IELTS speaking – what is Cambridge looking for? Part 2 – Lexical Resource.

IELTS speaking – what is Cambridge looking for? Part 2 – Lexical Resource.

Hi everyone, welcome to the third installment of our analysis of IELTS speaking grading criteria. In my last article, we looked Fluency and Coherence. If you haven’t read it, you might want to have a quick look here before you start. In this article, we’re going to look at the second grading criterion – Lexical Resource.

What is Lexical Resource?

A lot of teachers look at lexical resource simply as vocabulary – increasing the range of single word items within topic areas that the student can use. While this is not wrong, it doesn’t give the full picture. As you’ll see if you check the IELTS grading criteria (see here), lexical resource also relates to:

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– use of collocations: using words that commonly go together. These may be verbs and nouns (e.g. impose a fine), adjectives and nouns (e.g. basic understanding), adverbs and adjectives (e.g. outrageously expensive) or, like compound nouns, two nouns together (e.g. educational institution)

– idiomatic phrases: English is full of these, so at higher levels, candidates need to be able to use them. Phrases such as ‘to cut a long story short’ can be useful.

– flexibility: students need to have the vocabulary to talk about a range of topics and answer a range of questions without sticking to topics areas or modes of expression they feel comfortable with.

– precision of word choice: candidates scoring highly on lexical resource should be able to choose very exact, specific lexis to describe things. For example, compare ‘After the accident I walked home,’ and ‘After the accident, I limped home.’

– paraphrasing: this is the ability to say the same thing in different words to avoid repetition. For example, ‘The dinner was absolutely fantastic. In fact, it was the best food I’ve ever tasted.’

– style/register: the candidates need to understand the differences between formal and informal words, and when to speak casually and when to use more formal lexis. They can be quite casual in parts 1 and 2, but should become more formal and academic in Part 3.

– using less common words: This means using words with a lower frequency of use. For example, compare ‘I thought his writing was strange,’ with ‘I thought his writing was bizarre.’

Clearly then, lexical resource is a more complex and nuanced concept than just ‘vocabulary’.

Let’s look at some examples to illustrate this. Below is an extract from a candidate talking in Part 3 who scored a 5.0 for speaking. You can watch it here (extract from 0:09 – 0:45).

Examiner: Let’s think about the social benefits of hobbies. Do you think that hobbies do have social benefits?
Candidate: I think so.
Examiner: So what kind of benefits?
Candidate: Benefit, so erm, in my case, erm, as I was saying I used to go fishing, so if I go fishing I can relax and, erm, we will pay money for – to buy some fishing rod, fishing reels and sometimes lures so… er, lure or flies, so I think it’s good for social.

Why is this a 5.0?

This is obviously an area the candidate has some knowledge and expertise in, so he uses several less common, specialist vocabulary items such as ‘rod’, ‘reel’, ‘lures’, ‘flies’ etc. However, he doesn’t really answer the question very clearly, so is relying on these ‘comfort’ words rather than displaying real range and flexibility. Additionally, he fails to paraphrase (he uses ‘go fishing’ twice in the same sentence) and although there is some collocation (‘fishing rod’, ‘fishing reels’) these are well within his comfort zone. Some of the language sounds a little awkward (‘pay money for’ instead of ‘spend money on’), and he uses incorrect parts of speech (‘it’s good for social’).

Now let’s look at a candidate who scored a 7.0. You can watch it here (extract from 2:10 – 3:02).

Examiner: Do you think there are social benefits of having a hobby?
Candidate: Yes, I think that it keeps people busy doing something, er, healthy or, or productive.
Examiner: And why would that be a benefit?
Candidate: For the society, and… instead of doing maybe something that will hurt society or something like that. Especially for boys – they can just use their free time doing something productive.
Examiner: On the other hand, do you think there are any dangers of spending too much time on a hobby?
Candidate: If you don’t go to school and play football all the time, for example, or don’t go to work, just sit in front of the television watching a match, maybe yeah. Everything in excess is not good.

Why is this a 7.0?

Firstly, the candidate uses his lexical resource flexibly to more directly answer the question. Secondly, there are some good examples of collocation. For example, in the sentences ‘it keeps people busy doing something healthy or productive’ and ‘just sit in front of the television watching a match’, the speaker uses a range of collocations very effectively to produce completely natural sounding phrases. The vocabulary is fairly basic, but he does use some less common items like ‘all the time’ instead of ‘always’. The style of his language is also appropriate – not too formal but not too casual, which is perfect for Part 3.

How can I get my students to improve?

To answer that question, let’s look at another example. This time it’s a candidate speaking in Part 1 who scored a 6.0. You can watch it here (extract from 0:36 – 1:07).

Examiner: Tell me about your hometown. What do you like most about your hometown?
Candidate: So, I live in Cascais. It’s a little town near Lisbon, around about 25 kilometres. And it’s on the coast, so I have a lot of – we have there a lot of beaches and the weather is pretty warm in the, um, in the summer and it’s not that cold in the winter, so we have a pretty good weather.

As you can see, the candidate seems fairly comfortable talking about this topic and overall the response is quite fluent. She uses some less common words and collocations (‘pretty warm’, ‘not that cold’) and has a wide enough vocabulary to give a full answer. However, let’s see how she could score a 7.0 or higher with the changes below:

Improved response: So, I live in Cascais, which is a really small town around about 25 kilometres from Lisbon, so it’s not too far away from the capital. The town is right on the coast, so we’ve got loads of gorgeous beaches, which I absolutely love. But I guess the thing I like most about my hometown is the weather. It’s pretty warm in the summer and it’s also not that cold in the winter, so we’re extremely lucky to have such a fantastic climate.

Notice how much more precise this response is (‘right on the coast’, ’absolutely love’, ‘extremely lucky’) and the use of less common lexical items (‘loads of gorgeous beaches’) and paraphrasing (‘weather’ and ‘climate’). It also sounds quite casual, which is the right register for Part 1.

So how do you get your students to produce this?

1. Collocations – make sure you are teaching word partnerships and not just single word items. For example, when you teach the word ‘rain’, also teach your students ‘heavy rain’, ‘light rain’, ‘torrential rain’ etc.
2. Paraphrasing – this basically comes down to the ability to use synonyms effectively, so make sure you are including them in your lessons.

3. Flexibility –  at the beginning of this article I said that lexical resource is about much more than just expanding vocabulary. However, this is still a crucial element in getting a high score. Below is a list of common IELTS topics. This is not exhaustive, but your students should have enough vocabulary range to feel comfortable and confident when asked to speak about these areas:
– Work and free-time
– Science and technology
– People and places
– Language and communication
– Education
– Nature and the environment
– Culture and modern society
– Family
– Holidays and travel
– Health and fitness
– Youth

4. Precision – instead of just saying something is ‘big’, get your students to say ‘really big’, ‘huge’, ‘absolutely enormous’ etc. Make sure they have a range of words to use with similar meanings. For example, when you teach ‘hit’, also teach ‘punch’, ‘thump’, ‘slap’, ‘smack’ etc. and make sure they understand the differences in meaning and usage.

5. Less common words – what is a ‘less common’ word? As mentioned earlier, it may be a piece of vocabulary that has a lower frequency – for example compare ‘school’ and ‘institution. Or it may be an item that non-native speakers do not often use. For example, although native speakers regularly use ‘loads of’ in spoken English, non-natives will more commonly use ‘many’. So get your students using ‘loads of’ instead.

6. Idiomatic language – this can be quite problematic as a lot of idioms can sound archaic or strange if used in slightly the wrong context. So try to choose idioms that can be easily used. For example, rather than saying ‘I live in a rural area’, get your students to say ‘I live out in the sticks.’

Well, that’s all for this week. In my next article I’ll be looking at the third speaking grading criterion, Grammatical Range and Accuracy. Until then, good luck with your IELTS classes!

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