Secrets to IELTS writing success – Synonyms

A lot of people get stuck writing, not because they can’t express themselves properly but because they run of interesting ways to express their ideas.  Many writers, including native English speakers, become lazy and reuse the same expressions over and over again.  That can make your writing sound boring.  Very boring!

An excellent way to build your English vocabulary is to learn synonyms – words or phrases that have similar meanings.  If you learn synonyms your work will sound more interesting, engaging and expressive (see how those three words also make my writing sound more professional).

Writing about the future

Here is an example from a sample IELTS essay I found online.  The question is this:

Some people prefer to spend their lives doing the same things and avoiding change. Others, however, think that change is always a good thing. Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.

This essay requires you to write about the future, so words that express change (the rate of change, developments, inventions, innovations, etc.) will be useful.  Here’s how a first draft looks:

Over the past fifty years human life has changed a lot. Technology has changed the way we view the everyday world. This means that change is not always personal, but a certain fact of life, and we need to always change ourselves to keep up with it.

It’s not bad, but count how many times the word ‘change’ was used.  It’s a bit too repetitive.  Now compare it with this paragraph:

Over the last half century the pace of change in the life of human beings has increased beyond our wildest expectations. This has been driven by technological and scientific breakthroughs that are changing the way we view the world on an almost daily basis. This means that change is not always a personal option, but an inescapable fact of life, and we need to constantly adapt to keep pace with it.

Rather than repeat the word change, it sounds much better to use different expressions – ‘has changed a lot’ has been replaced by ‘the pace of change … has increased’.  Other more ordinary expressions, such as ‘certain’ (‘inescapable’) and ‘change to keep up’ (‘adapt’) can also be replaced.

First essay Second essay
over the past fifty years over the last half century
has changed a lot the pace of change … has increased beyond our wildest expectations
technology has changed the way we view the world this has been driven by technological and scientific breakthroughs that are changing the way we view the world
certain inescapable
we always need to change to keep up we need to constantly adapt to keep pace with it

Expressions about the future


Here’s a whole list of other words that might relate to this topic:

Words that express change:

  • Transition from / towards
  • Innovation / innovative
  • Evolve / evolved
  • Revolution / revolve
  • Advanced
  • Developed

Words that express a movement towards the future:

  • Eventual
  • Approaching
  • Unfolding
  • Prospective
  • Forthcoming
  • Subsequent
  • Impending

Study tips

When using synonyms – whether they are individual words or phrases – try to group them together.  Then when you try to remember them, you’re not only remembering one word or phrase but you’re remembering a whole group of them at the same time.

This will help you become a better writer, and a much more fluent English speaker!

IELTS writing – ‘to’ and ‘-ing’s

‘To’ and ‘—ing’ verbs

English verbs can be complicated, but they needn’t be.  It just takes practice, and that’s where writing comes in.  The more you practice writing verbs, keeping lists and experimenting with new sentences, the easier you will find them when using English for your essays or IELTS exams.

ing grammar english

Take for instance when we use two verbs together.  It seems difficult, but through practice you’ll get to know how to use the different forms.  In the first form the second verb is called ‘the infinitive’, and in this case we use the word ‘to’ to connect the two verbs together.  Here’s a few examples:

I can’t wait to see you again.

He intends to finish his assignment next week.

In other examples the second verb contains the ‘–ing’ form.  Here are some examples of those:

They recommended spending more money.

Experts suggest finding new sources of funding.

If you read these you’ll notice that some of these verbs can be made into both forms – the ‘to’ and ‘—ing’.  In this example the meaning doesn’t change too much:

He intended to finish his assignment next week.

He intends finishing his assignment next week.

In other examples the meaning might be quite different.  Consider these two sentences:

They stopped waiting (‘they stopped waiting [and left or did something else]’).

They stopped to wait (‘they stopped in order to wait’).

Here both sentences are grammatically correct, but the meanings are very different.  In this example it’s important to get the right verb form; in other examples it doesn’t matter too much.

How to remember which to use?

Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to remember.  You just have to practice using them both, and with practice you’ll get better at remembering the best form for each sentence.

Some examples of the ‘to’ verbs:

  • Intend
  • Attempt
  • Plan
  • Trial
  • Claim
  • Seem
  • Offer

Here are a few of the ‘–ing’ verbs:

  • Enjoy
  • Carry on
  • Remember
  • Think about
  • Consider
  • Involve
  • Appreciate

Exercise to practice

To help hone your skills, try to pick the incorrect verb in each of the sentences.  When you’ve finished, see if you can rewrite the sentence with the incorrect verb (that might involve changing the ‘—ing’ to the ‘to’ form, or vice versa).

The new movie is …. to screen at the cinema this week.

(scheduled, delayed, advertised)

We …. to edit the chapter by ourselves.

(think about, want, plan)

My boss … increasing my days off at work

(undertook, suggested, recommended)

We already …. to meet each other after work.

(hope, involve, arranged)

The government  … to pay the worker’s salaries.

(forgot, intended, suspend)

Practice, practice, practice…

If you’re still worried about your use of English verbs after this, don’t work.  Practice will certainly help.

It might be good to know that even native English speakers don’t always get it right.  But if you want to improve your English to a level 9 in the speaking test, it sure helps paying attention to these different verb forms.

learn english through tv

When listening to movies, news reports or interviews with native English speakers, try to pay attention to these two different verb forms.  This will help you become a natural in no time!

My Recent Trip to Vietnam

I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Vietnam for a month, and though I did many of the usual touristy things I also met many keen IELTS students.  Whilst there are many differences between people and cultures in the country, especially from North to South, young people have a very keen interest in learning English everywhere you go.

Though English learning is quite new to the national curricula, many people see English competency as a key to economic and personal success.   With that kind of mindset, it’s no wonder that more Vietnamese students are coming to countries like Australia, Canada, the UK and US to study IELTS.

Hanoi, and the north

Hanoi is a city with beautiful French architecture, large wide roads and amazing street food – though the motorcycles on those roads are completely chaotic.  One of the highlights of the city was walking around the Lake of the Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem Lake) in the central district.  The lake is surrounded by coffee shops, both local and internationally-oriented, and at night the place is a focal point for families and festivities.

The most unusual thing about Vietnamese students is that you’ll find them near the lake, tracking down foreigners for interviews.  Many are high school students, and some are studying at university.  Often they will approach you and ask you questions about your time in Vietnam, and occasionally an odd question about dating or what you think of the city’s transport.

English in Hanoi.jpg
An unsuspecting tourist nabbed by local students, courtesy of Alkek’s excellent photoblog.

It’s a very unique part of the study culture here, and I think a very useful way to learn English.  Though my advice to the students I met was to always review the interviews later – either through a Dictaphone or the video recording on the phone.  Take note of anything you don’t understand, and ask another native speaker to clarify.

Saigon, and the south

The streets, architecture and food is no less impressive in the south – but it is much warmer in Saigon.  With an estimated 8 million bikes in the city, it’s also just as chaotic on the roads.

I stayed at one of the country’s many homestay places in a coastal town called Vũng Tàu.  Within no time I was asked to join a group of local students on their weekly IELTS group, conveniently at one of the best coffee shops in town.

Students in the south might be less willing to approach complete strangers in the street to practice their English (that’s not necessarily a bad thing ;)), but they have plenty of practice at these kinds of meet ups.  Over a morning coffee we chatted about job prospects, writing application letters, favourite movies and travel to other countries.

Vung Tau.jpg
Excellent conversation, and great coffee with the IELTS club in Vung Tau.

My advice to students doing this kind of thing is to prepare a short talk on one of these topics, and again record yourself as if you were chatting casually with a native English speaker.  It might sound a bit contrived, but hearing yourself back helps you improve your pronunciation and expression.  I’d say that generally Vietnamese students have an excellent study ethic, and their pronunciation is quite good – though there is always room for improvement!


I’m no expert on Vietnamese, though my students taught me lots of words whilst I was there.  I love learning new languages, and it was fun practicing what little I learnt whilst travelling.  The most challenging thing for me, as a native English speaker, are the tones – all five of them!

I can also see that some elements of English (final sounds in particular) can be a challenge for Vietnamese students.  Without tones to separate words in English, we have much more differentiated sounds – and that can be tricky when learning all of the different combinations in each word.  I find that Burmese students face the same difficulties when I teach English in Myanmar.

Here’s a great video to help with the trickier parts of English phonemes, specifically aimed at Vietnamese speakers:

A final rainy note, from the centre of Vietnam

In case you’re wondering – I didn’t miss out on the middle part of Vietnam, though whilst I was in Đà Nẵng and Hội An it rained for two weeks non-stop.  It was a great time to reflect on my travels, and to sample the unique foods and culture in the region (even if it meant getting very wet!).

To all the students and people I met in Vietnam, thanks for the wonderful time.  It’s very rewarding to see such strong competition to learn English.  Keep practicing.

If you’re an IELTS student or are studying English in Vietnam, feel free to comment below and tell me about your experiencess learning – what are the hardest things about English, and what are the most rewarding things about your studies?