How to improve your pronunciation for the Speaking test. Part 1: phonemes and intonation!..

My post for today follows on from my previous posts in the series looking at the Speaking criteria for our favourite test. I haven’t written much, if anything, about pronunciation before so it is time to set that straight, and also this is in response to a couple of queries from one or two of my current students.

What I am going to do today is to go through what “Pronunciation” means exactly in terms of the assessment criteria, then I am going to share some links for various tools you can use to practice this vital, and oft overlooked skill, then I am going to suggest a method you might use to improve it.

However, I will only write about the sounds of English and intonation in this post, and will look at word and sentence stress, linking sounds, etc, in a later article. Mainly because these are the two things that most of my students need to work on.

So, what do we mean by “pronunciation” in terms of the IELTS? Well, to get a good score for pronunciation you have to be understandable first of all,  and use what is termed, a “wide range of pronunciation features”. (Note: being understandable does not mean having a British/American accent, let’s get that clear from the start.)

To look at being understandable first, as you might expect, being able to correctly articulate all of the individual sounds (or phonemes) of English is quite important. The most common teaching and learning aid for this purpose is the phonemic chart, which is a visual representation of all the 43 individual sounds in the English language.

You will probably have seen the Phonemic chart, it is to be found in most of the English course books you have probably been used to, it looks like this..

P chart

This is the British Councils interactive chart, you can download it here.

You can try it out online, for example, if you have a good dictionary, it should have a phonemic guide to every word you find there. So, you can use the chart online to make sure you are making the correct sound. If you don’t have a dictionary then try this online one from Cambridge. As you will see from the picture, it has both English and American audio guide to pronunciation, as well as the phonemic symbol for the word.


Another couple of useful sites for pronunciation are where you can type a word and hear how it is pronounced, virtually the same as the online dictionary I mentioned earlier, and then there is the Sounds of Speech website and app which has diagrams showing you where to place your lips, teeth and tongue to produce the phonemes you want. All very well and good, but if you are the kind of learner who needs more guidance then you can try this free pronunciation course of 53 videos by BBC Learning English available on YouTube. Additionally, if you have some money and want to buy a book based course, then I can recommend English Pronunciation in Use by Martin Hancock. This comes with 4 CDs of audio and as you see from the pic below, has a diagram of the position your mouth needs to be in for every sound.


The next thing I want to mention today is intonation. The use of both rising and falling tones in English (and indeed in any language for that matter) is very important. In English we usually make use of a rising tone to show we are interested or enthusiastic about something, and if we end a sentence in a rising tone it is usually because we are asking a question. On the other hand, speaking with a falling tone either implies a complete lack of interest and enthusiasm, or at the end of a sentence, it means we are winding down and finishing. Sometimes people get the tones mixed up and finish on a rising tone, with me waiting for them to say something else, as I thought they hadn’t finished and were merely pausing for breath.

 However, it is very common for many people speaking whatever language  they are learning (unless they are careful) in a monotone. This means speaking in a very flat, noninflected way, with no change in pitch or tone, which is guaranteed to send the listener to sleep. If you have ever been to a boring lecture at university, then you will know what I mean. So for the purpose of the IELTS, and for your wider purpose of speaking English outside of the IELTS, this is something to be avoided. The first thing you need to do is to become aware of how intonation is used in English, this will come in handy for the listening section of the IELTS also, as some of the questions rely on intonation to express a meaning, not always the words themselves.

One way for you to do this, is to listen to lots of authentic materials, of which there are many freely available on the internet. YouTube, podcasts, etc, there are many, many free resources. A quick Google search will reveal lots of sites for you to investigate. But listening alone is not enough, what you need to do is to listen to some audio, then make a recording of your own voice, repeating the lines of the actor or speaker, and try to copy it. This is essentially the same way that many people learn accents for acting roles, listen, and repeat and copy what they heard. What some people do is to watch/listen to an accent then pick the obvious features of it, and exaggerate them, to sound more like a particular nationality. For your purpose, however, all you are looking to do is to make sure that you can make use of different tones, not sound English or American, although you can if you like, although as I have said before, accent is not assessed in the IELTS.

The technique to do this  is called “Shadowing”, which is where you listen to a piece of audio and repeat it yourself aloud as quickly as possible, but in this method you also record yourself doing this and compare the recording to the original. Most people have no idea how they sound to others, and it is usually a big surprise, or possibly a shock, maybe an unpleasant one, to hear your own voice. Some famous actors never watch their own films for example, as they think they sound terrible!.

First you listen to your chosen audio, then record yourself repeating or “Shadowing” the same lines. Then play it back, and listen. Does it sound the same? Do you express the same meaning with your tones? Can you mimic the use of rising and falling tones accurately?  By making recordings in this way and comparing over time, you can “see” the progress you are making which should be inspiring in itself.

To do this you will need a recorder, my personal recommendation is Audacity, you can download it here. This is a free, open source, cross platform software for recording sounds, and it works very well, I use it often for recording my lessons and podcasts. It is very easy to use, and you will work it out pretty quickly. So all you need is to install it, find some nice podcasts you like, play the podcast, then quickly record your voice repeating the sounds. If you do this for 30 mins a day, it shouldn’t take more than a week or two for you to “get” the difference and improve your intonation, and of course, the other things the examiners assess, the sounds and stress, etc.

So, that’s it for today, I hope you find it useful. I will write some more soon about the other pronunciation features, but the technique of “Shadowing” is applicable to all pronunciation and accent training in general. As always, any comments and questions, drop me a line at