Developing Vocabulary for IELTS
Developing your vocabulary is crucial for your success in IELTS. In this article, we will look at the three aspects of IELTS vocabulary that you should focus on in detail:
- Topic Specific IELTS Vocabulary
- Synonyms and Paraphrase
Combine these three areas to produce the most effective way to increase your vocabulary for the IELTS test.
Whenever you are reading or listening to something related to a common IELTS topic, note down examples of new words by topic, find synonyms and collocations for the new words you record and write example sentences. Review these words frequently to make sure you remember them.
Let’s see how these can be combined using an example topic – higher education.
Topic Specific IELTS Vocabulary
Many students like to organise new vocabulary by topic. They often like to translate new words into their own language and write example sentences to help them remember. Here is an approach that I have found to be very successful: Write short paragraphs (2-4 sentences) and highlight topic specific vocabulary within each paragraph. This will help you to practice your writing skills and remember new vocabulary at the same time.
Have a look at the following examples related to higher education:
‘I didn’t really understand much of the seminar, so I went to see my personal tutor during her office hours. She was really helpful and gave me some good reading recommendations, so I felt more confident that I could finish the end of course assignment.’
Seminar – a small group discussion about issues covered in the course
Personal tutor – a staff member who supports a student throughout their course
Office hours – regular times each week when tutors are available to answer students’ questions
Reading recommendations – books or articles that students should read / that are useful for a particular topic
End of course assignment – a project, presentation, essay, etc that students have to do in order to complete a course
‘As more and more young people are now graduating from university, are undergraduate degrees losing their value? In my view, yes, they are. I’ve found that getting a decent job requires a master’s and/or some relevant experience. It’s really competitive nowadays – so I don’t think a bachelor’s degree is enough to make you stand out to an employer.’
Graduate from a place / graduate with a degree / graduate in a subject
Undergraduate degrees – bachelor’s degrees
Postgraduate degrees – master’s degrees and doctoral degrees / PhDs
Collocations – get a decent job and get some relevant experience
‘I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do at university, so I took a gap year. This gave me the time I needed to figure things out, and I got a place to study International Development at Cambridge. I’m really glad I did. It’s a great course – very challenging but I’ve got a lot out of it.’
Do at uni – study at uni ‘What are you going to do at uni?’
Gap year – year off between school and uni
A place on a course – apply for / win / get / accept an offer of
Course vs degree – do a course – get a degree ‘a degree level course’
What did you get out of it? – How did you benefit from it?
Synonyms and Paraphrase
Synonyms are words with very similar meanings – notice – similar, not exactly the same. Paraphrase is saying the same thing using different words. You are marked on your ability to use synonyms and paraphrase in both the speaking and writing tests, and ALL the questions in the listening and reading tests use synonyms and paraphrase for the words in the texts. This is to test that you actually understand the meaning of what you are reading or listening to (and are not just matching words).
Let’s have a look at a few examples from an old IELTS Reading Exam. Read the four multiple-choice questions below and short excerpts from the text. Do you see how the answer is a paraphrase of the text? This is often the case with IELTS reading and listening questions. Your understanding of paraphrase is VERY important!
1. Maths textbooks in Japanese schools are
A cheap for pupils to buy.
B well organised and adapted to the needs of the pupils.
C written to be used in conjunction with TV programmes.
D not very popular with many Japanese teachers.
‘These textbooks are, on the whole, small, presumably inexpensive to produce, but well set out and logically developed. (One teacher was particularly keen to introduce colour and pictures into maths textbooks: he felt this would make them more accessible to pupils brought up in a cartoon culture.)’
2. When a new maths topic is introduced,
A students answer questions on the board.
B students rely entirely on the textbook.
C it is carefully and patiently explained to the students.
D it is usual for students to use extra worksheets.
‘After the homework has been discussed, the teacher explains the topic of the lesson, slowly and with a lot of repetition and elaboration.’
3. How do schools deal with students who experience difficulties?
A They are given appropriate supplementary tuition.
B They are encouraged to copy from other pupils.
C They are forced to explain their slow progress.
D They are placed in a mixed-ability class.
‘Teachers say that they give individual help at the end of a lesson or after school, setting extra work if necessary. Parents are kept closely informed of their children’s progress and will play a part in helping their children to keep up with class, sending them to ‘Juku’ (private evening tuition) if extra help is needed.’
4. Why do Japanese students tend to achieve relatively high rates of success in maths?
A It is a compulsory subject in Japan.
B They are used to working without help from others.
C Much effort is made and correct answers are emphasised.
D There is a strong emphasis on repetitive learning
‘Education is valued greatly in Japanese culture; maths is recognised as an important compulsory subject throughout schooling; and the emphasis is on hard work coupled with a focus on accuracy.’
Answers: 1 = B, 2 = C, 3 = A, 4 = C
I hope you are convinced that you need to build up your knowledge of synonyms and paraphrase. As you note down new vocabulary organised by topic, you should also make notes of synonyms and practice paraphrase. Here are some examples, again for the topic of higher education:
- Tutor / lecturer / doctor / professor
- Essay / assignment / project / dissertation
- Required course / compulsory course
- Elective course / optional course
- ‘The most challenging part of completing my dissertation was synthesizing so much different research and expressing the findings in my own words.’
‘The most difficult aspect of finishing my dissertation was combining the findings of so many different studies and discussing them in my own words.’
- ‘I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do at university, so I took a gap year. This gave me the time I needed to figure things out, and I got a place to study International Development at Cambridge. I’m really glad I did. It’s a great course – very challenging but I’ve got a lot out of it.’
‘I found it hard to choose what to study at university, so I took a year out in order to make the right decision. After applying, I won a place on the International Development course at Cambridge. I’m very happy with my decision. It’s a fantastic program – really difficult but I’ve learned so much.’
What are collocations?
Collocations are words that usually go together. There is often no particular reason for this – it’s just how the English language has developed over time. For example, ‘rain’ collocates with ‘heavy’, so we can say, ‘It’s raining heavily’ or ‘There’s heavy rain forecast for tomorrow.’ But why not, ‘It’s raining strongly’ or ‘There’s big rain forecast for tomorrow’. There’s no real reason – it’s just that rain does not collocate with strong or big.
Why are collocations important for IELTS?
Because that affect your band score in all four skills. In speaking and writing you have to be able to use some collocations accurately to get Band 7. The following quotes are from the marking descriptions that examiners use to assess your level:
Speaking – Lexical Resource (Band 7) ‘Uses some less common vocabulary and shows some awareness of collocation’.
Writing – Lexical Resource (Band 7) ‘Uses some less common lexical items and shows some awareness of collocation’.
Collocations are also very important in the listening and reading tests as they can help you to predict answers and know which words are possible in gap-fill and completion questions.
How can I improve my knowledge of collocations?
For native speakers, collocations are used naturally and without awareness. Most people don’t even know what they are, or that they use them. They are learned naturally and unconsciously over time. You should try to imitate this process. Do not study vocabulary lists and words out of context. Instead, read and listen to natural English as often as possible, and notice words that you see or hear together frequently. Reading is probably better than listening for this, as it will be easier to notice words written down than to hear them. (In fact, reading frequently is the single most effective way to improve your level of English overall).
Examples: Higher Education
Course – do a course, take a course, study a course, be on a course – NOT learn a course (use learn with ‘about’ + subject)
I’m doing a course in computer science.
I’m learning about computer science.
Also – do a course in something – NOT on something
She’s doing a course in accounting
NOT She’s learning a course on accounting.
Notes – make notes, organise your notes, review your notes BUT revise for an exam (NOT revise your notes)
I make notes during all my lectures and review them at the end of each week. That makes it easier to revise for end-of-term exams.
Synonyms and Collocations
You need to be aware that words with similar meanings will often have different collocations, e.g. discuss and talk + about
- I discussed it with my tutor.
- I talked about it with my tutor.
Which of these four nouns and verbs do not collocate?
- Essay / assignment / project / dissertation
- Do / complete / write / submit
Answer: You cannot ‘write a project’ (but you can write a project proposal or a project report). You can write an essay, an assignment or a dissertation. You can do, complete and submit all four options.
Consistently developing all three areas of vocabulary discussed in this lesson – topic specific, synonyms / paraphrase and collocations – will give you a very good chance of succeeding in IELTS.
Recommendations for Developing Vocabulary for IELTS
If you’re serious about getting Band 7 or higher, this is what I recommend:
- First, follow the approach outlined in this lesson. And remember – consistency is key. Expanding your vocabulary a little and often, consistently, will help you reach your goals.
- Second, give this a try – the only online vocabulary builder made by the same people who write real IELTS tests (Cambridge English). It’s cheap too (£5.99). Check it out here: Cambridge Language for IELTS.
- Finally, develop your vocabulary as part of a complete IELTS Preparation Course.