What is more important – to know many words or to be able to use words with a high degree of accuracy?

For the purposes of succeeding in IELTS, it is best to be accurate with your words. By that, I mean you should be able to use the correct word for each situation rather than an incorrect word. This may seem obvious, but in fact many IELTS students get obsessed with learning as many words as possible, and they don’t focus on how to use them. The problem there is that you may have learned an interesting word, but if it is not accurately used, then it is just another mistake in your essay, and it may cause your score to be reduced.

What can cause your Lexical Resource score to drop?

  • Spelling words incorrectly
  • Using the wrong word
  • Repeating the same word too often

As an IELTS tutor, I see this every day. My students often write a passage using the most advanced vocabulary that they know in order to impress me, but doing so causes them to make completely incorrect sentences. Sometimes the inaccuracy is so extreme that a perfectly good sentence, which would have helped them achieve a very high score, becomes utterly unreadable. Take for example, the following sentences:

  1. Since the mid-1990s, the internet has changed the way that people communicate.
  2. Communications technology increases at a rapid velocity since its foundation during the ultimate decade of the twentieth century.

Which sentence is better?

Answer: Sentence #1 is far better than sentence #2.

Sentence one presents a fact in a simple, grammatically correct way. Sentence two, on the other hand, is written in very poor English. The grammar is wrong because the vocabulary chosen is not correctly used. This is an obvious example of a student who is desperate to achieve a high band score, but is doing it in completely the wrong way. He simply does not understand that longer words do not equal a higher band score.

The reason why so many students make this mistake is hidden in the IELTS marking rubric. Look at these excerpts from the document: 

Band 9 uses a wide range of vocabulary
Band 8 uses a wide range of vocabulary
Band 7 uses a sufficient range of vocabulary uses less common lexical items
Band 6 uses an adequate range of vocabulary attempts to use less common vocabulary

We can clearly see that it is important to have a “range of vocabulary,” and to lack that range would result in a lower band score. However, it is important to remember that no specialist knowledge is required for IELTS. You will never encounter a  question that requires you to know complex scientific terminology, or to explain difficult economic concepts with obscure words. To have a “sufficient” range means that your words are capable of covering the topic (which will be fairly general) without the reader being unclear about your meaning.

For example, let’s say you are asked about technology, which is a common IELTS topic in all parts of the exam. You should be able to talk about the basics of computers, knowing words and phrases like the following:

  • downloading / uploading / streaming
  • laptop / desktop / notebook / tablet
  • search engine / website / app
  • use the internet / browse a website

Sure, it would be helpful if you know some really advanced language, and a computer expert might find this particular topic very easy to discuss. However, it is not necessary to know such advanced words and phrases. Having a sufficient or wide range of vocabulary does not necessarily require expert language.

Perhaps the most important phrase from the table above is:

  • less common vocabulary/ lexical items

This is the one that causes the most problems. All over the world, lazy teachers and lazy writers and lazy YouTubers are busy telling people that in order to score highly in IELTS, you need to use “less common” words. They go to a dictionary or thesaurus and pick some obscure language, and then teach it to their students.

The problem is that “less common” doesn’t mean “incredible obscure.” It simply means a word that is slightly less common than the most obvious choice. For example, instead of saying that there are “many people” in some place, you could say that there is “a high population density.” Instead of saying that a band has “many fans,” you could say it “has a dedicated fan base.” You see, we are simply upgrading our language a little without using completely obscure words.

Part of the issue is that when you encounter a very uncommon word, such as one you found in a thesaurus, then you may not know how to use it. As I said before, accuracy is more important than range. Let’s say you want to talk about teachers disciplining children and you think of the word “strict.” This is a perfectly fine word for IELTS, but many students would prefer to attempt a more difficult word. They think of synonyms for “strict”:

Synonyms for strict.
Synonyms for strict.
  • stern
  • severe
  • harsh
  • uncompromising
  • authoritarian
  • firm
  • austere
  • illiberal
  • inflexible
  • unyielding
  • non-nonsense
  • stringent
  • rigorous

As you can see, we have many words in English, and so you often have a choice of which to use in a given situation. But can all of these be used to replace “strict”? Most of them can, but not all of them apply to people. Some of these synonyms of “strict” refer to a strict rule or law rather than a strict person. Some of them are very formal, while others are very informal. Some of them imply a high degree of strictness, while others tell us that a person is only somewhat strict.

It is thus important that we don’t simply learn lists of vocabulary in order to give us a better “range” or to have more “uncommon words” to use. Instead, we need to be able to use our language with a high degree of accuracy and appropriacy. This is particularly important because Lexical Resource overlaps with other marking criteria. For example, using a difficult word might cause a student to make a grammatical error, or slip in terms of coherence. It might even, in extreme cases, cause a misunderstanding of the question. As such, mistakes in vocabulary can cause a loss of points in Grammatical Range and Accuracy, Coherence and Cohesion, or Task Achievement.