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How to improve your pronunciation for your IELTS – Part 1

Published on November 27, 2017
If you’re looking to improve your pronunciation for the IELTS Speaking test, this post is for you. As you probably already know, pronunciation is a very important aspect of spoken English. On your IELTS Speaking test, the examiner will assess how well you use different pronunciation features such as individual sounds, stress and intonation. As part of a series of posts on improving your pronunciation for your Speaking test, today we’ll be looking at three aspects of English pronunciation: individual sounds, word stress and sentence stress. We’ll also talk about the things that you can do to improve your pronunciation in these areas while preparing for your IELTS. So keep on reading!

A look at individual sounds

Have you thought about why you sometimes struggle producing certain sounds in English? This is because you naturally use the sounds you have in your first language, even when you speak in English. If a specific English sound doesn’t exist in your first language, or if it’s used in a different way, it’s perfectly normal for you to find those sounds difficult to pronounce.

So, how can you improve your pronunciation of individual sounds? First, you need to decide which sounds you have problems with and pay close attention to the sounds that you should produce to sound more fluent in English. To achieve this, you will need a model for those sounds, which you can find in online dictionaries with audio pronunciation and interactive phonemic charts. When practising the sounds, focus on what the different parts of your mouth and tongue are doing when you make them. Repeat the sounds as many times as necessary and then try putting them into words or sentences.

Understanding stress

In case you’re wondering what the word ‘stress’ means when we’re talking about pronunciation, stress is the intensity or strength that we give to specific syllables in a word, or to specific words in a sentence. Stressed syllables or words are louder than those syllables or words that are not stressed. They can also be longer and have a higher sound. Using correct word and sentence stress will help you to communicate clearly in day-to-day English and on your IELTS Speaking test.

A closer look at word stress

Not using word stress correctly can cause misunderstanding in English. This is because stressing the wrong syllable(s) can make the word difficult to understand and, in some cases, can even change the meaning of the word. Take the word produce as an example: PROduce (stress on the first syllable) means fruit and vegetables, while proDUCE (stress on the second syllable) means to make something.

There are a number of patterns that can help you to determine word stress in English, but it’s important to remember that these are just patterns and not fixed rules:

Type of word

Pattern

Examples

Some exceptions

two-syllable nouns and adjectives

stress on the first syllable

  • MOther
  • LEtter
  • MARket
  • guiTAR
  • toNIGHT

words that can be used as both nouns and verbs

noun: stress on the first syllable

verb: stress on the second syllable

  • PROtest (n) proTEST (v)
  • Decrease (n) deCREASE (v)
  • Insult (n) inSULT (v)
  • rePORT (n)

    rePORT (v)

  • WITness (n)

WITness (v)

compound nouns

stress on the first part

  • softball
  • makeup
  • toothpaste

There are other patterns that you can observe when analyzing word families such as the following:

ho spital

hospi tality

ho spitalize

hospitali zation

na tional

natio nality

na tionalize

nationali zation

per sonal

perso nality

per sonalize

personali zation

During your IELTS preparation time, you will see lots of new vocabulary. Use dictionaries not just to check the meaning of new words, but also to check word stress. Most dictionaries show word stress with a mark right before the stressed syllable (e.g. apple \ ˈa-pəl \ ). Keep a vocabulary notebook where you can write down new words, along with their meaning and stress.

A closer look at sentence stress

English is a stress-timed language. This means that when we speak in English, not every syllable takes the same amount of time to say. Instead, we put stress on certain important words, like main verbs, nouns, and adjectives, while grammatical words, like prepositions, auxiliary verbs, and articles, are usually not stressed.

Sentence stress can also be used to communicate meaning. The meaning in a sentence can change when we use sentence stress to emphasize different words. For example, try saying the sentences below, stressing only the words in bold:

The woman speaks a little Japanese. (not the man)
The woman speaks a little Japanese. (not a lot)
The woman speaks a little Japanese . (not Chinese)

As you can see, using sentence stress correctly can help you to sound more natural in English and to deliver a clear message. This will allow you to achieve a higher band score on your IELTS Speaking test.

Listening to a variety of English sources can help you to better understand sentence stress and become more aware of how native speakers use it. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Find listening sources that have audio scripts. As you listen, mark the words that are stressed on the audio script.
  2. You can also try to predict the sentence stress: mark the words you think are stressed on the audio script, then play the recording and check if you were right.
  3. Read the audio script and record yourself speaking (as naturally as possible). Next, compare your recorded version to the original one. Repeat as many times as necessary, until your sentence stress sounds as close as possible to the original speaker’s.

Visit Part 2 on how to improve pronunciation for your IELTS Speaking test here.