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Strike up the Bands: Understanding IELTS Scores

The IELTS scoring system is quite an enigmatic one. First off, it goes up to an arbitrary number of 9. Why not 10? Why not 11? Some IELTS researchers say it comes from Dante Alighieri’s work The Divine Comedy, in which the author travels through the 9 circles of Hell. Others relate that the number was chosen for the 9 muses in Greek mythology which inspire artists.

While both of these statements are good attempts at trying to suss out truth, they are invariably false. The British Council chose the number for the 9 rings of power given to mortal men by the Dark Lord Sauron in the classic tale Lord of the Rings. One test to rule them all, one test to find them, one test to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

The IELTS is similar to many tests in that it judges your skill in 4 sections: Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking (in that order). In these 4 sections, you will be assigned a score from 1 to 9. These scores will then be averaged to give you a final band score. It is entirely possible to get half points in each section. For example, you could get a score of 7.5 if you had a Reading score of 8, a Writing score of 7, a Speaking score of 9 and a Listening score of 6 (8+7+9+6 = 30. 30/4 = 7.5). If you score a 6.25 or a 6.75, the score is then rounded up to 6.5 or 7 respectively. However, if your average comes out to a 6.125 or 6.625, then your score is rounded down to 6 and 6.5 respectively.

Since the IELTS is a test of your English language competency, each band then describes your abilities. They are as follows:

Band 9: Expert user: has fully operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding.

Band 8: Very good user: has fully operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriacies. Misunderstandings may occur in unfamiliar situations. Handles complex detailed argumentation well.

Band 7: Good user: has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.

Band 6: Competent user: has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.

Band 5: Modest user: has partial command of the language, coping with overall meaning in most situations, though is likely to make many mistakes. Should be able to handle basic communication in own field.

Band 4: Limited user: basic competence is limited to familiar situations. Has frequent problems in understanding and expression. Is not able to use complex language.

Band 3: Extremely limited user: conveys and understands only general meaning in very familiar situations. Frequent breakdowns in communication occur.

Band 2: Intermittent user: no real communication is possible except for the most basic information using isolated words or short formulae in familiar situations and to meet immediate needs. Has great difficulty understanding spoken and written English.

Band 1: Non-user: essentially has no ability to use the language beyond possibly a few isolated words.

Band 0: Did not attempt the test: No assessable information provided.

These are somewhat broad statements of your ability with the language. As for the Listening and Reading sections, you will be assigned a score on this scale based on your raw scores in each section. In both the Listening and Reading sections you will answer 40 questions. From your score on these 40 questions there is a rough estimate of what your score will be:

Band scoreRaw score out of 40
Academic Reading
Band scoreRaw score out of 40
General Training Reading
Band scoreRaw score out of 40

Firstly, the reason that there isn’t an exact raw score to band score conversion is that within each test, there is a measure of scaling. This means that if many people underperformed on a certain test on a certain day, then the IELTS scorers will lower the raw score level required to get a higher band. However, it should be said that the range with which they adjust the score levels is generally not much. It could be a point or two.

The next thing to mention is the differences in the Academic and General reading portions. The General reading test is an easier reading test and requires less specific and complicated language than the Academic. Thus a higher raw score is required for a higher band in this section.

As for the Speaking and Writing sections, there are different subsections within these categories that will give you the overall score. Much like the total IELTS Band score is an average of 4 sections, the Speaking and Writing are themselves averages of 4 sections.

For the Writing section you will be graded in four areas: Task Achievement for Task 1 and Task Response for Task 2, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource and Grammatical Range and Accuracy.

Task Achievement and Task Response essentially mean ‘how well you answered the question’. Did you complete all the bullet points in the Letter writing section? Did you fully answer the two part essay question? Look at the explanations for the score of 9, but most of all you should focus on what is missing from the essays that get grades of 7 or 6. Mainly people receive lower grades because their answers aren’t fully explained or extended. They may write a body paragraph that doesn’t explain the issue as completely as it should, or there may be an example used that doesn’t quite fit the point that is being made.

Coherence and Cohesion essentially means skilled transitions, connections and flow of your writing. If your body paragraphs go from a Point to an Example and then finally end with an Explanation, then you are doing well. If they have linking words in between these parts, then you are doing even better.

Lexical Resource means vocabulary. Here, it is even good to look at a band score of 9. You can make slips in your writing. This is ok. A band of 9 does not mean ‘fluent’. It just means the person does very well with the language. They will be looking at your use of complex or uncommon language as well as your collocations. Collocations are just words that are commonly used together. The Wikipedia article I linked to lists strong tea as a proper collocation and powerful tea as an improper one, because everyone says the first, but no one says the second.

Grammatical Range and Accuracy means your use of grammar. Just like in our lexical resource section, you are allowed to make slips and mistakes and still get a perfect score. You should use the tenses correctly and you should use things like conditionals and modals.

In the Speaking section, you will be graded on four areas as well. These are: Fluency and Coherence, Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range and Accuracy and Pronunciation.

The Lexical Resource and Grammar are the same as they are in the Writing section. 

Fluency and Coherence means your ability to speak easily in the language. They will be measuring your pauses to see if you are looking for the right word. They will be measuring the connecting words you use to show meaning in your sentences.

Pronunciation means your ability to pronounce all the features of the English language. It is not a problem to have an accent, but there are situations in which your pronunciation may confuse your meaning. Be careful of W-V pronunciations as well as L-R. Try to make the TH sound by biting your tongue, not by pronouncing it with the tip of your tongue touching the roof of your mouth like you would with a T.

That is all for now. Hope you found this article helpful. Till next time, happy studying!

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