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What is IELTS and do you need it?

Learn the basics of the IELTS, why you should gain your qualification, and how the tests are structured.

Students taking IELTS

For those who want to demonstrate their English skills, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is one of the most widely recognised systems worldwide. Businesses, universities, professional organisations, and government agencies all accept the qualification as proof of English proficiency. But what is the IELTS? And why is it so useful? 

Here, we explain the purpose of the IELTS, look at who’s eligible to take the qualification, explore the four sections, and examine the test and grading formats. We’ll also outline some of the ways in which you can prepare for the IELTS exam. 

What is IELTS? 

The International English Language Testing System, known commonly as IELTS, is a standardised English language proficiency test. It’s an international framework aimed at non-native English speakers.

Learners around the world use the IELTS when they’re applying for jobs, universities, and migration in countries where English is the main language. 

The British Council and Cambridge English Language Assessment formed the concept in the 1980s, and the qualification soon gained popularity. By 1989, the International Development Program of Australian Universities and Colleges (IDP) joined the founding organisations, and the IELTS went live. 

The test has seen changes over the years – it was revised in 1995 and then again in 2001 and 2005. Today, over 3.5 million people across more than 140 countries take the IELTS each year. 

IELTS tests more than just a passive knowledge of English. The framework is designed to allow learners to show they can use English in a range of real-life situations, whether in higher education, employment, or everyday life. 

IELTS Academic vs General Training 

There are two types of IELTS tests; IETLS Academic and IELTS General Training. While both are used to assess your English language skills, there are some slight differences between the two:  

  • The IELTS Academic. Focuses on English listening, reading, writing and speaking for those wanting to study at university or in an academic environment. Many students hoping to study overseas in an English speaking country take this test. 
  • The IELTS General Training. Also focuses on English listening, reading, writing and speaking, but is more suited to those applying to study below degree level. Those seeking employment or who are migrating to Australia, Canada, New Zealand or the UK also take this test. 

It’s important to know which IELTS framework is best suited to your needs before you begin studying for the test. 

What is the main purpose of the IELTS? 

English skills are in demand globally. What’s more, estimates suggest that around 1.5 billion people around the world are learning English. The IELTS provides learners with a fair and accurate way of showing their English proficiency. 

According to the British Council, more than 11,000 organisations globally use the IELTS. For those taking the exams, the qualification proves to universities, employers, and professional bodies worldwide that they have skills in English reading, writing, listening and speaking. 

Who is eligible for the IELTS? 

The aim of the IELTS framework is to provide a fair and accurate assessment for English learners worldwide. As such, anyone over the age of 16 years old can register for the IELTS exam. 

Candidates must take the IELTS test in person, although during the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries suspended testing. Instead, learners could take an IELTS Indicator test online. While not a replacement for the main test, some institutions accepted scores from the IELTS Indicator. 

The four sections of the IELTS syllabus

Let’s turn our attention to the main IELTS itself. There are four sections to the IELTS syllabus, covering reading, writing, listening and speaking, giving a comprehensive way of testing the learner’s English skills. 

The test is, of course, different each time, meaning it’s hard to say which topics will come up. However, common topics across the four parts include areas such as education, environment, society, family, work, sports and food. 

As the IELTS is a test of your overall English skills, it’s important to have the knowledge to deal with topics you’d encounter in day-to-day life. Let’s look at each section in turn: 


This section is designed to test how well you understand spoken English in a range of settings. The listening section tests whether you can follow the ideas, themes, opinions and information in conversations. 

The test consists of a series of recordings of conversations between native English speakers. You will then answer questions based on these recordings. 

To prepare for this section of the test, our Understanding IELTS: Listening course gives you everything you need to know. 


In the reading section of the IELTS, you’ll have to read a series of texts and respond to questions about them. This section differs slightly in the IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training.

In the IELTS reading test, you’ll demonstrate a variety of skills, including how to pick out the main ideas of a text, how to determine between details, and how to understand implied meanings and opinions. 

Our Understanding IELTS: Reading takes you through how the test is structured and what strategies you’ll need to approach different texts.  


The IELTS writing test examines how well you can commit your ideas to paper. Again, this section differs slightly between the IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. However, both will ask you to write an appropriate response, organise your ideas, and use a variety of grammar points. 

To get a deeper understanding of how the writing test works, our Understanding IELTS: Writing course takes you through the essentials. You’ll learn how to improve your essay writing skills and learn about how the assessment process works. 


The speaking section of the IELTS test will examine how well you can communicate in English. You’ll have a discussion with a certified examiner, mimicking a real-life conversation. 

In this section, you’ll have to communicate ideas and opinions, use appropriate language and grammar, and express and analyse your opinions. 

With our Understanding IELTS: Speaking course, you’ll be able to build your confidence in speaking English and develop strategies for improving your score in the IELTS test. 

The IELTS test format

It’s worth understanding the IELTS test format as it gives you the chance to prepare a strategy for the day itself. Remember, the Academic and General Training tests are slightly different; the listening and speaking tests are the same, but the reading and writing ones are different. 

Usually, you’ll take the listening, reading, and writing sections back-to-back on the same day without any breaks. However, you can take the speaking section up to a week before or after the others. 

The test takes a total of 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete and is broken up into the following parts: 

  • IELTS Listening Test – 30 minutes, 40 questions.  
  • IELTS Reading Test (Academic or General Training) – 60 minutes, 40 questions.  
  • IELTS Writing Test (Academic or General Training) – 60 minutes, 2 questions.  
  • IELTS Speaking Test – 11 – 14 minutes, 3 parts. 

Each section is broken down into smaller parts and assesses a range of skills, as outlined above. 

How does IELTS scoring work? 

The IELTS tests use an overall band score to determine how well each candidate has performed. Each section of the test is scored between 1 and 9, with whole and half bands available. You then get an overall score calculated based on the average of the four sections. 

The IELTS scoring breakdown for each section is outlined below:

  • Listening. The test is graded on 40 questions, with one mark given for each correct answer. The score out of 40 is then converted into the IELTS band scale. 
  • Reading. Again, the test is graded out of 40 and converted into a whole or half band. Both the Academic and General Training tests use the same scale, although there are some differences in how marks are converted. 
  • Writing. There are two tasks in this section, and IELTS assessment criteria is used to determine a band score. Each task is marked on coherence and cohesion, vocabulary, and the range and accuracy of grammar. 
  • Speaking. Again, examiners use assessment criteria to assign a band. Grades are awarded based on fluency and cohesion, vocabulary, grammatical range and accuracy, and pronunciation.  

Should I take the IELTS? 

If you’re wondering whether the IELTS is right for you, there are several factors to consider. The first is whether or not you need to take the exam. Some universities and some countries’ migration processes require proof of English proficiency, and the IELTS is an internationally recognised qualification. 

You also need to think about which test is right for you. Those applying to higher education or wanting to register with a professional body overseas should consider the IELTS Academic. If you want to migrate or gain work experience in an English speaking country, the IELTS General test should suffice. 

Studying for the IELTS can also be a way of proving to yourself that you have reached a certain level of English proficiency. Of course, there are other ways to learn and improve your English

FutureLearn offers a broad range of English courses, including the chance to learn through language and culture. Whether at an intermediate, upper-intermediate, or academic level, you can work on a variety of English skills.  

IELTS fees

Another point to consider when deciding whether to take the IELTS is the cost. Depending on where in the world you’re based, the fees can vary. For example, in the UK, the cost of the test ranges between £170 and £195. 

Below, we’ve picked out some other examples of how much the IELTS test costs. The range usually depends on whether the test is for visas and immigration or not: 

  • Australia. \$340 AUD.
  • Canada. \$309 to \$319 CAN. 
  • India. 13250 to 18500 INR. 
  • Nigeria. 75,00 to 97,000 NGN. 
  • The Philippines. 10680 to 13885 PHP. 
  • United States. \$215 to \$295 USD. 


Another common English proficiency test is the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). There are many similarities between TOEFL and IELTS, with both being internationally recognised and both testing reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. 

One of the most noticeable differences between the two tests is that TOEFL is based mainly on American English, while IELTS does not adhere to one specific type. You’ll likely hear a range of English speaking accents on the IELTS and will have to speak face-to-face with an examiner.

Ultimately, the choice between IELTS and TOEFL comes down to the individual. It depends on which format you’re most suited to and how you plan on using the qualification.   

How to prepare for IELTS at home

If you plan on taking the IELTS test soon, you might be wondering how to prepare for it. Thankfully, there are many quick tips and tricks you can use. Below, we’ve highlighted just a few of the ways you can prepare for IELTS: 

  • Sign up for our Understanding IELTS ExpertTrack. This series of courses serves as a complete guide to IELTS preparation, providing advice, strategies and practice for all four parts of the test. It’s created by the British Council, giving you an inside look at the IELTS. 
  • Take some sample test questions. The official IELTS website offers a range of sample test questions that can give you an indicator of your current level. 
  • Record yourself. When you’re working through the speaking part of the test, it can help to record your efforts and listen back. You can also use recordings to practise certain grammar points and vocabulary. 
  • Improve your IELTS speaking score. This course focuses on the skills and strategies you need to reach your full potential with the IELTS speaking test. 
  • Learn through media. Watching TV in English can help you master conversational English. Our course, Learn English Through TV Drama Series, can help you improve your skills watching a series. 
  • Work on your pronunciation. There are a lot of English accents, so learning to recognise different pronunciations while working on your own skills can help you sharpen your English skills. 

Final thoughts 

The IELTS is a valuable qualification for many English learners. Whether you’re looking to move, study, or work abroad, it can prove your competence in all areas of the English language. 

We have a range of courses that can support you in preparing for the IELTS exams, as well as improving your English skills in a host of different areas. 

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