Essential IELTS Vocabulary Tips | Top Universities

Essential IELTS Vocabulary Tips

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Updated Mar 26, 2021



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Guest post: Gill Balfour

One of the problems you may face when taking the IELTS exam is the huge range of vocabulary you need. The key is to focus on the vocabulary you are most likely to need, and in the months leading up to your exam grow your IELTS vocabulary as much as you can. Become a “collector of words” and the IELTS exam will be a whole lot more accessible.

Get into good study habits

There are plenty of good study habits you can acquire to grow your IELTS vocabulary. Read, listen and speak English at every opportunity. Try and read English newspapers or magazines regularly – preferably daily. You will come across new words, which can then be collected and studied. The BBC Learning English website will help you – you can read and listen to news reports in the ‘Words in the News’ section, along with many other useful features.

Always have a vocab notebook with you. Don’t interrupt the flow of your reading, but quickly make a note of the new word and return to study it later. You can then go back and see it in context, which will help with your understanding. Don’t just translate directly between languages, as this can sometimes be misleading. Try and use an English-English dictionary instead of, or as well as, a translation dictionary.

Make the most of your dictionary

Don’t just look for the definition. There is much more than this available to you. Look at the word form, pronunciation and uses. You may not understand the phonemic characters given, but you could take a look at the British Council interactive phonemic chart, where you can hear the sounds and practise them.

Add even more words to your IELTS vocabulary

Recording new vocabulary is an individual thing, and you probably have your own way of doing this. Most students will just write the word, the translation and a definition. But there are other study habits you can adopt to grow your range of IELTS vocabulary. When you learn a new word, why not try this:

  • Write the definition.
  • Put the word into a sentence to contextualise it.
  • Check what the word form is – noun, adjective, verb, adverb etc.
  • What other word forms are connected to it? If it’s a noun, is there a verb connected to it? If it’s a verb, are there any phrasal verbs formed from it?
  • Look for synonyms/antonyms (use a good thesaurus).
  • Look for collocations.

Record all new words you encounter

As mentioned above, you are sure to have your own study habits and method of recording vocabulary, and the best way for you will depend on the type of learner you are. For example, if you’re a visual learner you might like to use mind maps or vocab trees. The BBC Learning English website has some ideas and templates that you could use.

If you don’t always carry a notebook with you, why not record new words into your mobile and then look them up later.

Focus on topics covered in the IELTS speaking section

In the speaking section of the IELTS exam, you will have to talk about a topic for two minutes. You won’t know what the topic is going to be before the test, but there are some topics that are frequently used:

  • Technology
  • Education
  • Employment
  • The arts
  • Family
  • The environment
  • Your home

Focusing on these areas will be very helpful in all parts of the IELTs exam, but especially in the speaking test.

The most important thing is to start growing your IELTS vocabulary straight away. Every time you hear or read a new word, record it and study it. Good luck!

Gill Balfour is the editor of, a resource for international students, their parents and counsellors to guide them through their international study experiences. Gill previously worked as an ESL teacher in the UK and Spain.

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