Pronunciation and Word Stress: Why It’s Important on the Speaking Exam

October 6, 2017 by Tony Rusinak Tony Rusinak

The 14 minute speaking exam is no time to be a robot. During this exam, your head may be running wild with a million ideas on how to ace the test. But you have to be natural. You have to speak like a human. In the speaking module, you’ll be graded on four different categories of spoken language. You’ll be scored according to the public bands, they are fluency and coherence, lexical resource, grammatical range and accuracy, and pronunciation. Each of these four categories is worth the same value on your speaking exam at 25%. The fluency category refers to how smooth and easily you speak. The lexical criteria are all about vocabulary. Grammatical range and accuracy, you can guess that one! And finally, pronunciation. This is a tricky one. How can we be graded on the way we sound? Everyone sounds different, and as long as you communicate well, it should be ok, right? Well… no. Communicative ability is part of your pronunciation score, but another part is word stress.

So, are you stressed out yet (pun intended)? Well, I hope you aren’t. We aren’t talking about the stress that makes you feel nervous, afraid, and gives you a headache. We’re talking about how loudly or softly each sound, or each syllable, is said. For example, we can compare two similar words that have different meanings because of stress. DĖSert and desSĖRT are good examples. If these words are spoken flatly, with no volume change on both syllables, they will sound the same. However, changing the stress changes the meaning. DĖSert means the place with no water, no plants, and lots of sand. While desSĖRT means the sweet and delicious food we have after a meal, like cake or ice cream.

Along with changing the meaning of a word, stress changes can also change the part of speech. Have a look at some other examples in the table below. Try saying the words aloud. See if you can figure out the differences in meaning based on their stress:

  RĖcord – a verb meaning to copy something  r’CȮRD – a noun meaning document
  CȮNtent – a noun meaning things within something  c’nTĖNT – adjective meaning to be happy or pleased

  DĖCRĖASE - A noun meaning reduction

  DĖcrease – verb meaning become smaller
  ĖXport – a noun meaning a good that is exported  exPȮRT a verb meaning to sell goods to another country

Now we just talked about the importance of using stress in individual words. We talked about how it can change the meaning word form. And yes, you’ll need to be accurate with this if you want to score above a six on your pronunciation. Another important part of stress is the big picture stress, a.k.a sentence stress. This is the overall rhythm of your speech. It is the music of your language. Sentence stress is how all the words fit together as a group. In sentence stress, key words are often spoken louder while structure words are spoken softly. For example, if your friend says, “I’m gonna go t’ tha SHOP tomorrow.”, the word ‘shop’ is the most important word. So, when she says this, she will pronounce the word ‘shop’ louder and clearer. Let’s have a look at some more examples and see how it effects the meaning.

  Spoken Sentence   Meaning
  ZHANG’s going to ace the IELTS test in Tokyo. The focus is on Zhang, so this means that the subject of the sentence, and not someone else, will do well on the test.

  Zhang’s going to ACE the IELTS test in Tokyo.

 Zhang will do very well on the test and not do poorly.
  Zhang’s going to ace the IELTS TEST in Tokyo.

Zhang is going to do well on the IELTS test specifically, and not some other test.

  Zhang’s going to ace the IELTS test in TOKYO.

Here the focus is on Tokyo and means that other tests in other cities Zhang may not do well on.

So as you can see, and hopefully hear and say too, both the syllable stress in individual words and in sentences can change the meaning and effectiveness of how well you speak. So how can you improve? A common technique in language learning is to practice your English in chunks. This means not just learning one word at a time, but rather learning groups of words at a time. So, for example, learn and practice the phrase ‘She’s going to grate parmesan’ and not the individual words of grate and parmesan. Rather than learning just the word ‘rink’, practice the phrase ‘Meet me at the rink’. When you’re practicing, focus on saying those new key words louder and clearer than the rest of the sentence. This will help improve both your vocabulary, grammar, listening and sentence stress skills.

Now that we’ve had our chat about spoken stress, let’s talk about the other stress. One of our IELTS Practice Tests had the topic of mental stress, lol! So, are you stressed now? Well, I hope you are! (In a good way though!)

Follow-up task: Practice these new words by learning the phrase, not just the word. Say it aloud and emphasize the key word.

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