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Stuck Below an IELTS or TOEFL Requirement?

February 19, 2021

“I’m stuck at a 6.0, but I need a 6.5 for admission.”

“Ok. How many times have you taken the test?”

“This was the fifth time and my last three scores were all 6.0. What should I do?”

This conversation was last week, but it is a discussion we have had many times at the ELP. You prepare for the test, you take the test over and over, you are so close to the required score, but you are stuck. It’s very frustrating. If you’re stuck on the IELTS or the TOEFL, here are some considerations to help you break free.

1. Consider your English level

My fellow UniConn Advisor, Leah Greenspoon, shares this chart with our students and I think it is something that every English language learner needs to understand.

The blue dotted line represents how we think we learn language, in a straight line of consistent improvement over time. The green line shows how we really learn language. There is a learning curve, which shows that learning a language is steady, but not necessarily consistent.

When you begin learning English, it is easier to make big improvements in ability. Early in your studies, you are going from nothing to something, so you can move quickly and really feel your fluency (language ability) progress. However, as your English fluency increases, improvement happens in smaller steps as opposed to bigger jumps – this creates the curve.

Think of it like this, an Olympic racer is already incredibly fast, so all their training and practice improves their speed by mere hundredths of a second. It seems like a small improvement, but it is important progress. It is similar with language. As your English gets better, the improvements in your fluency can seem smaller. With greater fluency, bigger improvements happen over a longer time, not all at once. You can see this on the graph where the learning curve “flattens.”

When it comes to IETLS and TOEFL scores, you need to consider where you land on the learning curve. For instance, if you took a test at the beginning of your English journey, then took another test a year later, a big score improvement makes sense. But after your fluency has improved and your learning curve has started to flatten, like the student from the beginning of the story, scoring 6.0 three times in a row also makes sense. Although it makes sense, you still feel stuck.

“Step 1” of getting unstuck is finding your place on the learning curve. Be prepared, earning a better test score might require more time to study English. However, our student didn’t have more time so we had to find another option to get them unstuck.

2. Consider the test requirements

Our student was looking at a school with the following English language requirements:

  • IELTS or IELTS Indicator: 6.5 band score
  • TOEFL or TOEFL Home Edition: 80, with minimum section scores of 20
  • Duolingo English Test (DET): 120

Because the student had been preparing for and taking the IELTS, they only focused on the IELTS requirement, “I have a 6.0, the university requires a 6.5, end of story.” But focusing on the IELTS scores made the student miss a potential solution to their problem, right there on the university webpage: the TOEFL requirement. I’ll explain.

This is the “Total Score Comparison Tool” from ETS (the company that owns TOEFL), which shows IELTS and TOEFL scores side-by-side. The charts show that an 80 on the TOEFL is comparable to a 6.5 on the IELTS, but that is not what I see.

As an advisor, this chart shows me that it will likely be easier for our student to meet the admission requirement by scoring an 80 on the TOEFL than by scoring a 6.5 on the IELTS.

Look at it this way. Based on the charts, a half a point on the IELTS (6.0 to 6.5) covers a 33-point range on the TOEFL (60-93). That shows us that the TOEFL works in little steps, while the IELTS works in big steps. Keep that in mind while we explore the third testing option.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities, including our example school, are accepting the Duolingo English Test (DET) as proof of English language proficiency. The DET is fully online, affordable, and accessible to anyone with an internet connection, making it a viable option for many students and for many schools. However, as the newest language test, admission offices have less experience with the DET. That is reflected in the DET requirement at this university. Here are screenshots from the score comparison tables on the Duolingo site:

As you can see, the DET itself works in smaller steps, but meeting the university requirement of a 120 on the DET would require huge fluency steps from our student, eliminating the DET as an option for our student at this specific school. I am sure that this university will adjust their DET requirements to better match their TOEFL and IETLS requirements in the future, but for now the path for our student is still clearly the TOEFL.

I believe that our student already has the English ability to meet the admission requirement, they just need the score to “prove it.” However, since their fluency has improved, their language learning curve has started to flatten, so “proving it” must be done thoughtfully. Using the IELTS, the student would need more time and more effort to make the big step from a 6.0 to a 6.5. The DET would require an even bigger step to achieve a 120. But using the TOEFL, the student would only need to take small steps to achieve a score of 80, fulfilling the requirement and achieving their admission goal.

The ultimate goal is to meet the university’s English requirement. Universities don’t care how a student meets the requirement, and they rarely prefer one test over another. “Step 2” of getting unstuck is to find the best (and easiest) way to fulfill the English requirement for admission.

3.  Consider the size of your steps

Our student scored 6.0 on the IELTS, which shows strong English ability. Scoring 6.0 three times in a row, shows us that the student is in the flatter part of their learning curve. As an ELP student, we can confirm their place on the curve because we see their English abilities every day. Remember that when you achieve a strong level of fluency, like our student, your curve flattens and continued improvement comes in little steps; the big steps are in the past. To be successful at a US university our student needs to continue improving their English, which they will do through more study at the ELP, but for now we must solve their test score problem for admission.

For our student, the solution to their test score problem is clear – take the TOEFL instead of the IELTS (or the DET). Try making the smaller easier step instead of the bigger harder step. This advice sounds simple - and it is - but only for students who need to take small steps. We also work with many students who need to take large steps in their English language scores to meet their admission goals.

For students who need to improve by 20+ points on the TOEFL or 1+ points on the IELTS, the advice is completely different. In these situations, it doesn’t really matter if you take the IELTS, the TOEFL, or the DET, what you need is time. Take another look at the learning curve and understand that there are no quick fixes to learning a language. The only way to improve fluency is with time and effort.

The third strategy to getting unstuck is to consider the size of your steps. If you need to take a small step, you can follow the same path as our student. If you need to take a big step in your test scores, then you should explore each of the three tests and pick the test that you are most comfortable with. Don’t listen to others who tell you that one test is “easier” or that schools prefer another test. Instead, take a FREE practice test for each exam (TOEFL / IELTS / Duolingo), pick the one you feel most comfortable with, and stick with it. Hopefully after dedicating time to learning English you’ll reach the score you need. Focus on the big steps for now, you can take small steps later.

4.  Consider a change

The real key to getting your test scores unstuck is understanding why they are stuck in the first place. To start figuring this out ask yourself some important questions:

  • Where am I on the language learning curve?
  • Do I need to take big steps or small steps to achieve my language and admission goals?
  • How much time have I dedicated to learning English and how much more time do I need to reach my goal?
  • What am I doing to improve my English and is it working?
  • Have I chosen the best English test for me?
  • Depending on your answers to these questions, you might consider a change.

Changes can be simple, like switching from the IELTS to the TOEFL or the TOEFL to the DET. You’ll have to prepare a little differently and get used to the nuances of the new test, but overall, it’s a small change. Other simple changes might be in how you are practicing your English. Perhaps you need to read more in English. Perhaps you need so speak less in your native language. Even simple changes can have great results.

However, you might need a bigger change to meet your language goal. We have many students who join the ELP because their English skills are stuck. They chose to make a big change, joining the ELP, immersing themselves in English, and working hard to improve their language abilities. Choosing to focus your time and energy on studying English is a big change and big changes can often have big results.

Helping students apply to US universities, we sometimes advise students to change when they begin their university studies, moving back from Fall (August) admission to Spring (January) admission or from Spring to the following Fall. If a student cannot change when they begin their studies, they sometimes change the universities to which they are applying, finding better matches for their English ability. Sometimes a change in plans is all we need.

The point is, if you’re stuck, it is up to you to break free. In most cases, breaking free requires you to make a change. The size of the change is not important as long as you are moving closer to your goals. If you are stuck or considering a change and need advice, please reach out to me (herick@sas.upenn.edu) or the ELP (elp@sas.upenn.edu).

So, what happened with our student? Well, they haven’t taken the TOEFL yet, but they have a test scheduled soon. Nonetheless, if they are like the other “stuck” students who we have advised in the past, I expect this small change will be exactly what they need to reach their goal.
 

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Testing

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