Improving your vocabulary should be a priority for any IELTS candidate. The question is how to achieve this. Here are 10 of my top tips and, to make this really practical I give you some online resources or exercises for each tip. The tips get more practical and less general as you go down the list.
1. Give yourself time
Learning vocabulary takes time and it can be a mistake to force the process. If you try to learn too many words too quickly, you can end up only confusing yourself. 5 words a day is more efficient than 20 words. 5 words a day means over 30 words a week.
My best resources here are:
2. Be passive
This one may sound strange – normally teachers encourage you to be as active as possible. Here’s the thing. You learn words by using them and using words can include reading, writing, speaking and listening. By focussing on the passive skills (reading and listening), you expose yourself to huge amounts of vocabulary – far more than 5 words a day. More importantly, you will be learning how the words work – what other words they go with and the different forms of the words. What do i mean by being passive? Just read and listen in English lots and lots.
This passive approach does take time but it does also work. Ask most any teacher and they will tell you that the best writers are people who read most and the best speakers are those who listen best.
The resources I suggest here are:
- BBC Words in the News: excellent variety of topics with vocabulary help and a listening option
- The Economist: contains exactly the sort of texts found in IELTS
- TED: a superb site with videos on a very wide range of topics with the bonus of subtitles
Or just read and listen about what you find interesting. If you are interested, your brain will start working. If your brain starts working, you are much more likely to process the vocabulary you hear/read. Within reason it doesn’t matter what you read as you will still be exposed to lots of general vocabulary. This can work. I taught myself Romanian by reading about sport in the Romanian newspapers.
3. Be active
Passive is good but so is active. Being active accelerates the learning process. If you spend some time focussing on vocabulary actively, you start to “notice” more about other words when you are just reading and listening. This concept of “noticing” is very trendy among language teachers for now. Being active means setting aside some time each day to specific vocabulary learning.
My resource here may sound strange: it’s a dictionary! No one reads dictionaries, right? Well, but you can. Online dictionaries are far more user-friendly than their book cousins.
Macmillan Dictionary : to see why I recommend this dictionary, you might care to check out this video tutorial.
4. Learn to spell
Oh dear, spelling. Spelling does matter in IELTS. Strange as it may sound, it matters most in the listening paper where it can negatively affect your score by up to 2 bands. There is of course no magic bullet where spelling is concerned but there are definite skills that can help you learn to spell.
One key can be to treat spelling as a looking exercise not a listening exercise. Part of the problem with English spelling is that what we say and what we write are often two quite different things. The idea is to look at the word, say it, close your eyes, see it with your eyes closed, test yourself. The process takes a little time but it works. What you will discover is that, after some practice, you get into the routine of just seeing words without having to learn their spelling.
The resources I recommend here are:
- Look Cover: a superb site that I have used very successfully with students who have had serious spelling difficulties
- BBC Skillswise: another excellent BBC site that works on the same principle
- The Really Boring English Blog: not sure about including this one as it is one of my sites, but it does contain different ideas for teachers to make learning spelling more fun and, perhaps, more effective.
5. Learn the right words – the Academic Word List
This is a big one. We all have only so much mental energy and so if you are going to spend time learning vocabulary, it only makes sense to ensure that you are learning the right vocabulary for IELTS. A very common mistake is to see a word, not understand it and think that it must be important. Not so. Not all words are equally important.
You want to focus your energy on the words you are going to use most. It doesn’t really make sense to spend time and energy on words that you will seldom use. The suggestion here is to focus on the Academic Word List: these are the 570 words that are most common in academic writing of all kinds. The key point here is that the words aren’t really that academic: rather they are the common words that all academics use. Indeed, most learners are surprised when they look at the list at how simple most of the words are. Simple can be good.
My suggested resources here are:
- Academic Vocabulary from The University of Nottingham: a seriously excellent site. For learners, perhaps the most interesting feature is the AWL highlighter and gapmaker. You can read a text and see which the important words are.
- AWL exercises: this is a selection of point and click exercises on the AWL: typically, these types of exercise are much more stimulating on a computer than in a book.
A particularly interesting exercise for IELTS candidates here is to copy/paste one of their own essays into the AWL highlighter. I would suggest that you should be using around 10 academic words per essay. If you are not, you are probably using the wrong sort of language. For more on this check out my post: IELTS writing – key essay vocabulary – 8 exercises from the AWL
6. Think word families
This one is slightly more technical. As a learner of English you need to be able to be flexible in how you use words. Suppose you have “learned” the word ANALYSIS, you have done well as it forms part of the AWL. However, just think how much better it would be if you could also use ANAYTICAL, ANALYTICALLY and ANALYSE. Indeed, the AWL is not just 570 words, but 570 word families.
My best resources here should be familiar:
7. Don’t just write down one word – think collocations and phrases
If I had only one vocabulary learning tip, this would be it. The point here is that we don’t use words, we use groups of words – what some language teachers call chunks. And, more to the point, typically most words are used in fairly standard word combinations or collocations. So, as a learner what you need to do is learn those combinations and my suggestion is that when you write the word down, you write down those combinations.
Here’s an example:
8 Write words down in groups – think synonyms
Writing words down should be part of your vocabulary learning routine – writing a word down is the first step towards making it your own. However, many language learners go about this the wrong way. The temptation is to keep a vocabulary notebook and to note down the words as you go. The problem is of course that you soon lose track of where the words are.This problem is particularly relevant for IELTS candidates. In IELTS, the topics you will need to speak and write about are fairly predictable (the family, transport, health etc).
So one suggested exercise here is to make a separate page for each topic. The way this works is that each time you find a new word you want to learn, you write it down next to other similar words. This does not just allow you to revise the words together; each time you write a word down, you will be looking at and revising similar words.
Another possible exercise that is particularly good for IELTS candidates is to focus on vocabulary actively before you do a speaking test or a practice essay. Make a list of the words you want to use on that topic (see my post on planning an essay). You may not use all the vocabulary as you write or speak but you will certainly write and speak better for having planned the vocabulary and each time you do this, you will learn the vocabulary better.
9. Be an active listener – listen and speak
This is one of my favourite tips. I mentioned above that the best speakers tend also to be the best listeners. One thing these people tend to have in common is that they don’t just passively listen, rather they listen and then speak. The poor language learner (such as myself) will do nothing when they hear a new word – or maybe just nod – the word will not be learned. What the effective language learner will do in contrast is repeat what they have just heard. By doing this, they are not just communicating, they are using the word for themselves and so taking the first step towards learning it.
My suggested exercise here is to familiarise yourself with phrases such as:
- “Are you saying…..?”
- “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand what you mean by…..”
Or just to repeat the word with a rising intonation. Another possibility that is particularly useful for IELTS candidates is to:
- listen to a text from BBC Words in the News or TED
- note down the key words (as you would do in the listening module
- wait 5 minutes
- try to reconstruct what you heard your notes – possibly recording yourself
- when/if you have problems, you simply listen again – repetition is good for language learning
10. Don’t just learn new words – learn old words better
Often the best language is relatively simple language. Something I know IELTS-Simon would agree with me on (see for example his post on using moreover ). There is a positive danger in trying to learn “complex” language that native speakers don’t use that often themselves. More than that, very often mistakes are made with already “learned vocabulary”. In practical terms this can mean you should:
- review the words you are learning on a weekly basis
- with your teacher make a checklist of the words that you use incorrectly
Boring I know – but effective.
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