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Which Standardized English Test Should You Teach Abroad?

Get ahead in your ESL career

Landing a job teaching English overseas isn’t always easy. The EFL job market is competitive enough in many countries that if you don’t specialize, you’ll have a hard time finding good work. Simply being an English teacher isn’t enough, sometimes you need an extra hook.

There are plenty of ways to set yourself apart, but the way I took, personally, was test preparation -- as in, learning how to help students prepare for standardized tests. Standardized exams are a global phenomenon, so test preparation likewise pops up almost everywhere.

But just as there’s more than one college admissions test, with both the SAT and the ACT vying for the same market, there are multiple standardized English tests used to measure English learners’ knowledge and skills. They come in a variety of flavors, too, with tests focusing on academic English, business English, and general English. There are even a handful of further specialized tests, but as you might guess, the more precise its scope, the fewer people are taking the test, so the big ones tend to be academic or general English.

There are plenty of ways to set yourself apart, but the way I took, personally, was test preparation.

Teachers’ specializations can get pretty specific, too. Me? I’m a TOEFL teacher, primarily. I’ve taught other tests, but if I were looking for work in a new country, the first thing I’d do is dig into the job market for TOEFL preparation. But if you’re not yet specialized, and you want to get into English test prep, you can start by getting familiar with the key players: the most common English tests that students want help with.

How to Get Trained

If you want to specialize in teaching one of these exams, most TEFL course providers will offer additional specialization modules to train teachers on these skills. Typically, these add-ons are far less expensive than a full TEFL course. I'll be including tips on getting trained to specialize in each course as I discuss them below.

FCE, CAE, and CPE: Tests for Employment

FCE, CAE, and CPE: Tests for Employment

Cambridge offers teacher training courses for all of their exams. For example, you could take their online course to prepare students for the FCE or CAE. Each one costs $40.

Cambridge English is a TEFL behemoth. They both certify new teachers through their CELTA courses -- one of the most widely recognized accrediting organizations worldwide -- and certify English learners based on tests for students at various levels.

Because there are several Cambridge tests, I don’t want to single one out as the most important, but these three are the best place to start. They’re the most general in their scope of English, they’re commonly used in resumes (especially in Europe), and they’re advanced enough that students who plan on taking them will likely be studying completely in English.

  • FCE (First Certificate in English): Requires students to be conversational and communicative, but far from free of errors.
  • CAE (Certificate in Advanced English): Expects natural use of idioms and very high comprehension of native English in realistic settings.
  • CPE (Certificate of Proficiency in English): Calls for near-native fluency, with only very rare lapses in language use or communication.

Interestingly, the FCE isn’t actually the “first” Cambridge exam; the KET and PET are lower-level tests, but they are not as popular in general, and it’s less likely for English teachers who don’t speak their students’ native tongues to end up tutoring those more basic exams.

The Cambridge English exams are a convenient set of tests to teach because they have a good deal in common among them. Certain types of questions show up across tests, which means that experience teaching one test helps a good deal in teaching the others.

The three above all include sections on the four main communication skills: reading, listening, speaking, and writing, with “use of English” questions built into the reading sections to target specific grammar and vocabulary knowledge; particular question styles that you see in FCE listening, for instance, show up in CAE listening, too.

And aside from the format similarities, all three tests are typically taken as career boosts, so students of one test often become students of the next later on. That’s not to say they’re always taken for employment purposes; some universities accept CAE or CPE scores, even if they’re not traditional “academic” tests.

IELTS: Test for University Admissions

IELTS: Test for University Admissions

IELTS Academic has a free guide on how to teach IELTS. Cambridge offers a $30 online training course.

Speaking of universities, Cambridge English’s most popular exam has that same target market. IELTS is their test of academic English, although it does also have a “general” English form that’s a bit less common. In either case, IELTS shares some formatting similarities with the other Cambridge English assessments listed above, but the core content and goals of the test are different enough that it’s better to treat it as a separate entity.

Besides that, the students you’d attract with an IELTS background don’t necessarily overlap with those you’d work with, say, the CAE, whereas the other three tests discussed above overlap one another heavily.

The test itself is broken up into the same four sections as its cousin exams and has some similarities in terms of question types, such as sentence completions and matching subheadings to paragraphs of text. The official IELTS site has an extensive breakdown that illustrates how disparate the elements of the test are.

It takes time for a teacher to really learn the ins and outs of any Cambridge exam because of that variety. But because the number of people taking IELTS is so large (and rapidly growing!), it’s a worthwhile investment if you find yourself working with IELTS students.

TOEFL: Test for (Primarily US) University Admissions

TOEFL: Test for University Admissions

Oxford Seminars offers a module on TOEFL test preparation for teachers for $400, or you could train yourself for free using resources from Magoosh.

Let’s move on from Cambridge English’s offerings (although there are several other, smaller tests) to look at one of the main U.S.-based English exams. The TOEFL is made by ETS, the same company that makes the GRE and (in a complicated relationship with the College Board) the SAT. The TOEFL is a competitor to IELTS, taken by a similar number of people globally and for the same purpose: university admissions.

A big-picture overview of the TOEFL looks very similar to one of IELTS, too. The four sections are roughly the same (reading, listening, speaking, and writing), the level of English required for high scores is comparable, and the register of English tested (academic) is all but identical. But there are a few key differences.

First, students taking the TOEFL are much more likely to be applying to American universities or colleges, since it’s a more broadly accepted test in the States. And, maybe more importantly, the tasks included in test are quite different so the way you end up teaching students also differs.

For instance, whereas in IELTS test-takers have conversations with a test administrator for the speaking section, the TOEFL has them record responses to questions into a microphone. Learning the quirks and challenges of the TOEFL ends up being a very important part of teaching the test, as does using TOEFL practice material that closely mimics the particular format of the test. It’s a bit quicker to learn than IELTS format and strategy since there are fewer types of questions, but it’s no less important.

One notable advantage to building up a TOEFL specialization: if you end up teaching English in the U.S. after spending time overseas, there is a good-sized market for TOEFL prep stateside since it’s an American test. IELTS experience isn’t quite as helpful in applying to U.S. language schools.

TOEIC: Test for Employment

TOEIC: Test for Employment

You might think of the TOEIC as relating to the TOEFL in pretty much the same way that the first Cambridge tests above related to IELTS. But to be honest, that comparison only works so far, because FCE/CAE/CPE don’t test business English, and even the formatting is more similar within the Cambridge exams than it is within ETS’s English tests.

Although there are some parts of the TOEIC that look like the TOEFL, there are about as many that look like parts of a Cambridge test, such as describing photos or filling in blanks. It’s also divided in a way that the TOEFL is not: there is one TOEIC for speaking and writing, and a separate test for reading and listening.

Finally, it is a much easier test on average, because it seeks to differentiate among students at lower levels of English skills. The TOEFL is primarily a test for students who are already quite advanced, capable of listening to realistic university lectures and understanding key details; besides it’s more difficult sections, the TOEIC also includes tasks that intermediate students have little trouble with.

But most importantly, the students who take the TOEIC are going to be more similar to those who take the FCE, CAE, or CPE. They’re looking to put the results on a resume or use them to qualify for a particular promotion, rather than looking to study at an English-speaking university. So if you specialize in business English (or expect to), then knowing the TOEIC can come in handy.

Other Exams

This article could go on ad nauseam, to be honest. I haven’t mentioned a word about other business English test like the BEC exams, smaller companies like Trinity College London or Pearson tests, country-specific exams like Japan’s EIKEN, or free newcomers like EFSET and Duolingo’s Test Center. But diving into any and every standardized test clearly isn’t the best approach, since some markets are larger than others.

Start with a general understanding of the formats, purposes, and audiences of the biggest contenders, and work from there. True specialization comes out of necessity, anyhow—when you need to teach a particular test, you’ll have to learn it!

Find teaching jobs abroad or look for TEFL courses.

Photo Credits: Robert Servais, Anne Helmond, McFotoSFO.

Lucas Fink is the TOEFL expert at Magoosh.com. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean.