Updated June 30, 2009

Improving your Vocabulary

Although many of these books are good, you should not only use these to improve your vocabulary because these books tend to focus on words in isolation, which is a little unnatural. In other words, you don't really see how and when these words are used in these books, even if they have an example sentence. (See the next point, wide reading.)

You definitely should be very careful about learning new words from simple lists of words that just have English words and their Chinese translations. People who learn a lot of new words this way often use words incorrectly (or inappropriately) in the Speaking test. (Of course, learning simple words from lists such as: 冰箱/refrigerator and 慢跑/jog should be no problem but learning more abstract and more complex words require good examples of usage.) If you don't use words correctly or suitably in the speaking test, it will damage your score - the examiner won't give you vocabulary points just for showing that you know an impressive word if you don't use it correctly. This is because when you use a word incorrectly the examiner might not clearly understand what you mean, resulting in a communication breakdown. Remember, (clear) communication is 'Number 1' in the IELTS Speaking test. It would be better for you to use a simple word and to communicate clearly than to use an 'impressive' word that results in poor communication. Yes, it is good to learn 'impressive' new words but try to make sure you know the correct usage, when it is suitable to use this word (e.g., in writing or in speaking or both) and, of course, the correct pronunciation.

Overall, the 'IELTS vocabulary' books that I see students using in China are mostly teaching you vocabulary for reading and writing, not speaking. When we speak, we tend to use simpler words whenever possible, such as phrasal verbs. You won't find these in most 'IELTS vocabulary' books. So, even though it is good to increase your vocabulary for reading and writing from these books, be careful about using words that are more suitable for written English when you speak. You don't want to 'talk like a book'. See Avoiding Overly Formal Language for more on this topic.

The ideal way to increase your vocabulary is to read and listen to English at the same time and to have an accurate Chinese translation of this material. I have not found anything for free on the internet that has all three of those attributes. Nevertheless, you will learn a lot of vocabulary from the listening materials that you will find when you explore those websites. Of course, you should also frequently try to mimic some of the the listening materials, not just use them for listening and reading (where transcripts are available).

One excellent website that I recommend is: See what I wrote for that website on the Internet English Study page. This allows you to see Chinese translations, listen to the words pronounced (in American English) and see a picture. [Actually, I think I found a couple of mistakes on that website. It sounds like 98% of the recordings are real human beings and these recordings are very good but maybe 2% of the recordings are computer-generated speech and are not very natural; for example, "running shoe".]

You will also definitely increase your vocabulary by spending some time on the word lists that start on this page: However, I cannot call those word lists, "IELTS vocabulary lists" because not all of the words are suitable or useful for the IELTS test. But, as I said, you will definitely increase your vocabulary by reading these lists, mimicking the pronunciations where recordings are available, and by reading the dictionary entries when the internet links take you to a dictionary.