In this article, IELTS teacher Iffaf Khan offers practical tips and strategies to help students to increase their vocabulary, in preparation for the IELTS speaking and writing exams.


In exam preparation classes, as a teacher you have to make difficult decisions. Of course you need to do lots of exam practice. You also need to do skills work. Ultimately, you want your students to write and speak in clear English. But what should you focus on? While students will often request grammar revision, it is generally more useful to focus their attention on topic-related vocabulary. In the exam itself, this is more likely to help them answer the questions. 

Help illustrate to your students that grammar rules are not everything by showing them the speaking and writing assessment criteria. These criteria value students' ability to respond to the question by using appropriate vocabulary and not just correct grammar. Therefore they need to think about the type of vocabulary they use in their responses, rather than just try to learn tenses. In class you should spend time focusing on activities that develop students’ vocabulary sets and when to use them. The tips below will offer some useful ideas on vocabulary development.

Tip 1: Developing sub-topic vocabulary

Problem: In the exam, candidates need to have opinions and thoughts about different global issues. In writing task 2, candidates write an essay about the world around them; in speaking part 3, candidates answer a series of topic-related questions on a national or international issue. These issues can range from technology to globalisation to public health. Students will then be expected to respond to the examiner's spontaneous follow up questions. The problem is that some students don’t know much about the topic, don't know what to say or don’t like to express their opinion.

Solution: Provide students with a list of topics that may come up in the exam. Ask them to write these in their notebooks then get them to add sub-topics and words to the list (see below). You could use websites like the United Nations site to start a list of global issues, where you will also find explanations. Creating a table will help you start the process and your student can look at the topics in more depth by adding more details. You should advise students to bring notebooks to each lesson.



In homes or with their family?


The countryside





Renewable fuels



Computers in the classroom




Video games


Climate change

Stopping it




Improving infrastructure




Slowing down pollution






Why people eat junk food




Rising obesity




Why explore them?






Providing drinking water









  • Tell your students that you are going to give them a list of general topics, along with sub-topics; advise that after that, they will add words and phrases to topics in each lesson.
  • The first time you do this, put the table up on the board or on the wall.
  • Elicit how much students understand about each topic that you are giving them. For topics that students don't know much about, instruct them to find out more for homework.
  • As a class, briefly elicit the main subtopics for each topic. It helps to emphasise the difference between a topic and a subtopic.
  • In their notebooks, get them to copy out the topics. Ask them to put one topic per page, and copy in the subtopics for each relevant page.
  • Ask them to think of one more subtopic for any of the topics.
  • In the same lesson, advise them to add words/phrases to each subtopic; in all future lessons, over a longer period of time, they should add new words to each sub-topic.
  • Ask them to add more topics and subtopics, in class, or for homework, over a longer period of time.
  • Follow up with each student, ensuring that they have stored sub-topics and associated words in the correct place.

Tip 2: Skell for vocabulary development

Problem: Students are not able to make a clear point in English. They feel better when they have the words or phrases to help illustrate their ideas. However, you don’t want to just give them words that they have no connection with.

Solution: Help students develop their own vocabulary by using the topics you have already worked on or looking at the topics in their course book then going to This site provides examples of how to use particular words in sentences, collocations and synonyms. Other sites are available but this is free and very easy to use – don’t forget to try it out yourself before using it with students.


  • Go to
  • Try it out yourself first. Pick a word or phrase from a topic, like ‘climate change.’
  • Click on ‘examples’ to see how this phrased is used in different example sentences (e.g. Small business owners realize carbon pollution causes climate change).
  • Click on ‘word sketch’ to see how it combines with different word classes (for example, you will see that combat is used with climate change.
  • Click on ‘similar words.’ It only works with single words but you could type ‘environment’ in to see synonyms of this word (e.g. condition).
  • Copy and print any of your results (lists or word clouds) for your students.
  • Run through the previous steps with your students in a whole class activity.
  • Ask your class what they would like to find (based on their topics or ideas) and demonstrate in a whole class activity.
  • Get them to make their own lists on computers.
  • Help them plan their own searches or key words.
  • You can also visit to learn how to use its various other advanced features, but you will have to start an account.

Tip 3: Cleaning up unnatural sentences 

Problem: In the exam, candidates are expected to write in a clear, neutral style; they should be neither overly formal nor too informal. While you don’t want to discourage use of idioms or fixed phrases by higher level candidates, students must make a clear point. Idioms in particular can be quite hard for students to get right; too many idioms or the wrong usage of them will make their writing appear unnatural, which may affect their scoring in terms of appropriacy.

Solution: Demonstrate to students how to clean up sentences and clarify their points. You can get them to rewrite examples of complex or confusing sentences in order to make them as clear as possible.


  • Take an essay topic that students have already covered and plan your own essay. Sometimes this can be better than taking examples from their essays if they don’t feel too confident about their writing.
  • Write your own essay but use lots of fixed phrases (phrases which normally appear together in ‘chunks’). Add a few informal, idiomatic expressions. Some websites, such as can help you think of examples to include.
  • Underline the fixed phrases when you present your essay to your students. For example: 

Indeed, to add insult to injury, governments have to go back to the drawing board because they are caught between two stools.

  • Ask your students to clean up and simplify the sentence. Suggest they rewrite the sentence by replacing the idioms. It might look like this:

The situation has been made worse by the fact that governments have to make difficult decisions. They might have to start again.

Or even like this:

Governments have to come up with a new plan.

  • Get them to analyse their own writing and rewrite it in a much simpler way.

Tip 4: Word of the day

Problem: This is a general tip for any type of class but is especially useful for IELTS and other exam groups, who need to maximise opportunities to retain language. The problem is a common one for all teachers – you have presented students with some new vocabulary in your lesson but students don’t always remember these words.

Solution: New words need regular revision. In addition to recycling vocabulary in topic-related discussions, encourage your students to use particular words by giving them a word or phrase for the day.


  • Create a list of words that emerged or were the focus of a particular lesson. You could organise these by topic (e.g. words related to the environment) or by function (e.g. Contrast words such as on the other hand, although)
  • Cut up your word lists and put them in a hat or box.
  • Ask a student to pull out a cutting.
  • Tell the students that they must use this word or phrase instead of another phrase at some point over the lesson. They can use the word in a whole class discussion or in a pairwork activity.
  • Ask students to report to the class at the end of the day about the words or phrases they were given and how they used them as you can’t monitor all the students all of the time. Correct their use of the words/phrases as necessary.

IELTS website:

Skell sketch engine for English language learning: