Students of Esl teachers around the world always ask: Should I take TOEFL or IELTS?

Learners of English also ask: which one is harder?

The difficulty of either exam notwithstanding, selecting the proper test for your English learning goals depends on many factors.

Facts About Both English Exams

TOEFL has nearly five thousand testing centers around the world. Online testing is usually the way to complete this exam.

IELTS has just under a thousand test locations across the globe. Because of elements that require direct English conversation with interviewers, this exam is not offered online.

However, there are materials to practise English for the exam on the Internet.

Time allotted to complete TOEFL is four hours. Of course, students may complete the exam before the computer stopwatch ends input ability.

IELTS is limited to two hours and forty-five minutes. This exam's sections are shorter than its sister-test except for the writing skills segment, for which a whole hour is designated.

Find out why in the IELTS Specifics section, below.

TOEFL materials are generally geared toward students with a proficiency in the North American accent and spelling; IELTS materials cover a range of regional accents, including American.

Because both tests are international examinations, it is acceptable to use either American spelling or British English vocabulary on IELTS, in your short answers and compositions.

Favor versus favour, for example.

However, once you choose one expressions style, you must maintain it throughout the exam. It is not acceptable to vary between American and Oxford English. Even if all of your answers are technically correct, any words written in the alternate English will be counted as incorrect. Learn hot to memorize a larger vocabulary here.

If you write your first few answers using the Queen's English, any American English used thereafter would be considered an error, to be counted against your overall score.

It is not as important to maintain consistency in one or the other style of English for TOEFL. The focus is more on syntax and grammar.

Let us now take an in-depth look at both exams.

Scantrons were formerly used for TOEFL answers
No need for Scantrons; today TOEFL is taken on the computer. (Source: Pixabay. Credit: Lecroitg)

English Course Exams as a Foreign Language


During the 1960s, as global travel became easier, colleges in the US faced the growing problem of international students migrating for education, who had no real English language skills.

A national council, made up of government and private sector leaders, was convened to ensure that all foreign students arriving in America to further their education would be able to understand their teachers and participate in class.

The first versions of the test were administered in conjunction with Stanford University. Later, the College Board was assigned to oversee testing and updates to the exam.


Initially, the exam was a traditional pen and paper affair, administered in an academic environment and monitored by a proctor.

For the spoken English portion, candidates were called into a booth or room, one by one, to answer a series of questions designed to measure critical and rhetorical thinking skills as well as speaking skills.

Because demand was so high, students wishing to enroll in American universities had to wait, sometimes up to two years, for the opportunity to prove their English language abilities with TOEFL.

This led to the development of the CBT (literally: computer-based test) which formed the basis of the online exam that learners from all over the world are familiar with.


Except in regions where Internet connexions are unreliable or unavailable, the TOEFL is administered strictly online.

Those areas of the world that do not rely heavily on computers still test with pen and paper, with a proctor and oral examiner.

Since the inception of standardised English exams for international students in 1962, TOEFL set the bar for language qualifications non native students must clear before attending university in an English-speaking country.

IELTS formulated a comparable, but more elaborate exam 1980, which saw global launch nine years later.

Check for available ESOL courses online.

Registring for IELTS can be done online. Learn English online today.
IELTS registration forms can be found online. (Source: Pixabay. Credit: Annemcdon)

International English Language Testing System

IELTS offers two exams: General English, a test that immigrants seeking work can take to demonstrate their proficiency with the language before entering the UK or any of the Commonwealth Countries.

Our focus is on the Academic Exam, specifically for prospective students hoping to matriculate at university in the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.


The English Language Testing Service, or ELTS as it was then known, was the brainchild of Cambridge English Language Assessment, a division of the University of Cambridge, and the British Council.

Testing was designed to mirror the use of everyday English; phrases a native speaker might say. The exam incorporated various regional accents and dialects, including American (but excluding Scottish).

Today, its format reflects changes made in language learning and English teaching methods since its inception.


Because of ongoing difficulties for teachers in administering the test, it was redesigned to include a more international content. To that end, Australian Universities and Colleges joined in the effort, giving the exam its current slang name.

A later revision brought about a distinction between the reading and writing portions of the exam. The previous thematic link was thought to prevent a true assessment of the test takers' abilities.

For example, if the reading topic was Finding Work in Australia, the written skills portion would require the examinee to write about How to Find Work in Australia.

The most recent overhaul to the reading and writing modules brought them more in line with general academic standards: same timing, length of responses and reporting of scores.


  • All over the world, the exam is still administered in the traditional pen and paper manner, with the spoken portion done live, in a face-to-face interview. Results of the oral exam are tallied immediately.
  • The written portion of the exam is allotted one hour because it is to be written by hand rather than typed into a computer.
  • IELTS is rapidly becoming the exam of choice for people in Asia and the Middle East, with more than two million test takers worldwide.

Comparing and Contrasting Exams for English Courses

English Reading Section:

TOEFL reading requires the examinee to read four to six academic passages of about the same level of difficulty.

IELTS's three passages are taken from academic textbooks, newspapers or magazines – all of varying difficulty.

English Writing Section:

TOEFL requires the candidate to read and listen to two tricky segments, which may/may not contradict one another. The English learner is then to demonstrate comprehension by writing a paragraph relating to the materials.

IELTS gives you one hour to write out by hand:

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

English Listening Section:

TOEFL prompts are strictly based in academics, even the 'casual conversation', between a librarian and student, for example. All questions are multiple choice.

IELTS's four sections includes a social transaction, as well as academic-themed conversations. Question types vary, and may even include filling the blanks in a table.

English Speaking Section:

TOEFL demands that students be comfortable speaking English to a computer. Fluency and correct use of English phrases are recorded and assessed later, by an examiner.

IELTS provides examiners who, in the first segment pose comfort questions about candidates' home towns and hobbies, or how to improve your English. The next two segments are more exacting.

Fluency is emphasized in learning English
Both English exams emphasize proficiency and fluency. (Source: Pixabay. Credit: Whocaresaboutit)

Other Comparisons

Neither TOEFL nor IELTS are pass/fail. Institutions set their own minimum score requirements for admission of English speakers from other nations.

TOEFL assigns points for demonstrated proficiency in the four areas tested; IELTS ranks test takers into bands that loosely correspond to a set of points.

TOEFL was developed, and continues to be maintained exclusively in America; IELTS was initially developed in Britain but soon requested international input to make their exam more globally relevant.

Both exams are international, meaning a TOEFL would be accepted in Britain, just as IELTS would be sufficient to register at any American university.

However, American institutions prefer the American exam and IELTS is regarded better in Britain and the Commonwealth countries.

How to Study for Any International Standardised Exam for English Lessons

Begin with the end in mind – Stephen Covey

That is good advice when choosing the exam that is right for you.

Your end-goal being pursuing studies abroad, you must choose which school you hope to enroll at, or at least which country you would prefer.

Knowing that IELTS is favoured in the UK, if that is your destination of choice, you should opt for English lessons that improve Oxford English literacy and fluency.

To focus your English learning on British English, you should:

  • Read a variety of materials, not just textbooks.
    • This exam is meant to test your ability to understand the language in all of its aspects, including the idiom, social situations and how to speak to government officials.
  • Listen to a range of spoken English.
    • IELTS is truly international, therefore your listening skills require the ability to understand English through the assortment of accents and dialects that are spoken during the exam.
  • Segregate your vocabulary!
    • Most schools teaching English as a second language use a blend of British and American English in their curriculum. To avoid losing points on the exam because of variances in spelling, make the Queen's English your focus.
  • Practice English writing
    • IELTS includes a hand-written portion. Be sure your writing is legible and your spelling is correct.
English study materials abound on the Internet
Finding IELTS study materials online is easy (Source: Pixabay)

Where to Find English Resources Online

Anyone seeking materials for learning English can find all manner of test prep sites on the Internet.

Here we detail a few pages you can turn to that are not specifically related to exam preparation.

The British Council hosts a site with podcasts, quizzes and reading material that reflect everyday English usage.

Our Council has a page specifically dedicated to IELTS study, too!

The BBC has a page on how to learn English that you can investigate.

To practice for your exam, you can take past-year IELTS tests for free.

One last bit of advice: do not study English for the sole purpose of passing an exam – whichever one you decide to take.

The pursuit of knowledge is more valuable than its possession – Albert Einstein

It may sound contrary, but learning a language is more of a cultivation than an academic project.

Much as you would tend to a garden, a child or an elderly needing care, language studies need passion, dedication and commitment.

IELTS is fashioned to foil rote memorization by generating random questions and essay prompts.

Traditional methods of exam preparation will not suit for an assay at IELTS; it is designed to gauge fluency of the language rather than proficiency in any one aspect.

Thus is it best that you change your overall goal to becoming fluent in English, rather than mastering aspects of English simply to achieve good marks.

What About ESOL Courses?

English for Speakers of other Languages, or ESOL, is not an academic standards exam.

This test is geared toward people who hope to immigrate to any English speaking country except America, for work or to make a new start in life.

While the exam measures proficiency in all the facets of English, the topics involve how to get along in life.

Shopping, health care, dealing with government officials and the law are all broached in Britain's Life in the UK exam.

Should you aim to adopt British citizenship, you must demonstrate at least a level 3 proficiency with English. Otherwise, you need to take English lessons online in intermediate English, after which you may retest.

IELTS, TOEFL and ESOL: all acronyms that represent essentially the same concept.

Proving your English skills through any of these exams will open doors professionally and financially.

Learning English as a vocation will enrich your life. Why not learn English through film?

Now you’ve started to learn English, be sure to test your level with with Quizzes prior to your formal exams.

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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.