The IELTS exam is designed to check your ability to use English to communicate effectively. IELTS vocabulary is one of the most important areas you need to practise for IELTS success. It is worth 25% of your total score on the speaking and writing papers. It is also essential that you have a broad vocabulary range if you want to understand the conversations in the listening test and the texts you will encounter in the reading papers.
It is hardly surprising that vocabulary counts for so much towards your overall IELTS score. Vocabulary (or words) is the foundation of modern language. It is how we express our thoughts, feelings and ideas and how we gain this information from others. Therefore, if you want to communicate with the highest level of clarity and meaning and convince the examiner that you can use English proficiently, it’s time to start learning new words.
What exactly are the IELTS examiners looking for when they check a student’s vocabulary skills? The IELTS website states that to gain a band score of 7 or higher, you should:
- Use a variety of words
- Use less common idiomatic vocabulary
- Avoid excessive repetition of words
- Show an awareness of collocation
- Show an awareness of and an ability to use paraphrasing.
So let me tell you how that can be done.
Using a variety of Words
Being able to use a variety of words depends on the number of words that you know. The best way to learn new words is to expand your exposure to the English language and to surround yourself with English every day. You can do this by reading books, watching tv, listening to the news, or speaking with a native.
Try watching a movie or a tv show from the USA and from the UK. You will often notice that vocabulary changes depending on the nationality of the speaker or writer. Movies, tv shows and conversations with natives are also great ways to learn less common idiomatic vocabulary. Consider the idiom ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ (raining heavily) – you would not encounter this idiom by just reading academic textbooks alone.
Read Academic Literature
That said, it is still very important to read academic literature often. For the academic reading exam, you will need to know a diverse range of specialised vocabulary related to topics like finance, economics, business, science, technology, medicine and even philosophy. As such, you may want to watch documentaries about science and nature, or read financial news from sources like The Economist, for example.
Repetition most often occurs when a student does not have enough words in their vocabulary range to express what they want to say. It happens most often with adjectives and verbs. For example, students commonly overuse words such as good, like, nice, and want. Using basic adjectives and verbs like these will lower your band score because they do not offer high levels of clarity and meaning.
Consider these sentences: I like fries because they are nice, vs I love fries because they are delicious and salty. Using sensory adjectives like salty allows the listener to visualise the taste of the fries and explains that the speaker likes fries due to their flavour profile.
Learn More Synonyms
The best way to avoid the repetition of adjectives and verbs is to find synonyms for common adjectives and verbs. Synonyms are words with similar / the same meaning, for example: good/great/brilliant/fantastic/enjoyable.
The best way to learn new synonyms is to use a thesaurus. Here, you can learn alternatives to common, basic and overused words, thereby expanding your vocabulary range, avoiding repetition and achieving a higher band score. However, be careful – not all synonyms can be used in the same way, and this is where paraphrasing and awareness of collocation become very important.
Paraphrasing and Collocation
Paraphrasing is the ability to express the same or similar ideas using different word choices. It is essentially your ability to use synonyms. To be able to paraphrase effectively, you will need to demonstrate an awareness and an understanding of collocations, and that is because not all words can be used together in a sentence. Think of the word ‘witness’. This verb could be paraphrased for the common verb ‘see’ in the following sentences:
- I did not see the crime.
- I did not witness the crime.
However, it could NOT be paraphrased as ‘see’ in the next two sentences:
- There is not a reliable witness.
- There is no reliable see.
In the first two sentences, witness and see are both being used as verbs, and therefore, they can be collocated with the noun crime and paraphrased with each other. However, in the third and fourth sentences, the witness is a noun and see is still a verb. Therefore, witnesses can be collocated with the adjective reliable, but she cannot because we cannot collocate adjectives and verbs together. Therefore, to gain a higher band score in the IELTS exam and to paraphrase effectively, you need to demonstrate an understanding of word usage and not only word meaning.
A dictionary is a great resource for achieving both of these objectives simultaneously. If you want to learn the meaning of a word, look it up in the dictionary, then read how the word is used in the example sentence given. After that, you can search for synonyms for this word in a thesaurus and define the synonym in a dictionary so you can observe any differences in usage.
Finally, remember the 100% rule. If you are not 100% sure of the meaning and the usage of a word, don’t use it. It’s better to use simpler words accurately than complex words inaccurately.
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