a social setting. The other two sections test your ability to listen in an academic setting or in a training environment.
This is one of the differences between IELTS and TOEFL. The listening section of TOEFL is purely designed to assess your listening ability in an academic setting, whereas IELTS also assesses your ability to listen to social instructions and conversations. Due to this, to some people the listening section of TOEFL might seem a bit more challenging because it only uses academic recordings which may be a bit more complex than IELTS.

IELTS Reading

IELTS reading tests your ability to understand and comprehend information from written text. You are given reading passages from books, newspapers, magazines and journals. The total length of the reading passages is about 2100-2800 words which is divided into 3 sections. Following is a breakdown of the reading section on IELTS

Section Time No. of Questions Details
Reading 3 40 Up to 11 different types

Time: 60 minutes

The text that you are given in this section does not require you to have any specialised knowledge is written for non-specialist audience. You may get text that includes graphs and illustrations. The types of questions on this section range from multiple choice to short answers.

The reading section of IELTS differs from the reading section of TOEFL because it uses texts from multiple resources, whereas the text used in the reading section of TOEFL is strictly from academic passages.

IELTS Writing

You will be given two tasks in the IELTS writing section. Following is a breakdown of the writing section of IELTS:

Section No. of Tasks
Writing 2

Time: 60 minutes

First Task: The first writing task on IELTS requires you to describe some visual information in your own words. This can be a graph, table, chart or a diagram. The time given for the first task is 20 minutes.

Second Task: The second task on IELTS writing requires you to discuss a point of view or an argument. The time given for the second task is 40 minutes and it counts twice as much towards your score as the first task.

The writing section tests your ability on the basis of following 4 assessment criteria:

  • Task achievement/response
  • Coherence and cohesion
  • Lexical resource
  • Grammatical range and accuracy

IELTS Speaking

The speaking section of IELTS has a total of 3 sections and in this section you are required to appear in front of a trained examiner. Following is a breakdown of the speaking section of IELTS:

Section Total Parts
Speaking 3

Time allowed: 11-14 minutes

First Part: The first part of the speaking section consists of a personal introduction. In this part the examiner asks you questions about your family, work, home, and your personal interests. Allocated time for this section is 4-5 minutes.

Second Part: In the second part of the IELTS speaking test, the examiner gives you a task card with a topic and you are required to speak on the given topic for 3-4 minutes. The examiner may ask you 1-2 questions on the given topic once you are done speaking.

Third Part: The last part of this section consists of the examiner discussing the topic given to you in the second section in a general way. The time allocated for this section is 4-5 minutes.

IELTS VS TOEFL: Key Differences

Now that we have understood the structure of IELTS and TOEFL both, we can delve into understanding the key differences between these two tests. Both the tests contain the same 4 sections but there is a difference in the structure, used material, assessing criteria and allotted time of these 4 sections. We will try to understand these differences one by one.

IELTS VS TOEFL: Reading Section

Apart from the structure and allotted time for this section the key difference in IELTS and TOEFL reading section is in the material that is provided to test takers. IELTS uses material from university level textbooks as well as newspapers, magazines, and other online resources as well. TOEFL only uses material from university level textbooks. This is the reason why the reading section of TOEFL can be a bit more challenging for someone who is not that confident about their reading skills when it comes to understanding the text that is a bit more complicated. Some other differences in the reading section of both of these tests are given below

Test Section Time Total parts / sections No of questions Material used Total length of passages
IELTS Reading 60 minutes 3 40 Textbooks, magazines, newspapers, online sources 2100-2800 words
TOEFL Reading 35 minutes 2 20 University textbooks 1400 words approx

IELTS VS TOEFL: Listening Section

Once again the main difference between the listening section of IELTS and TOEFL is in the type of recordings that you have to listen to.

IELTS: In IELTS you are required to listen to recordings in academic as well as social settings.
TOEFL: In TOEFL you are only required to listen to recordings in a classroom or an academic setting that can take place on campus.

Some other key differences in the listening section of the two tests are given in the table below:

Test Section Time Total Parts / sections No. of questions
IELTS Listening 30-40 minutes 4 40
TOEFL Listening 36 minutes 5 28

IELTS VS TOEFL: WRITING SECTION

There are two key differences between the writing section of IELTS and TOEFL. First difference is in the type of tasks/questions. For the first question of this section of IELTS you need to describe the visual information that you get in the form of a diagram or a table in your own words. For the first question of TOEFL in this section you need to read text and listen to a recording and then submit your response.

Another key difference is that for IELTS you can go for a computer as well as a paper-based test. However, TOEFL is only computer based and you will need to type in your answers.
So, it totally depends on your individual preference in terms of where you can perform better. If you like typing more then you may perform better on TOEFL and if you like writing down your answers, then you may be more comfortable with a paper based IELTS.

Some other key differences of this section are given below in a table:

Test Section Time No of tasks
IELTS Writing 60 minutes 2
TOEFL Writing 29 minutes 2

IELTS VS TOEFL: Speaking Section

The main difference between the speaking section of IELTS and TOEFL is that for IELTS you will be having a conversation with a real person and for TOEFL you will be required to speak your answers in a microphone. If you are someone who feel more comfortable while having a natural conversation with a person then you may perform better on IELTS, otherwise you may tend to do better on TOEFL.

A few other differences are given in the table below:

Test Section Time Parts/No of questions
IELTS Speaking 11-14 minutes 3
TOEFL Speaking 16 minutes 4

Another key difference is that for TOEFL all the sections take place on the same day but for IELTS you can schedule for your speaking section up to 1 week before or after the rest of your test

A few other things to consider

In addition to the structural differences discussed in detail above there are a few other things that you need to consider while choosing between IELTS and TOEFL.

Multiple Choice Questions

In TOEFL, apart from the writing section you will be given all the answers, and you will have to pick the right options, whereas for IELTS you will also have to produce your own answers for some of the questions. This can be one of the factors that you need to consider according to your own individual preference

Test Locations in Pakistan

TOEFL can only be taken in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, whereas IELTS is offered at a greater number of locations across Pakistan. It totally depends on your location in terms of which test centers are closer to the place where you live.

Test Fee

The cost for TOEFL might be a bit higher than IELTS. So, if price is something that can be an issue for you then you may want to choose one over the other

Acceptance

Both the tests are widely accepted all over the other. However, TOEFL may be preferred at a very small number of elite universities in the USA. Once again, it totally depends on your individual situation. You need to check with the university that you are applying to and see if they have a preference.

Conclusion

On the basis of all the information provided above, we can say that both the tests are widely accepted globally. However, while making a decision you need to consider which test structure plays more to your strengths and if the university that you are applying to has a preference or not.

Sources:

https://www.ets.org/toefl/test-takers/ibt/about/content.html

https://ielts.org/take-a-test/test-types/ielts-academic-test/academic-test-format-in-detail

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