Should I learn idioms for the IELTS speaking test? - Lexicon ll British Council Khulna

Common Idioms

Learning common idioms first is the best way to begin building up your knowledge of these types of words and expressions. This page has been divided up into 5 tables of 10 words, so you have 50 of the most common phrases, and you can learn them as a set at a time.

Make sure that you have checked that you know exactly what idioms are and when to use them before you start practicing them.


Idioms used in IELTS can help to increase your score in the test. However, there are important things you should know about them.
If you are not using them properly or trying to use them for the sake of it, it could actually make your speaking sound worse. On this page we’ll look at what you should know, some examples, and how and when they can be used in IELTS.

  • a blessing in disguise
  • a drop in the ocean
  • a piece of cake
  • actions speak louder than words
  • an arm and a leg
  • chip on his shoulder
  • it’s a small world
  • jumping the gun
  • once in a blue moon
  • over the moon

These common idioms are for speaking rather than writing.

How are they related to IELTS?

This is one of the criteria for achieving a band 7 in IELTS speaking for lexical resource (vocabulary):

Uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary

This means that the examiner will be trained to spot if you use this type of vocabulary. They are much less common in formal or academic writing, so they are not mentioned in the writing band descriptors.

So forget about them for your writing (though they could be used in an informal letter for General Training).


Should I learn idioms for the IELTS speaking test?

They should really be quite low down in your priorities when you are preparing for the IELTS test.

Just because they are mentioned at a band 7 does not mean you will not get a 7 for lexical resource if you don’t use them! And if you do use some, this does not automatically mean you will get a 7 for lexical resource!

For example, if your general use of lexis throughout the test tends to be at a band 6 level, the examiner will not give you a 7 just because you fit ‘over the moon’ in somewhere!

Using idioms at the right time and in the right context is also quite difficult to learn. Native speakers use them very naturally and in exactly the right context because they have obviously been brought up with the language and they don’t have to think about it.

Imagine you learn the phrase ‘over the moon‘ for the test. You now have to hope the examiner asks you a question where you can fit it in! That could be unlikely and if you are nervous it is not something you want to worry about.

If you use them unnaturally because you are trying to fit them in the test it will probably be noticeable. You need to be at a level where you can use them fairly naturally. Those that can use them well in the test have not usually studied a book and learned them but have picked them up through experience, maybe from some time abroad or just from being quite a good speaker of English.

However, that is not to say you should not study them, but it depends on your situation.

If you are around a band 5.5 level or lower, I would say forget about them for now, or at least make them a lower priority. You have much more important things to worry about.

You need to work on improving your general vocabulary (for example try practicing the academic word list and collocations) and improving your fluency and grammar.

If you are at a higher level, and you have time, you may want to start thinking about what you can do to make yourself just that bit better, and gradually improving your knowledge of these types of expressions and phrases can help with this.


Common Idioms List

Set 1

Common Idioms Definitions
It cost me an arm and a leg to take my trip to Australia. Very expensive
I was over the moon when he asked me to marry him. Extremely pleased or happy
You are taking your IELTS test next week?? Aren’t you jumping the gun. You’ve only just started studying. Doing or starting something too early
He comes round to see me once in a blue moon. Happening very rarely
He’s got a chip on his shoulder. Feeling inferior or having a grievance about something
I reckon getting a band 7 in IELTS will be a piece of cake! I’m very good at English. Very easy
The money sent by comic relief to help poverty in Africa is just a drop in the ocean. They need far more than this. A very small part of something much bigger
Getting a low score the first time I took IELTS was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to study extremely hard so I got a much better score the next time. Something positive that isn’t recognized until later
We have to actually do something about global warming. Actions speak louder than words. It’s better to actually do something rather than just talking about it
I bumped into Jenny in town the other day. It’s a small world. Meeting someone you would not have expected to


Set 2


Common Idioms Definitions
Oh well, I got 5.5 in IELTS again. Back to the drawing board! When an attempt to do something fails and it’s time to start all over again using different methods
I hate my job so much I can’t bare going to work, but if I quit I don’t think I can get another job. I’m really stuck / caught between a rock and a hard place. Having two very bad choices.

(note: stuck/caught can be omitted)

I have to bite my tongue so I don’t say what I really think of him! Wanting to say something but stopping yourself.
Come on, cut to the chase. We haven’t got all day! Leave out all the unnecessary details and just get to the point
Are you putting all of your savings into that company? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Putting all of ones resources into one possibility
Try not to worry about it. Every cloud has a silver lining. Believing that every bad situation has a positive side / eventually leads to something good
It was difficult when I moved to another country but I eventually found my feet. To become comfortable in what you are doing
My parents are very fixed in their ways. They won’t start using the internet. Not wanting to change from the normal ways of doing things
I think he got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. He is in a terrible mood. To refer to someone who is having a bad day
My mother will always go the extra mile to help people. Doing much more than is required when doing something


  • Set 3
Common Idioms Definitions
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s the reason he didn’t get the job. Say exactly the right thing
Today’s going so badly. If it’s not one thing, it’s the other. When everything seems to be going wrong
I just said it in the heat of the moment. I was angry. I know I shouldn’t have. Saying or doing something suddenly without thinking about it
Keep an eye on him. I think he may cheat in the exam. Watch someone or something carefully
Have you heard? John down the road has kicked the bucket. Died
I don’t want to argue with him again. It’s better to let sleeping dogs lie. Avoid a conflict
I told him what gift you have bought him for his birthday. Sorry, I didn’t mean to let the cat out of the bag. Tell someone something that you were not supposed to
Don’t tell her what you really think of her if she’s helping you with your English! Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Hurt or upset someone who is helping you
I’m not sure which party he is going to vote for. He’s sitting on the fence. Not making a firm decision between different choices
Everything she does is very over the top. She can’t just have a few drinks – se has to get really drunk. Excessive


  • Set 4


Common Idioms Definitions
Let’s keep studying for IELTS. Practice makes perfect. Continuously doing something to improve
Don’t get upset about what he said. He’s just pulling your leg. Joking around
Sorry but I think I’ll take a rain check on that. To decline an offer that you will take up later
As a rule of thumb, I don’t study at weekends. I spend the time with my family. Principal that is strictly adhered / kept to
I can smell a rat. He said he has a PhD but he can’t even remember which university he studied at. To sense that something is not right
She’s the spitting image of her mother. To look exactly like someone else
The ball’s in your court now. What are you going to do? Telling someone it’s now their turn to make a decision
Unfortunately, I think he’ll be studying for IELTS until the cows come home. His English is very poor. For a very long time
It was all tongue-in-cheek. He didn’t really mean what he said. Something said in humour rather than seriously
She’s feeling under the weather today so she won’t be going to work. Unwell


  • Set 5
Common Idioms Definitions
We’ve had some big disagreements over the years, but it’s all water under the bridge now. We get on fine. Things from the past that are not important anymore
You are what you eat so it’s better to have a healthy diet. If you eat bad food, you’ll be unhealthy, if you eat good food, you’ll be healthy
You can’t judge a book by its cover. I need to get to know him before I decide what he is like. The belief that outside appearances do not reveal what someone or something is really like
We’re really working against the clock now. We must hurry. Not having enough time to do something
Why are we bothering? We’re flogging a dead horse. Our online business is making no money, so we should move on and do something else. Attempting to continue with something that is finished / over
bent over backward to help him. I hope he appreciates it. Doing all you can to help someone
So you have the IELTS test today?? Break a leg. Good luck
Ok, I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but if marijuana is legalized, isn’t it more likely young people will smoke it? To put forward a side in an argument that may not be your own in order to show the counter-argument / ensure all sides are discussed
Hold your horses! We haven’t won anything yet. Telling someone who is getting ahead of themselves to wait / be patient
She is driving me up the wall. She won’t stop talking. Annoying or irritating somebody



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