IELTS vs TOEFL listening tests: which one is more difficult?

A frequent question I get asked by students who have the liberty to choose between TOEFL and IELTS is whether I think they should pick one of the two based on level of difficulty. Bearing that in mind, today I would like to talk a little about my personal experience with the listening sections of both of them. I will focus on two points:

a. the speakers' accents;

b. the concentration problems I've had.

The accents


I am starting with accents, because I think this can pose a real challenge depending on which variety (ies) of English you have been exposed to the most. I dare say that, in Brazil, because we have so much American tv shows and cinema, we are more exposed to what I like to call Hollywood English or StAmeTOEFL presents standardized variations of American English, which means there is not a lot of deviation from what we see on tv (in terms of how people speak). 

IELTS, on the other hand, admits a myriad of different commonwealth accents, ranging from English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Australian, Indian-British, South African... You won't concisely find the exact same accent throughout the test, so it can be a lot more challenging to prepare your ears, especially if you have been listening to American accents your entire life. As a matter of fact, British English itself has an even more complex vowel sound system than American English, which creates slight pronunciation varieties that ultimately make the listening act per se much harder. If you've made up your mind about taking IELTS, I highly recommend finding lectures with people from different countries, and also looking for Netflix series and films to watch too. This will allow you to get used to different kinds of pitch, different tones of voice, and pronunciation. 

The concentration issues

Concentration issues IELTS TOEFL.jpeg

IELTS listening test requires you to do more than just listen and choose the correct option: there are visuals, such as maps and diagrams, and also gaps to fill out with up to three words. And yes, spelling words correctly counts. They also test your ability to complete charts, take notes on information over the phone and even read maps and timetables. The test is not about academic and university student life only: it's also about everyday skills you will need to hire a car, complain about a broken product, turn on the heating in your house, get a job, schedule an appointment...

The multi-tasking bit: You'll fill out the test with your answers while listening and looking at the questions, which can be hard for a lot of people, even native speakers. 

If we look at TOEFL's listening test itself, we might think it's way easier. You listen to lectures and people talking about every day campus problems, not much about out-of-the-university issues; no charts, no maps, no spelling Mcyvir or Hillsdune rd. Easier, right? Well, not really. For starters, you don't get to see the questions first, so you have no idea what is going to happen. This can make you really nervous. And here's another issue: while during IELTS listening test everyone is supposed to remain in absolute silence, that's not what happens during TOEFL's.  You will see people talking to each other, getting up to take a break, arriving to start the test, asking for paper, complaining about technical issues, or even doing the speaking test. This, for people who are easily distracted, can be devastating. Do not expect quietness and silence during TOEFL. 

The multi-tasking bit: You'll have to focus on the computer screen while taking notes that may help you answer the questions and retain information. 

As regards me, I scored with 29/30 at TOEFL and 8.5/9.0 at IELTS. I honestly do not know which test was easier for me. After finishing both of them I was extremely tired mentally, but TOEFL definitely stressed me out more. On the other hand, I found the accents of IELTS much more difficult to handle, because I hadn't had a lot of exposure to some of them; that got me a little lost at times. If you ask me, I find them both as difficult, but for different reasons. TOEFL's structure was definitely easier for me to suss out, but it was also more repetitive <<boring>> prepare for. IELTS brought tasks that were more real life-like, but it was also more unpredictable. What I think is you should find sample tests for both tests and decide which one to take based on how comfortable you feel. And, of course, whatever you choose, remember to practice. Tests are supposed to, yes, evaluate linguistic skills, but they only favor those who have acquainted themselves with their format. Check out the following links and see what suits you best:

Teacher's tips


1. Watch Tedtalks and TV shows with Americans and try to take notes

2. The book is great, but you should invest in purchasing the program.

3. Practice for the listening test at a café/cafeteria/bar or anywhere you know there will be a lot of people passing by, and talking.

4. Get some listening tasks from books and practice taking notes before looking at the questions

5. Online classes are a must


1. Watch tedtalks from different countries, but also TV shows from Australia, South Africa, Britain, etc. but also videos of people talking about museums, venues and parks in the UK.

2. Do not underestimate how well you know numbers and letters: try practicing taking notes of them in chunks (when people say them without taking pauses). This WILL be on your test

3. If you struggle with spelling, work on it. 

4. Get some listening tasks from books and practice taking notes while looking at the questions

5. Study basic things such as dates, addresses, and the compass, as this type of information will be featured on your test.

And here's a great video:


Best of luck,

Lachesis BraickComentário