Language Proficiency Tests: TOEFL – IELTS – TOEIC – CAMBRIDGE

1

Test of English as a Foreign Language or TOEFL, is a standardised test of English language proficiency for non-native English language speakers wishing to enroll in U.S. universities. The test is accepted by many English-speaking academic and professional institutions. TOEFL is one of the two major English-language tests in the world, the other being the IELTS.

TOEFL is a trademark of ETS (Educational Testing Service), a private non-profit organisation, which designs and administers the tests. The scores are valid for two years; then they are no longer reported.

Formats and content

Internet-based test

Since its introduction in late 2005, the TOEFL Internet-based Test (iBT) format has progressively replaced the computer-based tests (CBT) and paper-based tests (PBT), although paper-based testing is still used in select areas. The TOEFL iBT test has been introduced in phases, with the United States, Canada, France, Germany, and Italy in 2005 and the rest of the world in 2006, with test centers added regularly. The CBT was discontinued in September 2006 and these scores are no longer valid.

Initially, the demand for test seats was higher than availability, and candidates had to wait for months. It is now possible to take the test within one to four weeks in most countries. The four-hour test consists of four sections, each measuring one of the basic language skills (while some tasks require integrating multiple skills), and all tasks focus on language used in an academic, higher-education environment. Note-taking is allowed during the TOEFL iBT test. The test cannot be taken more than once every 12 days.

  1. Reading

The Reading section consists of questions on 4–6 passages, each approximately 700 words in length. The passages are on academic topics; they are the kind of material that might be found in an undergraduate university textbook. Passages require understanding of rhetorical functions such as cause-effect, compare-contrast and argumentation. Students answer questions about main ideas, details, inferences, essential information, sentence insertion, vocabulary, rhetorical purpose and overall ideas. New types of questions in the TOEFL iBT test require filling out tables or completing summaries. Prior knowledge of the subject under discussion is not necessary to come to the correct answer.

  1. Listening

The Listening section consists of questions on six passages, each 3–5 minutes in length. These passages include two student conversations and four academic lectures or discussions. The conversations involve a student and either a professor or a campus service provider. The lectures are a self-contained portion of an academic lecture, which may involve student participation and does not assume specialized background knowledge in the subject area. Each conversation and lecture passage is heard only once. Test-takers may take notes while they listen and they may refer to their notes when they answer the questions. Each conversation is associated with five questions and each lecture with six. The questions are meant to measure the ability to understand main ideas, important details, implications, relationships between ideas, organization of information, speaker purpose and speaker attitude.

  1. Speaking

The Speaking section consists of six tasks: two independent and four integrated. In the two independent tasks, test-takers answer opinion questions on familiar topics. They are evaluated on their ability to speak spontaneously and convey their ideas clearly and coherently. In two of the integrated tasks, test-takers read a short passage, listen to an academic course lecture or a conversation about campus life and answer a question by combining appropriate information from the text and the talk. In the two remaining integrated tasks, test-takers listen to an academic course lecture or a conversation about campus life and then respond to a question about what they heard. In the integrated tasks, test-takers are evaluated on their ability to appropriately synthesize and effectively convey information from the reading and listening material. Test-takers may take notes as they read and listen and may use their notes to help prepare their responses. Test-takers are given a short preparation time before they have to begin speaking. The responses are digitally recorded, sent to ETS’s Online Scoring Network (OSN), and evaluated by three to six raters.

  1. Writing

The Writing section measures a test taker’s ability to write in an academic setting and consists of two tasks: one integrated and one independent. In the integrated task, test-takers read a passage on an academic topic and then listen to a speaker discuss it. The test-taker then writes a summary about the important points in the listening passage and explains how these relate to the key points of the reading passage. In the independent task, the test-taker must write an essay that states their opinion or choice, and then explain it, rather than simply listing personal preferences or choices. Responses are sent to the ETS OSN and evaluated by at least 3 different raters.

Task Description Approximate time
Reading 3–5 passages, each containing 12–14 questions 60–100 minutes
Listening 6–9 passages, each containing 5–6 questions 60–90 minutes
Break Mandatory break 10 minutes
Speaking 6 tasks 20 minutes
Writing 2 tasks 50 minutes

One of the sections of the test will include extra, uncounted material. Educational Testing Service includes extra material to pilot test questions for future test forms. When test-takers are given a longer section, they should give equal effort to all of the questions because they do not know which question will count and which will be considered extra. For example, if there are four reading passages instead of three, then one of the passages will not be counted. Any of the four could be the uncounted one.

Paper-based Test

The TOEFL® paper-based Test (PBT) is available in limited areas. Scores are valid for two years after the test date, and test takers can have their scores sent to institutions or agencies during that time.

  1. Listening (30 – 40 minutes)

The Listening section consists of 3 parts. The first one contains 30 questions about short conversations. The second part has 8 questions about longer conversations. The last part asks 12 questions about lectures or talks.

  1. Structure and Written Expression (25 minutes)

The Structure and Written Expression section has 15 exercises of completing sentences correctly and 25 exercises of identifying errors.

  1. Reading Comprehension (55 minutes)

The Reading Comprehension sections has 50 questions about reading passages.

  1. Writing (30 minutes)

The TOEFL PBT administrations include a writing test called the Test of Written English (TWE). This is one essay question with 250–300 words in average.[12]

Test scores

TOEFL iBT Test

  • The TOEFL iBT test is scored on a scale of 0 to 120 points.
  • Each of the four sections (Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing) receives a scaled score from 0 to 30. The scaled scores from the four sections are added together to determine the total score.
  • Each speaking question is initially given a score of 0 to 4, and each writing question is initially given a score of 0 to 5. These scores are converted to scaled scores of 0 to 30.
  • The final PBT score ranges between 310 and 677 and is based on three subscores: Listening (31–68), Structure (31–68), and Reading (31–67). Unlike the CBT, the score of the Writing component (referred to as the Test of Written English, TWE) is not part of the final score; instead, it is reported separately on a scale of 0–6.
  • The score test takers receive on the Listening, Structure and Reading parts of the TOEFL test is not the percentage of correct answers. The score is converted to take into account the fact that some tests are more difficult than others. The converted scores correct these differences. Therefore, the converted score is a more accurate reflection of the ability than the raw score is.

Paper-based Test

Accepted TOEFL Scores

Most colleges use TOEFL scores as only one factor in their admission process, with a college or program within a college often setting a minimum TOEFL score required. The minimum TOEFL iBT scores range from 61 (Bowling Green State University) to 100 (MIT, Columbia, Harvard). A sampling of required TOEFL admissions scores shows that a total TOEFL iBT score of 74.2 for undergraduate admissions and 82.6 for graduate admissions may be required.

ETS has released tables to convert between iBT, CBT and PBT scores.

 

2

The International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, is an international standardised test of English language proficiency for non-native English language speakers. It is jointly managed by Cambridge English Language Assessment, the British Council and IDP Education Pvt Ltd, and was established in 1989. IELTS is one of the two major English-language tests in the world, the other being the TOEFL.

There are two versions of the IELTS: the Academic Version and the General Training Version:

  • The Academic Version is intended for those who want to enroll in universities and other institutions of higher education and for professionals such as medical doctors and nurses who want to study or practise in an English-speaking country.
  • The General Training Version is intended for those planning to undertake non-academic training or to gain work experience, or for immigration purposes.

IELTS is accepted by most Australian, British, Canadian, Irish, New Zealand and South African academic institutions, over 3,000 academic institutions in the United States, and various professional organisations across the world. It is also a requirement for immigration to Australia and New Zealand. In Canada, IELTS, TEF, or CELPIP are accepted by the immigration authority.

No minimum score is required to pass the test. An IELTS result or Test Report Form is issued to all candidates with a score from “band 1” (“non-user”) to “band 9” (“expert user”) and each institution sets a different threshold. There is also a “band 0” score for those who did not attempt the test. Institutions are advised not to consider a report older than two years to be valid, unless the user proves that he has worked to maintain his level.

In 2007, IELTS tested over a million candidates in a single 12-month period for the first time ever, making it the world’s most popular English language test for higher education and immigration.

In 2009, 1.4 million candidates took the IELTS test in over 130 countries, in 2011 there were 1.7 million candidates whereas in 2012, 2 million candidates were tested.

IELTS test structure

All candidates must complete four Modules – Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking – to obtain a band score, which is shown on the IELTS Test Report Form (TRF). All candidates take the same Listening and Speaking Modules, while the Reading and Writing Modules differ depending on whether the candidate is taking the Academic or General Training Versions of the Test.

Listening

The module comprises four sections of increasing difficulty. It takes 40 minutes: 30 – for testing, plus 10 for transferring the answers to an answer sheet. Each section, which can be either a monologue or dialogue, begins with a short introduction telling the candidates about the situation and the speakers. Then they have some time to look through the questions. The first three sections have a break in the middle allowing candidates to look at the remaining questions. Each section is heard only once. At the end of this section students are given 10 minutes to transfer their answers to an answer sheet.

Reading

In the academic module the reading test comprises three sections, with 3 texts normally followed by 13 or 14 questions for a total of 40 questions overall. The General test also has 3 sections. However the texts are shorter, so there can be up to 5 texts to read.

Writing

In the Academic module, there are two tasks: in Task 1 candidates describe a diagram, graph, process or chart, and in Task 2 they respond to an argument. In the General Training module, there are also two tasks: in Task 1 candidates write a letter or explain a situation, and in Task 2 they write an essay.

Speaking

The speaking test contains three sections. The first section takes the form of an interview during which candidates may be asked about their hobbies, interests, reasons for taking IELTS exam as well as other general topics such as clothing, free time, computers and the internet or family. In the second section candidates are given a topic card and then have one minute to prepare after which they must speak about the given topic. The third section involves a discussion between the examiner and the candidate, generally on questions relating to the theme which they have already spoken about in part 2. This last section is more abstract, and is usually considered the most difficult.

Duration

The total test duration is around 2 hours and 45 minutes for Listening, Reading and Writing modules.

  • Listening: 40 minutes, 30 minutes for which a recording is played centrally and additional 10 minutes for transferring answers onto the OMR answer sheet.
  • Reading: 60 minutes.
  • Writing: 60 minutes.
  • Speaking: 11–15 minutes.

(Note: No additional time is given for transfer of answers in Reading and Writing modules)

The first three modules – Listening, Reading and Writing (always in that order) – are completed in one day, and in fact are taken with no break in between. The Speaking Module may be taken, at the discretion of the test centre, in the period seven days before or after the other Modules.

The tests are designed to cover the full range of ability from non-user to expert user.

Band scale

IELTS is scored on a nine-band scale, with each band corresponding to a specified competence in English. Overall Band Scores are reported to the nearest half band.

The following rounding convention applies: if the average across the four skills ends in .25, it is rounded up to the next half band, and if it ends in .75, it is rounded up to the next whole band.

The nine bands are described as follows:

9 Expert User Has full operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding.
8 Very Good User Has full operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriacies. Misunderstandings may occur in unfamiliar situations. Handles complex detailed argumentation well.
7 Good User Has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriateness and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.
6 Competent User Has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.
5 Modest user Has partial command of the language, coping with overall meaning in most situations, though is likely to make many mistakes. Should be able to handle basic communication in own field.
4 Limited User Basic competence is limited to familiar situations. Has frequent problems in using complex language.
3 Extremely Limited User Conveys and understands only general meaning in very familiar situations.
2 Intermittent User No real communication is possible except for the most basic information using isolated words or short formulae in familiar situations and to meet immediate needs.
1 Non User Essentially has no ability to use the language beyond possibly a few isolated words.
0 Did not attempt the test No assessable information provided at all.

A 6.5 IELTS score lies roughly between B2 and C1 levels of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and scores higher than band 8 are C2. A score of 5~6 in IELTS lies in B2 of Common European Framework and less than that of 4 lies roughly between A1 and A2.

 

3

The Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) is “an English language test designed specifically to measure the everyday English skills of people working in an international environment.”

There are different forms of the exam: The TOEIC Listening & Reading Test consists of two equally graded tests of comprehension assessment activities totaling a possible 990 score; the newer TOEIC Speaking & Writing Test comprises tests of pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, fluency, overall coherence, and structure (organization of sentences) totaling a possible 400 score.

TOEIC Listening & Reading Test

The TOEIC Listening & Reading Test is a two-hour multiple-choice test consisting of 200 questions evenly divided into listening comprehension and reading comprehension. Each candidate receives independent scores for listening and reading comprehension on a scale from 5 to 495 points. The total score adds up to a scale from 10 to 990 points. The TOEIC certificate exists in five colors, corresponding to achieved results:

  •       orange (10–215)
  •       brown (220–465)
  •       green (470–725)
  •       blue (730–850)
  •       gold (855–990)

TOEIC Speaking & Writing Test[edit]

The TOEIC Speaking & Writing Test was introduced in 2006. Test takers receive separate scores for each of the two tests, or can take the Speaking test without taking the Writing test. The Speaking test assesses pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and fluency, while the Writing test examines vocabulary, grammar, and overall coherence and organization. The tests are designed to reflect actual English usage in the workplace, though they do not require any knowledge of specialized business terms. The TOEIC Speaking Test takes approximately 20 minutes to complete; the TOEIC writing test lasts approximately 60 minutes. Each test has a score range between 0-200, with test takers grouped into eight proficiency levels.

Institutional TOEIC Test

In addition to the official TOEIC tests, there are also versions that individual businesses and educational institutions can purchase for internal use. These “Institutional” TOEIC tests can be administered at the organization’s own choice of location and time to their employees or students.

 

4

Cambridge English Language Assessment is part of the University of Cambridge and has been providing English language assessments and qualifications for over 100 years.

The first ever Cambridge English examination, the Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE), was launched in 1913. The 12-hour exam had just three candidates, all of whom failed. One hundred years on, Cambridge English provides more than 20 exams for learners and teachers, which are taken by over 4 million people each year.

Cambridge English Language Assessment contributed to the development of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and its examinations are aligned with the CEFR levels.

Qualification developments – the level system

UCLES had a few attempts at developing a level system. During the Second World War, there was a three-level system: the Preliminary English Test, LCE and CPE. After the war, a new three-level system was introduced: LCE, CPE and DES (The Diploma of English Studies). However, as an extremely advanced exam, DES candidature never rose beyond a few hundred and was later ‘quietly removed’. In the 1980s and 1990s the levels stabilised and the suite of exams we recognise today slowly became established.

First, UCLES explored the viability of an exam below LCE (renamed as First Certificate in English) and the Preliminary English Test (PET) (re)appeared in 1980 under close monitoring, and as a fully-fledged exam in the 1990s.

UCLES then explored the viability of an exam at a level between FCE and CPE and the Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) was formally launched in 1991.

Finally, in 1994, UCLES launched the Key English Test (KET). This five-level system characterises Cambridge English’s General English exams to the present day and laid the foundations for the levels in the CEFR.

  • Level 1: Cambridge English: Key (KET) (CEFR level A2: waystage)
  • Level 2: Cambridge English: Preliminary (PET) (CEFR level B1: threshold)
  • Level 3: Cambridge English: First (FCE) (CEFR level B2: vantage)
  • Level 4: Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) (CEFR level C1: operational proficiency)
  • Level 5: Cambridge English: Proficiency (CPE) (CEFR level C2: mastery)[25]

During this period there were also substantial revisions to the existing exams: FCE and CPE. These revisions included improved authenticity of texts and tasks; increased weight on Listening and Speaking; a balance between grammar and vocabulary items in the Reading paper; and a broader range of texts in the Composition and Use of English papers, (e.g. letter-writing, dialogues, speeches, note-taking, and discursive and descriptive compositions).

With increased weight on Listening and Speaking, UCLES joined forces with the BBC. However, in the BBC recording booths, there was tension between the BBC’s approach, which focused on dramatic potential, and UCLES’ need for clarity of speech. For example, a man abseiling down a mountain was highly entertaining but unacceptable for test purposes. It was finally agreed that at least 35% of listening tests would comprise an original BBC recording, largely made up of programmes from World Service and Women’s Hour broadcasts.

Alignment with the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR)

The CEFR is a series of descriptions of abilities which can be applied to any language. The descriptors are used to help define language proficiency levels and to interpret language qualifications. The CEFR has become accepted as a way of benchmarking language ability not only within Europe but worldwide.

5

Cambridge English Language Assessment was involved in the early development of the Common European Framework for Reference for Languages (CEFR) and all of Cambridge English examinations are aligned with the levels described by the CEFR.

Cambridge English’s suite of level-based exams target particular levels of the CEFR and candidates are encouraged to take the exam most suitable to their needs and level of ability. However, while each level-based exam focuses on a particular CEFR level, the exam also contains test material at the adjacent levels (e.g. Cambridge English: First (FCE) is aimed at B2, but there are also test items that cover B1 and C1). This allows for inferences to be drawn about candidates’ abilities if they are a level below or above the one targeted.

A1 is the level of those first beginning to learn a language. Some awards are mapped onto this level, including Cambridge English: Young Learners (YLE), and Entry 1 in Certificates in ESOL Skills for Life. However, candidates would receive 1.0 for IELTS, or 0 for BULATS, if they left the testing papers blank. Thus scores of 1.0 for IELTS, or 0 for BULATS, should not be treated as an ‘award’ at A1 level.

As it became increasingly important to verify claims of alignment to the CEFR, Cambridge English Language Assessment contributed to the authoring and piloting of the Council of Europe’s Manual for Relating Language Examinations to the CEFR. The Manual’s linking process is based on three sets of procedures: specification; standardisation; empirical validation. These alignment procedures are embedded within the test development and validation cycle of all Cambridge English exams.

 

 

 

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