IELTS® Speaking vs TOEFL® Speaking: Which is easier? – Interview with Aubrey Carter

In this short interview, Aubrey Carter from All Ears English sits down with Josh MacPherson from TST Prep to discuss the similarities and differences between the TOEFL Speaking section and the IELTS Speaking section.

Most importantly, they both attempt to answer the question on top of everyone’s mind,
Which test is easier?

Who is Aubrey Carter?

Aubrey Carter holds a Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from City College of New York and has over 19 years of experience in teaching English as a Second Language. As a co-host for the IELTS Energy and All Ears English podcasts, Aubrey loves creating content for students learning English as a second language. Whether preparing for the IELTS exam, improving general English fluency, or sharpening Business English language skills, these students are highly motivated and hard-working, and she is grateful for the opportunity to help them reach their goals.

Here are the notes to our interview about the TOEFL ITP Plus in China:


Josh: So, welcome back to the channel. I am here with Aubry Carter from All Ears English, and she is a podcast host, IELTS expert, and she is here to talk about the IELTS speaking. And I’m going to talk about the TOEFL speaking, and we’re gonna compare and contrast the two. But first of all, Aubrey, thank you so much for coming. I appreciate you making the time.

Aubry: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Josh: Thank you. So, can you tell me a bit about your teaching background, how did you become so familiar with the IELTS, and how did you become what you are today, podcast host at All Ears English Yeah.

Aubry: For sure. I did my Master’s in ESL a few years ago, and then I taught French and ESL in New York City. Then I moved to Arizona, and I was teaching French in Arizona, and then I was able, lucky enough, to get this job for All Ears English which I absolutely love.

We have two separate podcasts, All Ears English and the IELTS Energy podcast which we, I record three episodes every week for that one, IELTS Energy. And I work with a former examiner, Jessica Beck. She was an IELTS examiner for fourteen years. So, she has all of this inside information about the IELTS exam that she’s been able to pass to me. And are able to use that to really give students the inside information so that they know everything there is to know about IELTS and the best way to prepare for it.

How much does the IELTS® and TOEFL® test cost?

Josh: How much is the IELTS test? I know there are two tests, academic and general. I don’t know if there’s a difference between the prices.

Aubry: Same price, yeah, same price for academic or general, just depends on why you’re taking it, if it’s to immigrate or if it’s to go to school in an English-speaking country. It’s about $250 in the United States; varies a little bit depending on the country, but close to that.

Josh: Okay, so about 250 in the States, and I think TOEFL is similar. It’s about 230, around that area, depending on the country that you’re in. So, the price is pretty much similar. It might be a tiny bit more expensive for IELTS, but pretty much the same thing.

What is the difference between the TOEFL® and IELTS® Speaking sections?

Josh: Let’s get into the kind of format a little bit. So, about the TOEFL speaking format, the test is, let me think here. So, there’s four questions, and there’s an independent question which is kind of like a general opinion question, you know, “Do you agree or disagree all high school students should wear school uniforms?” And then you give your opinion about it. And then the three other tasks are pretty much academic.

So, question two is a campus conversation. So, there is an announcement and then the students listen to a conversation where students agree or disagree. And then you have to report on the reading and listening. And the questions three and four are, again, reading and listening, but they are for academic tasks. So, you listen to something like that you would hear in a college classroom. It takes about a minute or two. You listen, take notes, and then you have to speak. For question one, you have to speak for 45 seconds, and questions two, three, and four you have to speak for 60 seconds. And it’s all on computer. And it’s pretty short actually, probably takes about 15 minutes to complete the entire TOEFL Speaking section. And this is for the iBT. What is the IELTS like, the Speaking section?

Aubry: It’s fascinating how different they are, right? I am fascinated

Josh: Really?

Aubry: Yes, that sounds a lot, like I was telling you, I took that French CST exam, and it was a lot like this TOEFL Speaking. IELTS is very different. You, first of all, a lot of you out there probably know that you are speaking with an examiner. There are three parts to it, and they are each very different.

Part one is very personal, informal questions, and what’s vital is that you don’t speak like a student speaking to an examiner or a teacher, which is difficult because that’s actually what’s happening when you’re in this room with a stranger. You have to sound more like a native speaking to a friend. And they’re asking you these personal questions which lead to that, lend to that. So, it’s going to be questions about what do you like to do on the weekend, what do you eat for breakfast, where do you like to vacation, things you would check with a friend about, but you have to sort of pull yourself out of this little room with a stranger and make yourself use slang, and idioms, and phrasal verbs, you know, more informal language that you wouldn’t necessarily use when speaking to a teacher. So that’s a lot of what’s tricky about it. So, part one is much more informal.

Josh: How long is that usually?

Aubry: Four to five minutes.

Josh: Four to five minutes, ok.

Aubry: And you’re asked, you know, three to four, there are three test questions. The examiner must get through all three. So, they’ll ask you one or two in the first section, they’re all sometimes quite related, sometimes a little different. The first couple of questions might be about what you like for breakfast and then the next couple the examiner will say: “Let’s move on to talk about vacations. Where do you like to vacation?” So, sometimes they’re totally unrelated. But, yeah, overall, about four to five minutes for part one.

And then they will move you on to part two. And, they give you one minute to take notes and think about what you want to say, and then you have to speak for two minutes. This is kind of a tricky thing about IELTS speaking is they will say “You have to speak for one to two minutes”, but actually, you have to speak for two minutes or you’re going to get a low fluency score. So, you have to speak for two minutes on a topic, and it’s always describing something, describing a person, or an event, or an experience. And then they stop you when the time is up. So, a little different, right?

And then part three is much more formal. These are going to be questions about the news, about the environment, about government policies, and they will always be related to part two. So, if part two was about describing something you own which is important to you, part three might end up asking you questions about consumerism, “Is it difficult to live in a society of consumerism?” or “How easy is it to avoid a consumeristic society?” It’s going to have a high-level vocabulary, much more formal, but again, four to five minutes for the questions in part three. For parts one and three, the timing is similar, but the vocabulary you use is very different, much more formal, it is more like speaking to a professor or to an examiner because the questions are so much more serious.

Josh: I mean, the one thing that strikes me immediately is that the IELTS is longer. It probably takes about 15 minutes to complete, but just the amount of speaking is more for the IELTS.

Aubry: Definitely. And then just this sort of “give and take”, right? Because, especially for part three, examiners have this big list of questions, but, very much their intent is to create an exchange between the students. So, depending on how you answer a question, their next question will definitely piggyback on that and be related and ask your opinion about something or develop that a little bit further. So, very different from, you know, just recording without another person there.

And another thing that’s tricky is the examiner is not really allowed to give you any kind of feedback with their face. Often they’re not smiling at all; they’re not responding at all, which imagine how difficult that would be when you’re chatting about what you like to do with friends and trying to sound informal and the examiner looks like this. Very difficult. They have to practice, students have to really practice to be ready for that and not let it throw them off.

Josh: That’s interesting. So, I mean, my mind is going in a couple of different ways, but one thing. So, the question one on TOEFL sounds like part one for IELTS in that it’s a general question about your opinion and you’re, kind of, you don’t want to be too formal, you want to be casual, you want to be kind of just naturally speaking.

So, it sounds like that there’s an overlap with that and the IELTS, and in the TOEFL you are, you only have 45 seconds to speak and 15 seconds to prepare. So, the idea is that, you know, there’s not a lot of prep time, that you want to speak kind of spontaneously and naturally.

So, that’s the idea with that and it sounds kind of similar to part one, where they want you to sound more natural and more conversational, even though you’re talking to a teacher which doesn’t sound like you’re talking to a friend. Ok.

Would you prefer to talk to a human being or a computer?

Josh: You know, having a, talking to a human and talking to a computer, you know, some people prefer talking to a human being because it’s more natural whereas other people prefer a computer because it’s maybe less stressful. But it sounds like the human in IELTS isn’t too human.

Aubry: That’s the problem, right? They are not supposed to make it easier in that way. So that doesn’t really make it easier. But it’s interesting. I can see how the way to prepare would really be very similar.

With IELTS students we definitely suggest that they speak with another person whenever possible or to, like, print out a face and put it on the mirror. And often we’re like, “That’s actually good to have it, just be like a serious face instead of talking to yourself”, right? Tricks like that are just kind of strategies to prepare for that. And so, it would be interesting how it would be pretty similar whether you’re practicing to just speak with a computer and there’s not another person there or to speak knowing that the other person is not really going to engage like a real person would with your responses.

Josh: That’s interesting. Cut out a face, get a face, cut it out, put it on your mirror and just start talking to them. That would be uncomfortable. And I think that would prepare me pretty well for IELTS.

The TOEFL® testing environment

Josh: I didn’t think about it just now is that it changed, things changed a bit since COVID, but you’re in a noisy room. So, you’re in a room with a bunch of test-takers and everybody’s speaking at the same time, or kind of at the same time like you’ll be on the writing and other people on the speaking, or you’ll be on the listing and somebody’s on the speaking.

So, you’re in the test-taking center, and there are people speaking and some people are loud. And that is another distraction. And so, one thing that we recommend for students is to go to cafés and practice speaking in noisy environments to try to get used to that kind of stressful situation.

Aubry: That’s a really great idea because that we don’t have that even in a café. Normally, if people are speaking on the phone, they’re trying to keep their voice down but for someone taking an exam, they’re wanting to speak loud and clear, they’re less worried about the other students there. They need to get their scores. So, I can see that happening.

When I took the CST, I was just speaking into a recorder, but I was the only one in a small room. I’m trying to even envision that. It would be very difficult to be in this exam situation, where people are speaking out loud, and I’m trying to do the reading, or the listening exam, or even my own speaking exam, and someone else is talking, that would be difficult, would definitely something you’d need to prepare for.

Josh: It is something that makes it a challenge. And sometimes, since COVID there’s been the TOEFL Home Edition so some people have been very happy about that because they can go in a quiet environment, they could speak in a quiet environment, which makes it a little bit easier. But students still go to the test center, and it’s stressful. So, that would be a down point for TOEFL.

Tips for IELTS® Speaking part two

Josh: The part two describing question, it sounds like that they have quite a bit of time to take notes and to kind of prepare to speak. One trouble, something that I sometimes work with students on is kind of having a robot voice because they do tend to read their notes and, you know, kind of just speak from what they read. Do you find that to be an issue for students in the IELTS for this question?

Aubry: We highly recommend students don’t write out any full sentences because they don’t want to be tempted to read them, just like you said. We have them think about how they want to start their answer so that instead of saying, “I am going to talk about a time I did”, they have to start it interesting, engaging high-level vocab, so, decide how they’re going to start it quickly and then high-level vocab, linking phrases, specific things that they want to include. That’s what they should be focusing on.

And the biggest tip is to tell a story. No matter what it is they’re describing, it’s difficult to talk about for two minutes. So, in that one minute, they need to think of a story that’s related that they can tell. So, they answer the question and then they tell a related story to be able to fill that two minutes. And it also pulls from them interesting details and vocabulary because they’re sharing sometimes, you know, if you’re talking about a watch that you own that’s important to you, that’s really difficult to do for two minutes. And unless you tell a related story that’s interesting to you, it’s going to be difficult to use a lot of high-level vocab. So, telling a story really helps students succeed on that part too.

What if they can not think of a personal example?

Josh: It’s great. I mean, we have similar advice, you know, always give a personal example for the independent speaking because two minutes is even longer than 45 seconds. We say 45 seconds is hard to speak the whole time, and so like for the exact reasons you just said, a personal example can help you, first of all, develop the topic, you know, you tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Whereas if you don’t tell a personal example, you kind of have to give a list of reasons. And then, if you give a list of reasons like first this is, the first reason this is, the second reason, it’s harder to show that you have a wide vocabulary and you’re also repeating the same kind of grammatical structure over and over and over again. So, you do really need to have that example.

One kind of pushback I get from students with the examples is that you don’t know what the question is. It’s sometimes hard to find a personal example for, you know, a random question. What advice do you give the students in that situation, when they ask you, “What if I don’t know an example for this question type?”

Aubry: Yeah, so two things. First of all, it doesn’t have to be about you. It can be about anyone you know whether that’s somewhat something you’ve seen on TV, for sure, share an example of something you saw in a show or heard on a podcast, or a neighbor, a friend. You likely know someone that has something related. It doesn’t have to be about you. It’s still a personal example, it’s still something you know from your life.

And then, definitely, the examiner doesn’t care if you’re telling the truth or not. So, you can always make something up, lie. And I’ve had some students tell these great interesting stories, and I’ll ask them something like, “That was amazing”, and they said, “I made that all up”, and I’m like, “Great job!”

They don’t care, the examiner is listening for very specific things for the scoring system. You know, they don’t care if it’s true or not. They’re listening for your vocabulary, and your linking phrases, and are you pausing, are you hesitating too much?

What is the difference in how the TOEFL® Speaking and IELTS® Speaking are scored?

Josh: And the score, and the scoring system, just a quick recap to refresh my memory as well. There are four criteria, is that right?

Aubry: Yes, exactly. So, fluency and coherence, a lot like you were saying, where you can’t have pauses or hesitations that are non-native, like if it’s clear you’re trying to think of certain vocabulary or think of what you want to answer that question. So, a good strategy there is to have filler phrases in your pocket. Something that you could say while you think of what you’re actually going to say or while you think of that word and then practice paraphrasing, if you can’t think of the exact word you want. So, fluency and coherence. And then pronunciation, which is a lot, like you were saying, about the phonemes but also intonation. And then vocabulary and grammar. So, lexical resources, vocabulary.

The most difficult part of the TOEFL® Speaking

Josh: Yeah, the TOEFL I would say actually is hard to prepare for. I would say it’s a little bit harder because it’s very unnatural where, like you have 15 seconds to prepare. Okay, prepare, beep, 45 seconds to speak, okay, speak. Okay, you have to speak for exactly 45 seconds okay, stop. And then do the same thing for 30 seconds and 60 seconds.

And, so, yeah, I think TOEFL might be a little bit harder because it’s more unnatural, actually, it’s a little bit more artificial and you have to fit kind of the content that they’re looking for in a very limited amount of time.

So, I do think that you can kind of get lost in a rabbit hole, like you said, with all the things that you can learn to prepare. The kind of idea is that you learn the TOEFL stuff and then on test day, hopefully, you forget it and it just comes out naturally, that you don’t have to think about it.

Aubry: Yes, that’s the goal.

What’s your biggest tip for the TOEFL® and IELTS® Speaking sections?

Josh: All right, so is there any, you know, I’ll leave off with like, kind of your big tip. What’s your big tip for IELTS speaking, what’s something that you are always telling students to do, that you think is helpful for most students?

Aubry: Well, I think to be confident on test day right. And this is very difficult to do on your own because if you’re just practicing for the speaking exam and you don’t get feedback from an examiner or an expert, then you don’t really know, right? You understand the scoring system, you understand what to practice, but then you go to practice, and you don’t know what you would score.

So, I think getting feedback from someone who knows what they’re talking about is huge for increasing a person’s confidence. Then they can go, they can know like, “Okay I’m scoring band seven. I’m scoring band eight”. Or they can say, “Oh okay I’m actually scoring band six. I didn’t realize”, and then get specific things that they need to improve.

So, I think that’s the most important if you go in on test day and you are unsure if you already, you are unsure what you are going to score, it’s hard to be confident in that. But if you feel like you have strategies and you really understand what you want to do, and you know exactly what to expect, then you can be confident, and it’s not that hard. You’re speaking to a real person, but you know what to expect. Even if they’re grumpy and frowning at you, can still be confident that you have strategies and know what to do.

Josh: So, you took my tip which is to prepare and get feedback from teachers and other people. The one thing that I’m always telling students as well, it’s just a very small thing which is your body affects your voice. So, a lot of times, the students, you know, they give answers, with very tight…, and they’re like this. And that, you know, they’re nervous, you’re nervous and it’s not natural.

But you don’t do that when you speak. When you speak naturally, you move your hands, you’re probably engaged in what you’re saying, hopefully. You know this type of physical things has an impact on your confidence and on the way that you speak and so.

Actually, one thing is, just a very small tip, but it makes a big difference for a lot of students, is just being physical when you’re speaking. I mean you can’t do so much of that when you’re in the test center, but just remember that it’s hard to sound natural when your body’s very stiff and very tight.

Aubry: Yeah, and I can imagine that would be even more difficult if you’re recording into a computer. You would have more of a tendency to be not using hand gestures because maybe you feel silly because there’s not a real person there. So, to fight those instincts, and that’s probably easier on IELTS because even if the person’s not smiling at you and encouraging you, there’s still a person there, so it’s more normal to use the hand gestures you normally would, but I agree on TOEFL, I can imagine that that would be really vital to force yourself to still have the same sort of body movement, you would be speaking normally in order to not sound like a robot.

Josh: Yeah, exactly, I mean you can’t go crazy, but you want to try to at least have some type of physical aspect to it.

Aubry: Definitely.

Josh: Okay, great, well. So, Aubrey thank you so much. And let me ask just one more time where can students find you and learn more about All Ears English?

Aubry: Yes, so you can follow us on social media, All Ears English everywhere there’s social media. And also, just our podcasts, IELTS Energy Podcast, if you’re preparing for IELTS, and the All Ears English Podcast which I believe you’re going to be on very soon. I’m excited to hear your episode.

Josh: Yeah, talking about the Duolingo English Test, different thing.

Aubry: Awesome, yes. So, both of those podcasts are, wherever you find your podcast, you can subscribe to those for like several episodes a week and, quick wins, All Ears English is pretty short, 10 to 15 minutes where you know you get all this really valuable information in a pretty small amount of time. So that’s always nice.

Josh: Nice. I’m always fighting the length of time always trying to keep it short. I think it’s a teacher’s thing, but anyway, Aubry, I’ll put all the links in the description below. Thank you so much and talk to you next time.

Aubry: Yes, thanks very much. Bye.

Josh: Take care, bye.

You can learn more about Aubrey Carter and the All Ears English podcast right here.

If you need help improving your TOEFL Speaking skills check out our Score Builder program for the TOEFL, with over 100 exercises, 20 practice tests, and hours of video lectures designed to help you improve your score.

And which test do you think is easier, the TOEFL iBT® or the IELTS®?

Let us know in the comments below.


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