As a teacher, I have always emphasised to my students the importance of having a good grasp on vocabulary before attempting the IELTS test. By that I don’t mean knowing a dictionary by heart, but just enough synonyms to allow them to navigate between topics without having to use the same words over and over again. This is beneficial as “lexical resource” is a part of the criteria for marking in both speaking and writing.
I have recently had a conversation with someone who made me think about the usefulness of having a bank of words and also of using them at the right time.
During the conversation I asked ‘What do you like to read?’ and he replied “stories, tales”. As a teacher and literature enthusiast I immediately began thinking about books for young adults or fantasy and expected to hear words such as story, plot, characters, hero, novel, romance, action, sci-fi, which we normally use to describe books or movies. But as the student developed his answer I did not hear any of those words or connected ones, nor was I entirely able to grasp the actual topics of the books. Just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I then asked about the genre of the books, also including examples such as adventure or comedy. My question did not have the desired effect, which was to trigger vocabulary to describe subjects or characters.
At the end of the discussion I realised what was so unusual about the student’s response. He spoke in long, convoluted sentences in which he used multi-syllabic words that were not entirely appropriate for the context. Moreover, some were mispronounced (and correct pronunciation of words does count in the marking of speaking). Furthermore, the speaker did not actually clarify what the “stories” and “tales” were about and the only thing clearly related to the question was an author name.
Keep in mind that the questions in the speaking test are not meant to confuse candidates but to give them the chance to showcase their vocabulary base. If this answer had been given in a real exam situation, it may not have brought a good enough score. Other than a few words related to the topic, the speaker seemed unaware of the kind of language that was expected of him.
I always advise students to take the time to prepare before the exam. They should always have a look at books with past papers or practice papers and try to answer the questions provided. Also, they should read as much as they can on any topics they find interesting. It will help to acquire new vocabulary as well as improve sentence structure.