If you have studied IELTS speaking or writing for some time, you have probably heard of Lexical Resource, but perhaps you don’t quite know what it means or how to prepare for it. This is totally understandable because actually it is complex and frequently misunderstood.
In this lesson, I’m going to teach you everything you need to know about Lexical Resource. I will first explain what it means, then tell you some common problems that people face with it. We’ll look at how it affects your score, what the differences are between vocabulary for IELTS speaking and writing, and then finally I will talk about how to learn vocabulary effectively.
Note: This article is an adapted transcript of the following video. If you prefer to learn by reading, then read on; otherwise, if you prefer to listen and see visual stimulus, then you may prefer to watch the video.
What is Lexical Resource?
Essentially, “lexical resource” means your use of words. It comes from “lexis,” which means all the words in a language, but you probably know this by a more common term: “vocabulary.”
Vocabulary is the first thing we learn when studying any language. Before you learn grammar, spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, and all the other stuff, we usually begin to study a language by learning vocabulary.
Naturally, as IELTS is a language test, a big part of it is related to your use of vocabulary. In IELTS writing and IELTS speaking, you will be assigned 25% of your score based on your performance in Lexical Resource.
But this is where we begin to have some difficulties. Most students and many teachers of IELTS tend to have a misconception about the importance of vocabulary. They believe that you have to use the most difficult and obscure words possible in order to get a good score.
This is just not true at all. In fact, it is a horrible approach to IELTS and I sincerely hope that, after reading this article, none of you will continue to believe this. It is a big reason why so many people continue to struggle with IELTS, growing increasingly frustrated at their inability to improve their score despite learning lots and lots of words.
Problems with Lexical Resource
Now logically, you might think that your vocabulary is determined by how many words you know. When I was teaching IELTS in China, my students would always tell me, “I know 8,000 words!” It sounds very impressive, but when I replied, “Wow, that’s great. How did you learn them all?” they would look very confused. They couldn’t understand what I was saying!
The problem for them was that they had focused entirely on learning long lists of vocabulary, but they couldn’t put these words together into sentences. If they saw an exercise in a textbook that asked them to produce 5 synonyms of the word “study,” they could do it no problem. They could write the word “health” on a piece of paper and then list 150 words related to health… but they couldn’t answer a simple question like “How are you feeling today?”
This is because in China they were taught that learning English is all about knowing lots of words. In India, however, people seem to believe that your English ability is determined by the obscurity of the words you know. Almost every essay I mark by an Indian student will contain three or four words that they have clearly picked from the middle of a dictionary. These are often words that fell out of use a hundred years ago, and 9 out of 10 times they are incorrectly used.
I want to be clear here: It is not the student’s fault, and I certainly do not intend to pick on China or India. This is a problem with IELTS teaching. All around the world, teachers, websites, textbooks, and courses perpetuate certain myths about IELTS, and chief among them are these crazy ideas about vocabulary. If you want proof of this, just take a look at YouTube. There is a video that has – as of recording almost 5 million views – in which a woman tells her followers that they must use 5 particular words to get a good score.
This is absolute rubbish. She is a liar and she has misled those 5 million people. What’s worse, she doesn’t even know how to pronounce those words or use them in a grammatically correct way! As a result, millions of IELTS candidates are forcing ridiculous words into their speaking and writing answers, and this causes their scores to drop.
Sadly, this is very common and the majority of IELTS teachers and websites promote this sort of approach to IELTS. It is shockingly irresponsible and has a very real negative effect on people’s lives.
So what can you do about it? Let’s look now at what the IELTS marking rubrics say and how you can prepare more effectively for your IELTS test.
Lexical Resource and the IELTS Marking Rubric
A lot of the problems that I have mentioned come from people misinterpreting the IELTS marking rubrics. For the speaking and writing tests, there are guidelines that examiners must follow when assigning scores. The examiners are extremely well trained, so they know how to interpret the rubric and assign grades fairly and consistently, but most IELTS teachers are not able to fully understand what the rubric means, and this is why they spread such terrible advice.
This is quite understandable. When you look at the IELTS marking rubrics, they are fairly complicated. For someone who does not speak English perfectly or does not have much training in linguistics or related academic fields, it might seem hard to understand. The language used here can be cryptic and certain phrases could be interpreted in different ways.
The difference between a band 6 and a band 7 in the writing test means graduating from “an adequate range of vocabulary for the task” to “a sufficient range of vocabulary to allow some flexibility and precision.” To some people, this may seem like a distinction without a difference. However, to trained examiners and teachers, it is quite clear. At band 6, you have used words that are good enough to cover the topic, but at band 7 you have done so with greater control.
In fact, that’s essentially how the rubric works and how your grade is assigned. Each band score requires a slightly better control of the language than the one preceding it until, finally, at band 9, you have a “very natural and sophisticated” grasp of the language, with only the tiniest of mistakes. These are called “slips” and even native speakers might make them. This might be a typo, for example.
But let’s go back a moment to revisit the big mistakes that I previously discussed. These come from the criteria for band 7 and 8, which refer to “uncommon” and “less common lexical items.” What does this mean, exactly?
Certainly, it appears that the examiners expect you to use some unusual words, which is probably why so many IELTS tutors force their students to learn ridiculously obscure words that no native speaker uses anymore. But of course this is a misunderstanding. It simply means going beyond the very basic language required to cover a topic.
Think about it. Let’s say we are given an IELTS writing task 2 essay question that asks us to write about crime. You would be expected to know words like “prison” and “criminal” and “punishment.” However, “less common” vocabulary would show a mastery over these same phrases and correct collocation of them: “prison” could be turned into the lesson common verb form “imprison.” An “uncommon” word related to this is “incarcerate.” You would be expected to know the difference between jail and prison, between suspect, criminal, and ex-convict, for example. You might also use vocabulary like “reform,” “the justice system,” or “behind bars.”
The latter is an example of “idiomatic language,” which is specified in the marking criteria for IELTS speaking but not for IELTS writing. That is because it is generally quite informal, whereas for the writing test you should only be using formal language. Again, knowledge of this is really important. One mistake that a lot of candidates make is mixing very formal and very informal vocabulary. Again, this is down to IELTS teachers and websites handing out bad advice based upon their own misunderstandings. Also, many of them use social media to teach idioms because it is really easy to copy and paste these from other websites, then gain hundreds of thousands of followers.
IELTS Speaking vs IELTS Writing Vocabulary
While we’re on the subject of lexical differences between IELTS speaking and IELTS writing, I should say a few things. As I already mentioned, the speaking rubric specifies “idiomatic language.” That is because you are meant to speak English at a lower level of formality than you would write it. In your IELTS essays, you should aim to use a very high level of formality, but in the speaking test you can use informal language like idioms, slang, and contractions.
Don’t go overboard, though. It can be a little disrespectful to use incredibly informal words and phrases. It is also worth noting that idioms are not hugely useful and that there is a slight distinction between idioms and idiomatic language. An idiom is a set group of words whose meaning could not be determined by its component parts. Idiomatic language is similar but it can be more naturally incorporated into everyday speech. A 1998 paper by Paul Lennon asserted that “non-idiomatic” language can be described as “non-nativelike” – in other words, any language that is very natural to native speakers is inherently idiomatic.
To make this easier to understand, a good example is the phrase “can’t stand,” meaning to really dislike something. Whilst we may not consider this an idiom, it is certainly idiomatic.
Anyway, the point is that idiomatic language is important for IELTS speaking but not for IELTS writing. To continue with the idea of crime, we would say in an IELTS essay:
Violent offenders ought to be incarcerated for the protection of society, perhaps being granted parole only decades later, when the likelihood of them reoffending has substantially declined.
Both the vocabulary and grammar here are very formal. There are various clauses strung together and words like “offenders,” “incarcerated,” “parole,” and so on are topic-specific and also rather formal.
If this subject arose in IELTS speaking, we might instead say:
I think criminals should be locked up for as long as it takes. Maybe we could release them much later after they’ve learned their lesson.
The vocabulary is more natural and less formal, with the ideas broken into two sentences. It’s more personal as well, and slightly idiomatic. The phrases “locked up” and “learned their lesson” are certainly examples of that.
How to Learn Vocabulary Effectively
Finally, as we’re talking about Lexical Resource and I have spent all this time warning you about bad advice and alluding to the sorts of things you should and shouldn’t know, it is only fair that I tell you how to actually improve your vocabulary. [There is a full article on that here if you want to dive deeper and get more tips.]
Let me start by acknowledging that this is a vast topic and it also is impossible to cater to everyone because we all have different learning styles. But in my many years of teaching, I have gained a lot of experience in this field, so I would like to share some ideas.
In the beginning, you will probably learn vocabulary best through simple means such as learning words by looking at pictures, or by memorising lists of words translated from your own language. This is great to begin with, but when you reach a more advanced level, it will not be very helpful. For one thing, you won’t know how to use them, and for another there might be some subtle aspects of the word’s meaning that you don’t quite understand.
A 2011 research paper by Joseph Mukoroli showed that there are 5 stages to learning a word:
- The student has no knowledge about the word.
- The student has a general sense of the word.
- The student has a narrow, context-bound knowledge about the word.
- The student has a basic knowledge of the word and is able to use it in many appropriate situations.
- The student has a rich, de-contextualized knowledge of the word and can use it in various appropriate situations.
For IELTS, of course, using a word correctly and accurately is the most important thing, so you need to reach stage 5 for each word in your vocabulary. To stick with our topic of crime, the word “recidivism” could be quite useful. It is certainly an uncommon word as it has a quite limited meaning. If you were to use it correctly, it would surely help you but if you used it incorrectly, it would do the opposite. First of all, you must know that it is a noun. We cannot use it as a verb. We often use it with the word “rate” and that is very important to know.
In the British Council’s guide to Lexical Resource, collocation is the first thing mentioned, which hints at its importance. The word “collocation” means how words go together. It is a really challenging thing for learners, and a 2012 paper in the Journal of Studies in Education called it “One of the most problematic areas for foreign language learning,” and highlighted that it was essential for achieving “native like fluency.” Even if you used “recidivism” as a noun and applied it more or less to its correct meaning, it would still not help you much unless you used it with the words to which it naturally collocates.
Thus, we can say something like:
When considering the issue of prison reform, people should always keep recidivism rates in mind.
Here, the word is used correctly. It is specific to the topic. It is collocated with words that it naturally appears alongside, and it is grammatically correct. In other words, it checks all the boxes.
So how do you learn to use vocabulary in this way?
Well, there are two main ways:
- Learn lists of vocabulary and then study their use carefully.
- Learn words from context.
If you learn lists of vocabulary, I strongly recommend that you take each word that you learn and study it individually rather than just memorising it. Look it up in a dictionary to find out its meaning, then Google it and read articles of different sorts in order to find out how it is used. Ask yourself, “Is this formal or informal?” Take note of collocations. Think about its part of speech. Always make sure that the sources you use for this are professional or at least written by native speakers because there’s a lot of rubbish online. Google News is a great way of doing it because most of the stuff you’ll find there is from professional journalists.
The other method, learning from context, is probably more effective in terms of increasing your accuracy, but it is quite a bit slower. I generally recommend this for my students who are already at about band 7 or higher. This method involves making note of words that you encounter whilst reading or listening, then going through much the same process as described for the first approach. It works well because you already encounter the word in its natural form. This makes it more likely that you will use it correctly than if you plucked it from a list or a dictionary.
Right, I think I’ve gone on long enough for one lesson. Before I let you go, let’s briefly review what we’ve learned. First of all, it is important to understand what Lexical Resource really means – and that doesn’t mean using big, obscure words. In fact, there are no “required words” for IELTS and anyone who tries to convince you that you “need to know these 5 words” is either a liar or a fool, and quite frankly you deserve better than that.
Instead, you need a wide range of vocabulary that covers lots of common IELTS topics. You should aim to learn these words from context so that you can use them accurately. That means getting the meaning right and also using them alongside words to which they commonly collocate. Also, keep in mind that your vocabulary for the speaking and writing tests might differ slightly because you need more formal words in the written test and slightly less formal ones in the speaking test.