Published 18th December 2017


We all know the world of teaching English as a foreign language is full of abbreviations and sometimes it can get downright confusing. If, however, you have been involved in teaching Academic English or preparing students to study in an English-speaking university, you’ll recognise these particular abbreviations as exams.

If you find yourself teaching an exam class, make sure you spend some time beforehand getting to know the particular exam you are teaching. These exams are very important for your students and can mean the difference between being accepted to study or not, so it is our responsibility to prepare them as best we can. Teaching exam classes are not the same as teaching General English and there are a few considerations to keep in mind, but that doesn’t mean your exam classes need to be boring!

Here we will look at two of possibly the most popular exams: IELTS and TOEFL. They are similar in some ways and different in others, but since your students will likely have to make a decision about which one to take, here is a brief summary of both so you can know more about them.

Similarities between IELTS and TOEFL

Both exams are used to assess whether a student is capable of studying at an English-speaking university. These scores will be part of the admissions criteria. For example, to gain admission into an undergraduate degree at the University of Queensland, Australia, a student needs to achieve an overall score of 6.5 in IELTS or an overall score of 87 in TOEFL. (If you don’t understand the scores, don’t worry, we’ll explain that later).

Both exams test the same skills by measuring your proficiency in reading, writing, listening and speaking. The format of the exams are quite similar, in that both exams are divided into four papers correlating to the four skills, though the TOEFL exam is longer. These papers don’t test grammatical knowledge directly but rather assess language through the implementation of the other skills.

Differences between IELTS and TOEFL

Though the format may be similar, the content of the two exams are different, in particular, the questions asked are different. In the TOEFL reading paper, there are three or four university-level texts, while the IELTS reading test consists of three passages from books, journals, magazines and newspapers.

The TOEFL Listening has four to six recordings on academic life or lectures; in the IELTS Listening there are four listening texts, two from a general context, and two from an academic context. For both exams there are a range of different question types for each text and the type of question asked will vary from exam to exam.

In terms of Speaking, the TOEFL exam is different in that the questions are integrated tasks. There are six tasks and four of these will require some reading or listening. Bear in mind, also, that the TOEFL is usually done online so the Speaking is done to a computer. In contrast, the IELTS Speaking consists of three parts, all done with an examiner and none of which require additional reading or listening.

Finally, the TOEFL Writing is two parts, one of which is an integrated task, again meaning that the student needs to write or listen to a text before responding in writing. The IELTS Writing also has two parts, but they are independent writing tasks, both academic in nature.

As you noticed earlier, the scoring system is quite different in the two exams. In IELTS, you are scored in bands up to a band 9. You receive a score for reading, writing, listening and speaking and an overall score. In the TOEFL, students are scored for reading, writing, listening and speaking on a scale of 0 – 30 to give a total score out of 120.

Neither of these exams is better than the other and if your students ask you for advice on which to choose, advise them to have a look at samples of the exams and decide which suits the better. Budget and the availability of exam classes are other considerations which can affect their decision. If you are required to teach either an IELTS or TOEFL class, be sure to spend some time making yourself familiar with the exam so as to be able to best teach your students.


*There are two IELTS exams: IELTS General and IELTS Academic. They differ slightly in format. In this post we are referring only to the IELTS Academic exam, as this is the exam which has a similar purpose to the TOEFL exam i.e. studying in an English-speaking institution.