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IELTS format

As well as getting enough practice, understanding IELTS test format is vital for getting high marks in the exam. This is why I put together a collection of online tests covering the details of the test format to help with the exam preparation. The tests can be used to quickly check if you understand the structure of the exam and detect the problem areas.
Use Contents below to quickly jump to what you are interested in.

Contents

General Training and Academic Modules

There are two versions of IELTS exam which are taken for different purposes.
  • The Academic version is for those who want to enroll in universities and other institutions of higher education or for professionals such as medical doctors and nurses who want to register in an English-speaking country.
  • The General Training version is for ones who want to work, train, study at a school or migrate to an English-speaking country.

Computer-delivered IELTS

Recently, some exam locations started to conduct a new version of the exam, where test takers input their answers in Listening, Reading and Writing parts using a computer. The computer-delivered version is similar to "classic", paper-based one with several minor differences which will be mentioned in relevant sections. Speaking part is the same for both versions. Computer-based test is usually available more often and the results come faster, in 5-7 days as opposed to the usual 13 days. As Writing is typed with keyboard in the IELTS version, ones who type faster then write by hand might consider it a better option. There is a number of pros and contras for taking the test in this format. Make sure to practice the Listening section here, as it differs the most. A decent unofficial analysis can be found here.

The Exam Procedure

To book a test, you will need to register for a specific date in a certified test center. It is usually done online, but "paper" registration option is still available. If you choose computer-based test, you might be able to book exact time when Speaking will take place. Upon completing the registration, the test center representative will give you instructions on what to do next. Please note that the address of the exam location might be different to the address where you registered for the test. On the exam date, you'll be required to check in and take a photo for the Test Report Form sometimes called IELTS Certificate. Depending on country, you might also be required to submit fingerprints. It is recommended to arrive early. Those who arrive late might not be allowed to participate. Bring the ID with photo that you used to register for the test.
After, you'll be asked to turn off your mobile and any other electronic devices. These will be kept outside of the test room along with other personal belongings.
You will be given a number. This is Candidate number which determines where you will sit during the test and which is used to retrieve your test results.
At some moment they will ask you to sit to a place with your Candidate number on it.
It's prohibited to bring food or drinks with you except water. Water must be in a transparent bottle without any stickers.
Only the following is allowed on the test taker's table:
  • pen, pencil and eraser without labels;
  • reading glasses (but not the case);
  • passport / ID document;
  • a transparent bottle with water.
If you don't have pen or pencil of your own, the test center will provide you with a pencil. Some test centers even prohibit using personal pens and pencils.
Following items are prohibited during the test:
  • cell phones or other electronic devices;
  • cologne, perfume or other scented products (because of possible allergic reactions);
  • (at some test centers) all kinds of watches.
If you have special needs, the exam organizers will do their best to accommodate them, but you will need to inform the test center well in advance. Read more here.
After you sit on your place, you'll wait till the exam starts. Next, you'll do Listening, Reading and Writing parts in one sit without breaks. The parts will take roughly 2h 40m.
To go to toilet, you need to draw the invigilator's attention raising your hand. Please note that although you can do this during any part of the exam, extra time is not given for toilet breaks. As Listening is a non-stop activity, and Writing time and word limits are challenging, it's considered practical for most test takers, if at all, to only go to toilet during Reading.
If you cannot hear the recording clearly during the Listening part, raise you hand and inform the invigilator about this as soon as possible.
In the end of the test, stay seated until the invigilator signals that you can leave the test room. If there were factors that could impact your test results, tell the invigilator about them immediately.
If you have objections about the test procedure, you need to fill a special Complaint Form and handle it to the test center administrator or Test Day Supervisor (this is a special role) on the same day before you leave the test center. In any case, complaints related to the delivery of the test cannot be processed after the results are released.
Please be advised that breaking the exam rules might result in you being expelled or even banned from the exam.
The results are available after 13 days starting from the date of the three parts for "usual" paper-based exam and after 5-7 days for the computer-delivered version.

The Parts of the Exam

The exam consists of four parts.
  • Listening
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking
Each of the parts is scored from 1 to 9. 0 is given in case of no-show; 1 corresponds to the language non-user, and 9 is an expert.
All parts require following specific rules and have strict time limits. There are formal assessment criteria for each part, describing how concrete marks are assigned.

Listening

The Listening part is common for Academic and General Training modules. Historically, its duration was 30 minutes + 10 minutes to transfer answers to answer sheet, 40 minutes total. Some of the 10 minutes "transfer time" could be used to check and correct your answers. Please be aware that computer-based test is different in that answers are typed during the recording playback, and you are only given 2 minutes to check the answers instead of the 10 minutes that were given in paper-based exam version for both answers transfer and correction.
During the 30 minutes as the recording is played, test takers need to complete 4 sections with 10 questions in each section.
The recording is played once only.
Sections 1 and 2 are about everyday situations whereas Sections 3 and 4 are about educational and training situations.
  • Section 1 has a conversation between two speakers. It usually involves spelling addresses, phone numbers, and prices.
  • Section 2 is a monologue, for instance, an orientation about objects of interest nearby.
  • Section 3 is a conversation between two main speakers, for example, a discussion between two university students, perhaps guided by a tutor.
  • Section 4 has one person speaking about an academic subject and is usually a lecture.
Each section begins with a short introduction telling the test taker about the situation and the speakers. There are several breaks to read questions and familiarise yourself with what is coming. While bigger breaks always happen before each of the 4 sections, a few shorter ones are encountered inside the sections and come before groups of questions. Later sections have fewer breaks inside sections.
Even though different parts of recording might appear relevant for answering a given question, to avoid ambiguity, it is crucial to remember that the answers to questions always come in the order of questions on the exam paper. That is, the answer to the first question will be before the answer to the second question, and so on. The only exception from this rule would be question groups where you basically answer one more complex question split into multiple partial questions.
At the end of the test, students are given 10 minutes to transfer their answers to an answer sheet. Test takers will lose marks for incorrect spelling and grammar. It is permitted to write answers in ALL CAPS.

How Listening part is scored

Answer to each question is given one point if the answer is correct and zero points if it's wrong. Then the resulting band score is calculated using a table like the following. This one is taken from here. IDP also has a good explainer on the topic.
Band scoreRaw score out of 40
516
623
730
835
To earn 9 for listening it usually takes to have 39 or 40 answers correct. It's also possible to earn half band scores, for instance, 8.5 would require 37 or 38 correct answers.
Different variants of Listening part have recording and questions of slightly different difficulty, so the exact table in your case might have figures that are off by one-two points. Say, for extra difficult part version, 8 might require 34 questions answered right instead of 35. The same remark is also true for Reading.

Reading

Test takers read a number of texts and answer questions related to the texts. The question types comprise multiple choice, short-answer questions, labeling diagrams, completing a summary using words taken from the text and matching information/headings/features in the text/sentence endings. You might need to identify factual information information as well as identifying writer's or character's views. Some test takers prefer to write answers in capital letters, which is permitted.
Reading part has three sections and texts totaling 2150-2750 words and is different for Academic and General Training modules.

IELTS Academic Reading

Each of the three sections consists of single text. The texts are on different subjects such as the environment, science or archeology taken from popular journals like Scientific American or the Economist. The texts are written in a variety of styles; at least one of them includes a logical argument. Texts may contain illustrations, diagrams, graphs etc. As a general rule, IELTS Academic texts are on more scientific subjects and contain more complex vocabulary.

IELTS General Training Reading

  • Section 1, "social survival", texts are ads, timetables, notices and similar, questions are mostly focused on finding factual information.
  • Section 2, "workplace survival", is about workplace, e.g., job descriptions, contracts or new employee orientation packages.
  • Section 3, "general reading", is a piece of prose, rather descriptive or instructive than argumentative: text excerpts from books, newspapers, or magazines.

How Reading Band Score is Calculated

Mark for Reading part is calculated based on the "raw score" using a table. Each correct answer in the answer sheet bring additional "mark" up to the maximum of 40. Similar to Listening, different Reading test variants might require slightly different number of correct answers to achieve different marks depending on the variant relative difficulty.
Academic and General Training Reading parts differ. Because Academic texts are harder for most test takers, one usually needs lower "raw score" to get the same mark. In the same time, the person well accustomed to academic literature might find General Training Reading more challenging. Check the IDP HK article for more details.
Academic Reading Marks to Band Score
Band scoreRaw score out of 40
515
623
730
835
939
General Training Marks to Band Score
Band scoreRaw score out of 40
415
523
630
734
838
940

Writing

Writing part lasts for 60 minutes. It consists of two tasks which must both be completed. Writing sections differ depending on which test, Academic or General Training, you take.
The minimum length of Task 1 is 150 words. In task 2 test takers write at least 250 words. There are severe penalties for any of the task responses being to short. If you chose to take computer-delivered exam version, the word count will be shown as you type. For the paper-based version you will either need to train yourself to write essays of required length, or count words yourself. Answers should be written in full sentences, test takers must not use notes or bullet points. Test takers manage their time themselves, but the expected time is about 20 minutes to complete task 1 and 40 minutes to complete task 2.
Task 1 in IELTS Academic and General Training is different completely, while in Task 2 test takers write an essay for both modules, but the subject and the task are different.

IELTS Academic Writing

  1. Task 1: produce you own description of a diagram, table, chart or graph.
  2. Task 2: write an essay discussing a problem or an argument. Test takers are required to present a solution to a problem, justify an opinion, evaluate and challenge ideas, compare and contrast evidence.
Only formal style has to be used in Academic module Writing.

IELTS General Training Writing

  1. Task 1: write a letter related to some day-to-day scenario. This task might require you to use either formal or informal style where appropriate. For instance, a letter to a friend about a vacation spent together requires informal style whereas an application letter to your manager must be formal. In formal style, contractions, colloquial language, and abbreviations are not used; more official vocabulary is employed; sentences are generally longer and more complex. Depending on the style, you have to start and finish letter differently. Failure to identify appropriate style will result in lower mark. Test takers do not need to include any addresses at the head of their letters.
  2. Task 2: write an essay about a general topic, e.g., smoking in public places, children and how they use electronic devices, environmental problems. Test takers will need to discuss a problem, solution or point of view, speculate about possible causes or implications.
Unless the test is computer-based, test takers write answers by hand. Examiners make every effort to read the handwriting, but if a word is illegible completely, such word is considered misspelled.

How Writing Part is Assessed: the Criteria

Examiners start with assigning a band score on the same 1 to 9 scale to each of the following aspects of the answer.
  • Task Achievement / Task Response
  • Coherence and Cohesion
  • Lexical Resource
  • Grammatical Range and Accuracy
Then, the average is calculated and rounded up to the next band or half-band score. The resulting figure is the IELTS Writing band score.

Speaking

Speaking part is conducted in a dedicated room face-to-face with the examiner and might be scheduled either after Listening, Reading and Writing later on the same day or even on another day. The date must be no more than a week before and no more than a week after the first three parts. If the exact date and time when Speaking takes place is important for you, you need to contact the test center so that they could take your suggestions into account when scheduling the test. Even though the test center might take actions to accommodate the date or time you propose, they are not obliged to. Even though the Speaking is the same for computer-delivered and paper-based IELTS, Speaking is always conducted on the same for computer-based test.
The speaking test contains three sections.
  1. Introduction or Interview (4–5 minutes). You will be asked about familiar topics such as home, family, work, studies, hobbies, why you are taking IELTS exam as well as other general topics.
  2. Long turn (3–4 minutes). Test takers are given a task card about a topic. One minute is given to prepare before speaking for up to two minutes. The task card lists the points that should be included in the talk and one aspect of the topic which must be explained during the talk. After the monologue, the examiner may ask one or two questions on the same topic.
  3. Discussion (4–5 minutes). The examiner and the test taker discuss questions generally relating to the subject on which they have already spoken during Long turn. This section involves speculating and discussing more abstract ideas.
The test audio is recorded for re-marking in case of an appeal.

How Speaking Part is Assessed: the Criteria

First, examiners award a band score for each of the four criteria:
  • Fluency and Coherence
  • Lexical Resource
  • Grammatical Range and Accuracy
  • Pronunciation
The criteria are described in more detail here.
After, the average is calculated and rounded up to the next whole band or half band.

Appeal or Enquiry on Results

If you think that the marks you've received do not reflect your actual exam performance, you might consider an appeal. Actually, IELTS does not have an appeal procedure aimed to investigate how grading was performed. Instead, you can apply for so-called Enquiry on Results which is a fancy name for sending your answers to a different team of examiners for re-mark. Please be aware, that there is a deadline for the application: 6 weeks after the day of Listening, Reading and Writing.
The procedure is as follows. You fill the Enquiry on Results Form and pay the fee. You can ask to remark all of the exam parts, or just some of them, e.g., Writing and Speaking. Your answers are sent to an IELTS partner organization central facility and are graded anew by senior examiners. The fee and the duration of the process are going to be different depending on your country or test provider. Usually the fee is in $100-$300 US range, and the duration is a few or several weeks. Please contact your test provider for exact numbers. You cannot use your Test Report Form (TRF) to apply to universities or immigration offices while the re-mark is in progress. If the re-mark results in a score change, a new TRF is sent and the fee is refunded. Otherwise, the original TRF is returned. The marks received after the re-mark cannot be changed. Although, you can retake the test.

IELTS-specific Terms and Phrases

TermDefinition / Description
Band scoreA score for either one of the four parts of the exam or so called "overall score" reported using 1 to 9 nine-band scale. See details here.
Candidate numberA unique number sent to the candidate after booking the exam. It is also found on the candidates place (usually on the table) during the main exam session, and in the resulting Test Report Form. The number is used to perform further actions related to the exam, e.g., ordering an extra TRF.
Complaint formA form filled in case of complaint. Contains information about the test taker and describes the nature of complaint. Must be submitted on the same day as the accident. No complaint can be processed after your results have been released by your test center.
IELTS Test PartnersBritish Council, IDP Education, Cambridge Assessment English.
InvigilatorEmployees helping Test Day Supervisor to ensure that the exam is administered properly and the candidates follow the IELTS rules and regulations
Test Report Form (TRF)This is the paper with candidate's data along with the marks received for Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking as well as the Overall score and corresponding CEFR level. It is sometimes called IELTS certificate and printed 13 days after the test date for paper-based IELTS and 5-7 days for computer-delivered exam. Additional TRFs are available under different conditions. Some institutions also accept electronic IELTS score submission. Test results are also usually available online for reference.

Sources

The goal of this guide was to gather all the necessary information about IELTS test format in one comprehensive guide. This is done to make it easier to look up details quickly while passing IELTS format tests on our site. Although this article is good to look up a thing or two about the exam structure quickly, please note that it is not official. As requirements and conditions differ depending on test providers and change over time, please also refer to the official sources.
The facts in the article was last checked on 30 Dec 2019. If you note anything that contradicts facts or is no longer true, please, do let me know in a comment. It is okay if you write a word or two about yourself or add a link to your website in such a useful comment.
The guide is a work in progress and will become more detailed over time.
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License: CC BY-SA 3.0.
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