How to build your vocabulary for IELTS

Developing your vocabulary for your IELTS test is very important as it will help you in all parts of the test and no doubt help you get a better band score. It is important to improve your vocabulary on a regular basis as it takes time to see the benefits of your work, so if you haven’t already done, get started today!

Why is developing vocabulary important for IELTS?

In the parts of the test where you have to produce something in English (i.e. the speaking and writing sections) there is a marking criteria called “Lexical Resource”. This focuses on the range of vocabulary a candidate uses. In general, the wider the range of vocabulary or expressions used correctly and appropriately, the better a candidate will score. What does this mean in practice?

Word Collocations

Word colocations are words that commonly go together. The examiner will be looking to see if you are using the correct word collocations when speaking or writing.  For example, below are some words that go together with “Make” and “Do”.


  • a cup of tea
  • a phone call
  • too much noise
  • changes
  • a mistake
  • a decision


  • your homework
  • an experiment
  • research
  • your best

Using less common vocabulary

Using less common language, such as idioms or expressions can be helpful for your lexical resource scores. As expressions are quite informal in nature, this is particularly useful for the speaking part of the test. Avoid using expressions or idioms in the formal part of the writing test. Here are some examples:


What do you like to do in your free time?

Answer A: I like swimming and playing tennis.

Answer B: I’m really into swimming and playing tennis

The expression “into”, which means to like and enjoy something, is less common and would get a better lexical resource score

Find out more about idioms and expressions and do some practice activities on the British Council Learn English site.

Using paraphrasing & synonyms

It’s important to use a variety of vocabulary to show that you have a range and that you are not just repeating the same words. This is useful for both the written and spoken parts of the test. You don’t have to repeat the same words that the examiner may ask in the speaking section.  For example:

Question: What are some foods that you dislike?

Answer: I really can’t stand vegetables!

The expression “can’t stand” means to really dislike something.  By using this expression, you are showing a range of vocabulary as well as less common expressions.

How do I improve my vocabulary?

  1. Read!

Read lots to improve your vocabulary.  Try to read something in English everyday and take a note of words that you don’t understand.  Try not to learn these words on their own.  Use the words you don’t know in a sentence; this will help you to remember them.

  1. Prepare with British Council’s free resources

The British Council has a host of free resources on the IELTS preparation page where you can improve your vocabulary.  You can get access to:

  1. Be consistent

Developing your vocabulary takes time so make sure you consistently work at it.  Find your “IELTS” time every day and use that time to build your word power! Make a plan and stick to it!

Some things to avoid…

  • Avoid trying to memorize long lists of academic complicated words. This isn’t the best preparation for your test.  You may forget these words and you don’t even know if you will need to use them in the test! It is better to use the preparation tools highlighted above to see examples of vocabulary that you might need for the test.
  • If you are unsure of a word to use, don’t use it! It is better to find a synonym (an alternative word) that you are certain is the correct one for what you are trying to express.

Remember, building your vocabulary takes time so make sure you work hard at it.  The hard work will pay off and you will no doubt see the benefits during test time!  Best of luck!

Visit the IELTS Canada homepage to find out more.

If you are ready to take your test, visit our IELTS registration page and search for your city or province to find your closest British Council IELTS test venue.