Vocabulary: Ten Strategies for Winning on Test Day

January 22, 2018 by Tony Rusinak

“How do you say that?” Is this a question you often ask? You know the word in your language, but you don’t know the word in English. This is, of course, one of the most challenging parts of learning any language – learning vocabulary. And since the IELTS is a language test, it follows that vocabulary is a big part of it. On both the writing and speaking modules, your lexical resource, which means vocabulary, is worth 25%. Similarly, on the reading and listening portions, if you don’t understand enough of the words, it can make the tests very difficult. So what's the best way to ace the vocabulary for the exams? Below are ten ways you can improve your score by thinking about the English words you know, or don’t know. 

  1. Synonyms

girl in warm coatA synonym is a word with a similar meaning. For example, pretty, good-looking, and attractive are synonyms for beautiful. On the reading and listening tests, it’s helpful to identify synonyms in the question that match with words in the text. For example, in the reading, you will see the word automobile but in the test question, the word vehicle will be used. In the speaking and writing tests, you’ll be expected to use synonyms rather than repeating the same word again and again. 

  1. Collocations

An important part of scoring high in IELTS is demonstrating English language skills similar to a native speaker. A vocabulary skill that native speakers are excellent with is using collocations. Collocations are words that often go together. For example, bus + stop = bus stop, bus + driver = bus driver, and bus + station = bus station are all collocations. These words often are used together. However, if we try these one's - bus + food = bus food, and bus + captain = bus captain, it sounds really strange. We never say bus captain! So, when you prepare for and take the IELTS, remember to use collocations.

  1. Formal and Informal

If you want a score higher than 6, then you have to show you understand the difference between informal and formal language. This is very true on Task 1 of the writing exams. For the letter in the General exam, formal language must be used when you are writing to people like your boss, or the mayor of a city. If the letter is to a friend or family member, you should use a more informal style. When speaking, just try and be natural. Imagine talking with a friend. Both formal and informal style are ok.

  1. Spelling

Unfortunately, the IELTS is not friendly to bad spellers. For the reading, listening, and writing exams, spelling is important. You will lose marks if you spell incorrectly. However, don’t worry too much about the difference between British, American, and Canadian spellings. You probably won’t lose marks for that. So, put your spell checker down and focus on spelling when you study.

  1. Copying from the test book

Let’s be simple. Do not copy vocab from the test book when doing your writing exam. Many test-takers copy words from the questions. Try to use effective synonyms instead. This will typically give you higher marks

  1. Reviewing

Many test-takers spend months or years preparing for their IELTS test. You take a lot of time and learn 1000s of words. Don’t forget to review those words you learned a long time ago. Being able to remember key words during the test can help you get a better mark.

  1. Idioms

Idioms are groups of words that have a specific meaning that's different from the meanings of each word on its own. For example, it’s raining cats and dogs. Idiomatic language is very common in English and is also expected for higher level speakers on the IELTS test. So when you are preparing for/ doing your IELTS, pay attention to the idioms.

  1. Sophisticated

To score in the IELTS 7, 8, and 9 range, you should be able to use sophisticated language. What do I mean by this? Try and use higher level, subject-specific language when responding to the test. For example, if a question on the speaking exam is about Winter in Canada, you should try to accurately use language specific to that topic. So, you might use winter terms like blizzard, ice-skates, snow plough, and sub-zero climate.

  1. Glossaries

Glossaries are the keyword boxes found on some of the tests, especially the reading test. They are there to help you and are probably important for understanding the text. So, make sure you use them. BTW: there's a glossary at the end of this blog ;-)

  1. Paraphrasing

A skill required on the IELTS speaking and writing tests is paraphrasing. This means to use different words to explain the same thing. Paraphrasing helps us make things clearer. It also helps us talk or write about things we don’t know the word for. For example, if you want to talk about the windshield on your car, but you don’t know this word, you might paraphrase it as the car’s front window. Don’t forget to practice this skill during your prep time!


to ace sth. to do really well in/on sth.
vocab an informal way to say vocabulary
BTW texting language meaning by the way
Prep time slang for preparation time



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