By Tony Rusinak, IELTS Expert
Scoring above Band 6 takes a lot of work. Reading, writing, listening, and speaking all require mastering specific skills to get these higher ratings. When we think about improving our IELTS Speaking Test score, it’s often about increasing vocabulary; using grammar more accurately; and speaking more fluently. Of course, there’s also the importance of pronunciation, like saying words correctly and sounding like a native speaker.
One pronunciation skill that isn’t given much attention during test preparation is stress. We’re not talking about exam stress, being stressed out, or de-stressing on the weekend. These expressions are about feeling worried and feeling anxious, like when you have too much pressure and are too busy.
On another note, the stress we’re talking about is the volume and pitch you use when speaking. Volume is how loud and soft you sound while speaking. Pitch means how high or low your voice is when you say something. Using volume and pitch effectively are key to better communication. As I’ll explain, they’re used to show meaning within individual sounds, across words, across a sentence, or even across a long speech. To get those higher IELTS ratings, you have to understand and use these speaking skills well. Let’s look at three areas: word stress, sentence stress, and intonation.
Word stress means some parts of a word are pronounced louder and longer, while other parts of a word are not. Using word stress incorrectly can affect your accent and even affect word meaning. Think about REcord and r’CORD. REcord is the verb, such as “I need to REcord my online meeting.” On the other hand, r’CORD is a noun. This is a document that files information. For example, “She saved her immigration r’CORDS on her laptop.”. Other aspects of word stress help us say words more clearly. For example, it is unusual to say hamBURger, but normal to say HAMburger. Native speakers don’t say fishING, hiKING, and runNING. They say FISHing, HIking, and RUNning. Although most English speakers will understand unusual use of word stress, if you want to speak clearly and like a native speaker, this needs to be accurate.
The second type of stress I’d like to tell you about is sentence stress. This is about how we emphasize different words in a sentence to make it more meaningful. Saying some words in a sentence louder and longer can completely change the meaning. Here’s a simple example sentence: “I love apple pie.”. If we say “I LOVE apple pie.”, this means that you don’t hate apple pie. It puts all the emphasis on the word love. If we say “I love APPLE pie.”, this means that apple is the favourite, not blueberry, not cherry, and not coconut cream. As a final example, if we say “I love apple PIE.”, this shows that you really like pie for apples, probably more than apple sauce, apple jam, and apple juice. So, when you are speaking and need to bring attention to one specific part, remember to say that word louder and longer than the other words in the sentence. And here’s a bonus tip, when you’re doing the listening test, listen to the speaker use sentence stress. You’ll notice the most important information is spoken louder and longer.
The third type of stress we can explore is intonation. This is the sound across the whole sentence. For simplicity, we can divide intonation into two types: rising intonation and falling intonation. Rising intonation is when the speaker’s voice is higher at the end of a sentence. Think of it as singing from a normal voice to a high note. For falling intonation, this is when the speakers voice lowers and gets deeper at the end. As we saw with the other kinds of stress, intonation can make the same sentence have different meanings.
When we use rising intonation, it tells the listener a few things. It often means the speaker is unsure of something or is asking a question. For example, “You’re going to school today [rising intonation].” sounds like a question. The listener would probably respond “Yes, I am.”.
On the other hand, if you say, “You’re going to school today [falling intonation].”, this means the speaker is sure of the idea. The falling intonation tells the listener you are confident, and that you are stating a fact. So, if you want to sound strong, sure, and confident, use falling intonation across sentences.
In this blog we learned about three ways to use stress when you speak - word stress, sentence stress, and intonation. It takes a lot of practice to master these advanced speaking skills of English. Using stress well improves not only your ability to communicate, but also your IELTS score. So, keep up the hard work, and best of luck on test day!