IELTS speaking – what is Cambridge looking for? Part 4 – Pronunciation.
Hello and welcome back to the final article in this series, looking this time at Pronunciation. If you haven’t read my previous instalment on Grammatical Range and Accuracy, you can find it here.
What does Pronunciation involve?
In terms of the IELTS speaking grading criteria, Pronunciation is perhaps the most difficult for teachers (and students) to grasp. This is because Cambridge’s criteria are not very clear. You can find the full version here, but let’s look at the descriptors for bands 4 – 8:
– uses a limited range of pronunciation features
– attempts to control features but lapses are frequent
– mispronunciations are frequent and cause some difficulty for the listener
– shows all the positive features of Band 4 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 6
– uses a range of pronunciation features with mixed control
– shows some effective use of features but this is not sustained
– can generally be understood throughout, though mispronunciation of individual words or sounds reduces clarity at times
– shows all the positive features of Band 6 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 8
– uses a wide range of pronunciation features
– sustains flexible use of features, with only occasional lapses
– is easy to understand throughout; L1 accent has minimal effect on intelligibility
As you can see, the language used here is very vague. The key word is ‘features’ – but what features do they mean?
Here, the list could become endless so I will only look at the main features that students need to produce well-articulated, fluid, connected speech. To do this, we can categorise the features into segmental (phonemes) and suprasegmental (stress, intonation, linking etc.). Let’s look at a simple sentence:
I get up at eight and go out to work.
Linguistically, this should not be challenging for learners, even at low levels. However, from a pronunciation perspective it is far more difficult. Saying this like a native speaker involves employing a wide range of pronunciation features. Phonetically, this sentence, if spoken casually and at a natural pace, would sound something like this (there may be some variation depending on national or regional accent):
uh gedduppa deidun gowowtuh work – /əˈgedʌpəˈdeɪdənˈgəʊwaʊtəˈwɜ:k/
In order to say this correctly, the student needs to have control of:
Sentence stress and intonation – putting the stress on the correct syllable in each word with falling intonation
Linking – how word boundaries change when joining together certain words in connected speech
Elision – sounds disappearing
Assimilation – sounds changing to make things easier and smoother to pronounce
Weak forms – also known as ‘reduction’, when the pronunciation of certain words becomes shorter and ‘weaker’.
Phonetics – pronouncing the individual sounds of words correctly
How can I get my students to do this?
Let’s look at these features in more detail, and discuss what you can do in class to develop your students’ skills in these areas.
English is a stress timed language. This means that the rhythm of the language follows a regular beat connected to stressed syllables, and the number of stresses in a sentences determines how much time is used to say it. Most other languages are completely syllable timed or fall somewhere between the two. Students first need to be aware of which words are usually stressed – these are what are generally referred to as ‘content’ words. These include nouns, main verbs, adjectives, adverbs, modifiers (like ‘very’, ‘really’, ‘absolutely’, etc.), question words and contractions with ‘not’ (‘don’t’, ‘haven’t’, ‘can’t’. etc.). Getting your students to listen for stressed words, or to identify stresses in sentences or short paragraphs can be helpful. Once they can do this, they need to fully understand stress timing.
To illustrate what we mean by this, let’s look at the two sentences below (the stressed syllables are underlined).
1. I went to the bank and I got out some money.
2. I saw a big, black car.
As you can see, Sentence 1 has eleven words with twelve syllables. Sentence 2 is approximately half the length – six words and six syllables. However, both sentences have four stressed syllables – this means we should take roughly the same amount of time to say each one. Try it for yourself, tapping or clapping a regular beat for each stressed part. This can be a useful exercise to attempt in class, with the students chanting first just the stressed syllables to the beat, then adding the extra syllables within the same meter. For example, with the sample sentence from before:
get eight go work
get eight go work
I get up at eight and go out to work.
Try to get your students using falling intonation on each of the stressed syllables. While this in no way reflects the complexity of effective intonation use, it’s a good general rule for them to follow.
A word of warning though – the problem with teaching sentence stress is that it will be difficult for students to do it effectively without employing other pronunciation features at the same time. Linking, elision, assimilation and weak forms are what make stress timing possible.
Linking occurs in two situations in English. Firstly, when a word ends in a consonant sound and the next word begins with a vowel sound. For example, ‘wake up’ sounds like ‘way cup’. Secondly, when a word ends in a vowel sound and is proceeded by a word beginning with a vowel sound. For instance ‘a few every year’ sounds like ‘a few wevery year’. The intrusive /w/ sound occurs naturally due to the mouth shape formed to say ‘few’ and then ‘every’. In other word combinations, the intrusion may be an /r/ sound (‘law [r]and order’) or a /j/ sound (‘three [y]eggs’).You can raise awareness of these issues through listening practice and extensive drilling of target phrases. In time, students will be able to identify linking in new word combinations, phrases and sentences and start using them naturally themselves.
Here is the linking in our sample sentence:
I ge tu pa teigh tand go wout to work.
This is a common feature of connected speech and describes the way some sounds disappear. This usually happens to make speech more fluid. One example would be in contracted forms of ‘not’, where the final /t/ sound disappears:
‘Didn’t’ sounds like ‘didun’
‘Haven’t’ sounds like ‘havun’
In our sample sentence, the /d/ sound at the end of ‘and’ disappears:
I get up at eight an go out to work.
The only way to deal with this in class is through awareness raising, listening practice and a lot of drilling.
Assimilation is the changing of sounds that again happens to make speech more fluid. This can often happen to /t/ sounds in the middle or at the end of words. For example:
‘I’ve got a bit of a cold’ sounds like ‘I’ve godda biddova cold’.
It can also happen when two similar sounds, one at the end of a word and one at the beginning of the next word, join together to make one sound:
‘Fish sticks’ sounds like ‘fish ticks’.
Sometimes sounds will change to make two words easier to say together:
‘Brown bear’ sounds like ‘browm bear’.
Here’s how this works with the sample sentence:
I ged up ad eighd and go outo work.
Some people may also pronounce ‘up’ as ‘ub’ in this example. As with elision, plenty of awareness raising, listening and copious drilling will get our students doing it right.
Weak forms are formed by reducing the vowel sounds of certain words, most often prepositions. So in naturally-paced speech, ‘to’ becomes ‘tə’ (tuh), ‘of’ becomes ‘əv’ (uhv) or just ‘ə’ (uh) etc. Notice how the vowel sound is always reduced to the schwa (/ə/). Let’s see where this occurs in the sample sentence:
uh get up uht eight uhnd go out tuh work.
You could try doing short dictation exercises, speaking at a natural pace, as students will often miss the weak forms or confuse them for extra syllables of other words. A lot of drilling is also recommended.
There isn’t enough space in this article to go into phonetics in any great detail, but you can help your students out a lot by making them aware of the phonemic chart and how the sounds relate to individual words. There’s a useful chart here for printing, and this website allows you to type phonemic script into worksheets. If you’re new to phonetics or want to give your students something to practice with, try this resource from the BBC.
Overall teaching approach
With such a wide array of features to teach your students, it can be difficult to know where to start. Some teachers prefer a ‘top-down’ approach – basically teaching the features in the same order I’ve presented them here. Others prefer a ‘bottom-up’ approach – starting with individual sounds. Personally, I take an ‘everything all of the time approach’ because I find it difficult to isolate one feature as they are all interdependent. This doesn’t mean you can’t focus on a specific area, but I feel that students benefit from seeing how all of the features work together to produce fluid, connected speech.
What does this look like in practice?
Now that you know what the features are that Cambridge is talking about, what would you give this speaker for pronunciation?
This candidate got a 6 for pronunciation. As you can hear, there are some good examples of stress, linking and assimilation. Her pronunciation of individual words is generally clear, but she has a fairly strong accent with noticeable L1 interference, and her intonation is sometimes unnatural sounding both of which prevent her from getting a 7.
Well, that’s it for this series. I hope this brief introduction to IELTS speaking grading criteria was useful. Leave me a message in the comments if you have any questions, and good luck with your IELTS teaching!