Learn IELTS Vocabulary: An Historical Period

Jun 19, 2023 | IELTS Test

IELTS Speaking Test Sample:  

Talking about history is a topic which sometimes appears on Speaking day. 

Read the following speaking-style questions, paying close attention to words you dont know and the words in bold. There are definitions for the words in bold at the end of the page.

Before you read the conversation, you might like to download this free PDF quiz and have a go at completing the blanks.

Part 1-style questions

Examiner: Let’s talk about cycling. Do you own a bicycle?

Candidate: I don’t. I did have one when I was a kid in later years at elementary school and right through high school. More than 60%, I’d say, of pupils at my high school rode their bikes to and from school.   

Examiner: When was the last time you went cycling?  

Candidate: Oh….. I can’t remember exactly. But I guess it was probably after I left school and was about to enter university. I would have biked somewhere to meet my friends in town, probably.

The reason why I didn’t use that bike when I was home during university term breaks was because we’d given it to my younger cousin. He still has it, I believe, so it’s good to know the bike is getting used.

Examiner: Is cycling dangerous in your country?

Candidate: No, not really. Holland is a country which has a long history of cycle use both for daily functions like getting to school or work, and for recreation. Before it became so highly developed and people’s standard of living rose, very few people could afford cars, so bikes were a very common way of getting around. Even though the percentage of cyclists today has decreased, motorists still respect the rights of cyclists, and the big cities…Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, they all have many cycle lanes, The traffic fines for motorists who encroach on the lanes are quite severe, all in all. Well, relatively that is……probably more than in many other countries. 

Examiner: Would you ever take a long cycling trip? 

Candidate: Hm. I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it, but…maybe if a friend suggested it. I mean, if it was well planned, it could be fun I suppose. We could even have a tent to sleep in, and it would certainly be  healthy with fresh air in the countryside.  As long as there were not too many hills! There’d be good  opportunities for lots of photos too…….. Actually, now that I think about it, my father was a keen cyclist in his youth, and he belonged to a club. He and his friends once rode 200 kilometres from our hometown to Amsterdam, camping on the way. 

  • Examiner: Let’s talk about coffee. Do you prefer to drink coffee or tea? 

  • Candidate: Um…..I actually prefer tea, which I guess makes me more British in some ways than most of the people in my country!

  • Examiner: Is coffee a popular drink in your country? 

  • Candidate: Oh yes. As I said, I’m more unusual as a tea drinker, but like most of Europe…. Well, certainly central and western Europe, Scandinavia, Italy, Spain …. far more people would drink coffee. But I’ve noticed among younger adults of my age, a proportion of us are switching to tea, or at least sometimes drinking it as well as coffee. We know more now about the particular benefits of tea drinking, especially the lift it gives you if you’re engaged in physical work or exercise. And we start to appreciate the differences between Indian and Chinese tea, black and green, and the famous brands or varieties. 

  • Examiner: Have you ever given coffee as a gift to someone?  

  • Candidate: Yes, quite often. I’ve given some more expensive brands to relatives, friends for birthdays, Christmas. Sometimes just as a ‘thank you’ if someone has helped me or done me a particular favour in some way…….. My father, he’s what I guess Americans would call a real coffee hound. Always  has at least two cups for breakfast before he goes off to work. I know he has probably  three or four more cups during the day. He enjoys his last one about seven in the evening….. He says it’s not good to keep drinking coffee later than that as it’s a mental stimulant of course, and it could make it harder for you to get to sleep.    

Part 2

image of the flag of the Netherlands

Describe a historical period you would like to know more about. 

You should say:

  • when it was
  • what you are interested in 
  • what you already know about the period 

and explain why you would like to know more


Well…. I’ve always had a strong interest in history, but a period I would like to know more about is Holland’s occupation of Indonesia, which used to be known as the Dutch East Indies. I know something about our imperial age, but Indonesia was by far our largest and most important colony…… and I’d like to learn more about how it was first colonised, what life was like there for the administrators and settlers, how the country developed. 

 My great-grandfather, on my mother’s side, was a regional official there in the 1930s. I’m not sure in exactly what capacity……perhaps something to do with the roads? He was in Sumatra, not what they used to call Batavia, now Djakarta, which was the capital in Java. So there were photos of him, his house and office among our family photos, but we never talked about it much.

At elementary school, we just learned basic facts, really about population, the geography of the different islands, the products such as oil, rubber… timber, that were the mainstay of trade with the Netherlands. At secondary school, there was more open discussion and teachers exposed us to material that is often very critical of the occupation.  

I also know about how Sukarno was the main leader of the resistance to Dutch rule and led the country to independence in the late 1940s. How for nearly 20 years he was seen as an important figure in the Non-aligned movement…the developing countries that resisted being drawn into alliances with either America or the USSR during the Cold War. 

There was also the terrible violence and killing of communists, or suspected communists in 1965, many of them ethnic Chinese, I believe.

But what I’d especially like to have a clearer picture of is what happened in those two or three years after the defeat of Japan and the end of World War Two. There’s a lot more talk now about the cruelty of the Dutch military trying to re-establish control over the whole country…how there were war crimes which have never been fully investigated. It seems ironic, in some ways, that Holland, which itself suffered so badly under German occupation in the war should then turn around and inflict pain on another group of people. And there’s a movie, De Oost in Dutch, The East in English which was made a couple of years ago, on this subject. A lot of people are talking about it…it’s quite controversial, and I’d like to see it myself. 

So anyway, that’s a period of my own country’s history that I’d like to know more about.    

Part 3-style questions

Examiner: Is history an important subject? [Evaluate]

Candidate: I believe it is. I know I may be a bit biased because I’m a real history buff, but I just think we can’t really be fully informed citizens unless we have at least some understanding of world history in general, and our own country’s past in particular. Even for people whose background is in the sciences or fields such as finance, accounting or computers, it’s surely important for them to have some basic knowledge of the past. I mean, the past is what’s made the present, isn’t it? 

Examiner: Should it be a compulsory school subject? [Agree/disagree]

Candidate: Hm. I would say it should be, up to, say, junior secondary school level, as it is in my country. After that it should be optional. There will be those pupils who want to go on to further study in the Humanities, and want to learn even more about history, while others will opt to specialise in science, or economics, computers and the like. 

Examiner: What do you think are the best ways for people to get reliable historical information? [Speculate]

Candidate: Well, let’s see….there’s really no shortage of sources of information.  Books, movies, documentaries..museums,………. the internet, of course. Whether it’s going to be reliable information, of course, is another matter.  Especially with history, there are many who have a vested interest in interpreting it their own way. This includes governments, more than one of which in authoritarian countries does not want its citizenry to know the true facts of what has happened in the past….. it can be a tricky area. People need to develop their ability to discern between sources, and decide for themselves what’s true and what’s not. Or even, what’s not yet certain one way or another.     

Examiner: You mentioned museums? Do people in your country like to visit museums? [Evaluate]

Candidate: Yes and no. It varies between age groups. Older folk are probably more likely to go to a museum, but younger age groups will also go if a museum is designed to be interesting and attractive. A growing number of museums today have moved well beyond the traditional static object displays, which can be somewhat boring. They have movies, informative guides who can talk and bring some exhibit alive, so to speak. And there are displays where people can interact with what’s shown in some way. That’s great for kids, in particular!   

Definitions for IELTS Achievement Vocabulary


Part 1

pupil: a student at elementary or secondary school level. Note that this is a useful variation to use in your vocabulary if you have, say, a Writing task which is something to do with school. 

to bike: as well as a noun (short form of bicycle), the word is also a verb, used in a somewhat more informal way than to cycle. 

term break: holiday or vacation time from school or university.  

recreation: (noun, also used as adjective) an activity such as a hobby, interest or sport that people do in their free time. 

standard of living: the level of comfort, convenience and wealth which a person or society has.

encroach: (verb) impinge, infringe, to interfere with something where there is no authority to do so.

keen: a common adjective meaning enthusiastic or in favour of something. 

lift: (noun) something which boosts, improves confidence and/or energy

engaged: (adj.) involved with/in something

hound:  more commonly used in US English, in this context the noun refers to someone who is very keen on, is a big fan of something 

mental stimulant: something which stimulates the mind (tea does stimulate mental activity but is more often associated with physical energy, whereas coffee is seen as largely energising the mind) 


Part 2

capacity: Tin the context the candidate uses it, the meaning is a  function, job or duty. 

mainstay: (higher-level term) the basic part of something, its essential support.   

the Netherlands: the official name for Holland. (Note that you could use the latter to vary vocabulary if you are e.g describing something in a Writing Task 1. Note too that the former is one of the few countries, along with the UK, the US, that needs the definite article). 

the Cold War: the period between 1946-47 and 1989-90, when there was strong political and technological competition between the USA and its allies and the USSR and allies; called ‘cold’ because it was not ‘hot’ with outright fighting between the two camps. 

ethnic Chinese: people not born in China but whose family background, culture and language are Chinese. There are many such people, particularly in Asian countries such as Indonesia and Thailand. The adjective can also be applied to other groups such as ethnic Russians, and ethnic Indians.  

ironic: (adjective) describing something which is amusing or odd as an outcome of what happens, because there is a contrast involved. (This is a higher-level word, but check your dictionary for example sentences to better understand how it is correctly used.)   

controversial: adjective describing an issue or subject on which people can hold very different opinions, something which can cause vigorous debate or argument.   


Part 3

biased: (adj) to be in favour of or prefer something, generally unfairly. (Check your dictionary for more example sentences.) 

buff: (noun) a less common, more informal way to describe an enthusiast or a fan. 

the Humanities: ( group noun) subjects such as literature, philosophy, the arts (including history) in contrast to the natural sciences

opt: (verb) a higher-level word meaning to choose, to select. (note the noun, option.)  

vested interest: (collocation) something in which a person or group has a direct interest. That is, it affects them. It can benefit or disadvantage them in some way.   People can act in a particular way to protect or increase their power, money, status or reputation.  

authoritarian: (adj.) authoritarian political systems are those where government has strong control and direction over citizens lives (e.g China, Russia, Belarus). People do not have a full freedom of choice in some aspects of life. They are not democratic systems.  

tricky: (adj.) to describe something difficult, perhaps complex. 

static object: something that is lifeless, that does not move. 


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