IELTS as a predictor of academic language performance, Part 1


David Ingram

Amanda Bayliss

Date Published:

27th April 2007

This study investigates whether the IELTS scores obtained by non-English speaking background students can predict their language behaviour in a university context.

This study investigated the extent to which the proficiency scores obtained by 28 non-English speaking background (NESB) tertiary-level students could predict their language behaviour in the university context. The study also sought to ascertain the adequacy of that behaviour for the linguistic demands of each student’s course and to consider the implications for raising or lowering entry levels to different courses.

Data was collected from a sample of 28 NESB students in their university programs at two Australian tertiary institutions. The students had gained entry to their chosen course on the basis of an IELTS score. The participants completed pre-study questionnaires, underwent semi-structured interviews and were observed in a variety of class types, during which their language behaviour was recorded and then transcribed for analysis. Students’ lecture notes and written assignments were also collected. The data was analysed using a mixed methods approach to produce results for the group as a whole. Discursive descriptions of each student’s language behaviour were then developed to produce results for individual participants.

The results revealed that the students were generally able to produce, in the context of their academic studies, the language behaviour implied by an IELTS test score. However, there was no apparent relationship between IELTS scores and student performance in course-related tasks which were beyond the scope of the proficiency test. The study found that although most participants who had achieved the requisite entry levels could perform effectively in the context of their studies, for a small number, the observed language behaviour was inadequate for their study program, raising questions about the adequacy of entry levels of the courses in which they were enrolled. In addition to recommending areas for further study, the discussion focuses on issues relating to the interpretation of IELTS proficiency descriptors, the setting of tertiary admission levels and observable student behaviour in the classroom context.