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There are many ways of improving your English before you start your course. By Jessica Moore
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The Independent Online

If you're planning to study in the UK, it is vital that your English is good enough to get you through. Not only will you have to understand your lectures and textbooks, you will also need to write essays and give presentations. And that's just the academic side! To make the most of your time in the UK, it's important that you feel comfortable and confident in your surroundings. But just how good does your English have to be?

If you're planning to study in the UK, it is vital that your English is good enough to get you through. Not only will you have to understand your lectures and textbooks, you will also need to write essays and give presentations. And that's just the academic side! To make the most of your time in the UK, it's important that you feel comfortable and confident in your surroundings. But just how good does your English have to be?

If you're able to understand Which Way UK, you're well on your way to meeting the level of reading proficiency set by most UK universities and colleges. But to prove your reading, along with your writing, listening and, in some cases, English speaking skills, you will need to pass a formal test. The four most widely recognised certificates of English language are TOEFL, IELTS, CPE and WELT.

For over 40 years, TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language) has been the leading academic English proficiency test, measuring skills in reading, listening and writing. Recognised internationally, some 800,000 people register on the TOEFL training programme every year. Lessons are available on the internet, privately, or in groups. One of the easiest and most versatile is the internet programme, Cer@net, which provides 30 hours of online, interactive tutoring, and a week-long residential course. Students are allocated their own English-speaking tutor, who offers support throughout the course - all you need is the software and headphones. TOEFL courses, including the teaching, residential and test, cost up to £2,700 (€3,750).

IELTS (the International English Language Testing System) is a similar scheme, accepted by most higher education institutions in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and many in the USA. There are two IELTS tests: one for general language skills; another for academic. Available at 300 centres in over 120 countries, the tests last two hours and 45 minutes, and cost around £85 (€120).

Another option, if your English is super-good, is the CPE (Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English), awarded only to those able to function effectively in almost any English-speaking context. Recognised by universities and employers internationally, the test has five papers (reading, writing, use of English, listening, and speaking), which take a total of five hours. Costs vary, so contact your nearest test centre.

Leading the way in English language support and research in the UK is the University of Warwick. Their WELT exam (Warwick English Language Test) can be taken at designated centres across Britain and overseas, and is accepted in many English-speaking countries - although you should check, as some institutions ask for additional certification.

The WELT test takes two hours and 45 minutes, costs around £50 (€70) in the UK, and tests skills in grammar, writing and academic reading. Unlike IELTS, CPE and TOEFL, WELT does not include a listening or speaking test. It's also a much speedier process: candidates receive their results within 10 working days, and their certificate soon after.

None of the tests outlined above gives a pass or fail mark, instead they grade each paper. This is helpful, as it points to where your strengths and weaknesses lie. "Every university sets it's own entry requirements," says Beatrice Merrick, director of policy and services at UKCOSA (the Council for International Education). "It's hard to give hard and fast rules: there is a system of courses and exams, but there's also the question 'how good does my English have to be?' It's difficult to draw a line between where knowledge of English ends and expertise in a subject starts. International students need a degree of both." To find out which certificate you need, and what grades you must achieve, contact the international applications department of the institution at which you hope to study.

By the time you sit your IELTS, CPE, WELT or TOEFL exam, you should be confident and prepared. Although an English language course is built into the TOEFL programme, IELTS, CPE and WELT are tests and tests alone. If your English is already of a high standard, your preparation may be little more than re-reading old textbooks. Most candidates, however, will need considerably more coaching. Fortunately, the majority of UK institutions provide support. Alternatively, you could contact ARELS (The Association of Recognised English Language Services) or BASELT (The British Association of State English Language Teaching) for English language lessons at all levels.

Even after you've passed your test, you will continue to learn. "Many international students have problems with regional accents and slang," says Merrick. "However, the more familiar students become with the language, and the more time they have, the easier it is to understand. Every discipline of study has it's own 'language'. Get used to reading articles and textbooks before you start your course. Don't just gear up to passing your pre-study language tests, engage with the vocabulary of your subject before coming over."

INFORMATION

English language tests:

www.ielts.org

www.warwick.ac.uk/go/welt

www.ets.org/toefl

www.CambridgeESOL.org

English language courses and support:

www.ease.ac.uk

www.britishcouncil.org

www.ukcosa.org.uk

www.ucas.com

www.arels.org.uk

www.baselt.org.uk

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