IELTS really is all about the vocabulary. When you look at the marking criteria for the Speaking and the Writing tests, you see that you really can make a lot of mistakes in grammar and spelling and still get really high marks. Without a wide vocabulary, however, you are lost. If you don't understand the questions you are being asked (in any part of the exam), you have little chance of giving an appropriate answer. When we do practice Listening and Reading tests in class, as we did today at MVC, I always ask students afterwards why they felt they didn't get a higher score - to help them identify the areas they need to focus on, now that time is running short. Every single time I ask this, they all say the problem is lack of vocabulary.
It's easy if you're doing an exam like PET (the Cambridge Preliminary English Test), where you can print out a vocabulary list from the exam board, and just keep going through it until you are confident with all the words listed in it. IELTS is very, very different - there appears to be no limit to the range of words which are included in the test and must be understood to get the right answer. Only today my students had to work out that 'weed out' was a synonym for 'eliminate' - hardly a phrase that native speakers use on a regular basis! However, a student who reads widely, or who lives in the UK and maybe sees adverts for weedkiller on the TV or in the shops, could probably work out that there is a link between (unwanted) weeds in the garden and something needing to be eliminated. Not easy, but not impossible.
How on earth can you build a huge and flexible vocabulary, especially if time is short?
- The most important thing is to start to NOTICE. Notice the words you don't understand in a conversation and ask the speaker to repeat them. Notice the words which come up again and again in exam questions. Notice the words which trip you up and cause you problems in practice tests and homework exercises. Notice the words which IELTS Simon uses in his model answers (and if you're doing IELTS but not checking out his website every day, you're crazy!). Notice the words you always spell wrongly, or use in the wrong way.
- Then make sure you RECORD the words you have noticed. If you don't have a vocabulary book, don't wait until you can go and spend a small fortune on a beautiful Moleskine one - make your own from scraps of paper stapled together. Buy a dirt-cheap notebook from the supermarket, or find an out-of-date diary. Don't buy a huge, heavy notebook - you won't want to carry it around - it's far better to have several small books instead. Don't just write down the word you want to learn together with its translation into your mother tongue - it really isn't the best way to learn new vocabulary for most people. Try writing down only in the target language - if you write the new word as part of a phrase or short sentence, you'll be able to work out the meaning in future AND you'll remember how to use the word. If you're at all creative, use colours, pictures, spider diagrams/mind maps - anything to make your vocabulary records look visually appealing. Try having a different heading at the top of each page and listing new vocabulary on the right page as you come across it - for example 'words about education', 'phrases for Writing Task 1', 'phrases for introductions to essays', 'synonyms' etc. Most people find that grouping phrases logically helps them to remember them, and you'll also find the lists really useful when you are doing homework, or exercises in class.
- Finally, REVIEW. Flick through your vocabulary book as often as you possibly can - instead of playing games on your phone, have a look through your vocabulary instead! It's better to spend three or four minutes a day looking at your vocabulary, than a whole hour every couple of weeks. Really try to use your new words as often as you can, and make sure you can spell them as well as understand them!
I'm off now - I need to find out how Wallander solves his first ever case.... And I've got my miniature homemade vocabulary book right here, to note down any interesting words.
I would love to hear YOUR vocabulary learning ideas!