The study reported here was concerned with the issue of test development and validation as it relates to the IELTS Academic Reading Test. Investigation was made of the suitability of items on the test in relation to the reading and general literacy requirements of university study. This was researched in two ways – through a survey of reading tasks in the two domains, and through interviews with academic staff from a range of disciplines.
Tasks in the two domains were analysed using a taxonomic framework, adapted from Weir and Urquhart (1998), with a focus on two dimensions of difference: level of engagement, referring to the level of text with which a reader needs to engage to respond to a task (local vs global); type of engagement referring to the way (or ways) a reader needs to engage with texts on the task (literal vs interpretative).
The analysis found evidence of both similarities and differences between the reading requirements in the two domains. The majority of the IELTS tasks were found to have a "local-literal" configuration, requiring mainly a basic comprehension of relatively small textual units. In the academic corpus, a sizeable proportion of tasks had a similar local-literal orientation, but others involved distinctly different forms of engagement, including tasks that required a critical evaluation of material (i.e. more interpretative), or which stipulated reference to multiple sources (i.e. more global). The study also found a good deal of variation in the reading requirements across the disciplines.
The results of the study are used to suggest possible enhancements to the IELTS Academic Reading Test. A useful principle to strengthen the test's validity, we argue, would be to push test tasks, where possible, in the direction of the more "global interpretative" reading modes required in academic study.