TOFEL and IELTS: What do I need to know? Posted by on Feb 28, 2013 in English Language

As an ESL students, who is beginning to advance into more advanced classes you may begin to here these acronyms TOFEL and IELTS used more and more.  At first these may have sounded like very strange English words to you, but hopefully you realized they are acronyms.  In fact, they are acronyms for two important and well known tests of English language knowledge and ability.  Today I am going to briefly review these two tests and discuss their differences so that hopefully the next time you hear these acronyms you will know exactly what they are, why they are important, and if you may have to take one of these tests some day.

TOFEL stands for Test Of English as a Foreign Language.  It is a test of an individual’s ability to use and understand the English language for academic or school purposes.   This test is most often used to determine if a non-native speaker’s English language proficiency is good enough of study in an English-speaking university. Taking the TOFEL is now a requierment for all non-native English speakers by almost all American colleges and universities.

The TOFEL looks at 4 areas of language skill: reading, listening, speaking and writing.  Each of these areas is tested in a specific amount of time (20-90 minutes depending on the area) and all areas are taken consecutively on the same day.  Each area is scored individually (0-30 points) and a total TOFEL score is also given.  A TOFEL score ranges from 0-120 points.  The minimum acceptable score for TOFEL varies from college to college, but usually a score of 80 is the very minimum required to attend an English-speaking university.  Some universities require a higher test score.  The TOFEL is usually given electronically, on a computer, but there are still some paper and pencil versions of this test that are given.  Passing the TOFEL is the first step toward attending an American university for many foreign students.  Other tests of general knowledge are usually also required for college admission.

IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System.  This is also a test of an individual’s ability to use and understand the English language.   There are two versions of the IELTS: the Academic Version and the General Training Version.  The Academic Version is similar to the TEFOL in that it is intended to provide information about an individual’s ability to understand English for an academic or school setting.  The General Training Version of the IELTS is used to assess English language proficiency for people who need English for work or immigration reasons.  The IELTS is used frequently in Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa.  The Academic Version is also accepted at many American universities although the TOFEL remains more prominent. Obtaining a passing score on the IELTS is required for immigration to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

The IELTS looks at 4 areas of language: reading, listening, speaking, and writing.  Each of these areas is tested for a specific amount of time (11-60 minutes depending on the domain).  All but the speaking module must be taken in the same day, the speaking domain or module must be taken within 7 days of the other domains.  IELTS scores range from 0-9.  Each number score also corresponds to competence level; for example 9 = Expert User, 6 = Competent User, and 1 = Non User.   The minimum score needed on the IELTS Academic Version for college admission in America varies from college to college, but usually a score of 6 is the minimum.  When the IELTS is used for the purposes of immigration, required scores generally vary as well, with a minimum of 5 required by New Zealand and a minimum  of 6 required for Australia in order to immigrate.

Gaining a strong understanding of the English language is required before taking either of these exams.  Just as a reminder, Transparent Language has many resources for you to help you improve your English, so be sure to check these out if you think you will have to take one of these exams in the future.  There are also specific test-prep programs available to students once they have a firm foundation in English and need to practice for the TOFEL or IELTS.

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About the Author: Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.


  1. sara:

    Good information about IELTS it is very useful for students

    IELTS speaking Sample test

  2. Rachrl:

    Why would someone choose one test over the other? I spoke to a university who accept both tests results, what should I consider when choosing between the TOFEL to IELTS?

    • Gabriele:

      @Rachrl Great question, but I’m not sure I am the most qualified person to answer it. I believe for most people the test they decide to take is the one that is required by the schools they are applying to, but if both tests are accepted then the choice is really up to the taker.
      You might want to check out this website for some help in deciding:
      Best of luck on whichever test you end up taking!

  3. Mansoor:

    What is the best book to teach IELTS for students who are weak in English in some countries like Iran?

  4. Ramadan Alshafie:

    what’s meant by transparent language?

    Thanx a million

  5. Paul:

    “As an ESL students, who is beginning to advance into more advanced classes you may begin to here these acronyms TOFEL and IELTS used more and more.”

    No offence, but as a native speaker who teaches English, I think you should know that you can’t use the indefinite article ‘an’ with the plural ‘students’. Also, you have incorrectly used a fairly basic homophone: ‘here’. The correct homophone for your context is ‘hear’.

    Finally, as you have given a discrete example, i.e. the names of the two tests, I would expect a colon, or at least a pair of adjectival commas, as part of your punctuation.

    I feel the need to point this out, as this is a blog about English teaching and testing. Teachers should try their best to model the language correctly, especially when presenting themselves as experts.

    I hope you’re not offended by my comment. It could be that you were in a rush to write the blog, so the content is mainly unedited.

  6. Mihret G/her:

    What is the best book and way of learning English in some African countries?