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As an English learner taking standardized exams like IELTS, you know that vocabulary is the one language skill that crosses into all the other skills of listening, reading, writing, and speaking.

IELTS scoring standards use "lexical resources" as a key criteria to decide how well you use vocabulary on the exam.

Lexical resources are related to both the breadth — how many words you know — and depth — how well you know the words — of the words you use during your speaking and writing sections in particular, but all sections can be affected by your use and understanding of vocabulary.

If you can't...

  • understand a word spoken or in a text, your listening and reading scores will suffer

  • use the correct word or word form, your writing and speaking scores will suffer

  • pronounce a word correctly, your speaking scores will suffer

Improving your vocabulary skills will help improve your scores across the whole IELTS exam!

What Strategies Do I Need?

Two characters from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt saying,

The strategies you need depend a lot on the amount of time you have before the exam to prepare. Let's focus on 3 kinds of strategies:

  1. Long-term — Do you have several months (or years) to prepare?

  2. Short-term — Do you have a test date coming in a few weeks or days?

  3. Test day What can you do during the exam?

Long-Term Strategies

A calendar turning from September to December

Let's say you have a good long time to prepare. This is ideal! You need not only strategies but the discipline to use them over time in order to see results.

If you're willing to commit the time and effort, you can make a significant impact on your final scores.

There are a ton of resources out there for vocabulary study, so find what works best for you but let these suggestions get you a good solid start.

Long-Term Strategy 1: READ!!! A LOT!!!

An MTV award show presenter says,

There's nothing more effective for building vocabulary than reading as a habit. There are two kinds of reading you should practice:

  1. Intensive Reading — this is like you do with reading quizzes. Read something and answer questions, highlight words you don't know, and look up new words and expressions. You should also practice intensive reading with current news, blogs, and articles. Check out these intensive learning resources from British Council.

  2. Extensive Reading — read a lot of easy and enjoyable texts that allow you to read without stopping. Check out these sites for extensive reading resources.

Long-Term Strategy 2: Vocabulary Journaling

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Keep a journal of words you learn in your language studies. Avoid the use of translation, focus on word forms, and practice correct usage by writing contextually meaningful sentences.

Avoid sentences like these:

  1. I like equestrian events.

  2. I am fastidious.

Write sentences like these instead:

  1. I love watching horses and people compete in equestrian events.

  2. My friends call me a neat freak because I'm so fastidious.

Notice that the first two sentences above can't help you understand the word when you read it again. The next two sentences have important context to help remember the meaning.

More Long-Term Strategies

Other ideas include:

Active movie watching/podcast or radio listening — keep a notepad and pen to make notes of new words and their context as you watch movies or listen to radio shows and podcasts. It's ok to pause while you take notes!

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Reading aloud and recording — reading aloud helps your brain reinforce structure, pronunciation, and even meaning in context. Record yourself on your phone, and listen back to yourself to make sure you're using vocabulary correctly. Practice these read aloud activities and record yourself.

An animation of a person listening to a headphone recording

Short(er)-Term Strategies

stressed homer simpson GIF So you've got a test in a few weeks or days and you feel you want to boost your lexical resources as much as you can. Let's call it "vo-cram-ulary." Here, you want to learn as much useful vocabulary as you can in a short period of time.

  1. Learn roots, suffixes, and prefixes — be sure that you know the most common building blocks of English words. For example, "chrono" means time, and "logos" means order, so a word like "chronological" could be easily decoded if you know these Latin and Greek origins. Find helpful websites here.

  2. Study collocations — collocations are groups or pairs of words that often appear together. For example: "make" goes with a lot of nouns like "make a mess", "make a mint", "make war", "make a mistake", etc. Search for lists of English collocations and practice them. Try these collocations to get you started.

Test Day Strategies

The fateful day has arrived, you're in the middle of the test and you want to make the best of what you have. There are a few strategies that can help you on each portion of the test.

Flaticon Icon Reading

Firstly, even native speakers would have trouble completing this portion of the test perfectly. Don't try to do that but here are a couple of things you can do:

  1. Read through words — not all words are necessary, and sometimes you can ignore a word and still understand what you need to know. If you don't know it, it's too late. Don't dwell on it. Move on

  2. Read around words — Quite often, the meaning of a word is contained in the text. Look for adjacent words like "or..." or "in other words..." They might not even be in the same sentence.

Flaticon Icon Listening

You'll have a short time to look at the questions before the recording starts. Use this time wisely.

  1. Read the questions and highlight keywords to prepare to hear. Think of words that mean the same as the highlighted keywords.

  2. The most important thing in this portion is DON'T PANIC when you hear a word you don't understand. Let them flow over you. Make a note if you think it will help.

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Writing and Speaking

The best plan of attack is to use in-test preparation time wisely to plan what you want to say/write. Organizing your ideas is part of the scoring process. This is where all that long-term and short(er)-term practice will really pay off.

Having read lots of articles and books, kept a vocabulary journal, and read both extensively and intensively, you can only rely on what you already know. Use your vocabulary knowledge to get your message across in your speaking and writing answers.


You come across the following sentence but are not sure what "idiosyncratic" means. What word in the following text helps you figure out the meaning? "It is important to understand the idiosyncratic, or unique nature of the culture..."

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