Why IELTS Does Not Define Your Knowledge Of English


When you decide to attend university in the UK, one of the prerequisite is an English certificate. Admittance teams accept many certificates, but IELTS is the most commonly achieved by international students. Although it is useful to assess your basic knowledge of the language, I believe it does not correctly test your proficiency. This article will point out why IELTS is not the best English language exam for international students.

I moved to Bournemouth in 2018. After I realised I would not attend university in Italy, I decided the best move was to live in the UK and take an English language test. I skimmed through universities websites, trying to understand which certificate was the most accepted. IELTS came up as one of the top choices.


While I could have just immersed myself in the culture, I thought best to attend a course. I did not feel I could be able to make it by myself. Throughout my high school years, I always had excellent grades in English. However, during my last year, I was deterred from studying in the UK. What was the reason? My English teacher felt I didn’t have enough knowledge of the language to attend university abroad. Later in the year, some of my teachers admitted they were biased towards “girls” moving away from home. Sexism aside, this judgement slowed me down.


Let’s go back to IELTS. I enrolled in Anglo-Continental (https://www.anglo-continental.com/), an English school specifically intended for those who want to improve their English. It offers lots of courses tailored for the student’s needs. In my case, I took General English and IELTS. Although I could have lived by myself, I rented a room at a lady’s house. I enjoyed staying with her and she gave me the support system I still needed.


The course lasted 6 months and it helped me become more confident with speaking. I joined the IELTS programme two months in. There are many reasons I think IELTS does not tell whether you have a good level in English, but I’ll just highlight 3.

It tests memory, not language

When I first started taking lessons, I thought the IELTS certificate was like that offered by Cambridge. I had already some experience with the latter, as I got a B1–upper-intermediate–certificate during high school. While attending classes, I realised I did not have to study thoroughly, but to remember what examiners expected of me. I’ll elaborate.


The tasks set in the exam are not difficult per se. There are 4 sections: writing, reading, listening and speaking. Depending on your strengths, you might find some parts easier than others.


At first, I thought I would study more complex grammar and texts. After two classes, I understood it was more a matter of memorising keywords, patterns in the questions and structures. I remember my teacher telling us how we could quickly understand what to look for in a question, so we could answer quickly and from a set of examples.


If you look at the questions that pop up in exams, you can soon realise you need to find a strategy that helps you waste as little time as possible. In the reading section, you can skim through the text without reading it. Therefore, I believe it tests memory and tactics, more than your actual knowledge of the language. During my training, I remember not reading the texts at all. I would read the questions, underline keywords and then look for those or similar phrases in the text I had in front of me.


For the listening, the key was to underline the keywords before listening to the audio. Writing is a matter of memorising a list of words that describe trends, patterns and connective words. The speaking section is probably the most complex, as you don’t have the time to pause and think during the interview. However, examiners have a set of questions from which they pick the topics of exams. As a result, if you exercise enough, you can have an idea of what themes are the most asked.


This point connects me to the next.


It’s repetitive

In my previous argument, 4 section make up the IELTS exam. Once you get an idea of the distinct parts, there is not much else to it. It becomes a matter of doing practice tests repeatedly. The only advice I would give to someone who is preparing for the exam is to finish the practice tests during the time you would have during the assessment.


I’ll use my experience as an example. The days before the exam, I didn’t revise. To be honest, there wasn’t much to look back at, apart from general lists of keywords for the writing section.


Although IELTS should prepare you for university–and tasks in university exam may be repetitive–it still does not justify how unchanging the questions are. Once you get the gist of what’s asked, there is not much work to do. And this is an enormous difference between university and IELTS exams. At university, you need to work hard to complete tasks, no matter how repetitive they might be.


Topics of discussion are too general, while being too specific

I remember my IELTS exam like it was yesterday. Once I opened the writing section, I realised I didn’t know how to talk about the essay. The question was on how plastic bags are the only responsible for increased amounts of plastics in the Ocean. Although I know something about the impact plastic has on our planet, I did not think plastic bags were the primary cause of pollution of the seas. As a result, I had to write an essay on something that I did not have enough knowledge on and I didn’t agree with.


As I pointed out in the title of this section and with my example, the questions given presume general knowledge in hundreds of topics, and at the same time they are too specific. I’ll explain. If the question was something like “plastic bags, amongst other objects, pollute the sea”, I would have been able to discuss it. However, because of the generality and specificity of the prompt, I knew my essay would not be up to my standards.


When I went back to classes, I talked about the writing session with my teacher. It turns out I was not the only one to think the question was absurd. Even though this was my experience, many others complained about this aspect of the exam. I’d like to compare it to university again. While we need to know a variety of topics for each assessment, lecturers take them from the lecture material.

So many times during my 2 years at the University of Southampton I came in contact with people who had a similar IELTS grade to mine. One aspect that struck me the most is the difference in listening and speaking abilities. Although I still have lots to learn, I sometimes felt the criteria for awarding a mark are flexible. Some variability comes from where the exam was taken. I found out how people taking it in their home country were far more likely to get a higher grade compared to the UK. While I don’t have statistical data I can show you, I encourage you to talk about this with your fellow international students.


All things considered, I believe the IELTS exam does not tell admittance teams at university whether a person is ready for university. Though I appreciate there must be a way to assess if a future student’s level of English is, other certificates do a better job at it.


With this article I do not mean to discourage you to take the IELTS test; I just want you to make you reflect on it. To access most undergraduate course, you need a 6 or 6.5 out of 9. Even though I think the mark is low to be a descriptor of a person’s ability to understand taught material, this is not the point of this discussion.


The IELTS certificate does not define your proficiency in the language; it tests your ability to memorise patterns and keywords. If you expected a higher mark than what you got, don’t worry too much about not being able to attend university. What matters is putting as much effort as you can when you go to classes.

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