When it comes to studying IELTS, the majority of students seem to think that vocabulary is the most important thing. This may be true, but it is also very important to think about how you learn it. It is possible to memorise a list of 1,000 words… but will that really get you a better IELTS score? No!

In today’s lesson, I want to show you how to learn IELTS vocabulary by giving you some realistic advice that will help you avoid common pitfalls.

how to learn IELTS vocabulary
IELTS candidates often focus on vocabulary and ignore grammar.

What vocabulary do you really need to know?

First of all, let’s define “IELTS vocabulary.” To be totally honest, there is no such thing! You cannot simply learn a list of words that you need in order to get a high score for IELTS. This is an English test and thus you simply have to learn as much English as possible.

However, it is worth looking at IELTS in terms of topics. On this website, I have often taught you vocabulary by breaking it down into different common IELTS topics, such as sports, environment, media, transport, books, health, technology, and so on.

Even so, within those topics there is no set list of words that you need to know. There are definitely words that are useful and words that are not useful. The more you know, the better; however, no one can expect you to know 100% of English words related to technology, for example.

As such, when you learn IELTS vocabulary, remember that you are really just trying to learn as many words as you can in order to have a good chance of understanding questions and giving developed answers.

What do the examiners look for?

In terms of reading and listening, having a very large vocabulary can help you because you will be able to understand more of the text, but it is only in speaking and writing that you can show off your vocabulary to the examiner.

In these parts of the exam, you are going to have to pick your words carefully to accurately express your ideas. I cannot overemphasise the fact that vocabulary must be used accurately. This is absolutely the most important thing you can take away from today’s lesson.

Many people think that getting a good score for Lexical Resource (vocabulary) is all about knowing lots of big words, but this is absolutely not true. You really just need to use the right word in the right way.

This misunderstanding comes from a misreading of the IELTS band descriptors, where it talks about “less common” and “uncommon” vocabulary. Untrained IELTS tutors tell their students that this means using really obscure words, but that is not correct. It is far better to use the right word than to use a really bizarre one.

Should I learn lists of vocabulary?

It is often tempting to study IELTS (or English or any other language) by memorising long lists of vocabulary. This has some problems, however.

Chiefly, if you learn language in long lists, you will probably not have any idea how to use those words. When you are a new learner, this is ok because you just want to learn as many words as possible to give yourself a chance of comprehension, but IELTS is a quite difficult test and so you need much more skilful use of the language than that.

I would recommend learning lists of vocabulary only to beginners. If are already at an intermediate level, this will probably cause you more problems than benefits, making your sentences harder to understand.

Remember that learning a word has several components:

  1. Knowing the meaning.
  2. Being able to use it properly.
  3. Knowing common uses for it.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s word of the day today is “lugubrious.” Let’s say that you learned this and were proud of knowing such an unusual word. Well, do you really know its proper meaning? Can you use it grammatically? Do you know what words it commonly collocates with? Probably not. Therefore, knowing this word would lower your score rather than increase it.

How can I learn IELTS vocabulary effectively?

If are an intermediate-level or higher student, you really should learn the majority of your vocabulary from context. That means when you are reading or listening, you should pick out new words and learn them.

To do this, you need to read or listen to something in English each day. If the material is challenging enough, you will encounter many new words, but try to just pick a few of them to learn. For each word, follow this approach:

  1. Try to guess its meaning from context.
  2. Check that meaning against a dictionary definition.
  3. Look at the example sentences in the dictionary.
  4. Google it to see articles it is used in, paying attention to context.
  5. Note down some sentences and clauses with this word.
  6. Try to write or say new sentences very similar to those, but with your own ideas.
  7. If possible, have someone check these for you.
  8. Incorporate this word into your regular English use.

This may seem like a long and difficult process, but it is the most effective way to learn IELTS vocabulary.

You can try sources like:

These will use language that is pretty reasonable for everyday use. It will typically be neither too formal nor informal, and thus the words and phrases should be possible to include in your speech or your writing.

Always learn and always practise

Learning a language is a challenging process, but it is possible to make huge leaps forward when you have the right attitude. If you use English every day, you will make constant progress even when it doesn’t feel like it. Make sure to read and listen, always asking questions and making notes about new words and grammatical structures.

Don’t forget to practise old phrases that you feel you already know and of course put the time into learning new words. Shortcuts will not help you, but continual efforts will yield great rewards.

Finally… A few more questions

Here are some questions I have been asked in the past. They might be helpful for other IELTS candidates.

How much vocabulary is enough for IELTS?

Honestly, there is no simple answer to this. According to this website, the native speaker of English uses about 20,000 words but has a “passive vocabulary” of around 40,000.

However, as I mentioned above, knowing words doesn’t really help you unless you know how to use them. Even if you memorised 40,000 words, you would not get a good IELTS score unless you knew their full meaning and how they are included in a sentence.

Is there any must-know vocabulary for IELTS?

You should definitely know the most common words in the English language, but beyond that there is nothing I could say is “must-know vocabulary.”

Certainly, it is helpful to have a wide range of vocabulary for common IELTS topics. If you are asked about sports, for example, it would be great to be able to know words like “muscles” and “activity” or phrases like “hit the gym.”

One thing to note is that, for IELTS speaking, the things you say will really be related to your own life, so learn what is relevant to you rather than what others may need. To continue with the idea of sport, a person who plays cricket could learn lots of cricket vocabulary and ignore rugby and badminton because they would never be expected to talk about those other ones. However, if someone asked you whether you like sport, you could definitely turn the conversation to talk about cricket and show off your knowledge.

Are there any special words that can boost my score?

No! There are no magical words that an IELTS candidate can use to dazzle the examiner. Any tutor who tells you this is either lying or misunderstands the exam.

As I have said above, always strive for the most accurate word and do not try to cram pointless words into an essay or speech just to show the examiner that you know them. Unless they are 100% relevant and correctly used, they will only harm your chances of a good score.