Is your vocabulary holding you back from a higher IELTS score?
The Academic and General Training IELTS tests are designed to assess your overall English ability.
But there are certain topics that you need to know about in order to boost every aspect of your score.
This article shows you how to learn the most ESSENTIAL vocabulary that will help you understand the Listening and Reading texts better and faster (using background knowledge), answer more accurately (e.g. spelling and pronunciation patterns) and then reproduce the vocabulary more effectively in the Writing and Speaking tests.
Listen to the podcast here:
Learning ABOUT words
1. Buy a notebook
Research shows that writing things down BY HAND (in blue pen!) helps you remember information more easily than recording it digitally.
Find a notebook that you can carry with you everywhere and that you won’t lose. Choose a nice cover so that you’ll actually want to open it.
Write the new words on one side of the pages so that you can test yourself.
2. Use a good learner dictionary
Learner dictionaries are designed to use language that is clear for learners to understand. If you write down the definitions in your notebook it will actually improve your writing skills and also build your vocabulary.
These dictionaries also give you examples of common mistakes, ‘False Friends’ or areas of confusion, so they are worth the investment.
3. Find out what the symbols and abbreviations mean
Learn about features of words e.g. pollution (nU) – this tells you it is an uncountable noun and helps you use it in a sentence (‘Pollution is having a detrimental effect on the quality of life in cities’).
For each word in your notebook, write down the word FORM (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) and its other forms (e.g. pollute, pollution, polluted, a pollutant).
4. Learn about tools to help you with pronunciation
Most dictionaries put [‘] before the stressed syllable. This will help you stress the main syllable e.g. po‘llution. In your notebook you could put a line under the stressed syllable, as I have done here.
Learn a few key symbols from the phonemic alphabet. The most important one is the ‘schwa’ or ‘weak sound’. It looks like this /ə/. This helps you make the first syllable in ‘pollution’ pəˈluːʃn̩ |sound like ‘puh’ /pə/ rather than ‘pow’.
You can find an interactive Phonemic chart here.
I also recommend The Pronunciation App for Android and iOS.
5. Learn about spelling patterns
Many words have patterns that you can use to help you improve your spelling. e.g. educate – education, donate – donation.
There are also groups of words that follow irregular patterns e.g. long – length – lengthen, strong – strength – strengthen.
Find some examples of this on my worksheet here (full e-book in the Academy).
6. Keep a note of what comes before a word
Collocations are sets of words that always go together e.g. you can say ‘heavily polluted’ but NOT ‘strongly polluted’.
Learning fixed academic phrases like this will make you write more fluently, without having to think about the right words e.g. ‘to ease traffic congestion’ ‘to reverse global warming’ ‘to tackle climate change’ ‘have a detrimental effect on the environment’.
The best place is to find these phrases is from IELTS Practice Texts – they are a great source of vocabulary as the same words are used frequently. I always list them at the end of Reading/Listening texts. Get my list of academic collocations.
7. Write down what comes AFTER a word
This is especially important for prepositions and verb forms e.g. I’d rather go, I’d prefer to go, I’d rather you went.
8. Find synonyms
But double check their use e.g. clear = lucid, but you cannot say ‘The graph lucidly shows’. Only use synonyms that you are confident you have seen in the correct context e.g. water pollution = water contamination (slightly different meaning but both can be used in the same context).
9. Write down negative forms (antonyms)
What’s the opposite of equal? Unequal? Inequal? Check it, make a note and watch your spelling! Antonyms can be really helpful for True/False/Not Given questions (when the answer is FALSE, it is often an antonym of the statement).
10. Check the style/register of the word
A dictionary will tell you if a word is formal, slang or even archaic (not used any more!). So you need to know if it is better to say ‘kids‘ (informal) or ‘children’ in a Task 2 essay. (Here’s a clue – don’t use ‘kids‘!). You can find some useful lists here.
11. Learn about prefixes and their meanings
This will help you to guess words from context. Here’s a list of the 50 most common prefixes in English.
12. Take an interest in word origins
If you know what the ‘root’ word means, it can help you guess meaning from context. e.g. one which comes up often in IELTS is ‘aqua‘ = ‘water’ (aquifer, aqueduct, aquatic) or ‘terra‘ = earth (terrestrial, terrace, terrain, territory).
Ways to review words
Research has shown that you need to see/hear a word 12 times before it ‘sticks’. So seeing the same words in relevant Reading texts, Listening texts and Writing Models will do some of this reviewing for you.
Here are some other things you can do.
13. Make your own mind maps.
I’m crazy about mindmaps. They have been scientifically proven to work.
Get one of my IELTS Mindmaps (see below) free when you sign up to the 28-Day Planner.
14. Make your own ‘Vocabulary Bag’
The vocabulary bag is the most important part of my IELTS classes.
We write new words (12 a day maximum) on a card, and write a definition/synonym/antonym/word form/pronunciation/silent letter/false friend etc on the other side (not all of these – it depends on the word).
As the days go by, the ones we learnt at the start of the week become ‘automatic’ – so easy that we don’t need to think about them any more. You can review my IELTS Vocabulary Lists for free on Quizlet.
15. Write words in a sentence that you can use.
It’s great to learn the meaning of new words to help you with Reading and Listening, but to use them in Writing and Speaking, you need to have a simple sentence that you can memorise and repeat until it becomes automatic e.g. ‘Pollution is having a detrimental effect on the quality of life in cities’ (Do you recognise this one from Tip 3? Maybe it’s becoming automatic already!)
16. Create a reliable review system
Set aside a regular time of day (maybe a Monday morning or Friday before you stop for the weekend). Make this the time when you review ALL the new words from the week.
Discard or separate cards that you now think are too easy for you. Keep them in a separate envelope. Review them the day before your test.
17. Get someone to test you
This could be an ‘accountability partner’ (someone who’s doing the test with you so will have the same motivation) or someone who is happy to test you. This will make learning more fun, memorable and interactive.
18. Find a ‘mnemonic’ (memory aid) for words you keep forgetting!
I always have to remind myself how to spell ‘business’. The ways I remember is is ‘busy + ness’ like ‘happiness’. Otherwise I want to spell it ‘buisness’*.
Another example is ‘dessert/desert’: you can remember ‘dessert’ is sweet so it has 2 sugars (double ‘s’) whereas ‘desert’ has only sand (single ‘s’).
19. Find an app or online system you like
Personally, I think it’s better to write words down on paper (research has shown you remember it better, sorry!). But there are apps that help you review vocabulary e.g. Ulangi and you can make your own on Quizlet.
20. Audio record the words onto your phone
Try to mimic the online dictionary pronunciation of your specific list of words. Record this on your phone so you can listen and repeat when you’re out.
21. Find a reading source that is suitable for IELTS
Of course it’s always a good idea to read what you enjoy most, and you can find a list of free books that you can read for pleasure here (get full student access to CommonLit.org in the Academy).
However, IELTS reading texts are always factual, formal and mostly academic, so you need to ensure you get plenty of practice with this style of writing.
My advice is to focus on IELTS texts. They are not as boring as they look (I think most of them are fascinating!). If you focus on past papers, you will adjust to the style of texts you will get in the test.
22. Find a listening source that is suitable for IELTS
You can’t listen to IELTS all day, so find a high quality podcast and news channel to build your listening skills, or do a daily educational YouTube video such as TedTalks.
Of course I think the best podcast for IELTS is mine. I focus only on IELTS vocabulary so it gives you the intensive repetition and recycling and explanation that you need. You can also check the text on my website.
23. Use only high-quality websites
24. Use only high-quality newspapers
We have a ‘portfolio’ system in our school. Every day, the students have to write 3 new words that they have found in a newspaper article. It’s a great idea, but it takes a bit of time to work out what NOT to learn.
The first day, my new student read ‘The Daily Mail’ (a poor-quality tabloid newspaper) and found 3 slang words that could only be used in certain contexts (not in IELTS!). The second day he read ‘The Telegraph’ (a high-quality broadsheet newspaper) but found very formal words like ‘wrest’ ‘oust’ and ‘thwart’ which again, could only be used in certain contexts.
That’s why I think, ultimately, the best reading source if you’re preparing for IELTS, is the Reading texts themselves. And there are plenty of them on my website!
25. Develop independent learning skills
If you’ve got this far, it is clear to me that you are committed to self-study and you have the right motivation. You don’t need any more advice.
26. Check things yourself
The best place I’ve found to do this is ludwig.guru. Just enter the words you want to check and it will show you lots of examples from good quality sources for free.
27. Follow my A-Z of IELTS series on YouTube!
It’s a work in progress, and will highlight and review key IELTS topics for you.
28. Find a fantastic course
Find a course where MOST of the hard work has been done for you so that you can get on with the learning.
My 28-Day Vocabulary booster course gives you daily practice of essential vocab with Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking practise, worksheets, quizzes, e-books and learning links included (see the reviews below).
Get full access to the course in the Members Academy.