Your IELTS Pronunciation score represents 25% of your Speaking score.
But many students do not spend 25% of their preparation time on pronunciation.
In this blog you’ll find 5 ways of improving your pronunciation before test day.
We’ll look first of all at
- what the Band Descriptors say
- 5 quick changes that you can make to improve your score
- 5 advanced changes you can make for long-term improvement
- FAQs about the IELTS Speaking Test
Table of Contents
IELTS Pronunciation Band Descriptors
How does the examiner decide on your pronunciation grade in the IELTS Speaking Test?
It’s actually quite difficult.
If you look at the Pronunciation Band Descriptors, they are not very clear.
So how does the examiner decide if you’re a 6 or a 7?
Band 8: ‘uses a wide range of pronunciation features …flexibly‘ ‘easy to understand’
Band 7: ‘shows all the positive features of Band 6 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 8’
Band 6:‘uses a range of pronunciation features with mixed control‘, ‘can generally be understood’
Band 5: ‘shows all the positive features of Band 4 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 6’
There are no separate descriptors for Band 9/7/5/3 and the examiner has to decide on your pronunciation band while at the same time trying to make a decision on fluency, grammar and vocabulary. It’s quite a tough job.
The examiner must decide if you are Band 7 in Pronunciation based on:
- The RANGE of your pronunciation features
- How much ‘control’ you have over pronunciation features
- If you are ‘easy to understand’.
No wonder that they may leave the Pronunciation score until last, and that they may base it on a general impression of your pronunciation, rather than something very specific.
What are 'pronunciation features'?
Before we look at how you can show ‘range’ and ‘control’ over pronunciation features, let’s look at exactly what they mean.
1. Individual sounds
This means that you need to control how you pronounce each sound.
What sounds do you have difficulty with? This differs depending on your first language.
Action point: Identify difficult sounds for YOU.
Try to focus on the sounds that change the meaning of the word e.g.
- ‘ship’ or ‘sheep’
- ‘pet’ or ‘bet’
- ‘free’ or ‘three’
- ‘jaw’ or ‘your’
- ‘law’ or ‘low‘
2. Word stress
There are some simple rules about word stress that you can learn.
- 2-syllable nouns and adjectives usually have the stress on the FIRST syllable e.g. TAble, COFFee, LOVely, UGly.
- 2-syllable verbs tend to stress the SECOND syllable e.g. agREE, reLY
- any prefixes and suffixes are always weak e.g. agREEment, reLIable
Action: Get a list of words that are commonly mispronounced like this one (50 commonly mispronounced words in English).
Find out which words are similar in your language – are you pronouncing them the same way? e.g. borrowed words like “culture”.
3. Weak sounds
When you identify the stressed syllable, you’ll need to focus on how to pronounce the ‘weak’ (unstressed) sounds.
Learners often want to say the word in the same way as the spelling, but as you know, the pronunciation is often very different from the spelling.
ort able VEG et able
This is also important when you put words together in a sentence. ‘Grammar’ words usually become weak and even disappear.
- ‘I want to go’ = ‘I wanna go’.
- ‘I am going to go’ = ‘I’m gonna go’
- ‘I don’t know’ = ‘I dunno’.
Don’t be afraid to use these forms in the Speaking Test. They are NOT SLANG. They are simply examples of connected speech, which is another important pronunciation feature.
4. Connected Speech
When you speak ‘naturally’ you often lose sounds as they come together:
e.g I use
d to smoke.
Sounds can even change when you link words together e.g. ‘handbag’ sounds like ‘hambag’ in fast speech.
5. Sentence stress
We already looked at word stress, but you also need to think about where the stress comes in the sentence i.e. on the key words e.g. Nice to MEET you!
This leads us to perhaps the most difficult aspect of pronunciation – basically whether your voice goes up and down in the right places, for example when you’re asking a question.
It’s important that you use intonation to signal to your listener for example when you are finishing one sentence and starting another one (see my tip about “Slowing Down”). below
A well-known pronunciation expert (Richard Cauldwell) talks about 3 ‘stages’ of English pronunciation:
- ‘Greenhouse’ English – every word is pronounced clearly, exactly as they are described in a dictionary. I call this ‘Siri speech’.
- ‘Garden’ English – natural connected speech (This is what I use in the recording above – weak forms, assimilation, linking and elision as listed above)
- ‘Jungle’ English – ‘unscripted, unplanned’ speech which sounds nothing like the written form.
Your aim is to become less ‘Greenhouse’ and more ‘Garden’. But how?
How to improve your pronunciation for IELTS
You can’t change your pronunciation overnight, but here are a few tips that will help you.
Listen to the first line of my Part 2 Topic about an advertisement. How would you say this?
‘I’m going to tell you about an advert I saw last week’
1. Use contractions
e.g. I’d, I’m, I can’t, I don’t, They’re, It’s, I’ve, Wasn‘t
When you learn English grammar, you usually learn the full, written forms e.g. ‘I would like a cup of coffee‘.
But this sounds very unnatural when you’re speaking.
Try to practice your first line in the Speaking Test Part 2 (long turn) so that you sound fast and fluent e.g.
‘I’m going to tell you about an advert I saw last week’
‘I’d like to tell you about an advert I saw last week’
Don’t be afraid to say ‘I’m gonna tell you’ or ‘I wanna tell you’ if you feel confident using this fast and natural way of speaking.
Some people say that this is too ‘informal’ for an IELTS Exam. They’re wrong – it makes you sound fluent, relaxed and natural.
2. Use weak forms (learn about the 'schwa')
Words with more than 2 syllables have at least one stressed syllable e.g.
- ADvert, adVERTisement
- ADvent, adVENTure
This makes the other syllables weak/unstressed.
So if you listen to my sentence, you don’t hear AD-VERT, you hear ‘ADvuh’ and I even drop the final ‘t’!
This is especially important in words which end in ‘er’ e.g. doctor.
Many students pronounce the ‘r’ very strongly, but actually it’s silent, more like ‘DOCtuh‘ (ˈdɒktə)
This weak sound is the schwa /ə/, and it is the most important sound in the English language. You need to learn how it works.
This quick lesson on my YouTube channel gives you more information about the schwa and word stress.
3. Practise SENTENCE stress
One way to do this is to listen to good speakers on TV and try to copy them.
Not every word in a sentence is important. In my example above, the important words are:
I’m going to TELL you about an ADVERT I SAW last WEEK.
If you stress these key words in bold, the other words become ‘weak’ and you can say them very quickly.
This also affects your intonation, as your voice gets louder and stronger on the key words.
You want to sound interesting and engaging, so the more you use your voice on the key words, the better you sound (don’t force it too much though!).
4. Don't pronounce every letter
A lot of pronunciation work is about “unlearning” what you maybe learnt at school.
As we saw above, you don’t need to pronounce the ‘r’ at the end of words like ‘doctor‘ or in other words where the ‘r’ follows a vowel e.g. car, learn, where, for.
In fast, connected speech lots of sounds disappear, especially at the end of words.
So in my sentence when I said ‘last week’ it sounded more like ‘lass week’ and this is the same with sentences like ‘I used to smoke’ which comes out more like ‘I usetuh smoke’ because it’s so difficult to say ‘d’ and ‘t’ together.
Action Point: Try using a free dictation tool e.g. Google Voice.
Speak or read something aloud and see what the voice tool picks up. This might help you to identify areas that need work, or any words you are mispronouncing because of the spelling.
- Also review wordlists with silent letters.
5. Check which sounds are difficult for you
This usually depends on your first language. It really doesn’t matter if you have an accent (I have a strong Welsh accent, as you can hear in my podcasts!).
But there may be some sounds that make understanding difficult for the listener.
Try and find out which sounds these are for you.
- A common problem is ‘th’ e.g. ‘I think ‘- you HAVE to put your tongue between your teeth to make this sound!
But a lot of people say ‘I fink’ (teeth on lips!) or ‘I sink’ (teeth together, no tongue!).
If your ‘I’m thinking’ sounds more like ‘I’m sinking’ this could cause some confusion.
- Another common difficulty is the LONG VOWEL sounds in words like bird, bored and barred. (bɜːd, bɔːd, bɑːd)
This is a sound that may not exist in your language, and the spelling often causes a strong ‘rrrr’ sounds which can sound wrong.
- The ‘awful or’ sound. (ɔː)
The sound in ‘bored’ also occurs in words like ‘caught’ and ‘law’, with completely different spellings, so it’s no wonder it causes problems! (It’s the most difficult sound for me as a Welsh speaker).
Advanced IELTS Pronunciation tips
The tips below are NOT quick and easy.
These are pronunciation features that you can work on over time, ideally with the help of a teacher to give you feedback.
I go through these in a lot more detail in my Speaking and Pronunciation Course.
1. SLOW DOWN!
Many students think that speaking faster is the key to a higher fluency score.
But fluency is NOT about speed. If you listen to speakers for example on TED TALKS, they are not speaking fast.
I spend a lot of time teaching my students to
- pause at the end of sentences
- take a breath before they start the next one
- use intonation to indicate that they’ve finish a sentence
- use ‘signal words’ and ’emphasis’ to start a new sentence e.g. “Another reason why I like…. is…
2. Practise LINKING
We already talked about some of the pronunciation features of connected speech, for example losing sounds (elision) and changing sounds (assimilation).
- ‘an apple’ becomes ‘a napple’ (the consonant at the end moves to the vowel at the start of the next word)
- ‘later on’ becomes ‘later Ron’ (the ‘r’ is sounded between vowels)
- ‘I saw a movie’ becomes “I sorra movie’ (intrusive ‘r’)
- ‘Don’t you’ becomes ‘Don’t chew’ or ‘Don’tcha’ (t+y becomes ‘ch’)
3. Reduce hesitation
Record yourself and check how many times you say ‘um’ and ‘er’.
Although this is quite natural even for fluent speakers, try to avoid LONG ummming and erring – try to use ‘filler’ words such as:
- to be honest
- it’s kind of like…
- you know
- that kind of thing
- let me think
- sort of…
- a bit…
- I suppose…
- I guess…
- So what I’m trying to say is…
- So in other words…
- Or to put it another way…
- So the main point is…
4. Stop connecting spelling with pronunciation
Many very high-level learners struggle to stop seeing the spelling of a word and pronouncing it the same way.
This is something you have to work on.
First of all you need to be able to hear the difference before you can reproduce it.
Some common mistakes are:
- words that end in a weak schwa sound like ‘nervous’ ‘decision’ ‘chocolate’, ‘comfortable’ ‘manage’ and ‘culture’
- words with silent letters like ‘doubt’ ‘answer’ ‘foreign’ ‘build’
- words that change because of the ‘magic e’ e.g. write/written, drive/driven
- moving word stress e.g. PHOtograph, phoTOgrapher
5. Learn how to use the phonemic alphabet
This is a controversial piece of advice.
Why should you have to learn yet another alphabet? Why can’t you just listen to how the word sounds using an app?
Listening to individual words and repeating them is a great way to get them ‘stuck’ in your head.
But an understanding of the sounds that the phonemic alphabet represents will build a deeper understanding of pronunciation features and how sounds are made.
You don’t need to learn the whole alphabet. Ask your teacher to guide you to the symbols that are important for YOUR first language background.
For example, for me (I’m Welsh) I had to learn the /ɔː/ sound in ‘poor’ and ‘tour’ when I started teaching Enlgish, because in Wales we pronounce it like “PWuh” and “TWuh”).
I had to focus on that single sound so that I said it in the same way that the ‘coursebooks’ wanted me to say it and what my students were hearing from the coursebooks (!).
Get specific help with pronunciation for IELTS
It’s impossible to change the way you speak overnight – and why would you want to? Different accents make the world a far more interesting place and are part of your character and your charm.
But if you think it is something that needs work, get my 28-Day Speaking and Pronunciation Bootcamp in the Members Academy which takes you through all of the features of pronunciation that you can work on.
Speaking Classes* are currently included, so you’ll build confidence and get individual feedback on your pronunciation.
Keep practising, recording yourself, listening to yourself, listening to model answers and repeating/copying the intonation and features of connected speech so that the examiner will choose the higher band score for you.
*Depending on which programme you choose.
FAQs about IELTS Pronunciation
1. Should I use British or American English?
Please remember that IELTS does NOT CARE about your accent.
They only care about INTELLIGIBILITY – how easy you are to understand.
This is really important when you’re trying to improve your pronunciation.
Everyone has an accent. Even within the UK and the US there are a wide variety of ways to pronounce the same word.
2. Which pronunciation is used in IELTS speaking?
As above, you can use any type of pronunciation in IELTS Speaking as long as it’s easy to understand.
Do you need motivation, high-quality materials, a roadmap, feedback, guidance and an IELTS specialist teacher?
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