Across the globe, learners and tutors alike are often unsure about whether TOEFL or IELTS is the better option.

Perhaps the main concern for any English language learner is which choice will prove more challenging. Aside from the difficulty factor, the real challenge is choosing the test that’s best suited to your specific English learning needs.

The Basics About Both Tests 

With almost five thousand exam facilities globally, TOEFL is a very popular choice.  But obviously in this day and age examinations mostly take place online.

Due to the nature of the IELTS exams (involving conversational interviews with examiners), they’re not offered online.

With not even one thousand examination centres, finding a suitable location to write your exam can be challenging.

student alone in lecture theatre writing examination
It's important to make sure you have access to an examination centre before committing to TEFL as it's strictly offline - Unsplash

TOEFL is a four hour examination, but obviously a learner may end up completing it under the allotted time. However, due to its challenging nature this is not likely to happen.

IELTS on the other hand is a two hour and forty five minute exam. Most of the segments of this test are shorter than its TOEFL counterpart; however the written section is lengthy – having a full hour allotted to examine writing skills.

In general TOEFL is aimed towards students who possess a proficiency in American-English. This requires an understanding of the spoken English and vocabulary of North America as well as an accurate grasp of American spelling.

IELTS is more oriented towards British English and is very popular among international students studying English as a second-language.

However, it’s to be noted that both TOEFL and IELTS are internationally recognised and both American and British spelling is accepted on the IELTS English writing section.

For instance colour versus color.

The catch is: whatever version of English you begin to write in must be maintained throughout the entire examination. You can’t switch back and forth between British and American spelling and grammar.

If you answer a question correctly you won’t be awarded any marks if it hasn’t been written in the English language version you answered in with your first question.

So if you’re planning on writing an IELTS examination soon, then be sure to make a conscious effort to practise all your English skills exclusively in either British or American English.

Which English Course Is for You?

The following section will provide you with a more comprehensive understanding of the two different courses by taking a look at the origin of each language course and what they offer to students seeking to take their English language skills to the next level.

The Origins of TOEFL

With the increasing popularity of international air travel, the 1960s gave rise to a new challenge among US colleges. More and more non-native English speaking students from all over the world migrated to the United States in search of better tertiary education. However, many of them had very paltry English communication skills.

plane in blue sky with white clouds
As commercial planes filled the skies, foreign students flocked to English universities, which paved the way for TOEFL - Unsplash

In order to address this English communications predicament, a plan was formed that ensured all foreign students would have a level of English proficiency that would enable them to keep up with their classes.

The solution was a test that would assess their English language skills. The very first test of its kind was carried out in partnership with Stanford University. The university went on to become an overseer of these examinations.

How TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) Evolved

At first the reading and writing portion of the test was administered much like a traditional written exam and a proctor was required to monitor the process from beginning to end.

Then the oral assessment took place in a separate location where students were summoned one at a time to demonstrate their communication skills in English. Questions were devised to assess candidate’s critical thinking skills and speaking skills.

Due to the increasing demand of foreign language students enrolling in US Colleges and universities, it was becoming a challenge for TOEFL to keep up. Some international students were waiting as long as two years to write the test.

And thus the rise of CBT (Computer Based Test) which is now accessible to non native English speaking students across the globe.

The TOEFL We Know Today

Besides remote areas where there is little to no access to the internet, TOEFL is now an exclusively online test.

Since its inception in 1962, TOEFL has been setting the standard that non-native English speaking students must achieve in order to be accepted into universities of any country where English is the first language.

IELTS came later, in the 1980s...

IELTS (International English Language Testing System)

There are two different exams that are offered by IELTS.

The General English test is designed to assess the fluency of immigrants hoping to find job opportunities in the UK. The exam is written before entering the UK and any other Commonwealth Countries.

But IELTS focuses chiefly on their Academic Exam. This has been designed especially for students who don’t speak English as their native-language but wish to attend universities in the UK, and other English speaking countries in the commonwealth: Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The Story Behind IELTS

At first IELTS was actually known as ELTS (the English Language Test Service) and was created by Cambridge University’s department of English Language Assessment in collaboration with the British Council.

The test was created to assess student’s comprehension of day to day English. An understanding of conversational English and knowledge of everyday words and phrases was necessary to pass the test.

The Evolution of IELTS

English teachers were finding the administration of the test challenging and complicated. It was decided that the assessment should become more internationally inclusive and Australian universities were recruited to join forces and provide input. Thus the “International” in IELTS.

English dictionary, math stextbook and stationery on desk
It was only later, when Australia was brought onboard, that ELTS became International (IELTS) - Unsplash

The reading and writing sections of the exam were later revised. The topic in the reading skills and comprehension portion of the test would no longer be related to the writing task. It was decided that by doing this there would be a clearer evaluation of the examinee's true fluency, English vocabulary and grammar skills.

For instance, should the reading comprehension be about the healthcare system in New Zealand then the writing task would be about something unrelated such as Going for a job interview in England.

IELTS as of Now

  • Across the globe the test is still written in pen and paper format and the speaking skills are assessed in person. The scores for the oral section are calculated on the spot.
  • The writing section is an hour long because it’s written by hand rather than typed.
  • IELTS is in fact becoming the more sought after option among Asian and Middle Eastern students. Currently more than two million tests are written annually.

Let's Compare the Two Tests

Reading and Comprehension

If you’re writing the TOEFL you’ll be expected to read anything between four and six academic English passages that will all have more or less the same level of difficulty.

Whereas the IELTS exam will require English learners to read three passages from a variety of sources with varying difficulties such as academic textbooks as well as newsprint etc.

The Written Skills Portion

If you’re writing the TOEFL test you’ll be required to test your reading and listening skills with two challenging sections (and they may contradict one another). The aim is to assess how well you understand English by then requiring you to write  a paragraph relating to what you just read.

With IELTS you’ll be given an hour to write the following by hand:

  • the meaning of a graph or chart and,
  • your opinion on a given topic.

Listening Skills

TOEFL focuses chiefly on academic English even when it comes to conversational English interactions. All the questions in this section are multiple choice.

There are four sections in the listening segment of the IELTS exam. This  will include transactions between English speaking people in a variety of situations. The format of the questions will vary.

The Spoken English Test

This portion of the TOEFL test takes place on computer. The level of fluency and appropriate use of English words and phrases will be recorded and assessed at a later stage.

With IELTS this section is done in person and examiners will begin by asking reassuring questions about learner’s homes, families etc. With two more gruelling sections to follow.

More Similarities and Differences

A pass/fail is not determined by TOEFL or IELTS. The results are simply sent to the institution and they will decide if a student can be accepted for admission based on the University’s own minimum score requirements.

TOEFL allocates separate scores to each segment of the test so that it’s clear to see where proficiency is weak or strong. IELTS candidates are ranked into bands which vaguely correspond to an overall set of marks.

Both tests are internationally recognised and should be equally acceptable for use in admission to both British and American English speaking educational institutions.

But it is to be noted that truthfully America prefers the TOEFL test and IELTS is held in higher regard in Britain and its Commonwealth counterparts.

How to Begin Preparations for Internationally Recognised English Exams

english dictonary on shelf with boxes bearing union jack and USA flag

First of all, think about the country that you’re hoping to end up studying in.

If you’re hoping to be accepted by a British university then consider getting tutoring that will guide you towards an advanced level of correct British English grammar, spelling and pronunciation. Fortunately we still learn British English in South African schools today!

How to Improve Your English:

  • When it comes to reading, variety is the spice of life. Don’t think you’ll become fluent in English by just reading your English text books on grammar rules and sentence structure. The point of these exams is to assess your overall understanding of the English language with all its colloquialisms and idioms.
  • Listen to a variety of different accents and dialects. Keeping in mind that IELTS is international, you need to train your ear to understand a wide range of spoken English.
  • Choose British or American and stick to it! Often when English is taught at an intermediate level for second-language English students the curriculum can have a mix of British and American grammar and spelling. But you need to avoid this dangerous mix if you want to avoid losing valuable marks in your final exam.
  • Don’t neglect your handwriting. Remember that IELTS is hand written so you must ensure your writing is legible.

Online Language Instruction and Ways to Learn English

If you’re looking for resources to help you with your IELTS and TOEFL preparation then you’re in luck. There are all sorts of sites that offer test prep and mock exams.

The British Council is a wonderful resource for everyday English language training, including podcasts, quizzes and reading material aimed to help any foreign student communicate confidently.

There’s also a BBC page offering assistance on how to learn English as a foreign language.

There are actually IELTS tests available from previous years that you can use to prepare for your exam.

This is important:

Don’t make the mistake of doing all of this training in English merely to pass and exam. If that’s your only motivation then it’s a futile pursuit. Learning English (or any language for that matter) is more than just and academic accomplishment.

To communicate fluently in a foreign language is a cultural enrichment, an expanding of horizons that can be used powerfully throughout the rest of your life.

Don’t fall into the trap of attempting to prepare for IELTS by parrot learning and repetition. The test is designed to assess candidates overall grasp of the English language.

student covering face with book
You won't make it by cramming facts, this is the kind of test that takes a language conversion if you want to succeed - Unsplash

The essay writing section of the test is focused on gauging fluency rather than technical knowledge of grammatical rules. It requires a for students to master an extensive vocabulary and to be fluent in English as means of communication.

Focus on speaking fluently and the rest will follow...

Will ESOL Courses Help?

ESOL (English for Speakers of other Languages) isn’t an academic language programme. The focus is to help foreigners learn how to speak English fluently.

Yes, candidates overall proficiency will be tested but the focus is on helping them learn English words and speak English well enough to get by in simple day-to-day activities, not for university entrance

ESOL, TOEFL and IELTS ultimately all serve the same purpose: To assist anybody that may want to learn English in order to better their opportunities in life.

Need an ESOL (English) teacher?

Enjoyed this article?

5.00/5 - 1 vote(s)


Born from a family of creatives, Kyla has a passion for the arts and interior design.