IELTS Vocabulary Lists – which one is the best?

Source: IELTS with Fiona

Increasing your IELTS Vocabulary is essential for a higher Band Score, but what exactly is “IELTS Vocabulary” and which list should we trust?

I did a quick search on Google and it brought up probably the worst and most confusing list that I’ve ever seen in my life (see extract below).

So I asked Word List expert Sheldon Smith to help me learn more about where to find the best word lists for IELTS students.

Sheldon’s website is and he creates the BEST topic-related vocabulary videos for IELTS students, so make sure that you go to his site for all the links in this blog, and subscribe to his YouTube channel.

1. The Academic Word List (AWL)

What is the common mistake about using wordlists? (Pam)

Related Articles

I’ll start off by talking about the Academic Word List (AWL) which is the most well-known list. It existed without any real ‘competition’ for a long time, but it has also been criticised. This led to the emergence of other word lists. 

The Academic Word List was intended to aid reading, not writing. It includes complete word family information for each word, but these different word forms have different levels of frequency, and trying to study them all may end up wasting time and effort. 

Many recent lists therefore do not include word family information, but instead show inflected forms, for example for ‘analyse’ we have only 

  • ‘analyses’
  • ‘analysed’ 
  • ‘analysing’

plus variant spellings (with ‘z’).

The word ‘analysis’ is considered to be separate. 

Another problem with the AWL is that coverage varies across disciplines. It is supposed to be about 10% of academic texts, but for computer science it is 16%, while for biology it is 6.2%. 

(This information is from a well-known article called Is There an “Academic Vocabulary”? by Ken Hyland and Polly Tse, published in TESOL Quarterly, June 2007).

2. The General Service List (GSL)

Another problem with the AWL for productive (i.e. writing) purposes is that it excludes the General Service List (GSL). For reading purposes, this is not a big problem, since most students will know most words in the GSL already. 

For productive purposes, however, it is potentially an issue, since some of the words in the GSL are suitable for academic use.

Indeed some GSL words are more common in academic than general English (e.g. thus, suggest, likely), while some words are far less common (e.g. bad, big, know), and students studying academic English need to identify which are which in order to make the ‘vocabulary shift’ from general to academic.

To answer Pam’s question, one common mistake with word lists is only using the AWL, and thinking it is a perfect list. It is a good list, and has its advantages, but it also has drawbacks as shown above.

Another mistake is only studying single words, which in a way is the fault of word lists, most of which comprise only single words.

Another problem (not necessarily a mistake) is studying the whole word family, including less frequent members, which may not be an efficient use of time and effort.

3. Academic Vocabulary List (AVL)

What is the best wordlist for IELTS preparation? Why?

Since IELTS is not subject specific, a general academic list, which is intended for students studying any discipline, is more suitable than a subject-specific list. 

The AWL is a general list, and may be the most helpful, since there are a lot of resource and practice materials available.

However, there are other general lists besides the AWL. One that I think is especially useful is the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL) is very useful. This is a more recent list, and, unlike the AWL, it does not exclude any list, meaning it covers words that might be considered ‘general’ words, but which are in fact more frequent in academic than non-academic writing.

For example, the following words are in the top 50 of the AVL but not in the AWL: control, develop, development, figure, however, human, provide, rate, relationship, report, suggest, practice.

4. The Academic Collocation List

Another general academic list I think is very useful is the Academic Collocation List (ACL).

It is important to understand how words combine with other words, and there is no other comprehensive list of collocations available.

The list is pretty huge, with 2469 collocations, though I recently spent a lot of time adding frequency information to the list, which is not officially sanctioned by the list creators, but I think is extremely useful.

IELTS vocabulary
Probably the most useless, random IELTS vocabulary list I have ever seen

How to use word lists for IELTS

Why is it important to use these ‘official’ word lists?

I wouldn’t say any of them are actually ‘official’. Some of the more well-known ones are used as the basis for academic English courses, especially the AWL. 

Each list has its critics who would tell you not to use it. Generally, however, they are a good starting point.

It is important to use them since otherwise, the words you choose to study come from one of two sources: either you select them, or a teacher selects them. 

If you select them, you really have no basis, except that you don’t know the meaning. Is it a common word? Is it worth studying? It is extremely difficult for you to know, which is why word lists are useful. 

If words are chosen by a teacher, a similar problem arises. A teacher may have a better ‘feel’ for which words to study, though essentially they are relying on intuition, and their intuition may be wrong. 

I personally feel I have a good understanding of which words students will or will not know, which words are academic and useful for study, but I am continually surprised, and see words that I think are useful but which turn out to be rather low frequency in academic English.

What is the difference between all the word lists?

I think I’ve covered this in the above, but I’d like to highlight here the many different subject specific lists.

Anyone preparing for IELTS should realise that this is a stepping stone to university study. You will eventually specialise, and knowing academic words or technical words which are common in your discipline will also be important. 

It’s also useful to remember that although word lists are the result of fairly rigorous research, not so much research has been done in how useful specific lists are. Some may be better than others. 

Finally, word lists are just a tool. There are many useful words, general, academic and technical, which are not contained in word lists, and conversely some words in word lists that you will never end up needing or using.

Are there different lists for Spoken and Written English?

While most academic word lists are for written English, there are also word lists for spoken English. e.g. the Hard Science Spoken Word List (HSWL) or the Academic Spoken Word List (ASWL). 

Generally, I don’t see these as so interesting or useful, since the ‘rules’ for academic speaking are not as strict as for academic writing. Words you can use in writing can be used in speaking, but the reverse is not true. For example, when giving a presentation (academic speaking), you can (and probably should) use basic transitions such as ‘So’ and ‘And’ and ‘But’ since they are clear and simple. 

However, you should probably avoid these in your writing. Conversely, if you use ‘As a result’ and ‘In addition’ and ‘However’ in academic speaking, you will sound a bit formal, but there is nothing wrong with those words. No one will stop you and say, ‘Hey, you can’t use that word in your speaking.’

What is the best way to learn from these word lists?

I personally feel it is better to study words from reading (or listening) texts you already have, and identify useful words from some of the word lists.

However, this approach has its limitations. I know some courses might use lists such as GSL 2k or the AWL as a basis, and test students on any of those words. Therefore being proactive and studying unknown words in those lists might be helpful. 

Also if you want to increase your vocabulary, and aren’t sure where to start, the lists are useful for that.

Is it better to learn a few words and use them well, or to learn many words in order to read faster and understand the listening better (active vs. passive knowledge)?

Ideally, both, by studying the more frequent words e.g. AWL or AVL in more depth for active use, but continuing to study less frequent words at least for recognition i.e. passive use, and generally ignoring the very low frequency words.

There are tools such as vocabulary profilers to help identify how frequent words are, but generally speaking, those in a recognised word list are frequent enough for students to be studying for active use.

How many words should I learn? 

All of them! No, just kidding. I’ve mentioned the 8000-9000 range a few times, which comes from research (there is a useful article on this written by Schmitt and Schmitt called ‘A reassessment of frequency and vocabulary size in L2 vocabulary teaching’). 

But there are different levels of knowing a word, and therefore different degrees of learning. Native speakers don’t know all the words in English, and the number they do know, which is impossible to measure anyway, is not useful. 

I’ll share an anecdote to maybe explain this point. At university, I studied Mathematics, but I always wanted to be a writer so I spent most of my time reading novels and travel books. There were a lot of words I didn’t know and I would jot them down in a notebook and look them up.

One day when I was in my thirties I found one of these notebooks, which I had made when I was in my early twenties, and I looked through all these pages of words, and the thing is, I knew almost all of them, and was surprised I’d written them down and didn’t know them before. So I’m a native speaker, but in my twenties there were so many words I didn’t know, and I chose to study and learn to expand my vocabulary. 

I’m pretty sure the average native speaker would not know many of the words I’d written down, since the average native speaker doesn’t read as much as I did, and doesn’t bother studying new words all that much. 

So, forget about how many words you should learn, and focus instead on the conscious act of choosing to study new words when you encounter them, and slowly build up your vocabulary. You might feel like the tortoise competing against the hare. You might be far behind now, but keep going slowly step by step and you can catch up.

How can I remember new words and collocations? I often make a mistake in putting the wrong word in a full sentence. How can I use the words more accurately? (Evi, Kin Man)

It’s important to study many aspects of a word, and which aspects depend on how you plan to use it. Many students just focus on meaning (often by translation). This is generally how they started learning vocabulary in school. This is fine if all you want to do with a word is recognise it when you read it, and for many words, that may be enough. 

But if you want to use it, then you need to know how to pronounce it (to use it in speaking, also essential for listening), part of speech (n, v, adj, adv), other members of the word family, any special spelling rules, how it combines with other words (collocation)usage (e.g. followed by preposition ‘of’ or ‘with’ or ‘doing’ vs. ‘to do’), and whether it is academic or informal.

It is not easy studying this kind of information (a good dictionary will be essential), and you will still make mistakes when using the words.

Recording words in a vocabulary notebook is a good idea, with some of the information above (pronunciation, part of speech, usage and so on). You may encounter the words again when reading and want to add more information later. 

Trying to use words you’ve recently studied is also helpful, and hopefully you can get feedback (for speaking, feedback could be a nod of understanding or look of puzzlement, for writing if you have a teacher they may identify errors, or you can explicitly ask, ‘Can you check these words, have I used them in the right way?’).

Short answer: Remembering and using vocabulary accurately takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort, and involves going beyond just the meaning of a word. You will always make mistakes, but the goal should be to expand your vocabulary and have mistakes decrease.

How can I use the memorized words naturally and avoid mechanism (being mechanical?)? (Dina)

Yes, ‘being mechanical’ is the correct phrase – I think this is a good example of some of the points above, and also a good demonstration of what is called an ‘achievement strategy’.

Good language learners try to use words they know to express the meaning they want, while less able learners try to avoid words or phrases (or grammar structures) they are unsure of, which is called a ‘reduction strategy’.

By attempting to use phrases like ‘mechanism’ and ‘being mechanical’ you can receive feedback and correct errors.

Self noticing is also important, as you find words or phrases you are unsure of and hopefully take the time to check or ask how to use them properly.

You have probably heard this before, but reading more is the best way to learn new vocabulary, as long as you are being active. This is great not just for identifying new words to study, but also for reinforcing words you have already learned, if you encounter them again.

For example, you might forget whether ‘mechanism’ or ‘being mechanical’ is correct, but if you read a passage with either of these words in it you will pay attention and reinforce what you know about the words in a more natural way.

How can I choose the right words and collocations? And how can I group them? 

I’ve been creating a series of videos recently on different common IELTS/TOEFL topics (physical health, environment, crime – see example below), using word lists, since it is known that it is easier to remember words if they are linked somehow, e.g. a common topic. 

A different approach is how to choose words and collocations from a topic you are reading about. I would suggest using tools such as word list highlighters. It can be difficult to know which words to study, but if they are in a recognised word list, that should be a good start. 

Going beyond those word lists can be important, as explained in the videos I’ve been making.  Comfortable reading requires 8000-9000 words, while common word lists generally only take things to the 3000 word level.

If you can group words according to topic, that might help you to remember them. But if you are studying, for example, different word forms of ‘analyse’ (e.g. ‘analyst’, ‘analytic’, ‘analysis’) you are also grouping the words in a meaningful way. 

Alternatively, you might want to study common adjective collocations e.g. with ‘analysis’: careful/critical/detailed/final/further/statistical analysis and that is another way to group them.

IELTS with Fiona

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *