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Synonyms and paraphrasing

In order to make the exams more challenging the authors of texts and tapescripts use synonyms and paraphrasing techniques in their works. It means that keywords in questions and the texts they relate to will be different in form, keeping the same meaning. Even though it sounds complicated, the example below will make it more clear. We will be using the same John’s work example question that we illustrated the concept of keywords  with:

Choose two aspects of John’s work that the professor didn’t like:

a) headings

b) overall structure

c) reference section

d) volume

e) supplementary materials

The underlined parts of text are keywords. They will help us to answer the question.

John – a proper name and therefore it can’t be changed in any way. This makes it very easy to hear in a recording or spot in a text.

Didn’t like – can be easily changed. Some examples: disliked, wansn’t fond of, was dissatisfied with, was upset about; the list can be continued almost indefinitely, with little to no change in the phrase meaning.

Same changes can occur in the answer options. Examples:

a) headings – not much room for changes here, so it is likely to remain the same

b) overall structure – both words might be paraphrased: general structure, overall organization

c) reference section – reference can be changed to quote or citation

d) volume – paraphrased as number of pages or size of work

e) supplementary – can be changed to additional, attached

NB: this paraphrasing list is by no means complete and be easily extended if one was so inclined. It is here only to showcase the concept of changing word forms.

Now that you are familiar with this idea, it would be nice if you used it in your speaking and writing. You might find this list of most used words and their synonyms most useful. Remember: repeating the same word will reduce your mark in both speaking and writing.



To illustrate the idea of keywords I will use an example question from IELTS Listening exam section.

Before the recording starts you will be given some time to look at the questions. In IELTS, the speaker will let you know which questions you are going to be answering. You are encouraged to scan-read through these questions to have an idea of the information you are about to be presented with after the recording starts to play. As you look through the questions, you should underline the most important parts, otherwise called keywords.

Below is an example question with proper underlining:

Choose TWO aspects of John’s work that the professor didn’t like:
a) headings
b) overall structure
c) reference section
d) volume
e) supplementary materials

Let’s go through the underlined fragments one-by-one.

Two – although this part will be written in bold, capital letters, it is recommended to underline it nonetheless. It’s self-explanatory — you will have to choose two letters.

John’s – this is underlined because the recording might involve more than one student, and we need to know professor’s opinion about John’s paper, not somebody else’s work.

Didn’t like – it is possible that all of the aspects above will be mentioned. But to answer this question we are only interested in those the professor is not very happy about. It is a common mistake to simply mark the answer a student hears mentioned in the recording. Additionally, you might want to put some symbol above “didn’t” that has a negative meaning, such as a minus, a sad face, a downward arrow (-; ↓; ☹). This will make the search easier.

Extra info for the Reading section: it is recommended to underline dates (e.g. 7th Nobemver 1990, the 21st of December) and any proper names (e.g. Mark, Luxembourg, Laika) as both of them are very easy to spot in the text and are unlikely to be paraphrased.