Dear All PIO forum members (and those lurking / those that have found this thread via a search Engine)
As promised, here follows my personal views on IELTS-GENERAL vs. the Pearson Academic tests of English, for emigration purposes.
Please note that I am in no way, shape or form affiliated with any educational institute; I'm only writing this to help those, who feel like they have reached a stumbling block which they simply cannot conquer. I am happy to answer any questions you have about IELTS and PTE, but please do bear the above mentioned in mind, my advice will only ever be anecdotal.
I have very strong personal views on giving and receiving advice, particularly on the internet, due to the relative anonymity the internet provides. My reasoning is that, advice without context can be very misleading and in some cases downright dangerous.
Please indulge me while I introduce myself to you first, before we delve a little deeper into the subject. For those who just want to jump straight to the crux of the matter, please feel free to ignore my ramblings below and skip to the summary at the bottom of the post.
Who am I?
I am a South African born, 30something year old male, who moved to England back in 2001 (holy crap time flies!).
What is my (self-assessed) English proficiency level?
English is not my native language in the strictest sense of the term, as I had been raised speaking Afrikaans as my mother tongue. My English has always been above average, given the fact that I had English speaking friends growing up, and I come from a country where it is widely spoken.
My school education was entirely in Afrikaans as well, apart the English classes of course. I went to University, where I had the choice of translating my lectures, source material and notes into Afrikaans with the option to write my exams in said language, but chose to “change the way I learn” and do it all in English instead. I am not a lazy person per-say, however I will always take the path of least resistance if such an option exists, and I really couldn't be arsed with the additional overhead of the aforementioned translation.
My nominated occupation is an “ICT Business Analyst” and have been working as one for the last 13ish years. The fact that I work within software development is irrelevant to this topic, but the essence of my skills lay in my ability to communicate accurately, in simple English, both verbally and in written form. I make a good living doing exactly that, so I knew that my level of English is pretty high and I consider English as my native language now. (I’d be in dire trouble if I needed to do a test of Afrikaans ability now! :) )
Why did I do the IELTS and Pearson tests and what scores did I need?
I want to emigrate to Australia and I needed to score a minimum of “8” (IELTS) or 79 (PTE-A) in each module respectively (Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking). As many of you already know, the average score is pretty much irrelevant and only a by-product of the individual scores, with candidates needing to score at least the minimum band in each of the discrete modules.
The reason I needed 8, is because I did not study what I do for a living (i.e.: lost a lot of points in my application, because I blagged my way into what I do), and therefore needed to bolster my visa application by getting 20 points for language ability, as opposed to 10 for a lower banding, or no points for the absolute minimum entry criteria.
What tests have I done, and what were my scores?
IELTS-G: Total of 6 attempts, please see the spread of my test results below:
Listening | Reading | Writing | Speaking
1. L8, R7, W8, S9
2. L8, R7.5, W7.5, S9
3. L8, R7.5, W8, S9
4. L9, R8.5, W7.5, S9
5. L9, R9, W7.5, S8.5
6. L8.5, R8, W7.5, S 9
PTE-A: 1 attempt
Listening | Reading | Writing | Speaking
1. L90, R90, W90, S87
Before you draw any immediate conclusions and skip the rest of this post, I must stress that I feel the PTE-A is NOT an easier exam to take.
--This is a pause for that statement to sink in for a moment…but don't lose hope –
I feel that the PTE-A, is a VASTLY FAIRER AND MORE COMPREHENSIVE TEST, which I’ll elaborate on further down.
So how do the tests compare?
Based on the above results, I can understand that some readers may feel that my views are “sour grapes”, however I tried to be as objective as I can in my comparison and not as emotive as I want to be about the subject, though admittedly I’ll be using some visual language to express some of my feelings.
Another footnote: I’m not going to go into the minutiae here and give you a complete breakdown of each type of question you will encounter in PTE-A and IELTS, that’s up to you to practise. I would love to break it down and give feedback on every question type, but I simply do not have the time to do so, and I think it’s not in line with the intent of this post. Again, I’m happy to answer questions below and will reserve a response slot right beneath my post to surface any questions / FAQs that may arise in response to my thread, for easy access to anyone else reading this.
I will use some examples of question item types, so some of the meaning behind my examples might be lost on you if you’re not all that familiar with the question types in the two test types.
A: Question format
I feel that language proficiency is a difficult subject to score people on in an economically sustainable manner, and therefore I understand why written exams / tests are based on 4 main “pillars” of language such as L | R | W | S .
I feel, however, that a lot of language proficiency falls through the cracks between these pillars, particularly under examination conditions. The essence of comprehension, paraphrasing, reading between the lines, inference of information, situational context and awareness, interpretation, humour etc. are mostly lost.
PTE-A addresses some of these more “intangible” (for the lack of a better word) skills, by using integrated questions / item types. Integrated item types, refer to the method of testing more than one ability at a time. For example, you may be asked to summarise a piece of written text in your own words, capturing the essence of the text in only one sentence. This will test your writing and reading skills at the same time.
Another good example, is that you will be played an audio clip, which you will need to summarise in written form, testing your listening and writing skills concurrently.
I felt that, even with alien subject matter, with PTE-A I could close my eyes and listen to audio recordings and understand the meaning behind the lecture / audio discussion and then apply my understanding to the questions asked of me. Even “hard” pieces of written text with confusing vocabulary (I have a decent vocabulary, but there were a fair few pieces of text containing words I’ve never heard or seen before), I could get the gist of what’s written (or understand the word because of the context it was used), and apply logical deduction to come to my answer(s) (there are some multiple choice answers with multiple correct answers). In the situations where you needed to verbally summarise a recording (testing listening and speaking together), even though I couldn’t note down (on the erasable notebook you get) all of the main points and fancy words used, I was able to paraphrase, based on my core understanding of the audio clip.
In IELTS test there is no crossover / integrated questions, but they also try to ascertain whether a candidate can capture the meaning of written or spoken English, by asking questions that rely on very specific vocabulary used (or in the case of listening, misdirection). Using the reading module as a prime example, the questions become progressively harder towards the final two reading essays, and the candidate must understand the essay as a whole, to be able to find the information relating to the question he’s looking for. A vital tip that I can give anyone taking the IELTS still, is to ignore the rubbish rubbish rubbish (yes, I really feel strongly about this) advice given by the “road to IELTS” videos. Do NOT skip read the final essay, focussing on key words – read the whole damn thing. Skip reading works fine in the first couple essays, NOT the last!
So in summary of the question types, I'll use a simile:
During our school-going years, most of us came across two types of teachers. There was the more progressive teacher, who wanted you to do well but encouraged you to think for yourself using all the tools you have available to yourself (reasoning, deduction, argument etc.). You didn't find those classes any easier, but you applied what you know and did well as a result.
On the flipside, there was the old mean teacher, who used to try trip you up, by using subtle nuances in their questions to you in exam papers they set. Often you would know the correct answer, but because of a mean spirited twist to the question, you got the whole thing wrong.
PTE-A is like the progressive teacher, IELTS-G the latter.
B: Question content
Not an awful lot to write about here, apart from the fact that I found the content, though more academic in nature, much more interesting in PTE-A. I found that I cared about the subject matter of a lot of the questions, and felt it less of a chore to answer. Your views may differ, but I liked the fact that the PTE-A is “real world” content throughout the test vs. the scripted nonsense in the IELTS listening, or the world’s most boring essays in IELTS.
There’s nothing I can say about the requirements to score 8 / 79 as a minimum for each module to attain the points you need. I personally feel that the distinction is a bit arbitrary and an average score is already reflective of modern use of language, but I’m not going to dwell on this.
However, as a direct result of the question format, I feel that PTE-A has a massive advantage for candidates. For example, if you make a mess of a question, you have the opportunity to make up for it, in questions or sections to follow. Using the “summarise written text” (testing reading and writing) as an example again, if you make a bit of a dog’s dinner of your summary, it’s OK – you have other questions later on (or preceding it) where you’re tested on the same skill(s). Added to this, mistakes can also still earn you a partial credit in some circumstances… let that sink in for a second. Obviously this does not apply to all circumstances (multiple choice answers obviously only has right / wrong values).
In IELTS-G, in the reading module, if you make more than 3 mistakes out of the 40 questions asked of you, that’s it – you're done, no “8” band score for you mate, pay us another £150 ish smackeroos, we'll see you next time.
This is the image the springs to mind
Yet another direct result of the question format (and also location, but we’ll cover that bit below), is the timing of the test. The subject of timing can be broken down into multiple sections; namely: Exam length, booking urgency and time taken for results to be returned.
As previously mentioned, my English proficiency is high, however I have been and always will be, a slow reader / writer. I was the kid at primary school that got picked on by my teacher for always being the last one to complete an essay, or to finish a reading assignment. I’m not a troglodyte mouth breather, but it’s just one of my personal shortcomings.
The PTE-A test requires you to make snappy conclusions, without needlessly relying on you to cover a lot of information. I found that I had ample time, though not excessive, to complete all tasks and question types. Some of this boils down to reading passages that are not overly long and some of it boils down to the fact that you can absorb information quickly by looking at an image / listening to audio / video etc. There are more examples of this, but it gets my point across.
In IELTS-G, I found that I barely had time to complete my reading due to my aforementioned shortcomings. This did not test my ability to read and comprehend, it needlessly put me under pressure, which can result in errors.
I have been working in a professional environment for many years now, and as a result, my handwriting is and awful mess. It is akin to a drunken spider that fell into an inkwell, flopping around on paper leaving an ink trail behind it. It is shorthand, meant to take notes in meetings, but nothing more. In the IELTS-G you have to hand write your essays, meaning that not only do you need to concentrate hard on writing clearly and accurately on some mundane topic you care nothing about, but also means that this extra care and the time it takes to correct errors, eats into the time allowed to write the essay.
Because PTE-A is computer based, at least I'm able to read what I’ve written on the mundane topic, but also easily spot and correct errors, without the paper looking like a bomb went off on it. My typing is proficient, though I do suffer from fat finger syndrome, but at least I had time to think about my essay and proof read it at least once.
PTE-A you can book up to two days before the test, I believe IELTS is 2 weeks, though I might be wrong on that fact. The point here is, that there’s a lot more available tests for PTE-A, than there are IELTS-G - so no need to book 2 tests in a row (like I had to do a few times during IELTS tests so I can just get the thing over and done with)
IELTS: 2 weeks
PTE-A: 5 working days, though I got my result back the morning of the second working day.
E: Location / Testing centre
IELTS-G tests are taken in halls (apart form the speaking, which is a one-to-one interview), where you sit in a row of candidates, similar to how you used to sit high-school / university exams. It’s overseen by a handful of invigilators, who at times act like they are prison wardens, or treating candidates like children. This is not always the case, but one particularly screechy invigilator springs to mind whenever I think of them.
PTE-A, you take your test in a smaller room, in a closed-off cubicle in front of a PC. I found that with the PTE-A I was a lot more at ease, as it just felt like I'm taking a test on my own sat in front of my computer with no outside pressure or the rigmarole of entering test centre numbers etc.
One aspect that I can't unfortunately compare, is feedback on scores. As you will notice from my test spread in IELTS, you will see that I figured out what I was doing wrong in the reading module, however my writing waivered. With only half a point off, I was gagging to understand where I have gone wrong, in an attempt to do better the next time around. I emailed the IELTS administrators, asking nicely whether it is possible for them to provide feedback, even if it means that I need to pay the 60 bucks fee to have it remarked. The feedback was as you’d expect, the playground bullies will not even give you feedback on your essay, even if you pay them to have another look at it. They recommended that I seek further tutelage from an accredited tutor. Big surprise there hey – feed them more money!
This is just plain vile and is quite telling of IELTS as a governing body. (see Simpsons meme above)
So for all those who chose to skip all my ramblings above, PTE-A is in my opinion the vastly superior test to take. It is more reflective of your English skills, by testing it in a less obtrusive way than IELTS does. It also enables you to do better, by presenting the test in a modern medium (PC based), using modern scenarios (combination of integrated questions, using real world, audio recordings, video clips, images and so forth)
If you struggle with English, this may not be the silver bullet you’re looking for as PTE-A is not easier. The test merely fairer on the candidate, but you still need the base-skills being tested.