IELTS test takers and the organisations which rely on IELTS test
results benefit from IELTS' continuing investment in quality
assurance, research and development to ensure that the test remains
robust and relevant.
International teams of writers contribute to IELTS test
materials and we invest in ongoing research to ensure that IELTS
remains fair and unbiased – wherever and whenever the test is taken
– and that IELTS encourages, reflects and respects international
diversity and is fair to anyone who sits the test, regardless of
nationality, background, gender or lifestyle.
The rigorous processes used to produce the test materials ensure
that every version of the test is of a comparable level of
difficulty, so that candidates’ results are consistent wherever and
whenever they take the test.
These and the other benefits of IELTS today build on our history
of English language testing over many decades.
The English Language Testing Service (ELTS), as it was then
known, made its first appearance in 1980 when it replaced the
English Proficiency Test Battery (EPTB), a traditional largely
multiple choice test battery that had been used by the British
Council in its overseas student recruitment operation since the mid
1960s for the purpose of screening international applicants to
universities and colleges in the UK.
The new test had an innovative format that reflected changes in
language learning and teaching theory and developments in language
testing. In particular, the ELTS was influenced by the growth in
‘communicative’ language learning and ‘English for specific
purposes’. Test tasks were based on an analysis of the ways in
which language was used in academic contexts and were intended to
reflect the use of language in the ‘real world’.
The ELTS test offered a choice of six modules covering five
broad areas of study of UK tertiary education, plus one
non-specific area. The six modules were:
- Life Sciences
- Social Studies
- Physical Sciences
- General Academic
There was also a Non-Academic test for vocational
Each candidate was required to take three sections in their
subject area or module and two common tests in the General
|M1 Study Skills
||G1 General Reading
||G2 General Listening
|M3 Individual Interview
A further feature of the test was that the three subject area
modules were thematically linked: candidates were required to write
on a topic connected to one of the texts in the Study Skills paper.
Similarly, in the Interview the candidate would be asked to discuss
a topic already covered in M1.
The ELTS Revision Project
ELTS continued in the form outlined above until 1989. During the
1980s the test numbers were quite low (4,000 in 1981 rising to
10,000 by 1985), and it was clear that there were practical
difficulties with the administration of the test, relating to the
number of test items and the time taken to complete the test; there
were also powerful reasons for change on the grounds of test
In 1987 British Council and UCLES EFL (now known as Cambridge
English Language Assessment) commissioned Edinburgh University to
conduct a validation study (see Criper and Davies, 1988; Hughes,
Porter and Weir, 1988). Following this report the ELTS Revision
Project, under the academic direction of Professor Charles Alderson
of Lancaster University, was set up to oversee the design and
construction of the revised test (Alderson and Clapham, 1993).
There was consensus to broaden the international participation
in the revision project and in response to this the International
Development Program of Australian Universities and Colleges (IDP),
now known as IDP Education Australia, joined British Council and
UCLES to form an international partnership, reflected in the new
name for the test: The International English Language Testing
System (IELTS). The immediate outcome of this partnership was the
secondment of an Australian academic, Professor David Ingram of
Griffith University, to the revision project.
The recommendations of the revision team to simplify and shorten
ELTS were accepted and a compromise was sought "between
practicality and maximum predictive power". The number of
subject-specific modules was reduced from six to three and the
Non-Academic test was replaced by the General Module. IELTS first
became operational in 1989 (Clapham and Alderson, 1997).
Format of the 1989 IELTS
From 1989 IELTS candidates took two non-specialised modules,
Listening and Speaking, and two specialised modules, Reading and
Writing. The non-specialised modules tested general English while
the specialised modules were intended to test skills in particular
areas suited to a candidate's chosen course of study. Specialised
reading and writing modules (incorporating a direct link between
the reading and writing activities) were available in three
discipline fields which linked together related fields that had
previously been separate modules in the ELTS battery, as shown
- Module A – Physical Science and Technology
- Module B – Life and Medical Sciences
- Module C – Business Studies and Social Sciences
Over the next five years the number of people taking the test
rose by around 15% each year so that by 1995 there were over 43,000
candidates in 210 test centres around the world.
1995 revision of IELTS
In keeping with the commitment of the IELTS partners to respond
to developments in applied linguistics, measurement theory and
teaching practice, further modifications to the test were
implemented in April 1995. In addition to a number of modifications
to improve security and administration, there were three areas of
- The field-specific Reading and Writing Modules A, B and C were
replaced with ONE Academic Reading Module and ONE Academic Writing
Module. Details of the research behind this change to the test
design can be found in Clapham (1996) who concluded that the
different subject modules did not appear justified in terms of
accessibility to specialists.
- In addition, the thematic link between the reading and writing
activities was also removed to avoid confusing the assessment of
reading ability with that of writing ability.
- General Training Reading and Writing Modules were brought into
line with the Academic Reading and Writing Modules in terms of
timing allocation, length of written responses and reporting of
scores. The difference between the Academic and General Training
Modules is in terms of the content, context and purpose for testing
rather than the scales of ability.
- Measures were introduced to gather data on test performance and
candidate background so that issues of fairness relating to test
use and users could be more effectively monitored.
A brief summary of the 1995 revision of IELTS can be found in
Charge and Taylor (1997).
In keeping with this history of innovation, the IELTS partners
continue to be committed to the ongoing development of the test. A
revision project for the Speaking Test was launched in 1998 and the
revised IELTS Speaking Test was introduced in July 2001.
New assessment criteria for the Writing Test were operational
from January 2005. A computerised version of IELTS was piloted
in 2005 at a number of IELTS centres. Information on all these
projects can be found in past issues of the IELTS Annual Review,
and in Cambridge English Language Assessment's quarterly
publication - Research Notes.
The current test retains many of the features of the 1980 ELTS
including the emphasis on the comprehension of extended text in the
receptive papers (Reading and Listening), and the direct testing of
performance through a face-to-face Speaking test and the use of the
essay and report formats in the Writing test. Other innovations
such as the links of theme and content between papers and the
experiment with subject specific modules have proved less
successful and have not survived into the current incarnation.
However, the distinction between academic and vocational purposes
has stood the test of time and is still reflected in the choice of
Academic and General Training modules. In recent years, the
candidature has continued to grow rapidly, with over 2
million tests taken in the twelve months to May 2013.
A full account of the development ELTS/IELTS and its place in
the history of testing English for academic purposes can be found
in Davies (2008).
Alderson, J C and Clapham, C (eds) (1993)
Examining the ELTS Test: An Account of the First Stage of the
ELTS Revision Project – Research Report 2. The British
Council/University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.
Criper, C and Davies, A (1988) ELTS
Validation Project Report: Research Report 1(i). The British
Council/University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.
Charge, N and Taylor, L (1997) 'Recent
developments in IELTS', English Language Teaching Journal,
51/4. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Clapham, C (1996) 'The development of IELTS:
a study of the effect of background knowledge on reading
comprehension', Studies in Language Testing, volume 4.
Cambridge: LES/Cambridge University Press.
Clapham, C and Alderson, J C (1997)
Constructing and Trialling the IELTS Test - Research Report
Davies, A (2008) Assessing Academic
English: Testing English Proficiency, 1950–1989 — the IELTS
solution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hughes, A, Porter, D and Weir, C (1988)
ELTS Validation Project Report: Proceedings of a conference
held to consider the ELTS Validation Project Report - Research
Report 1(iii). The British Council/University of Cambridge
Local Examinations Syndicate.