Should I use idioms in the IELTS speaking test

Many candidates often ask the question, should I use idioms in the IELTS speaking test. Many teachers tell their students that they should use them as it will help to boost their score, but the problem is that they are often used incorrectly and in an unnatural way.

What is an idiom?

The definition in the dictionary says an idiom is ‘a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.’ (e.g. to get cold feet = to feel nervous or unsure about doing something) or (to be under the weather = to feel unwell)

What do the speaking band score descriptors say?

If you look at the speaking band score descriptors (lexical resource) above it talks about using ‘idiomatic language naturally and accurately’ and ‘using idiomatic vocabulary’,

Should I use Idioms in IELTS?

Idioms are quite informal and should therefore not be used in the writing test. Native speakers do use idioms when speaking, but it is important to use them correctly and in a natural way. Many students try to memorise idioms and use them inappropriately by inserting them anywhere in their answers, as they think this will impress the examiner. In fact, it could harm your score as the examiner will easily spot this.
My advice would be to focus on learning some common idioms and know how to use them correctly, as this would stand out to the examiner.

For example:
off the top of my head = without careful consideration or thought
run of the mill = average/ordinary
over the moon = very happy/delighted

However, I would avoid using old fashioned expressions such as ‘to be knee-high to a grasshopper’ (to be very small or young), as it would be very rare for native speakers to say something like this nowadays. This means it would appear unnatural and memorised to the examiner.

In addition, you should try to use phrasal verbs which are also considered
idiomatic language and are used much more frequently than idioms by native speakers.

A phrasal verb is an idiomatic phrase consisting of a verb and another element, typically either an adverb (slow down), or a preposition (get up), or a combination of both, such as look down on. The meaning of the phrasal verb is different from the individual words.

Here are some more examples:
set up (a business) = establish (a business)
call off = cancel
look down on = despise
make up = invent / to be reconciled after a quarrel)
point out = make someone aware
bring up (children) = raise (children)

My advice

If you personally are unsure, should I use idioms in the IELTS speaking test, here is our advice.

If you can be sure that you are using the idiom correctly and in the right context, then you can use it confidently and the examiner will notice this. However, if you are unsure or have only seen the idiom in a list somewhere, I would advise you not to use it. Instead focus on using phrasal verbs like native speakers do, as these will seem more natural and still help you to fulfil the requirement of using idiomatic language.

I hope this article has helped to answer the question, should I use idioms in the IELTS speaking test? As you see it could either help to improve or lower your score depending on how well they are used.

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Joe Nicholson
Joe Nicholson

Joe is one of the co-founders of IELTS Whiz and has extensive IELTS teaching experience. He is originally from the UK, but has lived and worked in Europe, Latin America and Asia. He has helped numerous students around the world exceed their target IELTS scores and pursue their academic and professional goals.

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