History Of IELTS

IELTS test takers and the organizations 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 on-going 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 beginning

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’.

Test format

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
  • Technology
  • Medicine
  • General Academic

There was also a Non-Academic test for vocational candidates.

Each candidate was required to take three sections in their subject area or module and two common tests in the General section:

M1 Study Skills G1 General Reading
M2 Writing 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 (4000 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 redundancy.

In 1987 British Council and UCLES EFL (now known as Cambridge ESOL) 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. 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 (the International English Language Testing System) 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 below:

  • Module A – Physical Science and Technology
  • Module B – Life and Medical Sciences
  • Module C – Business Studies and Social Sciences


Reading Module A Module B Module C General
Writing Module A Module B Module C General
Listening Non-specialised Module
Speaking Non-specialised Module

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 significant change:

  • 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).

Continuing development

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 also introduced 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 ESOL’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, and by 2003 the total number of Academic and General Training candidates had exceeded half a million.

A full account of the development ELTS/IELTS and its place in the history of testing English for academic purposes is in preparation as a volume in the Studies in Language Testing series.

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Posted in IELTS & TOEFLS.

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