Improve your Vocabulary for TOEFL and IELTS Speaking Tests – by Dan Bates

Hi everyone, I’m Dan and today I’m going to give you some advice on how to improve your vocabulary for your TOEFL and IELTS speaking tests.

I’ve noticed that many of mys students find it difficult to express themselves when it comes to talking about their feelings and emotions in English. All too often, my students will rely on ‘basic’ or neutral vocabulary to describe how they were feeling. For example, “I was happy/sad/tired/angry” or “It was fun/nice”. Using this ‘simple’ or ‘neutral’ vocabulary (in bold) limits your ability to truly express your feelings and can have a negative impact on your grades in TOEFL and IELTS. Only using simple vocabulary in your speaking test can limit your TOEFL score to a 2, or your IELTS Lexical Resource score to a 5.

However, talking about your feelings is an easy opportunity to use some more advanced vocabulary and boost your scores.

So, what should you do? First, learn some less common synonyms and phrases for emotions. I’ll get you started with the emotion ‘happy’.

Common/neutral word Less common word
happy delighted, ecstatic, chuffed (Brit. Informal)

These three adjectives are direct synonyms for ‘happy’, and can simply replace ‘happy’ when describing a joyous occasion. If you can use an idiomatic phrase too, the grader/examiner will definitely be impressed. Here’s an idiom for ‘happy’.

‘happy’ = ‘over the moon

You can also use some collocations using a modifier with the adjective, as below:

‘very happy’ = ‘deliriously happy

You can now express yourself with a number of words and phrases that are sure to catch the grader/examiner’s ear. The great thing about focusing on vocabulary for feelings and emotions is that they are very adaptable to a whole range of questions. It doesn’t matter what the topic of the question is, you can always talk about how the topic makes you feel. Here are some more examples:

Common/ neutral word

Less common word Idiom


sad depressed

‘I was depressed when I didn’t get the job.’

down in the dumps

‘I was down in the dumps when I didn’t get the job.’

incredibly sad

‘I was incredibly sad when I didn’t get the job.’

tired exhausted

‘I was exhausted after the tennis match.’

dead on one’s feet

‘I was dead on my feet after the tennis match.’

completely drained

‘I was completely drained after the tennis match.’

angry furious

‘My dad was furious after I damaged his car.’

fly off the handle

‘My dad flew off the handle after I damaged his car.’

absolutely furious

‘My dad was absolutely furious after I damaged his car.’

So, go ahead and find some words, idiomatic phrases and collocations for the other feelings and emotions (you can start here: )* and then practice using them to answer the following questions.

Speak for 30 to 45 seconds on the following topics:

  1. your happiest childhood memory
  2. your favourite pet
  3. a memorable day from high school
  4. a place you enjoy visiting

Record your speech on your phone then listen back to check you used the less common words and phrases in your answers. Practice until it becomes natural to use these words.

Finally, remember to take risks and do use these words when you take the exam. It’s better to use less-common words (even if you make some mistakes) than playing it safe and using simpler vocabulary. If you can start using these words more frequently, you’ll be ‘over the moon’ with the results!

*When you use a thesaurus, you should also check the synonyms in a dictionary to ensure you understand the nuances in meaning.