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Interpreting IELTS Reading scores and their academic suitability

Improving IELTS Reading test score interpretations and utilisation through cognitive diagnosis model-based skill profiling

Researchers: Eunice Eunhee Jang, Hyunah Kim, Megan Vincett, Christine Barron and Bruce Russell, The University of Toronto

This study analysed stakeholder perceptions of IELTS Reading results. International students and staff at the University of Toronto, across multiple disciplines, were involved. The research sought to better understand international students’ perceptions regarding their language proficiency and preparedness for academic demands. Staff were involved to enhance how they interpret test scores and use this information for making informed decisions about student admissions and further support.

Key findings

International students

  • Many students felt inadequately prepared for meeting academic language and literacy demands at entry, even after they had met the language proficiency requirement.
  • Most students found the volume of reading ‘overwhelming’. They found the discipline-specific vocabulary challenging, and they found that implicit cultural assumptions and norms interfered with their text comprehension.
  • Their struggles with social speaking skills and academic language demands appear to result in decreased confidence in their language ability as they immerse themselves in schoolwork.
  • Further analysis of IELTS test takers shows that students who performed better on IELTS overall, and reading specifically, felt significantly more prepared for academic language demands than students who just met the cut-off score.

What does this mean for university staff?

The study findings highlight the importance of local investigations into test score interpretations and use in specific contexts. Together, results emphasise the need to inform:

  • international students of academic language demands beyond general language abilities
  • faculty and administration staff of incoming students’ abilities, as well as additional support required to succeed at the university level, paying special consideration to discipline-specific language demands.
  • Such findings highlight the importance of program-specific support across the years in order to tailor language-related support to the varied requirements within programs, but also to scaffold students as their language demands change and become more discipline-specific.

What tools are there to help?

The IELTS partners have developed several tools for stakeholders to help them better understand the English language level at each band score; for example, the online tutorial and IELTS Scores Guide, available on our website. These tools can greatly assist staff setting entry scores for courses.

This IELTS Research Report, along with more than 110 others, is available in full for free on our website.

Every year IDP Education and the British Council fund and support IELTS-related research that reflects current issues relating to the IELTS test in the international context. Such research makes an important contribution to the monitoring and test development process for IELTS; it also helps IELTS stakeholders to develop a greater understanding of the test.

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