Achieving Band 7 for Vocabulary

Achieving Band 7 in the IELTS Speaking Test: Vocabulary

I was asked a great question yesterday after the free Speaking Clinic about using idioms to help get Band 7.

Under “Lexical Resource”  for Speaking the Public Band Descriptors say this:

  • uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary and shows some awareness of style and collocation, with some inappropriate choices

“with some inappropriate choices” means the candidate still makes mistakes in putting word combinations (collocations) together.

“awareness of style and collocation” refers to the candidates ability to use words the way they are used in normal English. Native English speakers often use words in pairs or small groups. For example we say “knife and fork” – we never say “fork and knife”, there is nothing wrong with “fork and knife”, it is perfectly understandable, it is just that it is not the way we say it.

Some examples of collocations are:

  • global warming

  • sustainable development

  • financial management

  • job satisfaction

“less common vocabulary” this is referring to the candidate’s ability to show they know a greater variety of vocabulary than just basic words. For example, the candidate might be asked to “describe a car or motorbike that you would like to buy” and if they answered something like:

“Well … you know … the kind of vehicle I’ve always wanted to buy is ….”

the word ‘vehicle’ is less common vocabulary. It is simply not possible to give a list of all the words that satisfy this criteria of being “less common” – expand your vocabulary is the best advice to everyone.

“idiomatic vocabulary” this is referring to both idiomatic words (“hmmm … a sporting activity I like ….. well, actually … I am really keen on diving….” – “keen on” = to like something) and idiomatic expressions e.g. “once in a blue moon” = very rarely.

This bring us to “idioms”. In the past I helped a candidate achieve Band 7 by teaching her to use idioms BUT most teachers will tell you this is a waste of time and they have a point. To learn to use even a few idioms well enough to help get Band 7 takes hours and hours of practice. So you have to decide if you are prepared to put the time in to achieve the result.

1.            “in a nutshell” (‘to put it in a nut shell’) = in brief, in short,

in summary

This can be used to sum up what you say after you have given some details or it can be used before you give the details to summarize what you are about to day. If you used it differently each time, you could actually use this one twice in the exam.

Here is an example of the second use, summarizing what I am about to say BEFORE I say it:

The examiner asks:

“Can you describe the qualities of a good teacher?”

The candidate says:

“Well … to put it in a nutshell, if someone wants to be a teacher they MUST have a teacher’s heart. By this I mean …..”

“in a nutshell” is usually easy to fit into the test somewhere.

BUT …. you will have to practice it a lot.


2.            “it’s on the tip of my tongue” meaning you can almost remember something but not quite – it only applies to a word or a name usually.

The reason it can be useful is for those times when you can’t think of the right word like the example I gave in the Speaking Clinic with the word ‘wardrobe’

The examiner asks:

“Describe something you own which is important to you”

the candidate describes a camera he has been given and says:

“… it is very important to me so i don’t leave it out where everyone can see it … I keep it in ….hmm … I keep it in … oh look … it is on the tip of my tongue ….. you know …. that thing where people keep their clothes …. I keep it in there so it is safe and out of sight …..”

‘tip of my tongue’ can also be used another way … to describe something you were about to say but chose not to:

Examiner asks:

“What do you enjoy about your job?”

Candidate answers:

“Actually I love my job not because of the work but because of my colleagues … well … except for my boss … when he was extremely rude yesterday it was on the tip of my tongue to tell him he had no right to talk to people that way, but I decided it was better to stay quiet.”


3.            “put my feet up” = to relax

There are some restrictions on the use of this as we talked about but it is usually easy to decide when it is OK and when it isn’t. If you really could put your feet up in the place you are talking about then it is OK to use the idiom. It is usually not too difficult to work this into a question but like the example I gave about going to the restaurant you might have to manipulate the question.


The examiner asks you:

“Do you know your neighbours very well?”

And the candidate answers:

“Do you know? … I am the kind of person who likes to go home put my feet up for a few hours and just read the newspaper or watch TV. BUT … as soon as my neighbour hears me come home she comes over for a chat, EVERY day! …”

Because I already have in my mind that I want to use the idiom it is not so hard to work it into the conversation.

Here is another example:

Examiner asks:

“What do you enjoy about your job?”

Candidate answers:

Most people are surprised when I tell them that I love the work and pressure in my job. I am the kind of person who feels guilty if I put my feet up and do nothing … I have always been like that  … I actually enjoy the hard work and in MY job there’s lots of it! …..”


The problem is, if the candidate cannot do this almost without thinking, it will cause them to hesitate while their brain figures out how they can work it into the answer. This is why it takes hours and hours of practice to do this well. To get the credit for band 7, it HAS to be done well.

(Although it shouldn’t matter, a candidate who uses lots of word stress and intonation, i.e. puts lots of feeling into their voice, and who speaks very fluently will have a better chance of convincing the examiner they deserve Band 7 for vocab with just a few idioms or good words.)

4.            “to have a ball”  = to have a good time

No real restrictions on its use that I can think of.

“…. if my friends call up we always go to a little Thai restaurant near my house because the staff are so friendly and we always have a ball when we go to eat there.”


5.            “to hang out with” = to spend time with

This is quite common but it often is the only idiom a candidate will use.

Examiner asks:

“What do you usually do on weekends?”

Candidate says:

“Actually, I usually just stay at home, put my feet up and watch TV, but if I am hanging out with my friends we will often go shopping in Siam Square at the weekend or maybe ….”

(Notice that this idiom is really a verb structure and it is used in the continuous form here). Of course, I don’t have to be this complicated, the candidate could have just said:

” At weekends I usually like to hang out with my friends in Siam Square where we go window shopping, usually, for clothes at ….”


6.            “hit home” = something you have come to understand very well but (perhaps) didn’t realize at first

Examiner asks:

“What kind of weather do you have in your country?”

Candidate says:

“Do you know …. Thailand has very hot weather … all year .. it is quite hot. It didn’t really hit home just how much I enjoy this type of weather until I started to think about going to the UK study. I am worried that it will be too cold there…. but … to answer your question … it is hot in Thailand … it is a tropical climate … …”