Learning New Vocabulary

Tips and points to consider for learning new vocabulary in IELTS.

I often get asked about the best way to learn new words that can be used in IELTS essays or the speaking section. I have not given any word lists on my website because I believe that vocabulary building is your responsibility. It is something that you will have to work on over a period of time.

One of the worst things you could ever do when studying IELTS is to just memorise lists of words and then randomly put those words into your writing, the same goes for speaking.

I have seen many essays where the student has just memorised sentences and phrases and put them in the essay. The examiner will see this too and mark it down as poor vocabulary. You could lose a Band score in Lexical resource here.

Here are some steps for learning new words.

  • Get a new notebook
  • As you read or listen to a new word, write it in a notebook.
  • Make an example sentence with that word.
  • Write down some synonyms and collocations connected to that word.
  • Think about the form of the word:  is it an adjective, a noun, a verb, a collocation, a phrasal verb? ..etc
  • Pick up 5 new words a day, but make sure they are IELTS topic-specific, for instance: crime, environment, health, family, technology, the internet, media, education, society and so on.
  • Think about how those new words fit into an essay.
  • Never just memorise new words from a list.
  • Reading is very important in building your new vocabulary, but read something that interests you, not just IELTS material.
  • Regularly review the new words you have recorded, it is easy to forget them.

The way to learn vocabulary is to read a lot of texts that you find interesting, not just doing IELTS reading tasks as that will get boring quickly.

Listening is also a good way to develop vocabulary. While you are listening, make notes on new words. Some good websites for this are TED Talks, BBC podcasts, click here to see a list of free online resources.

The Dangers of Synonyms

Synonyms can be very tricky because there are certain types such as ‘near-synonyms’ which have a similar meaning but not exactly the same meaning. For instance here is a list of synonyms from Thesaurus.com… the word I chose is ‘child’


This demonstrates that if you just memorise a list of synonyms you could be in trouble. In the list above only 5 words connect well with the word ‘child’ that is ‘juvenile, toddler, infant, youngster, adolescent’.  Still it depends on the sentence, as the meaning will be completely different if I am talking about toddlers (young children) when I really mean adolescents (older children) The rest of the words in the above list just do not match well, and some are funny like ‘ankle-biter, small fry, imp, urchin….’ these would never be used in writing.

Some of the words above I have never used or heard before such as ‘moppet’ or ‘stripling’,  I would probably laugh if I heard them.

I have seen people using synonyms in essays when it is clear that they have not thought about the meaning. In many cases,  these just confuse the reader and could leave the reader with a different impression. This is especially important when paraphrasing the task question. By the way, do not paraphrase everything as the whole meaning could change.


I strongly advise learning how to use collocations effectively (strongly advise is a collocation :0), these are 2 or 3 words that often go together, there is a pattern to them such as:

  • Have a coffee
  • Have a bath
  • Take a break
  • Take a look
  • Break the law
  • Break a promise
  • Follow the rules
  • Follow your instincts
  • Spend money
  • Spend time at the office…  and so on..

In the marking criteria in IELTS, you are marked on vocabulary. You will be marked on the way you use collocations in the writing section, especially essays. Here is what it says in the Public Band Descriptors about Writing task 2 Band 7

  • uses a sufficient range of vocabulary to allow some flexibility and precision
  • uses less common lexical items with some awareness of style and collocation
  • may produce occasional errors in word choice, spelling and/or word formation

Collocations are important for writing and they are useful in the speaking section. They give your speech a smooth natural flow, but you have to know how to use them correctly.

Here is a lesson on the various grammatical patterns of collocations

If you want to study them in more detail according to the topic, then here is a very good online resource that you can use to study collocations online for free.  Click here to study collocations online for free

Any questions? leave a comment below.

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