Introduction to English language tests
One of the most common languages spoken worldwide is English, so, understandably, many choose to move to, learn, live and work in places where it is the predominant language. To do this, however, many are required to take an English language test to prove that they are proficient enough to study or work in a language that is not their mother tongue, and this is where English language tests come in.
English language tests are a way to assess someone’s ability to speak, write and understand English. In an interview for a job or educational course, it can be difficult to gauge this. Therefore, many workplaces and educational settings set passing an English language test as a requirement for acceptance.
But with so many English language tests out there, such as the IELTS, SAT, TOEFL and Cambridge English test, to name a few, it can be challenging to know the difference between them. We’ve researched this, so you don’t have to. This article explores the most popular English language tests used worldwide.
The world’s most common language proficiency test is the International English Language Testing System (or IELTS for short). The test is designed to look at a person’s English proficiency in a number of key areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening, with four distinct sections during the assessment process.
IELTS is designed to test the individual’s comprehension of the English language in different scenarios to discover their true level of understanding and communication.
IELTS test format
Three sections (reading, writing and listening) are taken on the same day, with the final listening section separate. There is only one speaking and listening section where everyone completing the test will sit. The reading and writing tests, however, have two levels – the general test and the academic test, depending on the purpose of the IELTS exam.
If a person is applying for a course at an educational institution, they may be required to sit the academic test as this includes analytical and factual questions and discussing particular academic topics.
The general section is more likely to be accepted by immigration authorities, employers or educational establishments below the university level – although it is best to confirm this before sitting the test. The general test section will focus more on ‘real-life’ situations and working environment scenarios, with the reading material taken from authentic magazines and newspapers.
Generally, the IELTS test is only recommended for those over 16 due to the level of language being assessed.
IELTS exam length
The total length of the IELTS exam is 2 hours and 45 minutes for all four sections. The reading and writing sections each last an hour, while the listening section is half an hour, with the remaining time being the speaking part of the assessment.
Anyone sitting the test will receive an overall band – 9 being the highest (most proficient) and 1 being the lowest. The grade you require will be set by the institution or workplace you need the test for. Generally, most undergraduate courses in the USA, for example, require a minimum score of 7.5.
IELTS exam cost
There is no set fee for the IELTS test, with the overall cost differing depending on where you take it. On average, in the USA, the cost is around $250; however, this could be lower in other countries.
Another English language test commonly accepted around the globe is the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which tests several English language and literacy skills. This test is more formal than other English language tests available and is mostly used by higher education and private companies looking for high-calibre candidates. Many immigration offices also accept the test due to its high-level questioning.
TOEFL test format
The TOEFL exam can be sat in two formats: the Internet Based Test (iBT) is performed online, and the Paper Based Test (PBT) is performed in person at a testing centre. Online examinations are the most common format.
Both exams are split into four major sections: listening, reading, speaking and writing. The reading and listening asks questions on a passage or audio clip to gauge comprehension, while the writing section asks you to write two essays. The speaking test is split into two – one where you answer questions and the other where you independently speak on two topics.
The test is designed for those aged 17 and above and is unsuitable for younger learners.
TOEFL exam length
To complete the TOEFL exam will take around 3-4 hours; this is split between the different units, with listening lasting between 40-60 minutes, reading between 60-80 minutes, speaking between 15-20 and writing between 30 and 60 minutes depending on the method you are completing the test.
The grading for this exam is split into two sections: the reading and listening tests are marked by the computer after you input your answers, while the writing and speaking tests are marked by trained examiners.
For the iBT version, all the sections are scored between 0 and 30, adding up to 120 in total, with each level also giving a proficiency level. For the PBT version, the overall score can be between 310 and 667, and 310 is equivalent to a zero score.
Strictly speaking, there is no pass mark for the TOEFL exam, as different universities and employers will look for different scores. Therefore, it is important to check with them the minimum requirements.
TOEFL exam cost
The iBT test comes with a cost of around $185, while the PBT test is slightly cheaper at $180 – there are, however, registration fees on top of this, which can vary from country to country. Extra fees may also apply if you sign up late or choose to reschedule your exam.
The SAT is a standardised college test and is one of two kinds accepted by the United States colleges. It not only tests English requirements and comprehension but also gauges how prepared an individual is for university life. It is administered by the College Board in the USA, not for profit, meaning it is more affordable than other tests on our list. Within the USA, this score can drastically impact whether or not you will be offered a place on the course of your choice.
The test has four separate sections, plus an optional essay section where you can further show off your English language skills. Most of the questions are multiple-choice and assess maths (with and without a calculator), reading, writing and language.
SAT exam length
Without the optional essay, the test lasts around 3 hours. With the essay, an extra 50 minutes is added to this. If you are allowed to take breaks while sitting the exam, this will add to the overall completion time.
Your total score for the SAT will range between 400 and 1600. The scoring can be broken down into two sections – reading, writing and language, where you can score between 200 and 800, and maths, where you can score the same, all adding up to the total score.
Again, different colleges, employers and universities will look for different scores – but for high-end educational establishments, you want to aim for between 1400-1500. Again, check with the places you are applying for an accurate level.
SAT exam cost
Every year, the price of the SAT is set by the College Board. Currently, it is one of the more affordable English Language Tests on the market, costing around $60.
The Cambridge English company performs several English proficiency tests at various levels, the highest being the C2 Proficiency test. This test is often used for programs that require an intense amount of English, such as PhD and postgraduate university courses where the language will be incredibly complex.
The test is split into four different papers – speaking (three sections and worked on with a partner), writing (two sections), listening (four sections) and reading (7 sections). You can take it on a computer or paper, but the speaking section must be in person, so it may be scheduled for a different date.
Cambridge English exam length
Each of the four papers is a different length, with the reading and use of English papers taking an hour and a half, the listening paper taking 40 minutes, speaking around 16 minutes, and the writing paper taking an hour and a half to complete.
Cambridge English grading
The test is graded from A to C – with A being the most proficient and C1 being the least.
Cambridge English exam cost
The cost of this test can vary greatly depending on where you are sitting. Compared to the other tests on our list, the average costs in the USA are between $150-250.
As you can see above, several different English language tests can be used to gain entry to a college or university. English tests are also sometimes required for employment or immigration purposes. All the tests listed above are popular in different countries around the globe, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Some tests, like the Cambridge test, are more suited for high-level academia. In contrast, others, such as the TOEFL, are better suited for the workplace or immigration purposes as they focus on situational English.
Overall, the IELTS is the most popular English language test internationally, with thousands of educational institutions, immigration agencies and employers asking for particular IELTS scores within their requirements.
Want to know if you’re ready to take the IELTS exam? Take a practice writing test today and get your score instantly.