Learn how to improve English pronunciation and accent effortlessly with tips and techniques from our IELTS experts.
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What is the difference between ‘accent’ and ‘pronunciation’? And how are they marked in English speaking tests?
‘Accent' refers to the way a person speaks a language. Your accent varies based on certain factors, such as your native language(s), the place you were born, and where you learned English. However, 'pronunciation' refers to the way the individual sounds and words are spoken in a language. It's the overall way that words are spoken with no connection to geographical location.
Your accent is NOT marked in most official English speaking tests, however, your pronunciation is. Let’s look at some examples of what this actually means.
Let’s imagine that you pronounce the words ‘sit’ and ‘seat’ in the same way during an IELTS speaking test, and it confuses the examiner. This will have an effect on your IELTS band score. However, imagine that you pronounce the sound /t/ by touching your teeth instead of your alveolar ridge (the hard part at the top of your mouth, behind your teeth), but the examiner understands you perfectly. This will not affect your band score.
Clear pronunciation is essential to score well in an English test. Your answers can contain the most impressive vocabulary and grammatical structures, but if your examiner can’t understand you, then you’re at risk of getting a lower score than you deserve. So, let’s look at six tips to help you improve your English pronunciation and get the best band score you can in an English speaking test.
1. Analyse your speech
Let’s start by identifying any areas of your pronunciation that you need to focus on. You can do this by following these steps:
- Find a video of someone whose way of speaking/accent you like (I usually recommend the Vogue interviews on YouTube, like this one with Emma Watson).
- After finding a video, open a recording app on your phone or computer.
- Play one line from the video, pause, then repeat the line as closely as you can to the original video. Play the next line of the video, pause, and repeat again. Do this for at least a minute.
- When you have recorded at least a minute, stop the recording and listen back to it. Compare your pronunciation to the person’s in the original video. Pay close attention to the individual sounds, rhythm, pace, stress, and intonation and make a note of any mistakes or problems you have (e.g. ‘instead of saying /ð/ I say /d/’).
- You now have a list of things that you can start to focus on, which will help you improve your English pronunciation and track your progress much more easily.
2. Minimal pairs
Minimal pairs are essentially two words where only one sound differs. They’re great if you confuse similar words and sounds!
An example of a minimal pair is ‘southern’ /ˈsʌð.ən/ and ‘sudden’ /ˈsʌd.ən/. They have very different spellings, but the only sounds that change are /ð/ and /d/.
One of the best websites for minimal pairs is English Club.
3. Tongue twisters
Would you like to make pronunciation practice more fun? Tongue twisters are a fun solution for how to improve your English pronunciation.
There are some great tongue twisters which focus on very specific sounds. Take a look at these below and give them a go. You can also find a lot of videos on YouTube if you want to listen to how they’re pronounced or practise more of them.
/s/ and /ʃ/
She sells seashells by the seashore.
/iː/ and /ɪ/
I slit a sheet, a sheet, I slit.
4. Word stress
When learning new words, remember to focus on where the emphasis (the stress) is placed and not just the individual sounds. In dictionaries, the stress will be shown as a little ˈ mark.
- APPle /ˈæp.əl/
- emBRACE /ɪmˈbreɪs/
- fanTAStic /fænˈtæs.tɪk/
In some two-syllable words, you can change the meaning of the word by moving the stress.
- REcord (noun) and reCORD (verb).
- OBject (noun) and obJECT (verb).
To learn more about the rules for word stress, watch this video. Just keep in mind that there are also many exceptions to these rules.
5. Sentence stress
Wondering how to improve your English pronunciation with sentence stress? Well, when listening to rapid speech, you may notice that some words are pronounced very clearly, while other words are much weaker, quicker, and connect to other words. This is because English is a stress timed language. This means that certain syllables are pronounced with more emphasis (stress), while others are pronounced much weaker and quicker.
For example, in the sentence ‘I want to go to the cinema’ the important words are ‘want’, ‘go’ and ‘cinema’, so these words should be stressed and the rest of the words are very quick and weak.
To learn more about sentence stress, here is a detailed video where you can learn about strong and weak forms of words and practise using sentence stress.
6. Shadowing and recording
Shadowing is a technique used by actors where you listen very closely to a model (e.g. a recording or video) and try to imitate their speech. There are two different ways that you can shadow.
- Method 1: Listen to a model, pause, then imitate.
- Method 2: Listen to a model and imitate at the same time without pausing.
Method 1 is great if you want to take your time and analyse the pronunciation more deeply, while Method 2 is perfect if you have less time, wish to focus on improving your pace, or you’re on the go (walking around) and cannot pause the audio.
If you’re wondering how to improve your English pronunciation, the most effective method will be the one you are more comfortable with.
Here is a useful list of resources that you can use for shadowing:
What more can you do to prepare for an English speaking test?
Check these self-study lessons on our LearnEnglish website to practise your speaking skills. The more you practise the more you’ll improve your English pronunciation and be well on your way to speaking clearly and confidently in your speaking test!
If you’re looking to boost your IELTS score and feel more prepared for test day, Make sure you sign up to our IELTS Ready free preparation resources and sign up to our free weekly preparation webinars.