If you were to look at all the most popular IELTS websites and Facebook Pages, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the best way to get a high band score in IELTS is to learn lots of idioms. Unfortunately, it isn’t so easy.
Idioms are part of the English language, but they are not some magical set of words that can help you to achieve a band 7. I’ve said it countless times before: there are no magic words for IELTS.
But are idioms at least a little helpful? Can you use idioms in any part of the IELTS exam?
In today’s article we will look at these questions in depth.
What are Idioms?
An idiom is a group of words whose meaning is not necessarily apparent from the individual words. It has an established meaning but one would probably not be able to figure it out without context. As such, idioms can be very difficult for English learners. (This is probably why so many lazy teachers tell their students that they are important.)
An example is “miss the boat”. If I said someone “missed the boat,” you would of course imagine a person trying to get to a boat on time, but arriving late. However, this is not the meaning of the idiom. The idiom actually means to miss an opportunity. As you can see, the meaning is not clear from the actual words in the idiom.
Sometimes the meaning can be deduced from context. If you heard the following conversation, you might be able to figure out what “miss the boat” means:
Person #1: There’s a deal on at the sports centre this weekend.
Person #2: Oh yeah?
Person #1: Yeah, you can get a year’s membership for the price of just six months.
Person #2: Wow! That’s really good. I wish I could afford it.
Person #1: You should ask your dad if you can borrow the money. You wouldn’t want to miss the boat.
Person #2: I might just do that.
We could probably work out from this conversation that “miss the boat” means being too late to take advantage of the opportunity (which in this case is a great deal).
How to Learn Idioms
You should approach the learning of idioms the same as you would most new language. In other words, don’t learn them in isolation. It is not helpful to learn lists of vocabulary, and likewise it is not helpful to memorize groups of idioms.
Instead, you should try to learn idioms in context. Look at conversations like the one I used above as an example, and you will see
- the meaning of the idiom.
- how to use the idiom.
It is important that you know how to use it because as idioms often have no real literal meaning, they can appear like nonsense when out of context.
Take, for example, the idiom “cold feet”. If I said, “I had cold feet,” does that mean that my feet are cold? Not necessarily. As an idiom, it has a completely different meaning from the literal one. It means to be so afraid or nervous about something that you cannot go through with it.
- Did you hear about John? He spent $150 to go skydiving last week but then got cold feet! What a waste of money.
If you heard this, you could probably work out that John wanted to go skydiving, paid for the trip, and then got scared and didn’t go.
Learning idioms requires figuring out their meaning like this. You cannot easily learn them from a list in a book. Sometimes it is helpful to look at pictures that demonstrate meaning, such as these that you could find online:
However, it is important to have context. I often hear my students using idioms inappropriately. They learned the meaning perfectly, but used them in a slightly weird situation. For example, three years ago, one of my Chinese students told me that she was afraid of going to study in England. She said:
- My friends told me that there is quite a lot of crime in the cities. Some people even target Chinese students because we’re their cup of tea.
Now, the idiom “cup of tea” means something that you like. (This is easy to remember because English people really like drinking tea.) What she meant was that criminals liked to target Chinese students. However, an idiom is a flippant, funny, informal phrase that didn’t really sound right here. Moreover, a “cup of tea” is something you enjoy, and a criminal doesn’t necessarily enjoy crime.
In summary, you can learn idioms best through hearing them in context.
Can I Use Idioms in the IELTS Exam?
Idioms are considered quite informal and so it is not usually a good idea to use them in an exam. For example, the idiom “cup of tea” that I mentioned above would have no place in the written exam as a replacement for “like” or “enjoy”. I could not say:
- In recent years, economic trends have allowed many people to take up new hobbies, and therefore it is common for teenagers to spend time doing things which are their cup or tea.
This sounds pretty bad, to be honest. Even if it were more natural language (“teenagers tend to listen to music because it’s their cup of tea”) it is still not quite right. Essays are supposed to be written in a formal style, and idioms are just too informal.
If you are writing task 1 of the general exam, it may be possible to use idioms. This is because some of these letters are written to friends or family, and in such cases it is entirely appropriate to use slang, contractions, and other types of informal language. Idioms would be perfectly suited to this sort of writing.
Take for example, the phrase “under the weather”. If I had to write a letter to a friend to cancel an arrangement, I might say:
- I’m sorry I can’t make it this weekend, but I’m a bit under the weather.
However, in writing to an employer to request sick leave or excuse an absence from a work meeting, I would be best to avoid this and use more formal language:
- I am writing to apologize for my absence this coming weekend. Unfortunately, I am suffering from a high fever and am unable to leave my house.
The speaking exam is a different matter. You can use less formal language here without getting a lower score. However, you must still be careful to use idioms appropriately and in the correct context. It is very easy to misunderstand these phrases, and so you should be 100% sure that it is the right thing to say before you attempt it.
A pretty famous English idiom is “raining cats and dogs”. If you were telling a story about an event from your past that took place on a rainy day, it would be perfectly acceptable to use this idiom. A popular American idiom is “a dime a dozen,” meaning that something is very common. If you were describing a trend in gadgets among young people, you might want to use this idiom.
Just remember, before you attempt this sort of language in the IELTS exam, you really ought to make sure that you know it thoroughly. I wrote an article recently about the best way to learn vocabulary. I suggested learning it through context, using a notebook, and looking for examples of correct use on Google. The same is absolutely true of idioms!
Here is a good process for learning idioms:
- Hear someone say it and work out the meaning yourself
- Check the meaning in a dictionary, online, or with a friend/teacher
- Look up Google for some authentic examples of the idiom
- Write the idiom, its meaning, and a few examples in your notebook
- Practice incorporating it into speech and writing
Once you have done this, you will be ready to use it in exam and in daily life! Just remember not to overuse any idiom. They aren’t very common, and can sound strange when used too much.
Reading and Listening
It is possible that you will encounter some simple or common idioms in either the reading or listening exams. As the listening material is generally less formal, this is the most likely place you would encounter an idiom. However, they have been known to appear in reading papers too.
You should approach these the same way you would some difficult vocabulary – work out the meaning from context.
See if you can figure out what “let [someone] off the hook” means:
- Diane had returned to the compound without having brought the required samples from the test site. Her manager, Mr Fossett, had been furious at first, but after several of her colleagues explained the difficulties experienced during the mission, she was let off the hook. Mr Fossett made clear, though, that it better not happen again.
So from this we can work out that someone (Diane) was in trouble, but that later she wasn’t in trouble. To be “let off the hook” means to be forgiven for doing something wrong, or to get away with doing something wrong. In other words, it means to not face any punishment.
Idioms are a useful and interesting part of the English language, but they have somewhat limited use in the IELTS exam. You should neither spend too much time on them, nor ignore them entirely. I wouldn’t recommend students to devote many hours of study to just looking at idioms, but when they do crop up on a TV show, in a book, or wherever else you are learning English, you should follow my 5 steps from above to make sure you learn the meaning and can use it properly. In the IELTS exam, keep in mind that idioms are a bit informal, but that they can sometimes be used.