What does IELTS really test? Vocabulary!

Obviously, doing practice reading tests is important. You need to develop the skills of skimming and scanning, as well as quickly recognise the different questions types, and use different skills to answer them. And timed practice matters too. If you can complete the ‘easy’ Passage 1 in less than 20 minutes, you’ll have more time to spend on the harder passages. But practice after practice won’t necessarily improve your overall reading skills, unless you also take time to develop the most important reading skill, which is growing your vocabulary.

Research shows that readers need to understand about 95% the words in a text to be able to read it quickly. But if the English language has around 500,000 words, doesn’t this mean that you have to learn most of them to read something?! Luckily, no. A small number of words are used again and again in speaking and writing. For example, ‘the’ is the most common word in the language. I’ve already used in 8 times in this text! The number of times that a word appears in a text or collection of texts is called frequency. You are most likely to meet the most frequent words most often, so these are the ones you need to learn. The top (most frequent) 2,500 words make up around 80% of all text, and the top 7,500 make up around 95% of texts.

One way to increase your vocabulary is to use wordlists. Whichever one you choose, it’s important that it is organised by frequency so that you are not wasting time learning words which you are very unlikely to ever encounter. And of course wordlists must be used along with the rest of your vocabulary learning strategies.

Another way to improve your vocabulary is by extensive reading. This means reading lots, and understanding almost everything you read. As you challenge yourself to reader harder and harder texts, you’ll be using dictionaries more and more, which is a great way to improve your English.

So let’s go back to your practice reading tests. You’ve done a timed practice, and of course you’re disappointed with your score! But don’t put the passage aside. First, check all the questions that you got wrong and try to work out why the correct answer is the right answer.

Now highlight all the words that you don’t know, or think you know but are not sure. This is a good way to create your own wordlist for learning vocabulary. However, what if the word is not frequently used? You might never see or hear it again in the exam. Is it worth spending your precious exam prep time learning this word? You need to check its frequency. Let’s look at an example from an IELTS reading passage:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s some efforts were made to reduce farm subsidies. The most dramatic example was that of New Zealand, which scrapped most farm support in 1984. A study of the environmental effects, conducted in 1993, found that the end of fertilizer subsidies had been followed by a fall in fertilizer use. The removal of subsidies also stopped land-clearing and over-stocking, which in the past had been the principal causes of erosion. Farms began to diversify. The one kind of subsidy whose removal appeared to have been bad for the environment was the subsidy to manage soil erosion.

You might notice the word ‘subsidies’ (singular = subsidy). A quick skim will show you that it appears more than once (in fact it appears 9 times in the passage, including once as an adjective, ‘subsidised’). So it is important for this text. Here’s a tip. If you’re reading an IELTS passage on a computer, as a webpage, pdf, or Word document, you can use ctrl+F to quickly find all the uses of a word in the passage. This will quickly tell you if it’s important. But in academic or specialist texts a word may be used many times which is infrequently used anywhere else. (In this case a writer will often give a definition of the word the first time it is used – watch out for this.) So it may not be worth learning this word. This is where we use one of the many tools available to check the frequency of this word. Subsidy, for example, is in the top 5000 words (number 4299 to be exact!) so it is definitely worth learning.

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