Improving your Pronunciation for the IELTS Speaking Test – Part 1

November 23, 2017 by Andrea Castro

Do you want to improve your pronunciation for the IELTS Speaking test? Well, you’ve come to the right place. As you may already know, pronunciation is one of four criteria on which you will be tested and it focuses on the accuracy and variety of pronunciation features. In this post, we’ll talk about three very important aspects of English pronunciation: individual sounds, word stress and sentence stress. Most importantly, we will look at different things that you can do to improve in these areas for the big day.

Have you ever struggled with the pronunciation of specific sounds in English and wondered why this is? The answer is (in part) the contrast between your first language and the English language. As an English learner you naturally use the sounds you already know from your first language. So when a specific sound does not exist in your first language, or when it’s used differently, it’s no surprise that you may find those particular sounds challenging.

 Improving your pronunciation of individual sounds

To improve your pronunciation of individual sounds, it's important that you identify the sounds you have difficulties with and focus on the sounds that you have to produce to sound more natural in English. You can use interactive pronunciation charts and online dictionaries to find a model for those sounds, and try to picture what the different parts of your mouth and tongue are doing when you make them. Practice repeating the sounds over and over, before putting them into words or sentences.

Word stress

 When we talk about stress in English pronunciation, we’re talking about the emphasis that we give to certain syllables in a word, or to certain words in a sentence. Stressed syllables are louder than non-stressed syllables, and can also be longer and have a higher pitch. To communicate clearly in everyday English and on your IELTS Speaking test, it’s important to use stress accurately. Mistakes in word stress can cause significant communication problems because stressing the wrong syllable can make the word difficult to understand or can change the meaning of the word.

Improving your word stress

There are patterns for word stress in English that can help you to use word stress more accurately, but keep in mind that these are not fixed rules:

Type of word Pattern Examples Some exceptions
two-syllable nouns and adjectives stress on the first syllable



words that can be used as both nouns and verbs

noun: stress on the first syllable
verb: stress on the second syllable



compound nouns stress on the first part



You can also observe patterns when analyzing word families such as the following:


real reality realize realization
stable stability stabilize stabilization
legal legality legalize legalization

While preparing for IELTS, you are likely to come across a variety of new vocabulary. Just as you use dictionaries to check the meaning of words you don’t know, you can also use it to check word stress. Dictionaries usually show stress with a mark before the stressed syllable (e.g. 'table). It's a good idea to keep a vocabulary notebook where you can record new words you’ve learned and mark the stress for each one of those words.

Sentence stress

Many English learners find it difficult to use sentence stress efficiently. This is because English is what we call a stress-timed language, and most other languages are not. When we speak English, stress happens at more or less regular times throughout a sentence. This means that we put stress on certain important kinds of words and not every syllable takes the same amount of time to say. Words with a lot of meaning, like nouns, adjectives, and main verbs are usually stressed. Grammatical words, like articles, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs, are usually not stressed.

Sentence stress can also help you to communicate meaning. For example, try saying the sentences below and stress the word in bold. Does the meaning change from sentence to sentence?

 She called you yesterday.      

She called you yesterday.      

She called you yesterday.

She called you yesterday.

If you answered ‘yes’ to the previous question, you are correct. The meaning of each sentence changes because of the way we use sentence stress to emphasize different words. Not using sentence stress correctly can make you sound unnatural and can even lead to your message being unclear, which can stop you from achieving a higher band score on your IELTS Speaking test.

Improving your sentence stress

The best way to become more aware of stress-time in English is through listening to a variety of authentic English sources. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Look for listening texts that include a tapescript and as you listen to an extract, mark on the tapescript the words that are stressed.

  • Try the activity it in the reverse order: predict which words you think are stressed and mark them on the tapescript. Play the recording and check your predictions.

  • Use the tapescript to record yourself speaking and then compare your version to the original one. Record yourself again and again until you sound as close as possible to the original speaker.

Keep checking our blog for Part 2 on improving pronunciation for your IELTS Speaking test!

Andrea is an experienced English teacher who has worked since 2009 in Costa Rica, Dubai and now Canada. When not working for IELTS, she spends her time with her little girl and her two canine siblings.

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