ESL students around the world often ask: is it better to sit the TOEFL or IELTS exam?

English learners usually follow that question up with: which exam is harder?

The difficulty of each exam depends on the learner, and selecting the right test for your English learning goals depends on a range of factors.

Some key facts about learning English for TOEFL and IELTS

There are over five thousand TOEFL testing centres all over the world. Students usually complete this exam through online testing. 

IELTS is offered at just under a thousand location around the globe. One element of this exam is an interview in English, so it can't be taken online. However, there are lots of materials out there to help you prepare for the IELTS exam online.

The maximum time allotted for the TOEFL exam is four hours. However, students may finish more quickly and submit their exam before the four hours have elapsed. 

IELTS is shorter - only 2 hours and 45 minutes. Each section is shorter than the TOEFL exam, however, the writing skills segment is longer - a full hour is designated for this.

TOEFL materials as based on North American spelling and accents, whilst IELTS covers a diverse range of accents, including British English and North American. 

Both tests are international exams, so you can use either British English or American English.

For example, in your compositions and short answers, both "favour" and "favor" would be accepted as correct spellings.

However, IELTS requires that you choose to write entirely in British or American English, and you must maintain one style throughout the exam. You cannot vary between Oxford and American English. This means that even if you give technically correct answers, any words written in the other style of English will count against your overall score. If this seems daunting, check out our tips on how to memorize English vocabulary.

For TOEFL, you do not need to maintain consistency in one style of English, as the exam focuses more on grammar and syntax. 

Read on for a deep dive into both exams...

Students learning English used to sit exams with pen and paper

The History of Standardised English Exams

Some background...

With the rise of global travel in the 1960s, colleges in the United States faced a flood of applications from international students with varying levels of English. They needed a standardized test to see which students had adequate English language skills for learning at an English-speaking university.

A national council was formed, consisting of leaders from the government and private sectors, to ensure that all the new international students had enough English to participate in class, understand their teachers, and benefit from their education.

The very first versions of the test were administered by Standford University, and later it was the College Board that oversaw English testing, as well as improving and updating the exam.

Evolution of the exam...

Initially, students who wanted to prove they'd been learning English to the level needed at university sat a traditional written exam with pen and paper. For the portion testing spoken English, candidates would be called into a small booth or private room, to answer questions measuring rhetorical and critical thinking skills as well as examining their speaking proficiency.

Initial demand was incredibly high and waitlists for the exam were long - students wanting to enrol in US universities often had to wait up to two years to sit the TOEFL English language exam and prove their English learning abilities.

With computers becoming increasingly available on university campuses, a CBT (computer-based test) was developed to speed up the testing process. This paved the way for the online exam that many are familiar with today.

In 1980, IELTS developed a comparable exam and launched it worldwide nine years later.

Learning English for the TOEFL today

Except for a few regions with unreliable or insufficient internet connections, the TOEFL is strictly administered online. 

In areas of the world with patchy internet or few computers, exams may still be carried out with paper and pen, and an oral examiner and proctor will be present to oversee and mark the test.

1962 was the year that standardised English tests were introduced by TOEFL. This set the bar for ESOL students wishing to enrol in a university in an Anglophone country.

Learn English online and pass your IELTS test!
If you are learning English, you can enrol in IELTS online! (Source: Pixabay. Credit: Annemcdon)

IELTS: The International English Language Testing System

IELTS has two exams on offer: General English and the Academic exams.

The General English exam is geared towards immigrants for whom English is a second language, and who wish to prove their English proficiency when seeking work in Australia or another Commonwealth Country. 

However, our focus today is the Academic Exam, which is useful for prospective students applying for university in Australia, the UK, New Zealand or Canada.

Some background on IELTS...

The English Language Testing Service (or ELTS for short), was developed by the British Council in conjunction with The Cambridge English Language Assessment, a division of the University of Cambridge.

This test was designed to expose students wanting to learn English to everyday English. The exam used lots of native idioms and phrases, as well as dialects and regional accents. This included the American accent, but excluded Scottish!

Today the exam format has changed to reflect the evolution of English teaching methods and language learning.

The IELTS evolves...

The test was eventually updated to in more international content. At this point, Australian colleges and universities joined, adding the International to IELTS and giving the exam its current name.

Later, the exam was revised to distinguish between the writing and reading sections of the exam and the thematic elements of the exam were localized to provide a more accurate assessment of the student's English abilities.

For example, if the exam was being offered in Australia, the reading topic may have covered 'Finding Work In Australia' and the written section would give a corresponding prompt like 'How to Find Work in Australia'

More recently, there was an overhaul in the writing and reading modules to bring them in line with academic standards more generally by standardizing the reporting of scores, length of responses and exam timing.

The IELTS Today

  • The IELTS is still administered the traditional way; with pen and paper. The spoken segment takes the form of a live, face-to-face interview, and results from the oral exam are made available immediately.
  • One hour is allowed for the written portion of the exam, which must be handwritten and cannot be typed
  • IELTS is fast becoming the first choice in English exams for people in the Middle East and Asia, and there are now over two million examinees worldwide.

Comparing and Contrasting the two exams for students taking English lessons

The Reading Sections Compared:

The TOEFL reading section gives 4 to 60 passages of academic writing of similar levels of difficulty.

The IELTS gives three passages that may be taken from magazines, newspapers or academic textbooks. There are of varying difficulty.

The Writing Sections Compared:

The TOEFL presents the candidate with two difficult spoken or written segments. These may or may not give contradicting information. The examinee must then prove comprehension by writing a paragraph on the materials.

With IELTS, you have 1 hour to handwrite:

  1. an explanation of the chart or graph provided
  2. an opinion on a topic given to you

The English Listening Sections Compared:

TOEFL listening is geared towards academic English. Examples given may be between a student and a librarian, for example. All questions given are in a multiple-choice format.

In contrast, IELTS has four listening sections, and questions are on both casual social interactions and academic conversations. Assessment types vary and could include filling in a table.

The English Speaking Sections Compared:

For the TOEFL, students must speak English to a computer. A recording is taken and assessed later for fluency by an examiner.

The IELTS speaking section is carried out in person by examiners who will first pose questions about the examinee's hobbies or home town, before working up to more difficult content.

Fluency is emphasized in learning English
Students learning English music demonstrate both fluency and proficiency. (Source: Pixabay. Credit: Whocaresaboutit)

Some more comparisons...

Neither IELTS nor TOEFL are graded as pass/fail. Institutions set a minimum score required when admitting ESOL students from other countries.

IELTS ranks examinees into bands depending on how many points they earned overall, whilst TOEFL gives points for proficiency each of the four test areas.

TOEFL was developed, and continue to be managed, in America. IELTS was first created in the UK but then took on international input to maintain the exam's global relevance. However, both exams are recognized internationally. A TOEFL will be accepted at English institutions, whilst a good IELTS score will be accepted in the US.

However, American universities do prefer TOEFL as it is American, and IELTS tends to be more highly regarded in the UK and Commonwealth Countries.

How to tailor your English lessons to Any International Standardised Exam

Begin with the end in mind – Dr. Stephen Covey

This is great advice when choosing the right English exam for you.

If your end goal is studying abroad, you should know in advance which university you hope to apply for, or more broadly which country you want to study in.

If you dream of future study in the UK, you should take English lessons that improve the fluency of Oxford English and aim for the IELTS exam.

You can improve your British English and eventual IELTS score by:

  • Reading widely, not just English textbooks
    • The IELTS tests your ability to understand English in many contexts, ranging from casual social situations to speaking with government officials
  • Listening to a variety of English accents
    • IELTS is a truly international exam, and you will need to understand a variety of accents and dialects
  • Focusing only on Oxford English
    • Many schools offering English lessons will blend both American and British English in their curriculums. You will lose points on the exam if you switch, so focus on Oxford English!
  • Practising English writing - by hand!
    • Since IELTS includes a hand-written portion, ensure your handwriting is up to scratch!
English for beginners
Learn English online, and ace the IELTS! (Source: Pixabay)

Learn English with Online Resources

Anyone learning English can find a huge number of test prep resources online.

Here are some links to get you started with exam preparation...

Australia's national broadcaster, the ABC, has a site dedicated to learning English, with video courses specifically aimed at students studying for the IELTS.

The British Council site has podcasts, reading material and even quizzes to immerse you in everyday English, as well as a page dedicated to IELTS study.

You can even access past IELTS exams online for free.

You may have taken English for beginners with the dream of one day passing the IELTS and studying abroad, but learning English isn't just about passing exams. In the words of Albert Einstein...

"The pursuit of knowledge is more valuable than its possession"

Language studies require both commitment and passion. The IELTS generates random essay prompts and questions, so students who rely on rote memorization and don't achieve true fluency will score highly.

To do well on the IELTS, your overall goal should be English fluency- this is not English for beginners.

What is an ESOL test?

ESOL exams test you English, but they are not academic standards exams.

These tests are for people hoping to immigrate to an English speaking country (except the US) for work or family reasons.

The ESOL testing measures English proficiency, but the topics tested revolve around everyday life, such as shopping, interacting with government officials and the law and accessing healthcare.

Whilst they are all slightly different, IELTS and TOEFL are academic-level standardized tests. Scoring highly in any of these exams will open doors to both academic and professional success.

Want to make English for beginners fun and engaging? Why not try learning English by watching your favourite films?

Already learning English? Be sure to test yourself with Quizzes before you sign up for any formal exams.

Need an ESL (English) teacher?

Enjoyed this article?

5.00/5, 1 votes


Erin is an Australian francophile living in Paris. She is a music teacher, writer and passionate learner of languages.