by Tian Li
[This article was first printed in the Winter 2017 issue of TEAL News.]
Adequate English language proficiency is a critical prerequisite for people studying in English medium universities. English language proficiency tests, such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), are increasingly playing the role of gatekeepers to a globalizing world of higher education. For example, IELTS has been adopted as a means for ensuring baseline levels of English language proficiency required for entry into perspective programs by many universities in more than 120 countries. This test plays an important and critical role in many students’ lives, and it can be useful to think about factors that impact the IELTS test’s score.
The IELTS test is comprised of four test components, namely Writing, Speaking, Reading, and Listening. Candidates must complete all four components in order to receive a score. IELTS is not meant to certify whether candidates have passed or failed the test. Instead, institutions must determine the minimum selection band score for entry into their programs and courses. As an international student in Canada, providing my English language proficiency proof was an essential part in my application process. I chose to take the IELTS test and received an overall band score of 7.0, with every section 7.0 except for the speaking section. Thanks to my IELTS score, I was able to enroll as a graduate student in a Canadian University. After about one year’s study and living in Canada, I took the IELTS test again and received an overall band score of 7.5, with every section improved except for the writing section. My score on the writing section decreased from 7.0 to 6.0. As a result, I started to think about my experiences related to acquiring English as an additional language in Canada and its evaluation by the IELTS test.
Reflecting on my approximately one year’s learning experience in Canada, I think that interaction, natural acquisition contexts, and practice were the most important factors that have affected my English acquisition. Language development seems to occur as a result of social interactions (Vygotsky, 1978). Thus, it is beneficial to me to study within natural acquisition contexts in which I am exposed to English since they provide me with more opportunities to interact with the social environment, practice, and gain more comprehensible input (Krashen, 1982; Long, 1996). My study environment, requirement to use the language, and learning process have contributed a lot to my English acquisition. I have a good academic record at university, and I believe that my English has improved since I arrived in Canada. However, the score on my writing section decreased from 7.0 to 6.0 after one year’s study in Canada according to my IELTS reports, which made me wonder what the IELTS academic writing module’s scores mean.
The academic writing module consists of two tasks, which take 60 minutes in total. For Task 1, candidates write a report of around 150 words based on a table or diagram, and for Task 2, they write a short essay or general report of around 250 words in response to an argument or a problem. After over one year’s academic learning in Canada, my English level should be enhanced based on my positive language learning experiences. The decrease of my score on the writing section seems unlikely if it indicates that my writing in English has become worse. I wonder what is the main reason for the decrease on my writing test score. In my opinion, the reason might lie in the writing topics I received for Task 2 in the IELTS tests that I took. In my first IELTS test, the topic was about culture and education. I was really interested in and familiar with that topic. However, the topic in my second IELTS test was about politics, and I would have had nothing to say about that topic even in my first language. Therefore, I think the score candidates receive in the writing section is largely related to the topic in the test. It might be that the decrease of my score on writing is due to the topic I received rather than my real English level. This leads to the question of whether all topics are equal when testing English language proficiency. I wonder if all the topics for the IELTS writing section Task 2 come from a common knowledge base that can be accessed by all students from culturally diverse backgrounds to make sure that candidates’ performance on writing shows their real English level.
Many programs in Canadian universities have their own specific requirements related to IELTS, not only regarding the overall band score but also the score of every section. For example, one teacher education program in British Columbia requires candidates to have not only an IELTS score of at least 7.0 overall, but also 7.0 on each of the writing and speaking sections. IELTS scores are valid within two years after the day the test taken. However, students cannot use two IELTS reports together that both have at least 7.0 overall, one with 7.0 on speaking section but 6.5 on writing section and another with 7.0 on writing section but 6.5 on speaking section to apply for the teacher education program in question, which means applicants need to spend time and money on taking the IELTS again and again until they meet all requirements at the same time. Considering the issue of varying topics and how unfamiliar topics may impact IELTS scores, I wonder if the rules could change to allow students to combine two tests to demonstrate English language proficiency.
Krashen, S.D. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. New York, NY: Pergamon Press Inc. Retrieved from http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/principles_and_practice.pdf
Long, M. (1996). The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition. In W. Ritchie and T. Bhatia (eds.) Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. New York, NY: Academic Press, 413-468.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard university press.
Biographical Information (From the Winter 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter)
Tian Li is a graduate student in Faculty of Education on UBC’s Okanagan Campus. She has five year’s teaching experience as a math teacher. Her areas of interest are content and language integrated learning, additional language acquisition, and mathematics education.
Original reference information:
Li, T. (2017, Winter). Reflections on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Winter-2017.pdf