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Speaking, Vocabulary

What vocabulary should I learn for the IELTS speaking exam?

Have you ever asked this question?

When they are preparing for the IELTS exam, a lot of students spend time learning set phrases, unusual vocabulary, and obscure idioms. They feel that this will help their speaking grade, but in actual fact the opposite is true. This type of preparation can actually lead to a lower grade.

Important advice:

Don’t memorize standard phrases.

Are you memorising phrases like “I’m sorry but I didn’t catch that. Could you repeat that please?” or “This is a very interesting issue which everyone has an opinion about nowadays.” Or “In my personal opinion I would have to say that it depends on your point of view.”? If you are, then it’s important that you stop. You are not just wasting your time. Examiners think that memorized expressions and phrases show that you have a limited vocabulary. If you use phrases which they think you have pre-learned, this will bring down your grade. How do they know? Well, despite what you may have been told, native speakers and strong IELTS candidates don’t use these phrases. They sound unnatural. Answer the question simply and directly. Spend the time practicing speaking instead.

Don’t learn a lot of unusual words and phrases.

Sometimes candidates learn obscure vocabulary items or idioms. Then they try and slot these in while they are speaking. This doesn’t work because examiners can spot this very easily. The examiners look at the words that you use the rest of the time, and pre-learned words always stick out. These words are often inappropriate for spoken English. They may be phrases or clichés that we don’t use any more. Sometimes these old-fashioned expressions even sound quite funny to a native-speaker ear. At other times the words and phrases won’t be used correctly. This will lead to a lower mark than you should get.

Learn the most frequent words well.

In most situations, native speakers do not use infrequent vocabulary while they are speaking. In fact, 96% of the words they use come from the 2000 most common words. These are the words you should be learning, and you should be learning them very well. Make sure you know how to pronounce them, how to use them in a sentence, if there are any other words they are frequently used with (e.g. “afraid of”, or “take a photo”), other forms (e.g. ‘poor’, ‘poorly’, ‘poverty’), and whether there are differences in meaning between similar words (e.g. ‘economic’ vs. ‘economical’). You can also learn vocabulary about topics which are likely to come up in the exam. Reading about these topics will help. But don’t waste your time and your marks learning unusual words which you think you can use to show off.

Learn how to paraphrase.

Examiners don’t mind if you don’t know a word as long as you paraphrase. Candidates often find that they can’t remember a word. Part of this is because of exam-day nerves, but it may be that you’re asked to speak about a topic that you are not very familiar with. When candidates forget a word, the weaker ones will stop and try to remember it. This will spoil the flow of their speech and they will also lose marks for fluency and coherence. Practice paraphrasing. Make a game out of it. You can use synonyms, antonyms, definitions, examples, descriptions of appearance or function. You could also use a more general word. But don’t worry about it and let this spoil your flow. A candidate’s ability to paraphrase successfully is regarded as a very good thing.



2 thoughts on “What vocabulary should I learn for the IELTS speaking exam?

  1. Ah, a kindred spirit. If I hear another ‘to My mind’ I think I shall commit murder or hare kiri depending on my mood.

    Posted by Simon Ensor (@sensor63) | September 7, 2011, 11:34 am

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