Literacy practices in the professional workplace: Implications for the IELTS reading and writing tests

The study investigated the literacy practices required of graduates in professional work across a range of occupational areas. It considered how these corresponded to the types of reading and writing required of candidates on the IELTS test – both in the Academic and General Training modules.

The project was a domain analysis study concerned broadly with issues of validity of the IELTS test in its current uses for employment purposes. Specifically, it investigated the nature of literacy practices in a range of professional areas, and sought to make comparisons with the writing and reading formats used on the Academic and General Training modules of the test. The use of the tests in these contexts includes for example, the recruitment processes of major companies and the registration policies of a number of professional associations.

As McNamara and Roever (2006) point out, testing in such domains brings with it important social responsibilities. These are ones that extend to professional organisations, whose quality of service will be a function in part of the adequacy of a candidate’s communication abilities, but also to the candidates themselves, where test outcomes may have a major bearing on their opportunities for employment, and ultimately on their sense of wellbeing in society.

Using survey, interview and text analysis methods, the study found a number of correspondences between the literacy demands in the two domains. The main differences noted related to the highly transactional nature of professional communications.

Findings from the project are used as a basis to suggest possible adaptations to the test.

Two broad options for the future directions of the test would appear to be available to developers. One of these is to continue with the current trend evident in the recently produced materials – that is to pursue the idea of making the test suitably ‘flexible’ so that it has relevance to the two types of cohort considered in the research (i.e. those entering tertiary study and those entering professional employment).

The other option – a more radical one – is to work towards developing a separate IELTS test for general professional employment purposes. Such an option would enable some of the trends evident in recent materials – as well as findings from the present study – to be taken up in a more focused and untrammelled way. Before any project of this dimension could be contemplated, clearly additional research would need to be undertaken.