Top Tips for IELTS

A little but often – How to increase your vocabulary

Much of the philosophy of this blog is that the best the way to prepare for IELTS is to take care of your general English and not to focus solely on the exam. This is particularly relevant in relation to learning vocabulary which is a key to all 4 papers. Here is another “little but often” suggestion on how you should go about that learning process – this time looking at learning the words you already know.

Learn the words you already know?
This no doubt sounds a strange suggestion, but to demonstrate what I mean, here’s an exercise for you. You know the word “practice” of course, so why bother learning it? To show you, see if you can complete each of these sentences with a word based on “practice”.

1. You can’t do three jobs at once. That’s totally …….. .

2. You’re …….. old enough to drive. Why don’t you think about saving up for lessons?

3. You need to …….. regularly if you want to improve

The solutions are added as a comment to this post. Did you get them all right? Well done if you did, but don’t worry too much if you didn’t. I often take this task into class and rarely do my students get 100%, they will know the base word, but they don’t know all the variations of it. This is quite normal for learners of English.

Word families – why they matter
What we are looking at here are word families: words that are related to each other. These matter because research suggests that native speakers do not in fact use so many words and that:

the 2000 most frequent word families of English make up 79.7% of the individual words in any English text, the 3000 most frequent word families represent 84%, the 4000 most frequent word families make up about 86.7%, and the 5000 most frequent word families cover 88.6%. (click here if you want to read the research)

It’s not that native speakers use so many words, rather they are able to use those words much more flexibly than learners, as they know all the related words in the word family. And in many ways it is these common words and their word families that learners of English need to focus on – not the technical terms that are rarely used. Indeed, the academic word list works on the same principle of word families.

How to learn word families

Look for common words
The first step is to understand this idea: that the words you need to notice and pay attention to are the words you probably ignore as being too simple to learn. You recognise them, but can you use them? This is a small but hugely important step – don’t ignore familiar looking words.

Learn to see patterns
The next step is of course to practise (note the spelling!). I will add, however, that you need to practise regularly and intelligently for this work. By this I mean you want to learn to notice patterns in different word families: to give you one example, all these words have something in common:

  • widen
  • shorten
  • lengthen
  • broaden

Not only do they end in” -en”, they are verbs. The point being that once you have seen this a few times, you will learn how to make intelligent guesses about words you have not seen or used before. This is necessary because you cannot “learn” all the words as there are simple too many of them: only this week the millionth word in English was recorded!

A great site for practice
Flo Joe is a perfect “little but often” site, ideal for 15 minutes daily exercise. If you like, take a look at my brief video introduction to it showing you how to navigate and use it.



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7 Responses to A little but often – How to increase your vocabulary

  1. Dominic Cole June 13, 2009 at 9:40 pm #

    the answers:

    impractical – note that many words beginning in p use "im" for the negative

    practically – note that a very common pattern in English is adverb + adjective. Indeed, some adverbs are used more commonly with adjectives than verbs and are "ad -adjectives".

    practise – bet you got this one wrong! In British English (though not US English) the verb is -ise not -ice. In IELTS this is no great problem as you can use either British or American spelling. You should be consistent though in how you spell.

    • sreejith September 28, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

      this was for me…thanx a lot

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