What does the IELTS score really indicate?

November 25, 2022 | 03:38 pm PT
Chu Thi Van Anh Education expert
The sudden cancellation of all international language tests including the IELTS severely disrupted the plans and preparations of many students and professionals in Vietnam recently.

It also added fuel to an ongoing debate about the professional quality of IELTS exams and the widening gap being created between academic scores and real ability to use the language.

IELTS is an International English Language Testing System for listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. Those who take this test are qualified to submit applications to national and international university programs, with different score requirements depending on the program.

For instance, some technology programs can require a score of 5.5, but other departments usually have higher requirements, probably 7.0 onwards.

What do these results mean? They reflect a part of learners’ knowledge and language-using capacity. If a candidate achieves a 7.0 IELTS score, she/he is expected to be able to collect and understand 70% information on any topic via spoken and written expressions.

Candidates take an online IELTS test. Photo by British Council

Candidates take an online IELTS test. Photo by British Council

Ten years ago, when I started my master's program in the U.K., I was overwhelmed with my friends' knowledge of the world, science, economy, politics, culture and society. Although I got a full scholarship and met the IELTS requirement, I had to attend a 20-week summer course with students who’d only got IELTS scores of 4.0-5.0. The outcomes of this course included an academic research essay of 4,000 – 5,000 words and making an analytical and persuasive presentation of 20-30 minutes.

In the final presentation session, I found it really hard to understand all the information my friends were sharing, even though I understood all the pronunciations and words they used. Their knowledge of various issues was way above my level and I did not have enough data and information to discuss these with them.

I learnt an important lesson that day.

Information, knowledge and analytical ability are even more important elements of education than language proficiency. We may make mistakes in pronunciation or grammar, but we must have valid, credible information in our mind. My mind, at that time, was really empty. I realized my general knowledge was very poor.

The realization pushed me to question myself. Did I use English to gain knowledge daily? What can I share with other people if I had no information and knowledge in my mind? Could it be that knowledge comes first, then analysis and frequency of use if I have to really improve my language proficiency?

As I noted earlier, with a 7.0 IELTS score, theoretically, students can collect information, take notes, and summarize at least 70% of a document’s contents, a lecture or a documentary film.

Then why is it that Vietnamese learners who achieve band 7.0 or 8.0 in IELTS are still unable to share their knowledge or use English to prove, analyse, explain or criticize any topic at the expected level?

After seeing IELTS exam preparations nowadays, I believe that learners mostly focus on test practice rather than equipping themselves with real knowledge and creating the habit of thinking in a second language.

A language exists only when it is used in daily life to connect people and facilitates discussion and sharing.

We can assess the knowledge a person has by how she or he uses a language, which is mainly a tool to express one’s knowledge and thinking capacity.

Achieving high IELTS scores based on test practice and use of selective learning techniques could very well mean that learners might have skipped the core values of using a language actively.

From personal experience, I can say that learners who have the habit of reading and listening to content in English every day will use the language more effectively than those who prepare to get high IELTS scores.

With this understanding, endless controversial debates on the quality and techniques to achieve IELTS scores can be avoided. Those with broad-based knowledge and analytical skills can achieve high IELTS scores without focusing only on test practice.

So actual fluency in English or any other language, native or foreign, depends on the personal goals of learners.

*Chu Thi Van Anh is an education specialist.

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