Skip directly to the different sections of the exam: Listening, Reading, Writing, Speaking

What is the IELTS?

The first thing you should know about the IELTS Academic Module (most of this information also applies to the General Module) is that I consider it to be the most “fair” English exam. By fair, I mean that it tests your ability to communicate effectively in natural situations and it rewards your common sense. There is no specific grammar or vocabulary section, these skills are tested as part of the listening and reading sections and demonstrating your ability in these areas in the writing and speaking sections will be rewarded. Your marks in writing and speaking are determined by the things you attempt and the things you achieve, not by the number of errors. The IELTS rewards ambition and adventure, the examiners want you to show what you can do and not worry about little mistakes here and there.

Who takes the IELTS?

The exam will assess your level from intermediate learner all the way to native fluency of an educated speaker. Yes, native speakers actually take the IELTS! They usually take it to get points toward an immigration or work visa in Australia or Canada. This means that the exam is designed to provide a challenge for native speakers as well as intermediate learners. This is accomplished by increasing the difficulty of each section of the exam as you progress through them. For example, part one of the listening is quite basic and straightforward and you have plenty of time to read the questions. In part four of the listening, the speaker talks rather quickly about a specialized subject and there is a great deal of information to read before the recording starts. This increasing difficulty occurs in the reading and speaking sections as well.

What happens on exam day?

On the day of the exam, you will need to arrive at the location with the same ID you photocopied and sent in with your application. Once your identification has been verified (as was mentioned, the IELTS is used for immigration purposes so security is a serious matter), you will enter the exam room and look for the card which has your name and photograph on it. This card will have your candidate number and your first language code which you will have to write on your answer sheet. During the written test, there will not be any breaks to use the toilet or smoke a cigarette. You will do the listening, reading and writing sections before you have a break for lunch, this will take about 3 hours. If you absolutely must use the toilet, you are only allowed a break during the timed part of the exam, for example, after the 60 minutes have started for the writing section. So don’t drink too much coffee in the morning! The speaking test is after the lunch break and you will find the time and location on the card with your picture on it that showed you where to sit in the exam room.

What are the scores?

The marks on the IELTS are measured in band scores from 0-9. Your overall score is the average of the four sections, all of which have equal value. So for example: if you score an 8 in reading, a 7.5 in listening, a 6 in writing and a 6.5 in speaking; your overall band score is 7. But how many correct answers do you need for a band 8 in reading? All of the practice materials say something like “If you score 28 – 40 you are likely to get an acceptable score under examination conditions.” This is not particularly helpful, but all of the exams are of varying difficulty so it isn’t really appropriate to say that 70% is a band 7 when on a different exam a 70% would be a band 7.5. However, in my experience training students, those who consistently scored 90% on practice listening or reading tests received a band 9 on their exams. Students who consistently scored 80% received a band 8, so when marking your practice tests you can use this conversion pattern to estimate your band score. Consult a teacher, the IELTS website, or practice materials for examples of writing and speaking sample tests with band scores and explanations.

How should I prepare for the IELTS?

The best preparation for the exam is taking practice tests and getting familiar with all of the different question types. Take one test with a dictionary and no time limit and carefully find all of the correct answers. Then use a clock and time yourself in at least 2 exams before your test date. You want to be familiar with all of the instructions you will be given during the exam and you want to learn what kind of mistakes you are likely to make. All candidates will make some silly mistakes when writing their answers on the sheets, by making these mistakes on a practice test you will remember to avoid them on your real exam.

You can find practice IELTS tests here.

Read the following pages for tips and strategy guides for all sections of the exam: