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IELTS Teacher e-newsletter – December 2018

Idiomatic language in the IELTS speaking test
Part 1: What is idiomatic language?

By Damian Dwyer

The IELTS Speaking band descriptor for Lexical Resource Bands 7 and 8 require that candidates use “idiomatic vocabulary” as well as (at Band 7) displaying an “awareness of… collocation”. It can be difficult for learners to know what these band descriptors require of them, and for teachers to know how to foster these abilities in their students[1]. Most learners (especially those aiming for a speaking score of Band 6.5 or higher) are aware of fairly straightforward examples of collocation (grow a plant, make a mistake, strong coffee) and even very low-level candidates use short phrases they have learned from textbooks or websites (With the development of technology,…). As repeat candidates are well aware, however, using these in the speaking test does not guarantee a high band score. So what else is needed here?

This article (Part 1 in a two-part series of articles dealing with idiomatic language) will discuss what examiners may look for in determining whether the band descriptors dealing with idiomatic language and collocation have been satisfied. It is aimed especially at teachers whose students need overall speaking scores of 6.5 or above, but I hope it will also be of interest to others. In the second part, I will discuss how to teach this kind of idiomatic language, focusing on classroom techniques that have been tested in research settings and have reported positive results.

Idiomatic language

The first issue to deal with is what the band descriptors mean by idiomatic language. Confusingly, a number of popular IELTS textbooks and websites (e.g. Cullen, French & Jakeman, 2014, p. 148) focus learners’ attention on (opaque) idioms, expressions like raining cats and dogs whose meanings are not evident from the words they are made up of, and it is understandable that many candidates and teachers believe this is what examiners look for. To be clear: the wording of the band descriptors does not refer to opaque idioms, and examiners do not use the presence or absence of opaque idioms to distinguish between higher- and lower-level candidates on the lexical resource scale (Read and Nation, 2006). In fact, the use of opaque idioms (especially those which appear in textbooks or in lists from internet sites) can be quite unidiomatic.

The word idiomatic refers to language that “Us[es], contain[s], or denot[es] expressions that are natural to a native speaker” (Idiomatic (n.d.),; see also Pawley & Syder, 1983)[2]. Studies have found that consistently using vocabulary in a way that sounds natural is something only very advanced speakers of a second language can do (e.g. Wray, 2002; Laufer & Waldman, 2011; Erman, Denke, Fant & Forsberg Lundell, 2015). And yet, sentences that even beginning learners can put together using basic words and grammar can also sound quite natural (there’s nothing wrong with my favourite food is pizza or I played basketball yesterday). So what do candidates who get scores of seven or eight do differently in the test?

I’m going to suggest two important features that examiners might look for. The first is an absence of inappropriacies, words or sentences that sound “wrong” or unnatural in the context in which they are used. The second is natural-sounding use of short phrases that are commonly used in certain situations, and which learners may not be able to put together without having heard them in input – for the purposes of this article I will refer to these as conventional expressions.


A simple, everyday example might help to illustrate what lexical inappropriacies look like. And while anyone who has heard enough authentic input in a language can recognise awkward lexical choices (see Endnote 1), most people have an especially keen feel for what is unidiomatic in their first language, so a Chinese example may be useful.

Suppose I walk into a restaurant near my home in Guangzhou, hoping to buy a bowl of fried noodles. I know enough grammar and vocabulary to tell the waiter what I want to order – in fact, I can think of a number of ways I could say it. So which of these should I choose?:


(c.f. Taguchi et al., 2013)[3]

Both of these are grammatically correct, and it would be possible in both cases for the waiter to discern what I am trying to say. (2) also contains more “difficult” words (提供) – perhaps I think the waiter will be impressed! But (2) is less clear, less immediately recognisable, and less natural because it is not expressed in the way that Chinese speakers usually say things – the parts that sound strange are inappropriacies.

Suppose I ask my girlfriend, a native Mandarin speaker, to order my noodles for me. She doesn’t need to think about what words and grammar to use (as I did). She immediately chooses (1) because she can easily remember hearing other people order food this way – indeed, she has successfully ordered it this way herself. And because the waiter can also remember people using this sentence to order noodles, it’s easier for him to understand what she says. The result is that I get my noodles (and the waiter gets his money) with far less language processing effort for all involved (see, e.g., Pawley & Syder, 1983; Sinclair, 1991; Wray, 2002).

Let’s look at some examples from real IELTS speaking tests. Read and Nation (2006) analysed the lexis used by a small sample of Band 4, Band 6 and Band 8 candidates. The following extracts illustrate quite well what they found to differentiate Band 6 and Band 8 responses:

(3)I usually listen to music as a relaxation time after duties at my dwelling, it’s just a matter of relaxation (Band 6)

(4)now in every organisation in every school in every college, er basically at the university level everything is taught in English basically so you need to understand the language (Band 8)

(5)both my parents are doctors so naturally I got into that line but I was also interested in this medicine, as such, of course the money factors come into play (Band 8)

These are all (mostly) grammatically correct and not too difficult to understand, but (3) contains inappropriacies of the kind we saw in my awkward noodle order. English speakers do not, for example, say duties at my dwelling (which looks like low-frequency lexis that the candidate has memorised to use in the test). By contrast, the lexical use in (4) and (5) is almost entirely natural[4]. Read and Nation (2006) suggest (cautiously) that in their sample of responses, this idiomatic use of high-frequency vocabulary throughout the test appeared to distinguish between candidates who were awarded higher and lower scores even more reliably than the use of low-frequency words did.

Conventional expressions

There is another noticeable difference between these samples. Look at the following groups of words:

at the university level

naturally I got into that line

as such

the money factors come into play

These are expressions which sound especially natural when used to convey a certain meaning (at the university level) or fulfil a certain pragmatic function (as such), and their exact phrasing would be difficult to guess even if you knew the individual words and grammatical rules (indeed, some expressions like these do not follow typical grammatical rules (e.g. Erman & Warren, 2000; Wray, 2002, 2008)). In this article I will refer to expressions like these as conventional expressions[5].

The conventional expressions used by the Band 8 candidates are highly appropriate, and very relevant to the topics being discussed. Take the phrase at the university level, for example, used in (4): in the same way that my girlfriend and the waiter at the noodle restaurant have experience listening to how Chinese speakers order food, this candidate clearly seems to have experience listening to the way English speakers talk about tertiary education. It’s certainly very unlikely she just guessed that it was a good phrase to use.

It is just as important in this example that the conventional expression is used in an appropriate way, and has an important role in conveying the meaning the candidate wants to express. A sentence like My major is engineering at the university level would sound extremely strange – in this sentence at the university level is a fairly severe inappropriacy (see above). And the expression doesn’t add to the meaning of the sentence in any way - majors are always taken at university level, so why say it?


I have suggested here that, to satisfy the IELTS speaking band descriptors relating to idiomatic language and collocation at Band 7 and 8 level, candidates need – throughout the test - to use lexis in ways that sound natural to highly competent English speakers. This is best demonstrated through avoiding inappropriacies, and through the natural use of conventional expressions. The conventional expressions used should be appropriate and topic-specific ones that competent English speakers really use, should be used appropriately in sentences, and should be used to express precise meaning.

So how can we teach students to do these things? In Part 2, I will examine what the research says about this, and will outline some research results which may give teachers some practical guidance in this area.


Bardovi-Harlig, K. (2009). Conventional expressions as a pragmalinguistic resource: Recognition and production of conventional expressions in L2 pragmatics. Language Learning, 59(4), 755-795. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00525.x

Cullen, P., French, A. & Jakeman, V. (2014). The official Cambridge guide to IELTS. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Erman, B. & Warren, B. (2000). The idiom principle and the open-choice principle. Text, 20(1), 29-62. doi: 10.1515/text.1.2000.20.1.29

Erman, B., Denke, A., Fant, L., Forsberg Lundell, F. (2015). Nativelike expression in the speech of long-residency L2 users: A study of multiword structures in L2 English, French and Spanish. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 25(2), 160-182. doi: 10.1111/ijal.12061

“Idiomatic”. (n.d.). In Oxford living dictionaries (English). Retrieved online from

Laufer, B. & Waldman, T. (2011). Verb-noun collocations in second language writing: A corpus analysis of learners’ English. Language Learning, 61(2), pp. 647-672. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2010.00621.x

Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach. Hove: Teacher Training Publications.

Myles, F. and Cordier, C. (2017). Formulaic Sequence (FS) cannot be an umbrella term in SLA: Focusing on psycholinguistic FSs and their identification. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 39(1), pp. 3-28. doi: 10.1017/S027226311600036X

Pawley, A and Syder, F. H. (1983). Two puzzles for linguistic theory: Nativelike selection and nativelike fluency. In J. C. Richards and R. W. Schmidt (Eds.), Language and communication (pp. 191-226). London: Longman.

Read, J., and Nation, P. (2006). An investigation of the lexical dimension of the IELTS Speaking Test. IELTS Research Reports, 6. Retrieved online from

Roever, C. (2012). What learners get for free: Learning of routine formulae in ESL and EFL environments. ELT Journal, 66(1), 10-21. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccq090

Sinclair, J. (1991). Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taguchi, N., Li, S. & Xiao, F. (2013). Production of formulaic expressions in L2 Chinese: A developmental investigation in a study abroad context. Chinese as a Second Language Research, 2(1), 23-58. doi: 10.1515/caslar-2013-0021

Wray, A. (2000). Formulaic sequences in second language teaching: Principle and practice. Applied Linguistics, 21(4), pp. 463-489. doi: 10.1093/applin/21.4.463

Wray, A. (2002). Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wray, A. (2008). Formulaic language: Pushing the boundaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



[1] Some suggestions on this topic were also given in the December 2015 issue of this newsletter (in response to a question from a reader) and in passing in the February 2016 issue. Some good suggestions were given in both articles, and they are also well worth reading.

[2] The dictionary definition quoted here, and a lot of the academic literature, explains idiomaticity in terms of what sounds natural to native speakers, but it is important to note that non-native speakers – especially advanced speakers who have heard a lot of authentic language – also have a very keen sense of what sounds idiomatic (e.g. Erman et al., 2015). It may be better to think about this in terms of the language that is commonly used in certain speech communities.

[3] Readers who do not speak Chinese could also consider the following examples (from Roever, 2012, p. 11):
(1)Do you have the time? (idiomatic)
(2)Declare the hour and the minute, please. (inappropriate)
Or these (from Pawley & Syder, 1983, p. 196):
(1)I want to marry you. (idiomatic)
(2)I wish to be wedded to you. (inappropriate)
(3)My becoming your spouse is what I want. (inappropriate)

As in the Chinese example, in all of these the grammar is (reasonably) correct and the meaning is unambiguous, but the inappropriate examples clearly sound awkward, and are less easily recognisable.

Another, more testing-oriented Chinese example (for which I would like to thank Rachel XXXX): In the current PRC civil service examination, one would be expected to say:
(1)公务员要为人民服务; not

[4] The second basically in (4) is a little repetitive but not that uncommon in speaking, and this medicine in (5) appears to be a minor grammatical error which is more likely to have been penalised under Grammatical Range and Accuracy.

[5] Terminology in this area can be extremely confusing (for discussion of why this is the case see, e.g., Wray, 2000; 2002, Chapter 2). The term conventional expressions comes originally from Bardovi-Harlig (2009); I have chosen it in part to emphasise that the expressions I am thinking of are those that are conventionally accepted in English, but mostly in order to avoid confusion. In the academic literature, expressions like these are often known as formulaic language or formulaic sequences (e.g. Wray, 2002; Myles & Cordier, 2017; and see the 2012 special edition of Annual Review of Applied Linguistics). However, as the term formulaic is often used in relation to IELTS to refer to memorized expressions that are not indicative of a candidate’s real level, I wanted to avoid it here. Similarly, the term chunks favoured by writers like Lewis (1993) is often now used to talk about how a series of words is stored by a speaker rather than how it is regarded by a speech community (e.g. Myles & Cordier, 2017), and is used in a related sense when discussing the IELTS pronunciation scale (Jakeman et al., 2014), so I also felt this was best avoided here.




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