How To Develop Vocabulary for IELTS

The Importance of Vocabulary and the IELTS Speaking Test

If your goal is to achieve your best band score in IELTS, then improving your vocabulary is essential. Vocabulary accounts for 25% of your marks in speaking and writing.  And vocab is a key part of the listening and reading too. Sometimes I feel my students overlook their vocab because they think grammar and accuracy is ‘more important’.  Clearly it is important, but not more so!

Vocabulary often feels like a huge area; so where do you start? In this article I want to focus on how to improve vocabulary for the speaking part, as for most students this is often the most challenging area of the whole test. All three parts of the speaking test have certain vocab areas that you can focus on in order to improve your performance.


Part 1

As with part 3 of the test, this is a “real conversation” so there is pressure on you to think of words quickly and answer questions without long pauses or hesitation. You need to be comfortable speaking about your personal experiences. The topics will vary, but there are some common themes that you should prepare for. Remember these are everyday topics that you should be able to talk about in English anyway!

Here are a few of them:

1.     Where you live/ Places: Location, kind of place – city, town/ transport / tourist spots/ type of accommodation – flat, apartment, detached house etc.

2.     Study/Work: student – major, course, qualification job – job title, full time, part time, what industry /field

3.     Family/People–Words for family members EG aunt, niece, cousin, adjectives for personality

Here is a very common exchange I hear in my classes when I first start working with students.

Me: Where do you live?

Student: In …..( China,Italy etc)

This answer would be so much better like this:

Student: In a small town on the south east coast of Italy.

Remember: you don’t need long complicated answers in part 1 to impress the examiner. However, you do need to be able to answer the questions quickly and fluently without too much thought to get the test off to a good start.  Find a study partner who can ask you these questions to practice, whether that be a friend or teacher.


Part 2

This is the part of the speaking test where you really want to use some of your less common vocabulary to impress the examiner. This doesn’t need to be overly complicated or formal, but does need to be what native speakers might use. Before the test you should again prepare for the main topics (person, place, object, event, activity, favourite book, film, website etc.). 

As you are speaking on your own, you will also need good transition words to move between the task card topics, e.g. “First of all..., next…, finally...” etc. These are a simple way to sound natural and fluent – and ultimately make a good impression on the examiner.

Make sure you are recording yourself and making corrections and improvements to what you say. Making small improvements is an essential way to improve your overall score, there is no magic way to make your score jump!

E.g. Describe a favourite family member:

·        Normal sentence: My aunt is really nice.

·        Better sentence: My aunt is very generous and has a really positive outlook on life.

In the example above I have taken an ‘easy’ adjective (nice) and used a more descriptive one (generous).

During the test use the full 1 minute to prepare and note down all topic related vocabulary.




Part 3

With part 3, I notice that when we are practicing the whole test, students often get a little “tired” towards the end. Try not to! This is still a very important part of the test to maximise your score. This is where the examiner will ask you for more detail and you will need to give longer answers.

1.     Answer the question

2.     Give reasons why

3.     Give examples

4.     Alternative opinion

For this part you need to think more carefully about your answers than in part 1. Long pauses and lots of, “errrrrrrm”s will make a bad impression. So, work on practicing your thinking phrases to reduce these. E.g. “Let me see…, Well…, That’s a good question…” If you can’t remember a word here it is helpful to be able to paraphrase (say something in a different way.)

To summarise: be strategic in your study. Think about the requirements of each part of the speaking test. Get a big notebook! Use a page for each of the common themes and on it draw pictures, write new words and phrases. Use interesting vocabulary to achieve your best score!