This is the first of two posts about understanding the IELTS band score system. In this first one, I explain how the different levels work. In the next, I explain a bit more about how long it may take you to improve your band score.
IELTS band scores are approximate. It is quite possible for the same candidate to get different scores on different days. This in fact happens all the time. Why?
- IELTS only tests your performance on one day – you may just have a better day or worse day
- the same person is very often a mixture of different levels of English – a band score 7.0 candidate may be partly 6.5 and partly 7.5
- the system is simplistic – it just isn’t possible accurately to divide all advanced speakers into a few different levels
- the borderline between different levels can be very difficult to decide
It is convenient for the English language industry to put people into a few different levels, but life tends to be rather more complex. As a result, there are various ways in which you can “change” your band score. These fall into 3 main categories:
- improving one sub-skill in one paper (eg how you answer questions)
- improving your test taking skills (eg learning how to complete reading in time)
- just improving your general English ability (eg learning better vocabulary and grammar)
To find out how to improve your score – especially in writing and speaking – you need to talk to an IELTS tutor.
The Band Score System – official version
When you are graded you are put into one of nine levels or bands (half bands exist too) which show the general level of your English.
Bands 1-4 are beginner levels – few IELTS candidates are at this level. If you are at this level, IELTS is probably not for you yet. You need to improve your general English first.
Band 9 is very close to native speaker level. Very few second language speakers ever reach this level. Most candidates fall between bands 5.0 and 8.0 and 4 levels cover almost everyone who does IELTS
Breaking the code – thinking of general English and the CEF
If you have come from a language school background, it may help to think of general English levels and the Common European Framework (CEF).
This comparison is only approximate because IELTS tests other aspects of English than general English and has for example no “grammar” or “English in Use” paper, so someone may get a slightly different score in IELTS than they would in other English tests. Also, IELTS is simply a test of your English on one day, while the CEF system often measures your performance over a much longer period of time. This is why you may also find some slightly different versions of this table. Here I have made the bands slightly wider to reflect the variations you may expect.
Breaking the code – some examples of different levels
If you are entirely new to IELTS and English training, you may find these descriptions more helpful. I have divided them into 3 levels – reflecting candidates who may be looking for IELTS 8.0, IELTS 7.0 and IELTS 6.o.
A band score 7.5 + candidate
You can pick up an English language newspaper and just read it. You aren’t at all bothered by unknown/unusual words – you can work them out from context or make a good guess. When you see an IELTS reading paper, the texts look very familiar and don’t bother you at all: there is plenty of time to skim read the texts first for meaning
You may make the occasional mistake, but that’s only because you’re careless! When someone points out a mistake, you go “Oh yes”. You may have problems in IELTS essays because you want to write 400 words or more: you’re used to writing about complex ideas and you have no problem in explaining your ideas.
There are times when you speak to a native speaker that you hear words you don’t quite get (mostly phrasal verbs and idioms), but you can always infer meaning from context. You certainly don’t need subtitles for films – except perhaps for gangster movies where a lot of street English is used. If the news is on the radio, you don’t need to concentrate hard to find out what’s going on.
People sometimes compliment you and say that you sound just like a native speaker. You may have a bit of a local accent (but then so do naive speakers!), but there aren’t any problem sounds and you speak with
A band score 6.5 + candidate
Those IELTS readings are challenging. There’s an awful lot to read at once but you can follow the general meaning of passages well enough. The times you have problems is with deciding what certain bits say exactly. You can read newspapers in English, but you find it hard because there are a lot of unknown words and it would be a whole lot easier with a dictionary.
Most of your grammar is correct, but there are some things that you still get wrong quite consistently. You know the “rules”, but there are words you cannot use accurately as you are not sure what word should come next. It’s not a problem to write a 250 word essay, but you sometimes struggle to find the right words to say what you want – you’re fairly certain it would be much easier to do it in your language.
Movies are easier with subtitles. You can watch a whole movie through in English and follow the story, but this takes quite a lot of concentration. There are times that you want native speakers to slow down when they talk to you and if you go to lectures you find it hard to concentrate the whole way through. You can understand the news much more easily on the tv than on the radio.
You’re pretty confident about your spoken English – it’s not a problem just to talk to someone in English. There are times you don’t what the right word is in English, but you’re generally able to find another way to say it – it’s just that you know you could have done it much better in your own language and some meaning is lost.
A band score 5.0 + candidate
The IELTS reading paper may worry you. Perhaps you rely on certain reading strategies such as “look for the key words” because you don’t think you have the time to read all the text through. Newspapers are definitely difficult.
Writing 500 words in an hour can be a challenge and you are mostly used to writing shorter pieces of writing. You write quite correctly, but know that you have fairly serious problems in grammar, most of your sentences have something wrong. You can still make mistakes at a fairly low level if you’re not concentrating (eg sometimes your tenses are wrong). You use a fairly limited amount of words and some topics (eg art) worry you because you don’t enough words. Perhaps you rely on using a lot of set phrases when you write.
Sometime you find it difficult to understand native speakers who have an accent you haven’t heard before. There are times when you find that you are still translating things in your head as you listen and it is hard to concentrate for a long time in English. You may be able to get through a TED video, but you definitely rely on subtitles.
You’re confident enough talking about everyday things like school or your job, but if someone asks you about a more complex topic like globalization, you may struggle a bit. There are definitely times when