Word Families and Derivations: A Key to Expanding Your IELTS Vocabulary 

 May 25, 2024

By  Jonathan

When preparing for the IELTS exam, you’ll encounter countless vocabulary lists and flashcard sets. While useful, this approach can feel overwhelming. A more strategic technique lies in understanding word families and derivations. This knowledge unlocks a huge portion of the English language, boosting your IELTS vocabulary exponentially and helping you decipher the meaning of unknown words during the test.

Word Families: The Foundation

A word family consists of a base word and all its derivatives, which are formed by adding prefixes (at the beginning) or suffixes (at the end). Here’s an example with the base word “decide”:

  • Prefixes: indecisive, undecided
  • Suffixes: decision, decisively

Notice how the core meaning related to “making a choice” remains, but the word’s part of speech (adjective, noun, adverb) changes.

How Word Families Boost Your Vocabulary

  • Efficiency: Learning one base word gives you the key to several more. Instead of memorising isolated words, you build your vocabulary in clusters.
  • Deeper Understanding: Studying word families strengthens your understanding of how English words are constructed and how meaning shifts with different word forms.
  • Improved Guessing: Even if you encounter an unfamiliar word in the IELTS, recognizing its base or affixes can often help you infer its general meaning.

Common Prefixes to Know

Prefixes often signal a change in meaning, direction, or attitude. Here are some frequent ones on the IELTS:

  • un-, in-, im-, il-, ir- (not): uncertain, inaccurate, impossible, illogical
  • dis- (not, opposite of): disagree, dislike, disapprove
  • re- (again): rearrange, reconsider, rewrite
  • inter- (between): international, interact, interconnected
  • mis- (wrongly): misinterpret, misunderstand

Common Suffixes to Know

Suffixes usually determine a word’s part of speech. Mastering these helps you recognize what type of word you’re dealing with:

  • -tion/-sion (changes a verb to a noun): educate → education, decide → decision
  • -ment (forms a noun): develop → development, govern → government
  • -ly (forms an adverb): quick → quickly, careful → carefully
  • -able/-ible (capable of being): understandable, flexible
  • -ful (full of): helpful, thoughtful

Common Roots

Many English words derive from Latin or Greek roots, which carry core meanings:

  • spect (look): inspect, spectator, perspective
  • port (carry): transport, import, portable
  • ject (throw): project, reject, eject
  • struct (build): construct, structure, instruct

Tips for Learning Word Families

  • IELTS-Focused Materials: Look for vocabulary resources specifically designed for IELTS that organise words thematically and by word families.
  • Word Trees: Create visual “word trees” with a base word in the center and its derivatives branching out, noting how prefixes and suffixes change the meaning.
  • Root Word Study: Learning common Latin and Greek roots will unlock the meaning of countless English words.
  • Practice in Context: Always learn words from word families within sentences and passages, not as isolated lists.

Word Families in Action on the IELTS

Here’s how this knowledge helps in different exam sections:

  • Reading: Recognizing derivatives of known words speeds up comprehension and helps you guess the meaning of unfamiliar ones.
  • Writing: Having a range of words from the same family at your disposal improves lexical variety and precision.
  • Listening: Identifying words with common prefixes, suffixes, or roots aids in understanding, even in rapid speech.
  • Speaking: Being able to change word forms quickly (from noun to verb, etc.) makes you sound more fluent and articulate.

Final Note

Building a strong vocabulary takes time and effort. While word families won’t magically solve all your challenges, they give you a systematic method for learning and retaining new words effectively. Start by focusing on the most common prefixes, suffixes, and roots relevant to the topics frequently seen on the IELTS exam, and your vocabulary – along with your IELTS scores – will steadily improve.

Jonathan has been teaching students to prepare for the IELTS and PTE Exams for more than 10+ years. He's taught English to students in various countries in the world including Singapore, China, Australia, Canada and Colombia.