History is not a hugely common IELTS topic, but it does occasionally come up. Actually, it could appear in any part of the test, so for that reason it is useful to learn how to talk about it. As such, today I want to talk to you about IELTS history vocabulary.

How to Talk About History

First of all, I should point out that you do not have to be an expert in history to talk about it in the IELTS exam. A little general knowledge is helpful but really this exam is a test of your English skills, so you need to use language to convey some basic ideas.

Of course, grammar is essential here. If you want to talk about the past, then you really need to know how to use verb tenses with accuracy. You can learn about that in my book, Grammar for IELTS Writing.

However, we are not talking about grammar today. We are talking about IELTS history vocabulary. That means we ought to learn words and phrases that help us describe history better.

History Vocabulary for IELTS

Let’s now look at some vocabulary that could help you to talk about history in the IELTS test. I will show you some useful words and phrases, then put them into a few examples so that you can see how they are used.

Historical Periods

Whilst it is not necessary to know lots about history, it might be worth knowing a few key historical periods, either of your country or a country that you are interested in. This could help if you were asked in the speaking test to talk about a part of history that interests you.

For example:

  • The Middle Ages
  • The Dark Ages
  • The Victorian Era
  • The Ming Dynasty

You can see that each of these is preceded by “the.” That’s because the names refer to a specific period of time with a definite name. They are also capitalised because these are proper nouns – ie official names.

We might say, for example:

  • I suppose the most interesting period of history, from my point of view, is the Middle Ages.
  • I’ve always been fascinated by the Victorian Era and I love reading books about it.
  • I quite like poetry from the Ming Dynasty, though it’s not the only thing that I read.

If you want to learn more vocabulary or get more ideas about what to say, you can simply search Wikipedia for any historical periods that interest you. Here’s the one for the Victorian Era.

Decades and Centuries

Whilst we can group periods of time according to certain criteria like those we saw in the previous section, it is more common that we talk about centuries and decades. This is actually more likely to be of use in IELTS.

When talking about centuries, we say “the ___ century,” with the ordinal form of a number. For example:

  • The eighteen/18th century
  • The nineteen/19th century
  • The twentieth/20th century

However, please note that these phrases can be tricky! The twentieth century, for example, is the period from 1900-1999 and the nineteenth century is the period from 1800-1899. That is because we start from the year 0, which was the start of the first century.

When talking about decades, we say:

  • The fifties
  • The sixties
  • The seventies
  • The eighties

Think of it as a group of numbers: “nineteen-fifty-one, nineteen-fifty-two, etc…” Thus, these are all part of “the fifties.” We can also say “the nineteen fifties” to be more specific, though usually it is obvious what we are referring to.

But what do we call the recent decades? This is actually a difficult question and there isn’t really a great answer for it!

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the years 2010-2019 might be known as “the tens” but this is not widely accepted. They then explain:

  • Britain has done better with the previous decade, and 2000-09 is known there, with some dissension, as the “Noughties.” Nought is the British English word for “zero,” and makes an appealing play on the word naughty, though I wouldn’t say that this decade was particularly noted for its hedonism. In the United States, though, we don’t have a term for it, usually making do with “the early 2000s.”

The whole article is actually quite interesting and you can read it here.

Other Ways of Talking About the Past

Of course, we may not always have to talk about a specific period of time well in the past. We might instead want to talk about something more recent. Take IELTS writing as an example. I often start my sample essays with phrases like:

  • Over the last century,…
  • Since the Industrial Revolution,…
  • For several years now,…
  • In the past few decades,…
  • Ever since the birth of the internet,…

You can see that these phrases are quite useful for pointing out a time in the past and what has happened since then. Please note that this would require the use of the present perfect tense to complete it.

We can also look more generally into the past with phrases like:

  • Centuries ago,…
  • Long ago,…
  • Hundreds of years ago,…

It is possible to say “Once upon a time,” but it is a bit of a cliché and “In ancient times” is a similar phrase. It’s better to avoid them, though they are not technically incorrect.

Historical Groups

When talking about history, you may need to talk about groups of people, though to be honest this is unlikely in IELTS. Still, it is possible that it could arise in the listening or reading tests, so it might be worth reviewing some of these.

Typically, we refer to historical peoples by the name of their civilisation:

  • The Romans/ The Roman Empire
  • The Mayans/ The Mayan Civilisation
  • The Ancient Greeks/ Ancient Greece
  • The Ancient Egyptians/ Ancient Egypt

Just be aware of the usual issues of cultural and racial sensitivity so that you avoid saying anything offensive. It is important to avoid stereotypes and outdated terminology when talking about groups of people.

Historical Events

Naturally, when it comes to talking about history, we might want to talk about historical events. This could overlap with a time period, such as the Russian Revolution, but it is worth knowing the terms for such events themselves.

To do this, we need a wider vocabulary and this means going beyond just history and into the realm of politics and society. We need to know how to talk about:

  • Wars
  • Government
  • Inventions
  • Revolutions
  • Disasters

Some of these will obviously be more useful than others. You are unlikely to be asked about a war from long ago, but you might be asked about an important invention. Both of these are parts of history and so they are worth knowing.

Again, I would say that because you are not required to have any specialist knowledge, you only make an effort to learn what you think is most relevant to you or otherwise focus on general terminology that will allow you to understand what you read or hear.

Sample IELTS Speaking Questions About History

Here are some sample questions from IELTS speaking that revolve around the topic of history. I will highlight some useful terms.

Q: Are you interested in history?

A: I have never really thought of myself as a history buff, but I suppose I am mildly interested. In particular, I had a slight fascination with ancient American civilisations like the Aztecs.

Q: Do you ever read books about history?

A: Yeah, but not that often. I suppose the last time was about a year ago. It was a book about British colonialism and it was quite enlightening. There was so much I didn’t know.

Q: Do you like going to museums?

A: I quite enjoy visiting museums and whenever I travel to a new city I usually see if there’s one that I can go to. A lot of big European cities have amazing museums with lots of historical artifacts. I like these more than just reading about history.

Q: Did you have to study history at school?

A: Yes and I think actually that most children do, though obviously the type of history depends upon where you grew up. Although I enjoy it now, actually it was quite boring as a child because we were just made to memorise dates, which is a really dull way to approach history.

Sample IELTS Writing Question About History

Here’s a task 2 question. It is not about history in general, but rather about the history of a specific building.

In some countries, more people are becoming interested in finding out about the history of the house or building they live in.

What are the reasons for this?

How can people research this question?

And here’s my sample answer:

In some parts of the world, people are becoming interested in learning about the history of their home. There are various reasons for this, including curiosity, and as with many things in life nowadays, the internet is probably the best resource.

In the developed world, a lot of people live in houses that are quite old and this inspires in them some degree of curiosity. Their house might be one hundred or several hundred years old, and so they might want to know what sort of people used to live there or what events happened in that house. This could be prompted by pure curiosity or perhaps it was triggered by seeing an old photo or painting that suggested something interesting. In any case, once people begin to wonder about the history of their property, they could well be inclined to find out about that. Other reasons include wanting to know about the property’s value or safety concerns, which might be linked to past events.

In order to sate this curiosity, people can go online to do some research. This can be achieved in various ways, though the results are not always guaranteed. One is to find local registry details, which could list the names of former owners. Another is looking up old newspapers to find records or even photographs. There are many specialised websites nowadays that can assist in doing this. Beyond that, people can of course visit their local council or library to acquire documentation that may help them reach some answers.

In conclusion, people mostly want to know about the history of their home for the sake of curiosity but also for issues relating to valuation and safety. They can use the internet or visit a library to find answers.