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How to Address Vocabulary in an IELTS Preparation Course

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

By Dr. Linh Phung

First published in January 2022 by

Updated July 2023

Words, words, words. There are so many words in the English language. It is estimated that an English-speaking high school graduate knows at least 20,000 word families while a language learner needs around 8,000-9,000 word families to understand a variety of authentic texts, IELTS reading and listening texts included (Nation, 2006). In addition, in the speaking interview and writing tasks of the IELTS test, test takers’ vocabulary resource is explicitly assessed through the lexical resource criterion. Students and teachers know the great importance of vocabulary, but how can IELTS instructors address the need for vocabulary development in their IELTS course? In this blog post, I will cover some research-based observations about vocabulary development and make suggestions on resources for IELTS instructors.

Vocabulary Size

Vocabulary size matters. In fact, previous research has shown that IELTS test takers’ orthographic vocabulary size explains 58% of the variance in the overall IELTS band score, leaving over 40% to all other factors (Milton, Wade & Hopkins, 2010). While it is difficult to have an exact estimate of one’s vocabulary size, I have found Lextutor’s Vocabulary Level Tests to be very helpful for students. When directed to this website, students can complete the 2,000-Level Test, 3,000-Level Test, 5,000-Level Test, University Word List Test, and 10,000-Level Test within 30 minutes or so. This will give them an indication of the percentage of words that they know within each level. This knowledge helps teachers gauge their students’ vocabulary size and also motivates learners to work harder on expanding it.


It is intuitive to focus on more frequent words before less frequent words when teaching vocabulary. As language teachers, you may already be very familiar with these frequency lists, but I’d like to mention a few must-know ones, including the General Service List (GSL), the Academic Word List (AWL), and the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL) from the Corpus Contemporary American English (COCA). You will need to sign up for an account to download the list, but you can also use the corpus to search for thousands of examples of how each word is used. These examples can be helpful for both teachers preparing a vocabulary lesson and for students to deepen their knowledge of a word.

Basic Principles and Involvement Load

While vocabulary is undeniably important, teachers usually need to cover so many objectives in a lesson or a course that there is never enough time to dedicate to vocabulary teaching. Therefore, the following basic principles from Nation (1990), a leading expert in vocabulary instruction, can help keep you on track.

  • Keep it simple and clear when explaining vocabulary

  • Relate to past knowledge

  • Give attention to words that are already partly known

  • Don’t bring in unknown or poorly known related words

In addition, research has shown that the more involved students are with the word (or the higher the involvement load), the more likely they will learn it. Therefore, in a meaning-based lesson, teachers can:

  • pre-teach important words,

  • draw learners’ attention to words appearing in the text,

  • help students use vocabulary resources,

  • create follow-up exercises for students to practice the words, and

  • provide opportunities for students to use the words.

Other Vocabulary Resources and Activities

When I teach IELTS preparation, I always take time to explain important words appearing in the teaching materials that I think students partially know or do not know. All of my students have access to a shared Google document, and we take notes on these words together. I often involve students in creating Kahoot or Quizizz games based on these words and have them present the games to the whole class. I also introduce websites that allow them to search for how words are used in various contexts. These include COCA,, which has thousands of results of a word and how it is used in TED Talks or YouTube videos, and ,which shows results of words used in movies and TV shows.

One of my favorite vocabulary activities that always generates a lot of talking and laughter is what I call Crosswords Puzzle Partner. I usually create a crosswords puzzle with about 10 target words on two handouts. Students work in pairs as Student A and Student B. Student A has all of the words across, and Student B has all of the words in columns. They will need to talk to each other to complete the puzzle together. I have also added many of these puzzles that students can complete in pairs in the Eduling Speak app. To access these puzzles in the app, users need to first connect with someone (a friend, a classmate, or a random learner). Then they can navigate to the category Crossword and choose a puzzle to complete together. Overall, I have found that these resources and activities get students more actively involved and increase the chance of acquiring new words.

Even though vocabulary is such an important component of IELTS preparation and language development, it is often overlooked in skills-based classes. Hopefully this blog post provides a few ideas and resources that can be used in your own classes. Try them, and you may find a new favorite activity.


Milton, J., Wade, J. & Hopkins, N. (2010). Aural word recognition and oral competence in English as a foreign language. In R. Chacón-Beltrán, C. Abello-Contesse, & M. Torreblanca-López (eds.). Insights Into Non-native Vocabulary Teaching and Learning. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.Nation, I.S.P. (1990). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

Nation, I.S.P. (2006). How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening? The Canadian Modern Language Review 63, 59–82.

Dr. Linh Phung is Founder of Eduling International, a Pittsburgh-based academy offering online English language instruction and services to students from any location. Dr. Phung and colleagues recently published the book IELTS Speaking Part 2: Strategies, Model Speeches, and Practice Activities, which can be purchased on Amazon or through this LINK in Vietnam. She also has other books available on

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