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Everything you need to know about IELTS and the CEFR



Date Published

17 November 2023

The IELTS nine-band scale is known and understood all over the world. It’s clear, unambiguous levels are used by universities, government departments and other organisations to define the level of English needed for admissions, visas and a whole range of other purposes.

But did you know that IELTS is also aligned to independent international standards?

1. The CEFR helps set the global standard for language levels

The CEFR is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. It was developed by the Council of Europe in the 1990s and first published in 2001. It is the world’s most widely used tool for describing the levels of foreign language ability.

The CEFR is used all over the world – ‘European’ refers to the origin of the framework, but it doesn’t mean that it’s only used in Europe or only for European languages! For example, many governments around the world set CEFR level B1 as an objective for language learning either for the end of secondary education, or for university graduates.

2. The CEFR describes what learners know and can do at each level

The CEFR defines six levels of ability from the basic level A1, through to the very advanced level C2 which corresponds approximately to IELTS band 9.

Most importantly, rather than a collection of vocabulary or grammar points to be learned, the CEFR focuses on specific types of skills like describing, presenting, and negotiating, with clear insight into how these skills evolve and change as one progresses through language studies.

As well as explaining the six levels in terms of overall ability, the CEFR gives detailed Can Do statements which describe what learners can typically be expected to be able to do at each level.

IELTS is carefully designed to examine English language proficiency in context and in use, with an authentic task-based approach that includes, for example:

  • describing information in complex graphs and charts
  • listening for inference
  • reading multiple passages to synthesise information
  • presenting and maintaining an argument in a real-time speaking interview.

3. IELTS is aligned to the CEFR through long-term research

It’s very important to understand that the CEFR isn’t an accreditation scheme – each test provider, including IELTS, needs to carry out its own research and provide its own evidence to show how the test compares to the CEFR levels.

IELTS has been working with the CEFR since the 1990s. We have carried out many studies to confirm how IELTS band scores compare to the CEFR. We have also looked in detail at the scores of test takers who have taken IELTS and other tests.

As a very quick guide:

  • If your organisation requires an IELTS score of 5.5–6.5, this is equivalent to CEFR level B2.
  • IELTS 7–8 correspond to CEFR level C1, which is the most widely accepted level for admission to universities in English-speaking countries.

This diagram gives a complete illustration of how IELTS scores compare to the CEFR.

Comparing CEFR and IELTS

Find out more about how IELTS is aligned to the CEFR.

4. Other tests may not be rigorously aligned to the CEFR

Some tests, including those produced by the IELTS Partners, are precisely aligned to the CEFR levels, but many other test providers give only an approximate statement of equivalence. In particular, some online-only tests compare their levels to the CEFR, but cover only a very small range of the skills described in the Can Do statements.

These organisations may also claim that their scores are equivalent to IELTS band scores, by publishing ‘concordance tables’. We strongly recommend that these claims should be treated with caution, as these tests may only cover a few of the skills that are included in the IELTS test. This is especially important for university admissions where a non-IELTS test may not cover writing and speaking skills in sufficient depth.

Our close alignment with the CEFR is just one of the factors which makes IELTS the ideal English language test for higher education institutions.