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Understanding IELTS band scores

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.

 Important note

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:

  1. improving one sub-skill in one paper (eg how you answer questions)
  2. improving your test taking skills (eg learning how to complete reading in time)
  3. 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.

IELTS bandscores - official

Notes

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).

CEF

Notes

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

Reading

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

Writing

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.

Listening

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.

Speaking

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

Reading

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.

Writing

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.

Listening

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.

Speaking

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

Reading

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

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.

Listening

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.

Speaking

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

   

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13 Responses to Understanding IELTS band scores

  1. UM FARES April 7, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

    I feel mybe in 6.5 and already I bought some book you are recommended it ,but Iam still warried .could give me advice please?

    • Dominic Cole April 8, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      Too hard sorry. You really need a teacher who knows you personally. All I can do on a website like this is give general advice.

    • kazy May 5, 2013 at 6:43 am #

      i scored 5.5 general test. i want to know if am qualified to apply for british spouse visa( FLR)(M)

    • Mesut_Ozil October 20, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

      Hey Dominic

      I registered for IELTS exam few weeks back. I had no idea about how to prepare for the exam and was quite nervous. Then i came across your website. I started practising all the study materials. I followed your every tip and strategies. The result…My ielts exam was wonderful (except for the writing section). Your blogs are very useful for students to prepare for the exam. I would like to thank you for helping me out. I will strongly recommend using your website to all my friends.I am expecting a score of 7.5 in ielts.

  2. Joseph Choi April 7, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    Could you tell me what the main gap between band 8 and band 7.5 (in ielts academic writing) is?

    • Dominic Cole April 8, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

      This is a really tough question to answer. One step is to look at the band score descriptors for writing to see what 7 and 8 mean. If you get 7.5, this means that you probably have two scores of 7.0 and two of 8.0. You are half way between the two.

      Here’s the good news. If you already gave two band score 8.0 criteria, then it may be easier for you to improve so that you get a third 8 (8+8+8+7 = 8), as you already have some skills at that level.

      Here’s the downside. You don’t know which criteria you need to improve – it could be grammar/vocab/coherence/task response. You need a teacher to help you with that. Also, it may be that next time your score goes down!! IELTS can work like that. Next time you simply write a little worse (harder question etc) and one of the criteria you got 8 for goes down to 7.

      The thing is that IELTS bands are broad, but many many candidates are on the borderline of one band and the next.

  3. feefee April 8, 2013 at 8:40 am #

    Hello Dominic,

    I am a regular reader of your blogs and I find them very informative,not to mention helpful.I took the IELTS for a second time a few weeks ago and my scores were;Listening 9,speaking 8,writing 7.5 and reading 6.Any specific advice on how to improve my reading score?

    I would really appreciate it.

    Thanks in advance.

  4. passieltshigher June 13, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    Good topic! Even with descriptors, the difference between band scores can still be hard determine. And there are just so many factors that affect a test taker’s performance.

  5. thankyou November 14, 2014 at 7:07 pm #

    hey Dominic, Thank you for all the study materials in this website. these really helped me when i took the the exam.and guess what i got 7.0 in overall thanks Dominic!

    • Dominic Cole November 14, 2014 at 7:12 pm #

      Excellent work. Well done and I hope it all works out.

  6. Arun Kushwaha March 27, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

    Hi,
    I got an overall of 7.5 with Listening as 7.5 , Reading as 7.5, writing as 7.5 and speaking at 8.

    I am an Indian with a normal school background

    In fact the state of your mind( of course amount of preparation also) on the day of test determines to a large extent the score you may get.You might be a level 8 or even 9 but a bit of lost concentration and scores can go spiraling down.

    For e.g in Listening I got a bit lost in one conversation run and must have goofed up at least 4 questions.

    I feel that combination of good preparation and above all a relaxed mind on the day of test can easily take you to 8.5 or 9.

  7. JJ July 22, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

    Band overall 7.5
    Thanks to these materials over here

  8. Sam August 8, 2016 at 6:58 am #

    I got 8.0 overall in 2006 (Academic); and 8.0 overall in 2015 (General training). 9.0 is supposed to be a native speaker level.

    As a person who is now living amongst ‘native speakers’, I’m willing to bet that most high-school educated native speakers will get 6.5-7.5; and probably 1 out of 50 university-educated native speakers will get an overall score of 8.5 and above.

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