Winston Churchill is famously credited with the words, ‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’. In reality, credit for coining that phrase goes to an author named George Macartney who lived a good 100 years before the esteemed politician. Irrespective, the phrase rings true in an entirely different sense in the 21st century. There are 142 countries in the world where English is a mandatory element of the national education policy.
As such, it is of no great surprise that there are carefully constructed, standardized testing systems which are designed to assess the quality of an individual’s English language skills and fluency. The most popular and widely accepted testing standards are the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and the TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language). Chances are, most international students, or students with international study aspirations, have at least heard of, or indeed attempted one of these tests. I am one such international student and I have had my fair share of experiences with exams of this type. This is my attempt to put it down on paper, or indeed its modern form, a webpage, my experience, so that others might read, and possibly find some nuggets of information in there that they might find helpful.
I come from India and have had an association to English since the tender age of 3. English is the primary language of education in India, and most Indians have, rudimentary understanding of its working use. As such, when I decided to move to Germany to pursue higher education, the prospect of attempting the IELTS exam did not feel like an insurmountable task. Before I go on to narrate my personal experience, it is perhaps worthwhile to delve into some details of how the exam is conducted.
IELTS: The ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’
Going beyond the scope of specific languages, most communication can be vaguely divided into 4 main skills, which give a good indication of overall fluency. These are reading, listening, speaking, and writing. As such, most standardized tests attempt to establish baselines of skills in each of these facets of communication. The IELTS is no different in this regard. It consists of 4 sections.
The reading section consists of a series of essays, from a variety of sources. They are generally restricted to the written word that any common individual is most prone to come across. It may include articles from the print media such as newspapers, magazines, and journals. They often include statistical data, which is used to frame questions at the end of the text. These questions, try to assess how well the examinee has comprehended the text. All questions, by necessity, are designed such that they can be definitively answered with only the information in the text at hand. No prior knowledge on the part of the examinee is assumed. There will often be questions that, if read casually, or without attention, may lead to being answered incorrectly, as the examinee may make the mistake of assuming something that has been purposely left ambiguous in the text. This section lasts about an hour.
The listening section attempts to examine whether you can pick out relevant details from spoken English that you may encounter daily. This includes things like telephone conversations, radio announcements, interviews, or even public announcements heard in public places, such as train stations, airports, and parks. It is played as audio for the test taker. Then they are required to answer a series of questions, which include some detail about the audio. The section lasts about an hour.
This concludes the objectively graded part of the tests. Each question asked in the above sections has an objectively correct answer, and the test organizer is obligated to allocate a perfect grade in the section where the examinee has provided all the correct answers. The remaining 2 sections are more subjectively graded and the grades are most often left at the discretion of the individual examiner who the exam, and grades it. The remaining sections, namely speaking and writing, are the sections where an individual who lacks fluency, would suffer the most.
This assumption is backed up, and amply corroborated by statistics. The IELTS exam grades test takes on a band scale of 0-9 (0 being the lowest score and 9 being the highest), in each section, with the average score being an average taken across all sections. The IELTS website shows that the average listening and reading score of test-takers in 2019 is 6.8, while the average score in speaking and writing is a full band lower at 5.8.
The speaking section is in the form of an interview. The examiner typically asks a series of questions and listens to the answers provided by the interviewee. They typically start by asking the interviewee to introduce themselves, to talk about their profession, their hobbies, and their life in general. It is important to note that the interviewee is not graded on the acceptability, morality, or indeed the truthfulness of the information, but on the fluency, diction, and grammatical accuracy. Although, on a friendlier note, this should not be construed as an invitation to walk in there and weave fantastical stories, which will no doubt entertain the examiner, but will hardly serve in creating a good impression. After the series of questions and answers, the examiner provides a general topic, on which they will ask you to compose a monologue. They allow you a few minutes to prepare. Readers may feel trepidation at the prospect of having to speak about a topic they have only just been introduced to. However, my experience has been that the examiner has, throughout the interview, developed a general sense of the interviewee’s interests and abilities, and provides a topic, that is either extremely commonplace or has a high chance of being in the domain of the interviewee’s interest. In my case, the examiner managed to provide topics that I indeed was already familiar with.
My experience also leads me to believe that the writing section is often the one that is judged conservatively. This is quite appropriate, considering the subjectivity and variety involved. The writing task is divided into 2 sections, the first of which is more an exercise in communication, as opposed to expression. The examinees are provided with some statistical data, typically in a pictorial representation, and are asked to write a short account of what the data represents. The idea is to capture the crux of the information that the picture provides, and draw some reasonable conclusions from it.
The second task is more about expression. The examinee is provided with a topic, which can divide opinion, and is asked to compose an essay giving a detailed overview of the examinee’s stand on that particular topic. Vaguely speaking, they are expected to provide their point of view and defend it based on the arguments they used to reach that particular conclusion. Of course, it is naturally possible to assume a neutral position, however, most sources that help the aspirants prepare for the exam, advise on taking a clear stand. As to why that is the case, is a little bit of a mystery, even to me personally. Ideally, one could assume that so long as they use their lexical resource effectively, the stand they take should have little impact on the grading.
IELTS: Excellence or Exploitation? (or maybe both?)
Now, I invite you to take a step back and look at the exam, not from the point of view of an aspirant, but the point of view of a critic. It is perhaps of great interest to many, including myself, to delve into the validity, effectiveness, and relevance of exams such as the IELTS from an ideological point of view.
Let me start by pointing out that I am no expert in testing systems, nor am I am the most equipped to provide a technical critique on an exam of this status. What follows is simply the observations, of an aspirant, trying to think critically about an experience. Perhaps the biggest outtake would be that I scored a band 8 score, which according to the IELTS grading system, indicates that I have, and I quote,
“A fully operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriate usage. You may misunderstand some things in unfamiliar situations. You handle complex, detailed argumentation well.”
I will freely admit that this score is a valid representation of my abilities. The test does an excellent job of differentiating cultural nuances in the use of the language, from outright flaws. For something so fluid as a language, this is often a tricky distinction to make.
In my home country of India, we have certain words as a part of the regularly used English, that are simply absent in the rest of the English-speaking world. Consider the word ‘brinjal’. It is a synonym for eggplant. What is peculiar about this word is that it is a distinctly English word in India, and no Indian language has a word that sounds similar, from where it could have migrated into English. But the usage is so commonplace, that to simply deem it as wrong would in itself be a fallacy. Let us consider a more relatable example. Consider the use of the word ‘already’ in spoken English in central European nations such as Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The way the word is used would prick the ears of an Englishman like a needle, but grammatically, it makes sense to use it the way it is used. The IELTS takes into account these subtleties quite well.
The main issue with exams such as the IELTS and TOEFL is the fees they charge. We have already established that a prospective demographic willing and needing to attempt an exam is sufficiently high. To add to it, most western educational institutes demand proof of English language proficiency from international students. As such, oftentimes, it is not a choice for many to not attempt this exam, it is simply mandatory to do so. The cost of attempting these exams is high irrespective of the particular economical condition of the demographic in question. This is further amplified by the fact that the results stay valid only for a short period. While this may certainly not be the case, one would be forgiven for wondering if this is a nexus to exploit the student demographic, which generally shows a high degree of commitment to pursuing quality education, at the risk of high financial investment, as they are generally already paying a substantial amount of money to pursue their chosen field of study. Simply put, exams which are such an integral part of the international education paradigm should ideally be available at a far less expense, from a humanitarian point of view.
Having said that, it is for the reader to decide where to take a stand on this issue. For most people, they are simply stepping stones to their dreams and aspirations, and as such, in functionality, are invaluable.
August 14, 2021 11:40:35 AM CEST
Well done for getting Band 8!
Even though you have passed already, let me know if you would like some feedback on your essays, beit IELTS or another essay.
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