Improve Your IELTS Vocabulary: 7 Steps To Success

Improve Your IELTS Vocabulary: 7 Steps To Success

I originally wrote this article for English learners in Thailand, but the article is for anyone who needs to improve their IELTS vocabulary.

Listen to me read this article on how to improve your IELTS Vocabulary.

One of the biggest mistakes made by IELTS candidates is this: they spend lots of time preparing for the IELTS test and no time improving their general English. But you must have good English to do well on the IELTS test, especially in Task 2 of the IELTS Writing Test.  Good exam techniques plus lots of ‘tips and tricks’ are not enough.

In this article I will write about some of the most effective ways to help you improve your English. I’ve written this with IELTS candidates in mind, but anyone learning English can use these methods.

The Golden Rule: Use English

First, do not ‘study’ English. English is not a thing to be studied, it is a tool to be used. You will not learn English effectively If you spend lots of time learning grammatical ‘rules’ and memorising lists of words. You learn English by using it.

Note: it is a good idea to enrol on an English language course at a language school. But this is not the only thing you should do. In fact, I think that you should do 80% of your learning at home and all of the following ideas can be done at home.

Improve your IELTS vocabulary by reading

1. Grow your vocabulary for IELTS by reading

The single, most important part of learning English is building a large vocabulary. A large vocabulary will help you to write and speak English, and it will help you listen to and read English. In fact, a large vocabulary is far more important than good grammar: without words, you can never be understood; without grammar, you can usually be understood. So put your grammar books away, and get something to read.

The best way to grow your vocabulary is by reading a lot of material in English. This is because you can see the words and phrases being used, in context. This means you are more likely to remember these words and phrases, and you will have a better understanding of how these words and phrases are actually used.

The Internet is a great place to find lots of free reading materials. Computers also have tools to help you understand a text. For example, Google Chrome has a Google Translate extension; if you find a word you do not understand, you can click on the word and the extension will quickly translate the word into Thai.

Google Translate

Choose reading material that interests you, not because it is going to come up in the IELTS test. If you are interested in cooking, read articles about cooking in English. if you are interested in football, read about that.

So read, read, read. At this stage, it is important to remember that you are reading in order to learn new vocabulary, not just to understand the text. People sometimes get frustrated at this stage because they don’t understand what they are reading; just remember, your goal at this stage is about learning new vocabulary.

2. Record vocabulary on flash cards

It’s also a good idea to write down these new words and phrases. Some people create a vocabulary booklet, but an even better way is to create some vocabulary flash cards. A flash card is a two-sided piece of card. On one side, write the English word or phrase, on the other side wrote down the equivalent in your own language, or a picture. Then you can use these cards to help you remember these words and phrases by testing yourself.Record your IELTS Vocabulary on flashcards

You can also use technology to make flash cards. You can use flash-card-style apps and websites like Anki and Memrise to make digital flashcards. This way, you can learn English on your phone while standing in a queue or waiting for a bus.

As you start to grow your vocabulary, you will find that reading becomes easier every day. You will learn more and more words and phrases and you will see how they are used. You will also start to understand texts more easily as well, so reading will become more interesting. You will also see how sentences are constructed, so you will see grammar in action. This will help you understand grammar, without looking at a grammar book.

Reading will also help you to improve your writing. When you read, you see how English should be written (not how you think it should be written). One of the biggest mistakes of IELTS candidates is using  ‘advanced’ words, found in a dictionary, in the wrong way; this makes the essay sound very unnatural. To learn how to write English normally, read normal English.

3. Watch English movies and TV shows with English subtitles

One of the best ways to listen to English is by watching movies or TV. This way you can learn lots of everyday English. It’s a good idea to use English subtitles, because then you can see the words people are speaking.

Improve your IELTS Vocabulary by watching movies

Here are some websites where you can find subtitles for lots of movies and TV shows:

Some people also like to listen to songs in English. Personally, I think that watching movies is better, because the language in movies is more natural than the language found in songs. But if you’re a music lover, then listen to lots of songs in English. If you’re not a music fan, then stick to movies and TV.

Reading and listening is really important for learning English. Basically, doing lots of reading and listening gives you a ‘feel’ for English and an understanding of how it is spoken and written. So do it a lot. Stop studying grammar and doing practice tests, and do more reading and listening!

Knowing lots of vocabulary is only half of the journey to learning English. You can understand English, but can you produce English? The following steps will help you improve your writing and speaking.

4. Write a little English every day

In the IELTS test, and probably in most tests, students tend to get the lowest score in writing. I think this is mainly because students do not practice writing enough. So it’s important to write something on a regular basis. Here are a few ideas:

•    keep a diary or create a blog in English
•    write posts in social media in English
•    join a Facebook group or online community and write messages to other people in English

What about grammar? 

The time to open the grammar book is when you are trying to write something, but you’re not sure about the grammar of your sentence. Maybe you want to write “I am go to Chiang Mai tomorrow”, but you are not sure if this is correct. This is the time to open the grammar book and check your grammar. Then you will see that you need to write “I am going to Chiang Mai tomorrow.” Grammar books should be used as a reference book.

Basically, you learn to write English by writing English, and then by getting feedback on your language use. You can use a grammar book to give you feedback. Or you can get a private English tutor online, who will check your writing and tell you how to improve.

And it’s the same with speaking: you learn to speak English by speaking English, and by getting feedback on your language use. Here, it is even more important to get a private tutor, but you can also do some things by yourself. here are 3 ways to improve your speaking skills.

5. Speak English: create videos

Make some short videos about your everyday life, and post them on YouTube or on your Facebook page. This will give you a real audience and motivation to create videos.

Make videos to improve your IELTS vocabulary

6. Speak English: talk to yourself

Talk to yourself as you go through the day. If you are doing something (e.g. cooking), tell yourself what you are doing in English (e.g. “I am cutting some onions”, “I am frying some chicken in the frying pan”) Talk to yourself in English in the shower. Go for a walk and talk to yourself in English; if you see something interesting, think about how you would say that in English.  If you have a pet, talk to them in English.

Talk to your cat in English and improve your IELTS vocabulary

7. Speak English: shadowing

Shadowing is a useful technique: when you shadow, you listen to someone speaking English and you repeat what they are saying, and how they are pronouncing the words, right after they say it.


Basically, learning English is about noticing how English is used, and using this knowledge to improve your own English. Fundamental to this is reading and listening. Reading and listening helps you grow your vocabulary, and it shows you how English is used. You can then use this knowledge when you write and speak English.

It’s also important to practice writing and speaking whenever you can. Writing and speaking English is a bit like learning any skill, such as cooking or driving a car. You learn to cook by cooking, and being told how to improve; you learn to drive by driving, and being told how to improve. You learn to write and speak English by writing and speaking English and being told how to improve.

private tutor can help you learn English, but most of the work must be done by you!

Don’t forget to check out my IELTS Vocabulary course on Udemy, where you can learn 300 words essential for success on the IELTS test.

Find out more about my IELTS Vocabulary Course

And learn 38 useful expressions for speaking here.

About the author

Charlie is a former IELTS Examiner with 25 years' teaching experience all over the world. His courses, for both English language learners and teachers, have been taken by over 100,000 students in over 160 countries around the world.