If you are planning to take the IELTS exam any time soon, no doubt you have done some practice speaking tests and worked on speaking more confidently and fluently. You’ve probably also tried to improve the accuracy of your language, and maybe tried to incorporate some less basic vocabulary.
But did you know that PRONUNCIATION accounts for 25% of your speaking test score? (The other criteria are FLUENCY & COHERENCE 25% LEXICAL RESOURCE 25% and GRAMMATICAL RANGE & ACCURACY 25%.)
If your pronunciation is poor, it will be more difficult for you to get high scores in the other 3 areas too, because your examiner might not be able to hear your impressive use of grammar or lexis.
How is PRONUNCIATION marked?
In the IELTS test, three key indicators of pronunciation are used:
- The amount of strain caused to the listener i.e., how hard does the listener have to work to understand you?
- The amount of speech that is unintelligible i.e., how much of what you say can’t be understood
- The noticeability of influence from the test taker’s first language (for example are there noticeable differences in stress, rhythm, individual sounds etc. when compared to a native speaker)
Below are the public Marking Descriptors for the PRONUNCIATION section of the Speaking Test. (Find the full descriptors at https://www.ielts.org/-/media/pdfs/speaking-band-descriptors.ashx
You’ll see that some for bands e.g. band 5 there are no descriptors. Instead, these bands indicate that the speaker’s pronunciation falls somewhere between the bands above and below.
Generally, the bands can be interpreted as 9: native speaker, 8: native-speaker-like 6: satisfactory, 4: below average, 2: or extremely poor.
How can you improve your PRONUNCIATION score?
TIP 1 – Ensure you are easy to understand throughout
This doesn’t mean you can’t have an accent. Accents are fine. Native speakers also have different accents depending on where they are from. However, it does mean that your accent should not affect intelligibility. If it does, then look at tips 2 and 3 below.
Also be careful of speaking too fast or too softly. Some nationalities e.g., the Spanish, tend to speak at a much faster pace than English is generally spoken. Some people naturally speak very quietly.
Consider the examiner. It’s very hard for them to grade your language use if they can’t hear it or are struggling just to keep up with you. In general, it doesn’t hurt to speak a bit louder and more slowly than you usually would. This can be tough when you’re nervous so check out the following tips to help overcome any pre-test nerves https://www.s-cool.co.uk/articles/how-to-keep-calm-during-your-foreign-language-oral-exam and https://lovetolearnenglish.com/tips-for-ielts-and-toefl/2020/3/4/manage-your-anxiety-and-nerves-during-the-ielts-speaking-test
TIP 2 – Correct your pronunciation mistakes
This can be a tricky one because you need someone to be brutally honest with you. Ask a native speaker (or your teacher) to listen to you read out the following paragraph from http://accent.gmu.edu/howto.php and to note any sounds or words that you pronounce incorrectly. (This particular paragraph is special because it contains pretty much every sound in the English language.)
Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.
You can also read out the individual words on the phonemic chart https://www.englishclub.com/images/pronunciation/Phonemic-Chart.jpg and get your native speaking friend to help identify the exact sounds you struggle with.
Once you’ve identified your problem areas ask your partner to model the sound for you so that you can see what their mouth and tongue are doing. Video them doing it then then can turn your phone camera on yourself and film yourself trying to make the same sound.
You can then practise the sounds that you find difficult with a partner, using a list of minimal pairs (sounds that are often confused) https://www.tinyteflteacher.co.uk/teach-english/pronunciation/minimal-pair-list and the Pronunciation Journey worksheet. http://hancockmcdonald.com/materials/pronunciation-journey
Tip 3. Use a wide range of pronunciation features
Pronunciation isn’t just about individual sounds. Other features of pronunciation include word stress, sentence stress & weak forms, rhythm & chunking, intonation, and connected speech. When used correctly these features are unobtrusive and simply make it easier for your interlocuter to understand you. When used incorrectly they sound unnatural or hinder understanding.
You can see on the marking descriptors that to score a 9 for PRONUNCIATION you need to ‘use a full range of pronunciation features with precision and subtlety throughout’.
Below is a summary of each of the features. For further practice/explanation I recommend the following three books:
- Focusing on IELTS Listening and Speaking Skills, by Kerry O’Sullivan and Steven Thurlow
- IELTS Listening & Speaking Third Edition, by Denise Young, Neilane Liew, Alet Doornbusch, and Marilyn Treasure
- English Pronunciation in Use by Jonathan Marks, Mark Hancock, Martin Hewings and Silvie Donna
Pronunciation Feature 1 – Word Stress
Word stress is the term used to describe the emphasis on certain syllables in a word. Look at the following examples:
Notice how the stress moves depending on the form of the word. If you stress the wrong syllable the word can become unintelligible. When you learn a new word, you can check the stress in your dictionary. The stress is marked with an apostrophe before the stressed syllable. i.e., ‘Photograph, Pho’tography.
Pronunciation Feature 2 – Sentence Stress & Weak Forms
Sentence stress describes the emphasis on certain words in a sentence. Generally, in English we stress the content words only. So, in the question, ‘Have you got a pen?’ got and pen are stressed.
Sometimes changing the stressed words in a sentence changes the emphasise or even the meaning. Click here to see how https://www.wordstress.info/word-stress/sentence-stress/
If some sounds are stressed, others can become weak. We often change the vowel sound of common grammar words to make them softer and easier to say. For example, in ‘I’ve been to China’, I and China are stressed. Meanwhile, /biːn/ becomes /bɪn/ and/tuː/ becomes /tə/. Many weak forms will contain the sound /ə/. This sound is called the schwa. It’s the most common sound in the English language because it’s so easy to make. Your mouth hardly has to open or move at all to make it.
Pronunciation Feature 3 -Rhythm & Chunking
Rhythm is the music of language. English is a stress-timed language which means that strongly stressed words drive the rhythm. Try saying the three sentences below and tap your fingers to the rhythm. How many times did you tap.
Do you know the old man who lives down the street?
Sudden lightning and thunder frightened the animals.
The jeweller’s shop in the arcade will close down next month.
(Did you say 4, 5, and 7? If so, you have a good feel for the rhythm of English language)
Notice the chunking (and word stress) in the final sentence:
The jeweller’s shop / in the arcade / will close down / next month
The way you pause or chunk language affects your rhythm in English. Pausing can help listeners distinguish between important information and background information. But don’t pause too long or your rhythm will be disrupted, and it will become uncomfortable to listen to you.
Pronunciation Feature 4 – Intonation
Intonation is defined as the way the voice rises and falls as we speak. It is by far the most complex pronunciation feature, being able to convey a variety of states and attitudes including enthusiasm or boredom, engagement or indifference, irritation, or disagreement.
Intonation also helps our interlocuter know when it’s their turn to speak and what kind of response is expected i.e. is it a question or a statement. Learning how to use intonation appropriately and not sound rude or ridiculous can be challenging, but, in general, a combination of rises and falls will make your speech pleasant, melodic and easy to follow.
Pronunciation Feature 5 – Connected Speech
Say the following tongue twisters out loud three times as fast as you can.
Near an ear, a nearer ear, a nearly eerie ear
She sells seashells by the seashore The seashells she sells are seashells, she is sure.
To speak quickly, we sometimes have to link sounds, e.g., an ear becomes ‘anear’, add an extra sound e.g., eerie ear becomes ‘eerie year’ or omit a sound e.g., sells seashells becomes ‘sellseashells’. These are all features of connected speech. For a more detailed explanation click here https://www.eslbase.com/tefl-a-z/connected-speech
To sum up
When preparing for your IELTS test, it’s important not to overlook your pronunciation as it doesn’t just account for 25% of your overall speaking result, it can also affect how high you are graded on the other descriptors.
Your priority should be ensuring that everything you say can be understood. As long as it is easy for the examiner to understand you, your accent won’t be a problem. Ask a native speaker or teacher to give you an honest assessment of what individual sounds or pronunciation features you need to work on and then use the suggested resources on these pages to practise, practise and practise some more. Good luck!
If you found this blog useful, check out our other blogs in the series such as Why Pronunciation is important in the IELTS Test (and what you can do about it)
Or enquire here about studying IELTS at Lexis English.
Learn English in Byron Bay. Lexis English students study General English, IELTS, FCE, CAE, and English plus Surfing in a friendly and professional school right in the heart of Byron Bay and only 15 minutes from the beach.