Key Vocabulary Series

IELTS Lessons, written by Sam Morgan and Tom Speed


​Today we’re looking at how to improve your vocabulary in order to get the IELTS score you need. Improving the range of vocabulary you have and your ability to use and understand specific topic focused vocabulary will help you in IELTS speaking, writing listening and reading. First, let’s have a look at some common IELTS vocabulary problems in speaking and writing.

Some Common Errors with Vocabulary


Some people have very limited vocabulary and so they have to use simple words to express themselves.

For example, ‘My favourite movie is James Bond because it is good’.

In this sentence the adjective ‘good’ doesn’t tell us anything about why the speaker likes the film. It’s too simple. Exciting or thrilling would be more expressive.


Some people lack range and don’t know synonyms. This makes their speaking and writing boring for the reader.

For example, ‘My favourite movie is James Bond because the story is good and the acting is good’.

Here the speaker is using simple vocabulary repetitively and so his/her band score will be low.

Incorrect use of complex vocabulary 

Some people learn lists of complex words and phrases before the test but because they don’t fully understand the meaning or the grammar of the words, they use them wrongly. Make sure you know a phrase or word properly before you use it.

For example, ‘I believe the government must do more to support industrial sector‘.

Industrial sector is a good noun phrase but the writer hasn’t got the grammar of the phrase correct. This phrase requires the definite article ‘the’  at the head of the phrase – ‘the industrial sector‘. An error like this reflects negatively on lexical resource and grammatical accuracy.

Where should I learn new words?

To be successful in the IELTS test you need a wide range of vocabulary. In the speaking test you need the vocabulary to talk about your interests, opinions and life as well as more academic vocabulary for part 3 to talk in depth about whatever topics you are asked about. In writing, you may need vocabulary for dealing with statistics or processes and for whatever the topic of the academic task 2 essay is. Reading requires more academic and topic specific vocabulary and listening requires a range of less formal vocabulary for part 1 and 2 and more specific and academic vocabulary towards the end in part 3 and 4.
You should try and learn new vocabulary from a range of sources. All of the following places are excellent sources

  1. Magazines/ websites about things you are interested in.
  2. Newspapers are full of excellent vocabulary on a wide range of topics.
  3. Podcasts/radio shows are great because you can hear how words are used in context.
  4. IELTS practice tests. Where better to learn vocabulary for the test than on the test? When you finish doing timed practice tests, go back over texts and try and learn some of the important new vocabulary.


Tips for how to successfully learn new words

  1. Don’t try to learn too many new words at any one time. 10-15 words per week is a good target.
  2. Prioritize learning words that you think will be useful in the future. Don’t just learn any words in a text because some words you will be unlikely to use ever again. 
  3. Make sure you understand the meaning of the new word or phrase. Check the word in a dictionary.
  4. Find examples of the word in context. Seeing how it is used by native speakers in a text will help you to fully understand the meaning and the grammar of it. Context and situation are very important, whenever you learn new words think about what contexts they could be used in.
  5. How formal/informal is each new word? Who could you use it with? Is there a more formal or more informal word you could use?
  6. Find out if the word has any synonyms (words with the same meaning). What are they? Knowing synonyms will make your speaking/writing more interesting and help you with listening and reading comprehension.
  7. Find out if the word has any antonyms (words with the opposite meaning). What are they? As with synonyms, knowing antonyms will make your speaking/writing more interesting and help you with listening and reading comprehension.
  8. Make sure you can spell new vocabulary correctly. Remember spelling lists at elementary school? Well, this is a great way to improve your spelling as an adult as well. Make a list of new words. Cover up the list and then try and write the words again. After, you can check your spelling. Do this frequently and your spelling will become accurate very quickly.
  9. Make sure you know what part of speech a new word is. Is it a noun, verb or adjective? Find the different forms of the word and when you can use them. Lots of students make mistakes with word families like this one – success, succeed, successful. Be careful with the form of the word.
  10. Is the word a verb? If so how does it change with tense? Is it regular or irregular? Can it be used in the continuous?
  11. Make sure your pronunciation of the word is accurate. In the dictionary check where the stress is in the word and how to pronounce the individual sounds in the word by checking the phonemic transcription. For this you will need to be familiar with English phonemic symbols.  Click here to learn and practice English phonetics.
  12. Recycle and reuse new words. Some people try and learn 10 to 15 words a week. This is a great idea but you have to keep using the new words or you’ll lose them. Try to use new vocabulary as much as you can so you don’t forget it. Also make sure you reread your old vocabulary lists every now and again to remind you of words you’ve been working on.
  13. I like to write new words on cards and put them on the wall. You can group words on the wall by parts of speech or by topic. For me this really helps to remember them.
  14. Why not get a friend to test you on the spelling and meaning of new words? If your friend is good at English, they could also challenge you to use a new word in a sentence.