This article provides information about studying for the two most well-known academic English proficiency exams, TOEFL and IELTS. More information can be found at: https://www.ielts.org and https://www.ets.org/toefl/ibt/about. If you are planning to take the tests in the future, you can also take the TOEFL Seminar (Spring semester) and/or the IELTS Seminar (Fall Semester). Both have two classes, speaking/writing and reading/listening, and are taught by Prof. D. Allen.
The purpose of the exams is to assess English proficiency of those who wish to study in an English-medium university. Universities around the world usually require applicants whose first language is not English to submit their scores for one of these exams. If you are planning to study abroad, you should check the requirements of the institution you wish to attend. Typically, U.S. universities require a TOEFL score transcript and U.K., Australian, New Zealand and many European universities require an IELTS score transcript. Importantly, the universities often require an overall score at or above a particular level (e.g., IELTS 7.0) and minimum scores in each of the individual skills at or above a particular level (e.g., IELTS 6.0); therefore, it is important to do well on all four of the sections (reading, writing, speaking and listening).
Although people usually study for the tests in order to enter an English-medium institution, others do so in order to learn English academic skills in general. Particularly, graduate students and researchers increasingly need to publish and present their work in English; studying for the IELTS and TOEFL exams can be a useful means to develop the English language skills necessary for doing this. Of course, studying for one of the exams is not necessarily better than taking general academic English courses in the university; it is an additional means to develop English academic proficiency.
The most important thing to remember is that these exams are academic English exams (actually IELTS has a General Training exam, which is different from the academic exam, and is used for general immigration purposes). Because they are intended for students entering English-medium institutions, the topics featured and the language skills targeted are all relevant to the academic environment. Therefore, students who wish to succeed in the exams should familiarize themselves with things related to this environment, for example:
The texts in the IELTS exam are similar to those aimed at general, educated readers, such as those found in magazines such as Time, The Economist, Natural Geographic, Discover, Popular Science, Scientific American, Smithsonian and Psychology Today. Many of the texts in the TOEFL exam are more likely to be those found in introductory academic textbooks which students will need to read when they enter a U.S. university (e.g., books with titles that begin with ‘An introduction to’ or ‘Introductory’ such as An introduction to psychology, Introductory physics).
Listening texts are usually of two types: Conversations on campus and academic lectures. Conversations take place between students and other students, faculty members, university staff, advisors, administrators, teaching assistants and so on. The topics are immediately relevant to the university context (e.g., deciding which courses to take, using the library or other facilities, homework and assignments). Academic lectures are short but quite demanding and usually summarize a point-of-view or topic and often synthesize two points-of-view or two aspects of a topic. Practicing taking notes while listening is very important for the lecture listening tasks.
IELTS has two writing tasks: The first involves reporting data from tables, charts or diagrams; the second is an essay task. TOEFL has two tasks: The first involves reading a text, listening to a lecturer and then summarizing and contrasting the main points of the two texts in writing; the second is an essay task. While the essay tasks are quite similar, the first tasks differ in the skills required. It is therefore important to become familiar with the task types and practice them sufficiently before taking the exam.
The IELTS speaking test has three tasks: A question and answer task about familiar topics, a two minute speech, and a follow up question and answer task about more abstract and less familiar topics. The TOEFL test has six tasks: The first two require short responses about familiar topics, the other four require the test-taker to read and/or listen to academic texts (conversations and/or lecture excerpts) then speak about them. Because of the variety of tasks, it is important to get used to the test tasks through practicing them before taking the test. Especially, the TOEFL speaking section includes tasks that may be quite different from speaking tasks that you’ve done in the past and so it is important to practice these tasks extensively.
There are two main ways to prepare for the tests:
Firstly, you should study English in general, which means trying to practice all four skills as much as possible, as well as expanding and revising your knowledge of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. Doing a little every day as well as more intensive study is best – try to make using English part of your daily routine. For example, reading regularly, both for pleasure (e.g., short stories such as those in the Penguin graded readers series, which are available in the university library) and for academic study and general interest (e.g., textbooks and magazines); listening to radio, TV, movies, podcasts, online lectures, online documentaries; writing about your opinions on familiar topics and more academic topics, and writing summaries of things that you have read or listened to; speaking about familiar topics and more specific and more academic topics. Remember, you can practice speaking and writing by yourself as well as with others: We all speak to ourselves in our heads all day, so try to do this sometimes in English and you will find plenty of opportunities to express yourself and practice speaking. Also, try to find a study partner who can review your writing for you (and whose writing you can review) – this is an excellent way to improve your knowledge and ability to write. Writing a diary about various topics, both familiar and more academic ones, is also a great way to develop writing fluency.
Secondly, you need to familiarize yourself with the test tasks. You should do practice tests, use a test preparation textbook and use online materials. You can find many websites that provide free practice tasks: Start with the official websites https://www.ielts.org and https://www.ets.org/toefl/ibt, but also see independent websites such as http://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/prepare-test/free-practice-tests, http://www.ielts-exam.net/practice_tests/, http://www.examenglish.com/TOEFL/index.php. Also, there are plenty of materials and practice test books in the Language Study Commons (LSC). And finally, you can join the test preparation seminars taught by Prof. Allen each semester.
Good luck and feel free to speak to us at FLEC and the LSC if you have any specific questions.