The highly experienced TOEFL, GMAT and IELTS instructor, Taichi Kono , author of five English language textbooks including two on TOEFL , was kind enough to answer my questions on TOEFL and IELTS. I previously posted Taichi's Japanese language blog posts on GMAT Sentence Correction (The whole series can be found on Taichi's blog).
The timing of this interview is directly connected to the fact that TOEFL will no longer be accepted in the UK for visa granting purposes. Update: TOEFL will be accepted in the UK under certain conditions. See Using TOEFL® Scores to Apply to U.K. Universities. I have reported on that issue in detail here. Taichi teaches both IELTS and TOEFL. Based on our past conversations, I knew he was the best person to ask about the impact that this will have not only on Japanese applicants to UK programs, but on any applicant who needs to demonstrate his or her English proficiency to gain a student visa in the UK.
Adam: Overall, how would you compare the difficulty of iBT TOEFL and IELTS?
Taichi: Hard to say. Rumor on the Internet has it that the IELTS test is super-easy, but the fact is IELTS is NOT THAT easy. It all depends on each candidate's strength. All in all, though, I would say for most people IELTS is a bit easier due to its scoring system: on the IELTS test an average score of 6.75 on all four tests counts as 7. Plus, most people will find it easier to speak to a human rather than the PC on the speaking test. There is no listening on the IELTS writing test, so if your listening skill is not very good, you'll find IELTS writing easier.
Adam: Given the following key scores for graduate how would you compare the difficulty of obtaining them? How hard is it to get a iBT TOEFL 100 compared to an IELTS Band 7? An iBT TOEFL 109 versus an IELTS Band 7.5? An iBT TOEFL 110 versus a IELTS Band 8?
Taichi: An IELTS Band 7 is definitely easier than an iBT TOEFL 100. The same goes for TOEFL 109 vs IELTS 7.5, maybe by a little smaller margin. 110 vs 8 is a close call, but I'd say an IELTS Band 8 is less difficult.
Adam: Given the dominance of TOEFL in Japan, how common has it been for Japanese to prefer studying IELTS?
Taichi: It is increasingly becoming more common year after year. There has been more and more awareness among those who are seriously thinking of studying abroad that the IELTS is a lot easier than the TOEFL iBT. Again, WARNING: IELTS IS NOT THAT EASY! But the recent development in the U.K. will only add to the IELTS' momentum. Having said that, all that is a matter of comparison with the past; the TOEFL test is still dominant in Japan by far.
Adam: After the British government stopped taking the TOEFL last month have you seen an increase in the number of your students interested in studying IELTS? Have many switched from TOEFL to IELTS?
Taichi: The number of IELTS students coming to my school had already increased well before the development in the U.K. because of the wide-spread (false) awareness of the IELTS' easiness. Or rather, I'd say because the TOEFL iBT was just too difficult for some candidates and they turned to the IELTS as the last resort. Most schools in the States (including the Ivy League ones) now accepting the IELTS is definitely a contributing factor as well.
Adam: So, in general, IELTS is actually easier?
Taichi: You should carefully examine each school's requirement, because some US schools demand higher scores on the IELTS. For example, while the official (or commonly accepted) equivalent of a TOEFL 100 is an IELTS 7, some schools want 7.5. It may be either because they think the IELTS is easier, too, or they just don't have any clear criteria for comparison. Anyhow, it all depends on the school, or even the department you're applying to, so it is for you to decide which test would be more to your advantage. For UK schools, IELTS is now the only option.
Adam: Given that IELTS is accepted at all US schools, if someone was preparing to apply to both US and UK schools, would there be any reason why they would want to study TOEFL? It is so common that my non-native English speaking clients apply to both London Business School and US MBA programs that I can only imagine most will decide to just focus on IELTS.
Taichi: If you are aiming for schools in both the U.K. and the U.S., you have no choice but to prepare for the IELTS now that the IELTS is the only option in the U.K. Check school requirements and consider your strengths in English to decide if you want do both the tests or only the IELTS.
Adam: So, in some cases, depending on where an applicant is applying, they might need to study both tests? That seems rather challenging!
Taichi: Yes, preparing for both tests is highly demanding, and I simply wouldn't recommend it. I would say by and large the TOEFL is the safer bet if you are applying only for US schools. Then, if you find TOEFL too difficult for you, you could switch to IELTS after you have done your research and know for sure that the school does not have requirements favoring the TOEFL.
Adam: What advice would you give to someone who needs to switch from preparing for iBT TOEFL to preparing for IELTS?
Taichi: The most distinct difference between the two tests, in my opinion, is the listening test, as on the IELTS, you answer as the audio progresses, while on the TOEFL all the questions appear after the audio has stopped. Now, that requires some getting used to and practice. Plus, needless to say, you should get used to the British accent, too. The writing test of the IELTS has two tasks and Task 1 is unique. You have to know how to describe graphs and charts in English. The IELTS speaking section IS a lot easier than the TOEFL, but then again you'd be better off practicing for that test, too.
Adam: Does IELTS require applicants to use British spelling or grammar rules? If so, are these difficult for test takers trained in American English to adjust to?
Taichi: No, you don't have to worry about spelling and grammar rules, and you don't have to speak with a British accent, either. You only have to listen to and understand British English.
Adam: Does it take much time for your students who are more exposed to American English to adjust to the British accent?
Taichi: No, I wouldn't say "much." But you need to know some sound-conversion rules and listen to some chosen audios with British English recorded many times. The problem is, though, most Japanese candidates don't know much about and haven't learned or practiced any English accent. In my school I teach the basic phonetics of American English first and have them practice A LOT!! Then with those who are taking the IELTS, we switch to the British accent later on. From experience, I find that particular sequence a little bit easier for Japanese students.
Adam: As far as IELTS preparation materials go, do you have any recommendations? If you can provide suggestions that are in English as well as Japanese that would be great.
Taichi: Quite honestly, IELTS books from Japanese publishers are not so good. The "Cambridge IELTS" series are what is best available. I use some other texts in class, too. Bear in mind, though, that there's no "perfect" IELTS materials in the market. Every material "feels" different from the real IELTS test in one way or another. It's just a matter of degree. Those Cambridge books are "usable."
I want to thank Taichi for taking the time to answer my questions.
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