Australian citizenship: Could you pass the proposed English test?


If the government's citizenship reforms pass the Parliament, would-be Australians will for the first time need to pass a 2 hour English exam. But what exactly does the IELTS look like? SBS World News explores.

The government’s planned overhaul of Australian citizenship hangs in the balance and may be blocked in the Senate. Much of the opposition centres on the proposed English test.

Right now, a general citizenship test is administered in English – so you need to know enough to understand the questions. But the reform would create a separate English language exam, administered under the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

Would-be Australians would need to get a Band 6 result in the “general training” stream, rather than the “academic”.

But Labor, the Greens, the Xenophon team and some migrant groups maintain a Band 6 is far too high and could exclude vulnerable people. They say refugees in particular often have big gaps in their education, and may never be able to pass such a test. A parliamentary committee, chaired by a Coalition member, also recommended lowering the bar.

What does the test look like? 

There’s a 30-minute listening test, a 60-minute reading test, a 60-minute writing test and then an 11-14 minute speaking test.

The samples on the IELTS website show applicants are asked to read extracts on a range of topics, then answer comprehension questions.

There is a somewhat esoteric essay on the history of cinema:

“[The Russians] turned their back on the past, leaving the style of the pre-war Russian cinema to the émigrés who fled westwards to escape the Revolution.”

Emigrés, by the way, is a French word for political migrants.  

There’s a charming piece on the behaviour of bees and the way they dance outside their hives.

“The outside dance was fairly easy to decode: the straight portion of the dance pointed directly to the food source, so the bees would merely have to decode the distance message and fly off in that direction to find their food.”

The dance outside the hive points in the direction of the ______?

There’s another sample passage on the mechanisation of the newspaper business.

“How long will it be before the robots are writing the newspapers as well as running the printing centre, churning out the latest edition every morning?”

How topical.

There are some practical examples in the sample exam too, like this one about a food product recall:

Screenshot from the IELTS website.
Step away from the canned Chicken Curry (Spicy).
IELTS website

Dear Sir or Madam  

Then there’s the one-hour writing test.

You have 20 minutes to write the first piece, which, in the sample, asks applicants to have a good 150-word whinge about their roommate.

“You live in a room in college which you share with another student. However, there are many problems with this arrangement and you find it very difficult to work. Write a letter to the accommodation officer at the college. In the letter, • describe the situation • explain your problems and why it is difficult to work • say what kind of accommodation you would prefer.”

And it’s important to be polite.

Begin your letter as follows: “Dear Sir or Madam,”

Then, things get political.

The test asks for a simple, 250-word economic analysis of the socialised aged care system.

"In Britain, when someone gets old they often go to live in a home with other old people where there are nurses to look after them. Sometimes the government has to pay for this care. Who do you think should pay for this care, the government or the family? Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience.”

Of course, these samples only reveal the nature of the questions. The controversy is around the required mark. The IELTS is scored on a 9-band scale. Band 6 makes you a “competent user” of English with an “effective command of the language”, where you have the ability to “understand fairly complex language”.

Band 5, for comparison, means you are a “modest user” who can handle “basic communication” in your field.  

The government remains committed to the citizenship reform, which contains a number of other elements beyond the English test.

It has pledged to continue its negotiations with the Senate crossbench when parliament resumes in mid-October.

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