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One popular way to study vocabulary is to use an IELTS vocabulary list available online. It will probably have a sexy title like ‘Essential Band 8 Vocab‘ or ‘100 words you need for your IELTS exam‘.
Check out this list as an example, with the following claim:
“These words are indispensable for the IELTS Examination. You need to use these words in your Speaking and Writing Test. These words will greatly impact your IELTS Score.”
Firstly, the words on this list are the opposite of indispensable (essential) and they certainly won’t improve your score because you will find it very difficult to use them correctly and in the right situation.
In this article, I’ll explain why these words are so unsuitable as well as give you some tips about how to use lists effectively.
What does the Examiner want?
As you can see from the table below, it’s not about knowing a good range of vocab, but it’s very important that you know when to use it e.g. how formal it is, and how to use it e.g. correct collocations and/or prepositions
Lexical Resource (Vocabulary)
A wide range of vocabulary used naturally and flexibly to express exact meanings
Skillful use of less common and idiomatic vocab
Very rare mistakes with word choice and collocations.
A good range of vocabulary used flexibly to discuss any given topic
Some ability to use less common and idiomatic vocab
Some mistakes with word choice and correct collocations.
A range of vocabulary used to give long answers
Meaning is clear although mistakes in word choice and form are common.
Too formal and Academic
Let’s take a closer look at the list. It’s arranged alphabetically and here are the first 5 words:
aberration, abhor, acquiesce, alacrity, amiable
These words are all very formal and extremely academic. A lot of native speakers may have never used them and may not even know the meaning of them. Seriously.
Some have very specific meanings. For example, Acquiesce:
to accept a decision, even when you don’t agree, but you don’t say anything, maybe because you know there’s no real alternative.
But the meaning only tells you half the story. You also need to know how to use the word and the kind of situation the word is used for.
The five words above are very formal and academic. So you can only use them to talk about specific, mostly academic topics. Also, you must use them in combination with equally formal grammar and vocabulary.
Let’s check out the following examples. What is the difference? Which is the correct usage?
Student #1. “My mum always makes me eat my vegetables. She spends a lot of time and energy to make dinner for me so I usually acquiesce her.”
Student #2. “Despite my reservations, I usually acquiesce to my mother’s demands for me to always finish my vegetables, as she puts a lot of time and energy into making dinner for me.”
If an examiner heard student #1 the use of acquiesce wouldn’t sound natural as the surrounding vocab is much less formal and they didn’t use a preposition (acquiesce to someone) so they haven’t shown they can use this word correctly and naturally so this keeps their score at band 6 or less.
Student #2 is much better as the surrounding vocab is suitable (e.g. reservations, demands), and they used the correct preposition. So this is correct and natural use which will help them to achieve above band 7+ for vocabulary.
A good tip for how to know how to use the word and more importantly the kind of situation is google it and check out the news tab:
You can see from the search results that this word is commonly used to talk about political decisions and negotiations.
You need to ask yourself “Is it likely that I will want to talk/write about this (accepting political decisions) in my IELTS exam?“.
If the answer is “Yes!”, then go ahead, learn this word, study it’s meaning and usage, including the situation, collocations and grammar, and practice using it in your speaking and writing as often as you can in the weeks and months leading up to your test.
But be aware that a word like this is very specific – so sure it will impress the examiner if you use it correctly, in the right situation, but how likely is that? To be honest, It’s highly unlikely.
STUDY TIP: Read the sentences containing the target word or phrase. If you can’t understand those sentences, then the target vocab is probably too high level for you at the moment.
Phrasal Verbs – natural and idiomatic
A more natural, common and therefore more useful strategy would be to avoid very academic words and focus instead on good collocations with verb phrases and phrasal verbs.
As we saw in the band descriptors earlier, examiners want a good range, including idiomatic vocab, which includes many phrasal verbs and theses are a much safer option than using idioms like ” raining cats and dogs” which native speakers don’t commonly use.
Suitable alternative phrases for acquiesce could include ‘let someone win’, ‘give in to someone’s demands’, ‘agree to someone’s request’, ‘force someone to do something’.
“My mum always forces me to eat all my vegetables. She spends a lot of time and energy to make dinner so sometimes I complain but usually I just give in to make her happy.”
If you search “give in to” on google news, you can see from the examples below that a phrase like “to give in to..” is much more flexible and natural and it can be used to talk about a range of academic and everyday situations:
-Zimbabwe ruling party says will not give in to military pressure.
-Arsenal should not give in to Mesut Ozil’s latest contract demand
-Don’t give in to the pressure of driving drowsy.
-High Grade’s Strawberry Cough Shatter: Give in to the Cough!
Here’s a video from our YouTube Channel with a little more detail on collocations (phrasal verbs are one type of collocation).
Practice in Context
Another good strategy for learning new vocabulary is to link the new phrases you are learning to topics and practice in that way.
So this means either learning a group of words related to a particular topic or to clearly have a topic in mind when you’re practising new words.
For example, make notes about as many real situations as you can both in daily life and in the past when you ‘give/gave in to someone/something’, and/or ‘someone forces/ed you do to do something’.
Next, practice talking about these situations (record yourself on your phone, listen back and check your grammar and collocations).
You can practice talking about these situations from a more personal point of view (to prepare for Speaking Pt1&2) or from a more general point of view (Speaking Pt3 / Writing Task 2).
Personal – “My parents forced me to study business at University. I wanted to study design but in the end I gave in to their wishes.”
General – “In my country, parents of high school students often forced their children to study sensible subjects such as business or accounting. I think they these students often want to study something else but but in the end they give in to their parents’ wishes.”
Create your own lists
So overall lists are a great way to focus you on studying new words, but it’s probably better to create your own lists from suitable words taken from your daily English use, and then follow the strategies above.
If you’re not sure about a word or phrase, try googling it, and if you’re still not sure, please get in touch and we’ll be happy to tell you.
Try to make a list with related words like this if possible:
Now it’s your turn! Put your answers in the comments.
Choose a word you think is good to use in the IELTS exam.
What does the word mean and how to use it?
Here are some ways to start writing your comments:
This word means…
I think this word is used to talk about…
One example of how people use this word is….
An expression using this word is…
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