Improving your Pronunciation for the IELTS Speaking Test – Part 3

February 20, 2018 by Andrea Castro

Welcome to the third and final part of our blog series on improving your pronunciation for the IELTS Speaking test. In case you missed the previous posts, here they are:

  • Part One focuses on individual sounds, word stress and sentence stress
  • Part Two looks at ‘chunking’ and word linking

In Part 3, we’ll be talking about an aspect of pronunciation that is crucial for effective communication but is often overlooked: intonation.


Before analyzing the different aspects of intonation, let’s take a minute to do a quick exercise. When you’re ready, say the word hello in the following ways:

  1. to your new boss - neutral, polite tone
  2. to your best friend at a party - informal, upbeat tone
  3. answering your phone late at night, unknown number – tired, confused tone
  4. to a 1-month-old baby who’s just woken up – soft, warm tone

Even though you were saying the same word every single time, you may have noticed that the way you said hello changed from context to context. And that’s exactly what happens in real-life English: speakers put emotion and tone into what they say, which adds extra meaning to their words.

So what is intonation exactly? As shown in the previous exercise, intonation focuses on how we say things and not what we say. It is the rise and fall of our voice when we speak. For example, in situation #3 above (answering your phone late at night), your voice likely rose at the end of hello, indicating surprise and even confusion. However, in situation #1 (greeting your new boss), your voice likely fell in an attempt to maintain a more neutral and polite tone.

Inappropriate use of intonation can result in misunderstandings, listeners losing interest, or even people taking offence. Let’s look at a couple of examples of incorrect intonation in the context of an IELTS Speaking interview. Note that the arrows indicate rising (↗) or falling (↘) intonation. Can you spot the mistakes?

Statements tend to have falling intonation. In example 1, the candidate’s first statement has rising intonation, which might give the examiner the impression that the candidate’s not sure about what they’re saying. In example 2, the candidate’s voice falls at the end of the first statement, which is appropriate. However, the candidate then lists the most common jobs in their village, all of which have rising intonation, including the very last one. This, once again, may give the examiner the wrong impression: either the candidate is not sure about IT, or the list is incomplete.

There are predictable patterns that link intonation and grammar that can help you to use appropriate intonation when speaking in English, although keep in mind that these are not fixed rules:

  • Statements: falling intonation
  • Lists: rising, rising, rising, falling intonation
  • Wh-word questions: falling intonation
  • Yes/No questions: rising intonation

In simple terms, we can say that intonation is the music of speech, and music needs movement. In other words, if we don’t use intonation when speaking (also known as speaking with a flat tone), chances are we’ll sound robotic and may even express feelings of boredom or indifference, even if we don’t mean to.

Improving your intonation

English learners often focus so much on finding the right words and using correct grammar that intonation suffers. If you think you might be one of them, don’t worry! There are things that you can do to improve your intonation for your IELTS Speaking test and for your everyday English use:

  • Study and practice the intonation patterns listed above.
  • Find a friend, classmate or co-worker that speaks English fluently and listen to them closely: as you listen, focus on how they use intonation and follow the ‘melody’ in your head. This can help you to become more aware of intonation.
  • Look for authentic listening texts and imitate the speakers’ intonation. You may try this with or without words (just humming).
  • Find listening texts that include an audio script and as you listen to an extract, mark with arrows the rising and falling intonation. Then practice repeating the listening using the intonation you’ve marked.
  • You can also try the same activity in the reverse order: predict the intonation (based on intonation patterns and context) and draw the arrows on the audio script. Then, listen to the extract and check your predictions.

Now that you have a variety of tools to improve all aspects of your pronunciation, it’s time to get to work. Be consistent, work hard but don’t expect perfection. While it's important that you set realistic goals for yourself, make sure you allow yourself to experiment with language and enjoy your journey to success. Good luck!

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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