3 Quick and Easy Vocabulary Building Strategies for the IELTS Exam

March 18, 2016 by Brianne Fung

Did you know there are over 1 million words in the English language? The good news? You don't have to learn them all!

If you've seen the IELTS Scoring Guide, you know that vocabulary (lexical resource) is an important part of the IELTS exam. In addition to the speaking and writing modules of the exam, you might face unknown vocabulary in the reading and listening modules. Here are 3 reliable strategies that you can start following now to increase your range of vocabular

1. Throw away your academic word list (AWL) and start studying by topics:

1Many test takers believe that knowing all the words from an academic word list will help increase their band score. Unfortunately, studying a list of words that are commonly found in academic writing is NOT the most effective way to build vocabulary. This is because our brains don't receive or recall information in this way.

Our brains love categories. As a result, our brains often try to put new information into existing categories. Therefore, when we try to expand our vocabulary by studying from a list of complex words, it's very easy to miss the precise meaning because our brains are working across too many categories.

What's the solution to this problem? Study words by category. For example, spend one week focusing on the topic of education. The next week, move on to another topic, such as the environment or health. It is also a good idea to give yourself enough time to cover many topics before you book your exam. Not sure how to manage time? View the global test dates to find a date that fits your study schedule!

2. Don't study words, study collocations

2Another mistake that test takers make when they work on their vocabulary is they study words in isolation. In other words, they don't look at the other words that frequently surround new vocabulary. These words that often go together are called collocations. At a band 7 in speaking and writing, candidates should show "some awareness of collocation", so it's a smart move to become familiar with them.

To boost your understanding of collocations, here are some questions to ask yourself when you study new words:

  • Where does this word usually belong in a sentence? (At the beginning? In the middle? Near the end?)
  • What words are usually used with this word? (Which verbs? Which nouns? Which adjectives? Which prepositions?)
  • What kinds of words are usually used with this word? (Does a noun always go next? Should the next word be a gerund or infinitive?)

Don't worry if you can't answer all of these questions because not all words have clear collocations. However, you can still purchase a collocation dictionary or find a collocation website online.

3. Stop reading with a dictionary

3It's nearly impossible to pick up a newspaper or magazine and know the exact meaning of every single word. Because of this, many people feel that a dictionary is helpful. However, as you probably already know, dictionaries are NOT allowed in the IELTS exam, so how does one succeed in the reading module when there is unknown vocabulary?

The trick here is to practice reading without a dictionary. Doing this may seem challenging at first, but understanding vocabulary from the context of a reading is a skill that everyone can improve on with enough practice. When you find yourself looking at an unknown word, how will you figure out the meaning? Here are some simple points to think about:

  • What kind of word is it?
    See if you can substitute the unknown word for one you already know. Next, read the sentence again to see if it makes sense with the ideas.
  • What kinds of words surround the unknown word?
    If you already understand the information around the word, you can decide whether the unknown word is important or unimportant to the meaning of the whole sentence. Sometimes, readers focus too much on unknown vocabulary and this can waste valuable time in the exam.
  • What is the information in the sentences surrounding the unknown word?
    If the sentence that contains the unknown word is unclear, try looking at the sentences before and after. Because you're reading an organized piece of writing, the ideas should logically connect from sentence to sentence. This means that surrounding sentences usually repeat the unknown word, or provide synonym that will give you a better idea of the meaning.

What are you waiting for? Now that you've read about these 3 simple ways to build your vocabulary, why not try out some of these strategies by doing some practice tests? It's important to get plenty of practice before your exam because the more you practice these strategies, the quicker and more natural you'll become at using and understanding new words. Then, when you take your IELTS exam and discover unknown words, just remember:


Brianne was born and raised in Vancouver, BC and has been an ESL teacher in Canada for 8 years. She has had 7 years of experience with the IELTS exam, which includes teaching IELTS courses to learners ranging from beginner to advanced, as well as designing IELTS curricula for IELTS teachers. She currently teaches Academic English at Langara College and enjoys baking artisan cupcakes and watching fantasy and sci-fi thrillers.

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