1. Put Ideas Before Words
There’s one really big mistake which many IELTS students make with vocabulary: they put words before ideas. There are many videos and websites which promise to teach you “100 essential IELTS words”, or “300 words for band 8”, or whatever. So, maybe you watch these videos, and read these vocabulary lists, and try to learn them. Then, you use the words and phrases in your IELTS writing. Sounds normal, right? What’s the problem? The problem is that natural communication doesn’t work like that. You don’t learn a word and think, “I’m going to use this word in this conversation.”
Oli 1: Hmm, I like the word ‘mellifluous.’ I’m going to use it in my next conversation. […]
Oli 1: Hi!
Oli 2: Hello!
Oli 1: Your voice sounds very mellifluous today!
Oli 2: [confused expression]
Weird, right? But, I see students do this in their IELTS writing all the time, especially in the task two essay. IELTS is a test of your communication skills in English. Of course, you need a good vocabulary to communicate well, but communication depends primarily on ideas, not words. Words express your ideas. Using a word or a phrase without an idea behind it is empty; it’s meaningless. In your own language, you don’t find a word, and then try to find a situation where you can use it. You have an idea, and then you find the right words and phrases to express it. That’s natural communication, and that’s what you need to do in IELTS.
So, what can you do here? First, spend more time thinking and planning before you write, even in the exam. Yes, I know you’re under a lot of time pressure, but you need this. If you don’t have a clear idea in your head, you can’t write a clear answer. Secondly, instead of learning lists of vocabulary that you might not need, just learn the words, phrases and collocations you need to express your ideas. Practice writing regularly, and learn vocabulary by learning the words and phrases you need when you need them. However, this isn’t a practical point; it’s about how you think. If you think words come before ideas, you’ll struggle with IELTS writing, especially task two. You need to put ideas first, words second. What else can you do?
2. Stop Worrying About Repetition
In my experience, IELTS students are terrified of repeating the same words and phrases in their writing. I made some videos where I wrote sample IELTS answers, and a lot of comments said things like, “You used the same word three times! You suck! We hate you!” Okay, maybe they didn’t exactly say that; I’m paraphrasing. I’m going to be repetitive here and say something I’ve said many, many times before: read the scoring scheme. Go do it right now. Read the descriptors for band seven.
What’s the first point? You need to use vocabulary ‘with flexibility and precision’. Think about that word: ‘precision’. That means you use the right word in the right place to express your idea. Here’s what a lot of students do when they write: One: they think, “Argh! I can’t use the same word twice, or I’ll get a lower score!” Two: they try to find a ‘synonym’. This is a problem, because there are very few true synonyms in English. Many words which you might think are synonyms are not exactly the same. Three: they use a word which is close to the right meaning, but not exactly right. Four: they get band six for vocabulary because they aren’t using vocabulary with precision. I see this all the time when teaching IELTS writing.
So, what should you do? First, read the score scheme again. It doesn’t even mention repetition in the vocabulary band descriptions, except for band four, and I guarantee that 99.9% of you watching this video would not get band four for vocabulary. Next, if there’s a key idea in the task, accept that you might need to refer to it several times. For example, the essay I wrote in our other video was about communication, and many people said that I used the word ‘communication’ too many times. But here’s the thing: there’s no other word which has the same meaning as ‘communication’. If you’re writing an essay about communication, you’ll need to repeat the word. The same is true for many other things. If you’re writing an essay about air pollution, you’ll need to use the words ‘air pollution’. You can’t avoid that, and it’s not a problem. Many students here would try to use a different phrase. For example, instead of ‘air pollution’, they might say ‘smog’, ‘exhaust fumes’, ‘impurities in the atmosphere’, or something like that. But, none of these have the same meaning as ‘air pollution’. If you change the word, very often, you’re changing the meaning. If you don’t realise this, then your words won’t fit your ideas, and then you get band six maximum for vocabulary.
Remember, for band seven and higher, you need to be precise. You need to use exactly the right word. To be clear, if you’re repeating words and phrases a lot, then that is a problem, but probably not a vocabulary problem. It could be that your ideas are repetitive, or that you don’t know how to use referencing to avoid repetition. However, these points affect your coherence and cohesion score; they aren’t part of your vocabulary score.
So, let’s review the most important points from this section: First, stop thinking about synonyms. Choose the word or phrase which fits your idea most precisely. Second, accept that key words and phrases will need to be repeated to some extent. It’s not a problem to use the same phrase more than once if it’s a central part of the task. Let’s look at our next point.
3. Words Are Just Words
Here are some ideas we often see online, or hear from our IELTS students: “I need more academic vocabulary.” “I need more advanced vocabulary.” “I need more idiomatic vocabulary.” This causes problems. First, and I’ve said this so many times that I’m boring myself, but it’s crucial so I’ll say it again: read the scoring scheme. Does it talk about ‘academic vocabulary’? No. Does it talk about ‘advanced vocabulary’? No. Why not? Because those things don’t exist. Serious linguists don’t talk about ‘advanced vocabulary’, because it isn’t real. Words are just words. They have meanings, and you use them to express your ideas. That’s it. One word is like another word. It’s not complicated.
So, what’s the point here? Many IELTS students use specific words or phrases because they think that they’re ‘academic’ or ‘advanced’, and they think that this will get a higher score. However, if you do this, you’re putting words before ideas, and that means you aren’t using your vocabulary precisely, and that means you probably can’t get band seven. You do need to use some less common vocabulary to get band seven or higher, but you also need to use it well. Learning a word or phrase won’t help unless you really understand how to use it. You need to understand exactly what a word or phrase means. You need to know how to use collocations with the vocabulary you learn. For example, if you’re writing a task two essay about diet, you’ll need to know several collocations with the word ‘diet’.
You also need control of register. To get a high score for vocabulary, you need to write in a consistent, appropriate style. In general, IELTS students focus too much on learning new words and phrases, and not enough on using the words and phrases they know accurately. We’ll talk about how you can work on this in the last section, but before that, we have one more important point to cover.
4. Correcting Errors
One of the biggest differences between band six and band seven in the IELTS writing exam is the quantity of errors you can make. At band six, you can make quite a lot of mistakes, so long as your meaning is clear. For band seven, you can make ‘occasional errors’. For band eight, you can make ‘rare errors’. This is one of the major points which keeps IELTS students at band six. So, let’s think: what counts as a vocabulary error? There are four possibilities:
- You use the wrong word or phrase.
- You use an incorrect collocation. For example, if you’re writing a task two essay about healthy eating and diet, and you say, ‘take a diet’, that would be a collocation error. You can ‘follow a diet,’ ‘eat a healthy diet’, ‘have a good diet’, and many others, but ‘take a diet’ isn’t possible.
- You spell a word incorrectly.
- You form a word incorrectly. For example, if you want to make a noun from the word ‘overweight’ and you write ‘overweightness’, that would be a word formation error. There’s no noun from the word ‘overweight’, by the way; you need to use a phrase with a gerund, like ‘being overweight’.
So, how can you reduce the number of errors you make? Here, you probably need feedback from a professional teacher. If you make multiple mistakes, then you won’t be aware of a lot of the mistakes you’re making. Write essays or task one answers and look at the mistakes you make. Sort your errors into these four types: choice of word, collocation, spelling or word formation. Then, review your errors using a flashcard app like Anki. This is a long process and you need patience; it will take a lot of work to reduce your errors. However, if you want band seven or higher, it’s necessary. Make flashcard questions with your errors, and put the correct word or phrase as the answer.
Answer: being overweight Even better, make flashcards with full sentences from your writing, like this:
Question: Overweightness is a major risk factor for many diseases, including cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Answer: Being overweight is a major risk factor for many diseases, including cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Okay, now let’s put all of this together and make a plan for you to improve your IELTS writing vocabulary score.
5. Improving Your Vocabulary for IELTS
Learning vocabulary for IELTS is just learning vocabulary. You need to do the same things you would do to improve your English vocabulary generally. That means: One: read regularly and widely. Read as much as you can, read things from different topics, written by different people, from different sources. Two: learn vocabulary in phrases, collocations and sentences. Learning a word in context is always more effective than trying to learn individual words.
For the IELTS writing exam, you also need to write regularly. You need to write practice answers and, ideally, get feedback from a professional teacher.
Finally, you need to track and review your vocabulary errors, as we said before. There’s one important point about improving your vocabulary we haven’t mentioned. You need time. You need lots of time. The average learner cannot change these things in a few weeks, and even in 2-3 months you can’t make a big difference. Don’t waste your time learning lists of ‘essential IELTS words’ or ‘advanced IELTS vocabulary’. You won’t get a higher score by using a word or phrase that you memorised and don’t know how to use. If you’re around band 5.5 to 6.5 and you need a score of seven or above, you need to do these things consistently over a long period of time to improve. You need to read, write, get feedback and review your errors, and you need to keep doing these things for months and months. That’s how you get better.
Anyway, good luck if you have an IELTS exam coming up soon, and thanks for watching!
IELTS Task 1 Writing Band Descriptors: https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/2018-01/IELTS_task_1_Writing_band_descriptors.pdf
IELTS Task 2 Writing Band Descriptors: https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/2018-01/IELTS_task_2_Writing_band_descriptors.pdf