How does the examiner decide on your pronunciation grade?
It’s actually quite difficult for the examiner to decide on whether your Pronunciation score is, for example, a Band 6 or a Band 7.
But a higher score for the Pronunciation section could be the difference between a 6.5 and a 7. Which could be the 0.5 that you need!
If you look at the Band Descriptors, they are not very clear at all.
So how does the examiner decide if you’re a 6 or a 7?
And what can you do to make a difference?
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’
As you can see, 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 and Coherence
- Lexical Range and Accuracy
- Grammatical Range and Accuracy.
It’s quite a tough job.
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.
Pronunciation improvements you can make today
The word ‘pronunciation features’ relates to all aspects of pronunciation and I’ve listed some below:
- intonation – basically whether your voice goes up and down in the right places, for example when you’re asking a question
- sentence stress – putting emphasis on the key words e.g. Nice to MEET you!
- weak sounds – putting less emphasis on ‘grammar’ words e.g. ‘I want to go’ becomes ‘I wanna go’
- elision – losing sounds when they come together e.g I use
- assimilation – adding or changing sounds when you link words together e.g. ‘handbag’ sounds like ‘hambag’ in fast speech
- word stress – putting emphasis on the correct syllables e.g. COMF
ortable, VEG etable
- individual sounds – pronouncing each sound correctly e.g. ‘ship’ or ‘sheep’
You can’t change your pronunciation overnight, but here are a few tips that will help you impress the examiner so they choose the higher score.
Making your pronunciation more ‘natural’
Listen to the first line of my Part 2 Topic about an advertisement:
‘I’m going to tell you about an advert I saw last week’
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 (the reason why it’s difficult to understand English speakers when you first arrive in the UK!)
Your aim is to become less ‘Greenhouse’ and more ‘Garden’. But how?
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. Learn about WORD stress
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. Learn about SENTENCE stress
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!).
Listen to my 2-minute podcasts and try to copy my intonation.
4. Don't pronounce every letter
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 we ‘lose’ lots of sounds, 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.
Have you ever tried using a dictation app? When I make my videos with transcripts, I have to edit them carefully because the technology does not hear the individual words and cannot cope with fast, connected speech – it sounds completely different to the written version!
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.
One of the most common ones 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 sound in words like bird, bored and barred.
This is a sound that may not exist in your language, and the spelling often causes a strong ‘rrrr’ sounds which can sound a little harsh.
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).
IELTS Speaking Test – should I use British or American English?
Please remember that IELTS does NOT CARE what accent you have.
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.
Read more about this ‘false dilemma’ in this article by a well-known Pronunciation expert, Mark Hancock.
What to do next
It’s impossible to change your pronunciation 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, I have a pronunciation course in the Members Academy which takes you through all of the features of pronunciation that you can work on.
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!
Find lots more speaking tips here.
Get all my Speaking Study Links here.
Pronunciation sites and apps
- Homophones and confusing words
- Interactive Phonemic Chart
- My YouTube guide to getting started with the Phonemic Chart
- Macmillan How to use the Phonemic Chart (YouTube)
- Youglish – hear how things sound in natural speech and real contexts
- Forvo – hear different accents pronouncing the word you need
- Sounds: The Pronunciation App
- British Council LearnEnglish Sounds Right
- ELSA Speak: English Accent Coach
- Pronunroid – a game to practise English phonetics
- English Pronunciation App
- Say It: English Pronunciation – ‘Hear the Oxford model, see the soundwave, then record and compare your pronunciation’
- 50 commonly mispronounced words in English – a really useful list with models.
- Photransedit – turn your text into phonetics
- Peaksay – free app to practise pronunciation