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Using Idioms in the IELTS Test

Idioms used in IELTS can help to increase your score in the test. However, there are important things you should know about them.

If you are not using them properly or trying to use them for the sake of it, it could actually make your speaking sound worse.

On this page we’ll look at what you should know, some examples and how and when they can be used in IELTS.

What are idioms?

They are phrases, words or expressions that do not have the same meaning as the actual words used in the phrase. In other words, their meaning cannot be taken literally.

For example, we can say:

  • "I’m over the moon that I got a band 7.5 in IELTS".

Obviously you can’t take the words ‘over the moon’ literally. It does not mean the person is standing over the moon! The phrase is used when someone wants to express that they are incredibly happy about something that has happened.

They are also expressions that are grammatically unusual. For example:

  • "So far, so good".

This means that up until this point in time, things are going well.

Idioms and IELTS

How are they related to IELTS?

This is one of the criteria for achieving a band 7 in IELTS speaking for lexical resource (vocabulary):

Uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary

This means that the examiner will be trained to spot if you use this type of vocabulary. They are much less common in formal or academic writing, so they are not mentioned in the writing band descriptors.

So forget about them for your writing (though they could be used in an informal letter for General Training).

Should I learn idioms for the IELTS speaking test?

They should really be quite low down in your priorities when you are preparing for the IELTS test.

Just because they are mentioned at a band 7 does not mean you will not get a 7 for lexical resource if you don’t use them! And if you do use some, this does not automatically mean you will get a 7 for lexical resource!

For example, if your general use of lexis throughout the test tends to be at a band 6 level, the examiner will not give you a 7 just because you fit ‘over the moon’ in somewhere!

Using idioms at the right time and in the right context is also quite difficult to learn. Native speakers use them very naturally and in exactly the right context because they have obviously been brought up with the language and they don’t have to think about it.

Imagine you learn the phrase 'over the moon' for the test. You now have to hope the examiner asks you a question where you can fit it in! That could be unlikely and if you are nervous it is not something you want to worry about.

If you use them unnaturally because you are trying to fit them in the test it will probably be noticeable. You need to be at a level where you can use them fairly naturally. Those that can use them well in the test have not usually studied a book and learned them but have picked them up through experience, maybe from some time abroad or just from being quite a good speaker of English.

However, that is not to say you should not study them, but it depends on your situation.

If you are around a band 5.5 level or lower, I would say forget about them for now, or at least make them a lower priority. You have much more important things to worry about.

You need to work on improving your general vocabulary (for example try practicing the academic word list and collocations) and improving your fluency and grammar.

If you are at a higher level, and you have time, you may want to start thinking about what you can do to make yourself just that bit better, and gradually improving you knowledge of these types of expressions and phrases can help with this.

In the following pages we’ll take a look at them further and there will be practice exercises as well.

Start Learning Common Idioms >>>

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