Testing and Certification

BEC, BULATS, IELTS, TOEFL, TOEIC. What are these – and which is right for me?

There is no one organisation which can claim to offer a definitive test of levels of English as a second language. The situation is further complicated in that the various tests available all have their individual grading (banding) systems. Thankfully, they now all relate these to CEF.

Below is a summary of what the main testing organisations offer:

  • Cambridge University offers the Business Language Testing Service (BULATS).
  • A joint venture between The British Council, Cambridge University, and IDP (Australia) offers the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).
  • The American Council on Education offers the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)  - mainly used by American Universities to test the level of English for foreign students wishing to study in the US - and the more general Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC).

All the above are quite similar in that they cover the four skills - reading, writing, listening and speaking. It is important to note that the result is only valid for a limited period (usually no longer than two years). There is no pass or fail. The candidate is given a score - which can be related to CEF - and the test can be re-taken in order to improve this. For whatever reason, over the past few years, IELTS has been increasingly popular in both the US and Europe. It's usually accepted by most employers as being a reliable certification of a candidate's level of English.

If you are looking for a certificate that does not expire, your best bet is probably Cambridge University's Business English Certificates (BEC). Similar to all the above in its approach to testing the four skills, the big difference is that there is a pass and fail point. Furthermore, the exam is offered at three levels: Preliminary (B1), Vantage (B2), and Higher (C1/2). Cambridge University also offers exams at all levels in general English.

Do I need a trainer to prepare for these tests?

All these organisations offer websites in English and German. They provide not only detailed information about how the test is administered (application, fees, test centres and grading) but also specific examples of past papers and audio files - which can be downloaded. In addition, there are lists of self-study books which offer very good preparation material for these tests. A list of the main websites  is below. Levels below B2 would need help. However, it's certainly possible for a  candidate with a B2 and above  level of English to prepare a lot independently. With the reading and listening  tests, in particular, there is a certain technique involved, which often comes by practising the various exercises regularly. Having said this, the writing and speaking tests require a specific approach, style, and lexis, and feedback from a qualified trainer would be advisable. A good trainer will also be able to advise which level and which test is suitable. In the past, I have successfully trained candidates for BEC (all three levels), Cambridge First Certificate, BULATS, and IELTS.


For IELTS the British Council provide all you need to know, together with practice tests in the following two site

Take IELTS with the British Council | British Council

Free online IELTS practice tests | Take IELTS (britishcouncil.org)

For BULATS I would recommend:

Practice materials for test takers (cambridgeenglish.org)

For BEC and the other Cambridge University examinations the following site offers excellent preparation material together with free resources: