English teachers and students often focus a lot on vocabulary and grammar when doing speaking preparation for exams like IELTS, whilst neglecting improving their English pronunciation. Well, it’s good that a candidate learns enough language to express themselves but what lets students down time and time again is their inability to sound good. For some they can’t be understood at all.
This isn’t really anybody’s fault as many textbooks focus more on reading and listening and squeeze speaking onto one page or even less. But, if the examiner can’t understand you then you’ll do badly, even if you have amazing vocabulary. So, what stops candidates being understood?
English Pronunciation Problems & Help
Read our tips and then practise by recording yourself in our voicethread at the bottom of the page. Leave your name and we will reply to help you improve your pronunciation.
First and foremost it is mispronunciation of single phonemes or sounds. Have a look at some of our previous posts for some help on this. Every nationality has different problems due to their first language. Some can’t pronounce TH, some over pronounce S and others miss out any consonant on the end of a word. Tip: Find out what problems you have and work on them.
Secondly, word stress. This sounds basic but not everyone learns the right stress for every word in class. If you stress the wrong part you may change the word from a noun to a verb or even make it sound like a foreign word.... or just be completely misunderstood! Tip: Ask a native or a good English speaker to listen to you and correct your word stress. Otherwise, check online or with a paper dictionary. Practise with SGI - go to our blog where you can record yourself copying whole sentences of a native speaker and get help with your sentence stress from an SGI teacher for free!
Sentence-level Stress - listen to the audio at the bottom of the page
Next, you have sentence-level stress which is where you add stress to the important word(s) in a sentence. We normally stress verbs and nouns because they are the important words. For example, you would understand BOUGHT SHOES even without the other words. A good speaker will add major and minor stress so they will say something like this: I bought some shoes. minor major stress A very good student (band 6+) will know how to change stress to give different meaning, like this: I bought some shoes. =He didn’t borrow, steal or sell them I bought some shoes. =Emphasises the speaker and is common where lots of people are speaking. Tip: Focus on transferring meaning by adding minor and major stress.
Intonation - listen to the audio at the bottom of the page
Intonation is another pronunciation skill that is often forgotten about. Although it differs across English, it is best to go down at the end of a sentence for a statement but up at the end for a question. For example: ____________________________________↘ I tend to do all my shopping in the supermarket. __________________ ↗ What do you usually buy? To signal that a sentence isn’t finished you can use them together like this: _________________↘↗ __↘↗ ____ ↘↗ __________________↘ I normally purchase fruit, vegetables, raw meat and cleaning products. Tip: Practise making longer and more complicated sentences using varied stress
Don’t let your pronunciation reduce your band score. It’s not enough just to be understood. You need to use stress and intonation to convey meaning/be properly understaood. That’s where the saying IT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAY, BUT HOW YOU SAY IT comes from. Listen to our huge collection of English native-speaker podcasts. Focus on how the teachers use sentence stress and intonation. Take some sentences that you like and practise copying them.
Practise your Pronunciation - record your voice
Don't be shy - give it a try! You won't improve if you don't practise! Record yourself, leave your name and we will reply with advice to help you improve your English pronunciation and be better understood