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IELTS, CAE, TOEFL and more: navigating the most popular English proficiency exams


What’s it all about?

After working so hard (mostly!), it’s understandable that our students want or need to demonstrate their level of English. They’ll usually choose to do so by taking proficiency exams such as IELTS, CAE or TOEFL. Their motivations vary widely. Some wish to work or study abroad while others need to prove a certain level for work or university in their home country. Still others take exams as a personal challenge to measure their progress.

Whatever a student’s reason for taking an English test, their teacher is left with a few key questions:

  1. Which are the most popular English proficiency tests?
  2. Who are they designed for?
  3. What is the format of each exam?
  4. How can I best prepare my students for success?

If you’re a newly-qualified teacher, or new to teaching exam classes, this can feel quite daunting. It’s tricky enough convincing busy adults to submit their writing homework on time. Even getting teenage students to turn on their webcams during a Zoom lesson is a real challenge. Now you’re expected to prepare them for an important exam?! Fear not! With this handy guide, teaching exam classes can be one of the most rewarding specialisms within EFL. It doesn’t hurt that the pay is often better too…

So without further ado, here’s your guide to the most popular English proficiency tests.

Exam preparation materials for IELTS, CAE, or TOEFL


What does it stand for?

International English Language Testing System 

Who’s it for?

Many of our students understandably dream of jetting off to a cool, cosmopolitan destination. They want to study at an English-speaking university, exploring a new culture and its people. The IELTS is likely to be the pesky obstacle standing between them and that ambition. It is valid for most academic institutions in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK. It is also accepted by 3,000 US universities, though it’s second in popularity there to the TOEFL (more on this later). IELTS is also accepted by the immigration authorities of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. This means it’s a popular choice for those aiming to obtain visas to live and work in those countries. 

Achieving a certain IELTS score is often connected to students’ life plans and ambitions. That’s why we’ve typically found them to be highly motivated and focused (there are always exceptions, of course…). On the other hand, though, IELTS students are often working or studying at the same time as preparing for their English exam. Time management may, therefore, be a factor for them and you to take into consideration. 

What’s the format?

The IELTS exam has two different modules – IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the academic module best suits the first group of students we outlined above; those who wish to study abroad. It’s also in-demand among highly trained professionals who wish to practise in an English-speaking environment. Conversely, the General Training exam is for those applying for visas, or planning to undertake non-academic work or training.

Both modules have the same structure. They have separate parts for the four skills – Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. The Listening and Speaking tests are common to both versions, while the other sections differ depending on the module chosen. The IELTS Academic writing exam, for instance, will reflect the type of composition students might have to produce in a university context. 

Your students will generally know which version of the test they need to take, depending on the demands of their particular institution or agency. The exam takes 2 hours and 45 minutes in total, but the speaking exam may take place up to a week either side of the written parts of the test.

How can I help my students pass IELTS?

Strictly speaking, students don’t exactly pass or fail this exam. Instead, the average of their scores in the four parts is rounded into an overall band score which reflects their level of English. A student who needs to demonstrate a high C1 level, for instance, will probably be aiming for a score of 8.0. Certain institutions might also require a minimum score in some or all parts of the exam. This avoids students with a spiky profile compensating for some skills with others.

If you’re unfamiliar with the exam, or have never taught IELTS students before, you may wish to consider taking a Teacher Development Course. Oxford TEFL’s Certificate in Teaching IELTS, for example, is a 30-hour course which will give you all the skills you need to begin teaching IELTS with confidence. As part of the course, you will receive personalised attention from our expert tutor, Tim Brown. He says:

“The IELTS exam is increasingly popular in many parts of the world and EFL teachers know they are paid a premium if they can prepare students for this exam. The Oxford TEFL TDC gives them the skills and knowledge they need to transition from teaching General English to being a successful exam prep teacher.”

CAE (and other Cambridge Exams)

What does it stand for?

Certificate in Advanced English

This is the Cambridge exam that students need to pass in order to demonstrate a C1 level of English. The others are KET (A2), PET (B1), FCE (B2) and CPE (C2). A full guide to the acronyms and their meanings is available here.

Who’s it for?

The Cambridge English Qualifications have a wider range of uses than the others we look at here. The CAE and CPE are accepted by a large variety of universities. This includes most in Europe and almost all in the UK. Graduates can also use the CAE for visa applications in certain countries, notably Australia.

Many non-native English-speaking countries also accept these qualifications. Here in Barcelona, for example, students must pass the FCE or equivalent in order to graduate from university. The KET, PET and FCE exams all have a ‘For Schools’ version. These require the same level of English as the main exam, but focus on language more suitable for younger learners (try talking to a 12-year-old about their retirement plans and you’ll see why this is handy…) In some countries, the Cambridge English Qualifications may exempt school or university students from otherwise obligatory English modules – definitely a motivating factor for teens, in my experience!

Teen CAE candidate

What’s the format?

The format varies slightly, depending on which exam students take, but in general there are separate papers for Reading and Use of English, Writing, Listening and Speaking. As with the IELTS, the speaking exam can take place seven days either side of the other parts, and the total duration of the exam is also similar (around 3 hours).

Candidates can also choose between the paper-based and computer-based tests. Students (or teachers!) who are uncertain can watch a tutorial and do a mock computer-based test here to get an idea of how it all works. 

In most Cambridge exams, students need an overall score of 60% in order to pass. This means that if they fail – for example – the Listening paper, but have excellent speaking skills, this can balance out their score and still allow them to pass overall. Unlike with the IELTS, it is not common for universities and other institutions to ask for a specific score in any particular part of the exam.

How can I help my students pass the CAE?

The first step is to familiarise yourself with the exam your students are preparing for. Given the international popularity of the Cambridge English Qualifications, there is a lot of online material available. For starters, check out FloJoe and Englishaula. Again though, you may feel that you wish to take a Development Course. This will give you all the skills you need to start planning and delivering exam classes with confidence. It will also make you stand out from the crowd in the job market. The tutor for Oxford TEFL’s 30-hour Certificate in Teaching Cambridge Exam Classes is Charlotte Gillier. She tells us:

“More and more of our students want to gain an official qualification in an increasingly short timeframe, and this presents teachers with a real challenge as their expectations may not always be realistic . The course helps you meet this challenge. You will learn how to be strategic in preparing and delivering your exam classes and as a result improve your students’ chances of success.”


What does it stand for?

Test of English as a Foreign Language

Who’s it for?

The TOEFL is most popular with those hoping to study in an English-speaking country. As outlined above it is especially in-demand with those hoping to study at institutions around the USA. That said, 10,000 organisations in over 130 countries accept it overall. Sooner or later then, it’s likely that you’ll come across a student who’s preparing for this test.

Bonus fact: The top 100 universities worldwide all accept the TOEFL!

What’s the format?

The structure of the exam is fundamentally quite similar to that of the other English proficiency tests already discussed. It features Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing sections with students having around 3.5 hours to complete all of them. The main thing to keep in mind here is that the content firmly focuses on academic language. The Reading tasks, for instance, resemble material a student may expect to encounter on an undergraduate course at an Anglophone university. In this regard, it resembles the Academic IELTS.

From birthday parties to baby showers, presentations to pub nights – it seems we’ve had the ‘Home Edition’ of just about everything recently. The TOEFL exam is no exception. Students can take the test online from home, and are supervised by a human proctor via webcam. This is in contrast to the computer-based Cambridge exams, which still require the students to be physically present at an exam centre (there are looooads of these though).

TOEFL Home Edition

How can I help my students pass the TOEFL?

There’s a wealth of material online to help teachers and students alike. Some of our favourites are TOEFLtestsonline, learn4good and GraduatesHotline. If you’re new to teaching TOEFL classes, you may well benefit from some coaching. Oxford TEFL’s Teacher Coaching Program pairs you with an expert in the field of your choosing and provides you with ten hours of one-on-one personalised attention.


TOEIC – especially popular in Asia, this exam tests Business English skills and is valid for two years.

OPI – with a focus on speaking, this exam is popular in contexts where oral fluency is key.

Trinity College ESOL – this is a suite of exams with differing focuses (academic, visa, Young Learners etc.), which are particularly popular in the UK and Ireland.

Some final thoughts

Teaching exam classes can be a great way to broaden your experience in TEFL, improve your employability, and start earning more. Learners are often highly motivated and nothing beats the satisfaction of helping students achieve their life goals, be they personal, academic or professional. Even if you’re totally new to teaching exam classes, don’t be intimidated! With a little preparation and research, you’re sure to reap the rewards.

If you’d like to build your skills and confidence as an IELTS teacher, read about our 30-hour Teaching IELTS course with expert tutor support here.

Or, to build your skills and confidence as an Cambridge Exams teacher, read about our 30-hour Teaching Cambridge Exams course with expert tutor support here.

Interested in ten hours of personalised tutor support, focused on teaching exam classes or any other area of ESL? Check out our Teacher Coaching Program here.

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