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How to improve your pronunciation for your IELTS – Part 3

Published on February 26, 2018

Welcome back! In this third and final post of our series on how to improve your pronunciation for your IELTS, we’ll be looking at an important feature of pronunciation that is often ignored: intonation. But before we begin, if you haven’t read parts 1 and 2 of this series, let me suggest taking a few minutes to read them:

Part 1: on individual sounds, word stress and sentence stress
Part 2: on ‘chunking’ and word linking

All three parts combined will help you to get a more complete overview of English pronunciation and of the things that you can do to improve in this area while preparing for your IELTS.

Understanding intonation

To better understand intonation, we’ll begin this section with a simple exercise. Here are three different situations. How do you say hello in each case?

  1. You see an old friend at a party. You haven’t seen each other in months.
  2. You’re at work and you’re meeting a very important client for the first time.
  3. Your phone rings in the middle of the night and it’s a foreign number you don’t recognize.

Did you notice any changes in the way you said hello in each situation? If your answer is yes, that means that you put different emotion into each hello to suit each particular context. For example, in situation “a”, you likely used a more informal and upbeat tone when greeting your friend, while in situation “b”, you probably used a more neutral, polite tone. In situation “c”, you may have sounded tired and confused when answering your phone in the middle of the night. This emotion that you experienced in every situation and the tone you used added extra meaning to your words, and that’s what intonation is all about.

Intonation is about how we say things. It’s what happens to our voice when we speak: it rises or falls, it has movement. If we don’t use intonation when speaking, we risk sounding robotic, bored or indifferent. This can lead to listeners losing interest and to misunderstandings. Take, for example, the following extracts from an IELTS Speaking interview. Note that the words in bold represents a rise (↗) in the candidate’s voice. Can you identify the incorrect uses of intonation?

Extract 1

Examiner: Tell me about the kind of accommodation you live in.

Candidate: I live in a small apartment. It’s located in the city center.

Extract 2

Examiner: In your country, what kind of possessions do you think give status to people?

Candidate: Things such as clothes , jewellery , cars and houses.

Let’s take a closer look at extract 1. Here the candidate ends both statements with rising intonation, which might give the examiner the impression that the candidate is unsure about their answer or their choice of words. In extract 2, the candidate once again uses rising intonation for every item on the list, including the last one. By using rising intonation at the end of the list, the candidate may be indicating that the list is incomplete or that they’re not sure if houses should be on the list. In both cases, it is safe to assume that the candidate didn’t mean for their answers to sound confusing or incomplete.

Keep in mind that your use of intonation will be assessed on your Speaking test, along with all other features of pronunciation (individual sounds, word stress, sentence stress, chunking and work linking). The more accurate and effective your intonation, the better the chance of scoring a higher band for Pronunciation.

How to improve your intonation

Now that you have a better understanding of intonation and its importance, let’s talk about what you can do to improve your own use of intonation for your IELTS and for your day-to-day English:

  1. Look for an intonation model
    Look for a friend or co-worker with a high level of English. Listen to them closely and notice how they use intonation. Make mental notes on anything that you find interesting about their use of intonation.

  2. Find authentic listening texts
    Authentic listening texts can help you in many ways. You can use them as models (to imitate the speakers’ intonation) or to create your own intonation tasks. If the listening has an audio script, you can mark with arrows the rising and falling intonation as you listen to an extract. Or, you can predict the intonation (by looking at the context and applying intonation patterns), mark it on the audio script, and listen to check your predictions.

  3. Record yourself
    To become more aware of your own use of intonation, practice recording your own voice. This can be done while reading from an audio script of an authentic listening text or while answering questions from an IELTS Speaking practice test. You can also try recording a dialogue with a friend (perhaps your intonation model?). Listen closely to your recordings: Do you sound natural? Does your voice express your attitude in the way you hoped?

As with all other aspects of the English language, the more you work on improving your pronunciation, the more accurate and fluent you’ll become. However, don’t expect perfection. Instead, set goals that you can achieve before taking the IELTS and give yourself plenty of opportunities to experiment and have fun with language.