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IELTS Speaking: how to improve my English speaking skills?

You might have spent hours practising your English grammar, expanding your vocabulary, and learning idiomatic expressions. Yet, when you speak, the responses you get are, more often than not, something along the lines of “I’m sorry, but can you repeat yourself?”

For English learners, it can be disheartening when your language abilities are perceived based on the clarity of your speech. If you are taking the IELTS Speaking test, you may also wonder if your unique accent will work to your disadvantage. To answer this and learn how to improve your speaking skills, it’s crucial to first explore what it means to have a 'good' English accent.

What does a good English accent really mean?

When learning English, many individuals try to imitate the accents of native speakers, such as British or Americans. However, in the context of the IELTS Speaking test, there isn't a 'best' or preferred accent. Rather, what matters most is your ability to communicate effectively, which is determined by:

  • The accuracy of your pronunciation of consonants and vowels,

  • Proper intonation,

  • Emphasis on word stress,

  • Suitable speech rhythm.

In other words, you can have a native English accent and still score a Band 5 in IELTS Speaking because you sound unclear. As such, your focus should be on improving the clarity of your speech through strategic practice.

Common pitfalls during the IELTS Speaking test

This often involves moving beyond key aspects like consonants, vowels, intonation, and rhythm and avoiding the following common mistakes non-native speakers make when expressing themselves in English.

1. Pronouncing the "th" sound as 'd'

Every language is characterised by its unique set of sounds. While learning English, you may notice some sounds that might be absent in your mother tongue. As a result, many learners may intuitively replace these unfamiliar English sounds with the nearest equivalent from their native language.

For instance, speakers of Indian languages might pronounce the English "th" sound as "d" or "t," which results in words like "they" sounding like "day", and "thigh" like "tie." Similarly, Mandarin speakers might replace "th" with "s," turning "something" into "some sing."

How you can overcome this is to first understand how these sounds differ. For the "d" sound, the tongue touches the ridge behind the top front teeth. In contrast, your tongue should be placed between the top and bottom teeth when pronouncing the "th" sound.

Once you grasp the difference, you can begin to practise with word pairs like "tie/thigh," "day/they," “those/does (female deer)”, and "sigh/thigh" to improve your English speaking skills for your IELTS Speaking test. A tip here is to record and review your speech to ensure that you are reinforcing the right pronunciation.

2. Shortening sentences

For English learners whose native languages adopt a more concise sentence structure, such as Mandarin, you may tend to omit some words when speaking in English. For example, you may say “Is it?” instead of “Is it true?” or “You walk slow” rather than “You walk slowly”.

While these shortened forms might convey the intended meaning and may be acceptable in casual conversations, they are not grammatically correct. In the context of the IELTS Speaking test, it can also affect your score. Therefore, it is recommended that you familiarise yourself with different word forms and tenses so that speaking in a grammatically correct manner comes more naturally to you.

3. Using fillers excessively

Fillers, such as "uhm," and "so," can be a major obstacle in your IELTS Speaking test. While they seem to buy time for you to think, fillers can clutter your speech when overused. Instead of resorting to fillers, consider pausing briefly, which ensures that your speech still sounds clear and confident.

4. Misusing plural forms

Knowing how to pluralise nouns is often another tricky aspect of English for non-native speakers. While most nouns become plural by simply adding an "s" at the end, there are several exceptions. For instance, the plural of "cactus" is "cacti," not "cactuses." Meanwhile, some words like "ox" change entirely to become "oxen," and certain words like “information” or “furniture” do not exist in plural forms.

These inconsistencies can be confusing and may lead to errors during the IELTS Speaking test if you're not well-versed in them. While there are no shortcuts for improving your skills in pluralising nouns beyond exposing yourself to more English texts, reading up on the plural forms of the irregular nouns (e.g. man-men, foot-feet) is a good starting point. This basic understanding will help you be more aware of the special cases when you come across them.

5. Not pronouncing the full word

For some non-native speakers, you may also subconsciously shorten words like “cast” to “cas” and “hold” to “hole”, which can affect the clarity of your speech. To correct these pronunciation errors, it's helpful to listen to how native English speakers read these terms before you practise.

How to improve your English speaking skills

Fortunately, the modern-day Internet provides a wealth of practice tests and resources that you can use to improve your pronunciation and speak English more accurately.

1. Listen and repeat

01- IELTS: how to improve my English speaking skills? - SEA

Consistent exposure to English through listening is a powerful method to improve your language skills and accent. Regularly hearing English will naturally improve your pronunciation and understanding of different accents, which is also beneficial for the IELTS Listening test. If you’re wondering how to get started, there are many ways to do this:

  • Movies and Videos: Watch films in English that you're already familiar with and use subtitles for support before gradually reducing your reliance on them.

  • Music and Podcasts: Listen to English songs you enjoy, paying close attention to the pronunciation used before practising speaking the word yourself. To get a clearer grasp of the intonation used in everyday conversations, you can try listening to English podcasts.

2. Tongue twisters

Improving your English-speaking skills can also involve some fun and challenging exercises, like tongue twisters. Tongue twisters work by exercising your mouth and tongue muscles via a sequence of similar sounds that force you to focus on articulation, thus helping you become better at reading difficult words. Give it a try and see how quickly you can master these engaging verbal puzzles!

3. Recording yourself

Improving your English pronunciation can greatly benefit from recording yourself. Choose a challenging word, then listen to a native English speaker say it in a video or audio clip before recording yourself repeating it. Once you've recorded yourself, play it back and listen critically for any discrepancies between your pronunciation and that of the native speaker. Pinpoint areas that need improvement and keep practising and recording until you are satisfied with your pronunciation. You can even practise in front of a mirror to observe and adjust the shape of your mouth to match the pronunciation more accurately.

4. Speaking slowly

When you’ve identified the English words that require extra practice, try slowing down your speech. This gives you more time to consciously apply the speaking and pronunciation techniques you've learned. Although it might feel frustrating to speak slower than usual, this will help you remember and articulate correctly over time.

5. Use rhythm, intonation and stress

You may also want to polish your use of rhythm, intonation and stress when you speak. If you’re having trouble and need extra tips on how to improve your English speaking skills in these areas, this guide can help.

Fast track your progress with IDP

IDP offers a wealth of IELTS preparation materials online for free, which you can also access easily by downloading the IELTS by IDP app. Familiarise yourself with the test format and work towards the score you want. When you’re ready, book your IELTS test!