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December 21, 2022

Vocabulary: one of the keys to success in IELTS

Published on December 20th, 2022 at 08:00am EST Updated on December 20th, 2022 at 09:34am EST

In this post we’ll explore vocabulary for IELTS.

Everyone knows good vocabulary knowledge will help you get a better score in the IELTS test.

What role does vocabulary play in the IELTS test and how important is it?

The more words you know, the more you will understand in the IELTS Listening and Reading sections. Likewise, the more words you know, the better you will be able to show off your communication skills in the IELTS Speaking and Writing sections.

IELTS has specific assessment criteria for the Speaking and Writing sections. Vocabulary knowledge (labelled ‘Lexical Resource’) is one of the four areas you are assessed on in each of these two skills. Your final score is the average across the four criteria. So, to answer our question, vocabulary is very important in the IELTS test, it makes up a quarter of your final Speaking and Writing scores.

See more about how IELTS is scored

So how can you improve your vocabulary for IELTS? We’ll explore some simple ideas below.

Tips and hints for improving your vocabulary.

Many of you probably already keep lists of new words together with their meaning which you study, learn, and commit to memory. This is a good start but there are other things you can do to make learning vocabulary easy and successful. Consider using some ideas in the step-by-step guide to learning vocabulary below.

The first thing to think about is what does it really mean to know a new word? To learn a new word you need to find out:

• Dictionary definition – What does the word mean?
• Spelling – How is the word written?
• Pronunciation – How is the word spoken and what is the stress?
• Grammar – Is it a verb, noun, or adjective? Can it change and if so, does this affect the spelling or pronunciation?
• Collocation – What other word or words does it naturally go with? E.g. fast + food.
• How is the word used? – It’s a good idea to write example sentences in your vocabulary records.
• Synonyms & antonyms – What words have a similar or the same meaning? What, if any, words have the opposite meaning.

These eight points are the first steps towards really knowing a new word. Good vocabulary record-keeping should include all these factors. Take a look at the example vocabulary record below for the word ‘problem’.



noun /ˈprɒb.ləm

– a situation, person or things considered to be unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with, overcome or solved.









pose a problem – His unhealthy lifestyle will almost certainly pose a problem in the future.

fraught with problems – We had to abandon the project as it was fraught with problems.

raise a problem – The mood in the meeting was positive until Ned raised the problem of the shortfall in the pension fund.

address a problem – Joanna was fed up with being overweight. It was time to address the problem and find a diet and fitness regime that would work for her.

scale of the problem – Juan knew that a few of his staff were unhappy with the new rotas but hadn’t realised the scale of the problem. Now ten were threatening to leave.

See sample IELTS Test Questions


Paraphrasing, or finding new ways to say the same thing, is another important vocabulary skill for you to develop. This means that synonyms, or words with similar meanings, are especially important for you to explore. Paraphrasing is a skill relevant to all four IELTS skills tests. For example, in both IELTS General Training and IELTS Academic Writing tests you have to paraphrase the Task 1 and Task 2 titles in your answers. In the IELTS Reading and Listening sections you need to be able to pick out the key words in the questions. This will help you recognise if the same meanings, using different words, come up in the reading text or listening script.

Word families

Words don’t live alone. They live in groups of connected meanings in our minds and it can be useful to store them that way in your vocabulary records. For example, take a look at this word family grouping different words for emotions.

sad (ness)
happy (iness)

Another useful way to think about and store vocabulary can be to think about opposites (antonyms). Look at this example below.

Antonyms for: Problem

When you are studying for your IELTS test, take some time to think about different word families and relationships. A lot of tasks in the IELTS test deal with core relationships such as cause/effect and problem/solution. By organising your vocabulary records to show different ways to group words or word families, you can make it easier to develop your IELTS vocabulary. Look at this example of some of the causes, effects, and solutions for the topic of climate change below.

Causes Effects Solutions
Natural gas
Coal/oil -fossil fuels
Big industry
Farm animals
Air pollution
Sound/light pollution
Melting glaciers
Rising sea levels
Extreme weather: Floods, droughts
Global warming
Green energy: wind, tidal, nuclear, solar
Electric vehicles
Plant trees

This type of vocabulary record could be useful to help you prepare for an essay in IELTS Writing Task 2.

Chunks of language

Like most languages, English has a lot of special expressions or phrases. These are groups of words, or chunks of language, that have a different meaning when you use them together compared to the meaning of each separate word. The only way to learn these expressions is to store them as a chunk of language. Follow the steps below to do this:

  1. Write down the expression e.g. only time will tell.
  2. Add the meaning of the group of words: only time will tell – having to wait and to see what the future holds.
  3. Add an example sentence to show how the expression is used: I think I’ve done Ok in my IELTS test but only time will tell.

Remember, these special expressions are usually more useful in the Speaking section. Don’t try to use any of these phrases if you are not completely sure of their meaning.

Which vocabulary to focus on for IELTS

An average native English speaker regularly uses a vocabulary of 20,000 to 30,000 words. This may sound alarming to an IELTS test taker but don’t worry, there are ways to limit what vocabulary you need to learn so that it’s useful for the IELTS tests. So where to start?

Topic related vocabulary

There are subjects that appear regularly in the IELTS test. While we can never predict what topics will appear in any given IELTS test, the topic list below is a good place to start. These types of topics could come up in any part of the IELTS test and you could either be asked to talk or write about them, or they could be part of the Reading or Listening section:

  • health and fitness
  • education
  • technology
  • the environment
  • pollution
  • climate and weather
  • shopping
  • transportation

Remember, you don’t need to record and learn any specialist technical terminology, for example, the vocabulary often used in scientific and medical texts or discussions. This specialist vocabulary can be hard for anyone to understand. If any technical words are included in a test, the test writers will make sure that the meaning is provided either as part of a reading text or a listening test script.

So, to develop your vocabulary to prepare for your IELTS test you need to:

  • gather all the information you need to really understand the new word;
  • explore the relationships and links between the new words you meet;
  • keep detailed vocabulary records and update them regularly;
  • review and practise regularly.

Good luck!

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