A Guide to Using Idioms for Effective IELTS Performance 

 May 24, 2024

By  Jonathan

Idioms are those quirky expressions that add colour and nuance to spoken and written English. Understanding and using a variety of IELTS vocabulary, including idioms, appropriately can make a real difference in how your language skills are perceived by IELTS examiners, boosting your performance, particularly in the Writing and Speaking sections.

What are Idioms?

Idioms are phrases where the figurative meaning is entirely different from the literal meaning of the individual words. For example:

  • “Spill the beans” (to reveal a secret)
  • “A piece of cake” (something easy)
  • “Under the weather” (feeling unwell)

Their meanings can’t be deduced by looking at the words alone, which makes them tricky for English learners.

Why Idioms Matter for IELTS

  1. Natural Fluency: IELTS examiners listen for how natural your speech sounds. Using a few well-placed idioms makes you sound less robotic and closer to a native speaker.
  2. Sophistication and Range: Idioms demonstrate a broader vocabulary and an understanding of how English is used creatively in everyday contexts. This contributes to higher scores in lexical resource criteria.
  3. Precision: Sometimes, an idiom can convey complex ideas or feelings more succinctly and vividly than a long-winded literal explanation.

Using Idioms Effectively in IELTS

  • IELTS Writing: Idioms add a touch of personality and flair to essays and reports. However, use them sparingly, and only if you’re absolutely certain of their meaning and context.
  • IELTS Speaking: This is where idioms can really boost your fluency score. If used correctly and confidently, they make you sound more relaxed and conversational.

Tips for Learning Idioms

  • Exposure: Read widely and listen to native English sources (podcasts, news, TV shows). Note down any unfamiliar idioms you encounter.
  • Context is Everything: Look up the idiom’s meaning, but also examples of how it’s used in sentences to grasp its nuances.
  • Idiom Dictionaries: Invest in a good idiom dictionary, or utilise online resources dedicated to idiomatic expressions.
  • Topic-Based Learning: Organize idioms into themes relevant to common IELTS topics (technology, education, environment etc.)

A Word of Caution

Idioms can be a double-edged sword for IELTS candidates. Here’s how to avoid common pitfalls:

  • Overdoing It: Packing your writing or speech with too many idioms makes you sound unnatural, as if you’re trying too hard. Focus on using a few confidently, rather than stuffing in as many as possible.
  • Getting them Wrong: Using an idiom incorrectly is worse than not using one at all. It signals a lack of understanding and can create confusion. If unsure, opt for a plain-language alternative.
  • Unnatural Placement: Forcing an idiom into a sentence where it doesn’t fit can sound awkward. Idioms work best when they flow naturally within your speech or writing.

Common Idioms for IELTS

Here are some useful idioms, grouped by relevance to frequent IELTS topics:

  • Work/Studies:
    • “Learn the ropes” (master the basics)
    • “Hit the books” (study hard)
    • “Burning the midnight oil” (working late into the night)
  • Technology:
    • “Cutting-edge” (the most advanced)
    • “On the same page” (in agreement)
    • “Go viral” (become widely popular)
  • Opinions/Ideas
    • “See eye to eye” (agree with someone)
    • “Food for thought” (something to ponder)
    • “The tip of the iceberg” (a small part of a larger problem)

Final Note

Learning idioms is an ongoing process. Don’t expect to master them all at once, but consistent exposure and practice will gradually expand your understanding. Here’s the key: use a few idioms confidently and in the right context. This will have a far greater positive impact on your IELTS scores than trying to force in too many and getting them wrong.

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.