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What 'Pronunciation' Means on the IELTS Speaking Test

What 'Pronunciation' Means on the IELTS Speaking Test

Pronunciation counts for 25% of your score on the IELTS Speaking test. But did you know that by “pronunciation,” IELTS doesn’t mean accent?

In this article we'll find out what IELTS examiners actually look for when they grade your pronunciation and learn our top tips for scoring well in this category.

For tips on improving your score in other categories, check out our posts on lexical resource, grammatical range and accuracy, and fluency and coherence.

What IELTS means by “pronunciation”


The IELTS Speaking test is a measure of how well you communicate in English. So examiners mainly focus on “intelligibility.” This means whether you can be understood.

Intelligibility is so important that IELTS’ public scoring guide mentions it at every band score in the pronunciation category. “Band scores” are what IELTS calls different scores or levels. 1 is the lowest band score and 9 is the highest.

A band score of 2 means that you’re often hard to understand, a band score of 9 means you’re super easy to understand, and the bands in between represent different levels of intelligibility.

Band scoreWhat IELTS saysWhat IELTS means
2“speech is often unintelligible”The examiner can’t understand a lot of what you’re saying.
4“mispronunciations are frequent and cause some difficultyfor the listener”You pronounce words and sounds incorrectly and this makes it hard for the examiner to understand you.
6“can generally be understood throughout, thoughmispronunciation of individual words or sounds reducesclarity at times”The examiner can understand most of what you’re saying, but you still pronounce some words or sounds incorrectly which affects the examiner’s ability to understand you.
8“is easy to understand throughout; L1 accent has minimaleffect on intelligibility”Your pronunciation is easy to understand. Your accent does not really affect the examiner’s ability to understand you.
9“Is effortless to understand”Your pronunciation is so easy to understand, the examiner can understand you without trying.

Pronunciation features

Examiners also pay attention to “pronunciation features.” Pronunciation features are like tools in your pronunciation toolkit. The more tools you have – and the better you are at using them – the higher you will score in pronunciation.

For example:

  • Do you pause when it makes sense, such as at the end of a sentence or clause?
  • Do you stress the most important words in a sentence? 
  • Do you let your pitch rise and fall naturally? (For example, does your pitch fall at the end of your response to show that you are done talking?)
  • Do you pronounce your vowel and consonant sounds properly?

If so, you’ll do well in this category! On the other hand, if you pause randomly, stress every word equally, have inconsistent pitch and confuse basic sounds, you will be hard to understand and won’t do as well.

To get a clearer idea of what your examiner will look for, check out what IELTS’ public scoring guide says about pronunciation features at different band scores.

Band scoreWhat IELTS saysWhat IELTS means
4“uses a limited range of pronunciation features” and “attempts to control features but lapses are frequent”You use some pronunciation features but not many, and you make many mistakes when you use them.
6“uses a range of pronunciation features with mixed control” and “shows some effective use of features but this is notsustained”
You use a lot of pronunciation features and are able to use them for different purposes, but you make some mistakes or do not use them consistently.
8“uses a wide range of pronunciation features” and “sustains flexible use of features, with only occasionallapses”You are comfortable using a lot of pronunciation features and make very few mistakes.
9“uses a full range of pronunciation features with precision and subtlety” and “sustains flexible use of features throughout”You are comfortable using most (or all) pronunciation features. You use them at the right time and in a natural-sounding way.

What IELTS doesn’t mean by “pronunciation”: accent

IELTS doesn't really care if you have an accent. In fact, the public scoring guide mentions accent only once.

Band scoreWhat IELTS saysWhat IELTS means
8“L1 accent has minimaleffect on intelligibility”Your accent does not really affect the examiner’s ability to understand you.

As IELTS explains:

Everyone speaks English with an accent. For example, … an Australian, Irish or American person … all speak English perfectly, but with different accents. IELTS examiners … assess your spoken English and not your accent. They are always prepared to hear an extensive range of accents. 

Is my accent hurting my IELTS score? | IELTS

In other words:

  • Examiners assume you will have an accent.
  • Your accent won’t stop you from getting a good band score.
  • You won’t be rewarded for speaking with a certain accent, such as an American or British accent. IELTS is an international exam, so all accents are equally acceptable. 

Your accent is only a problem if it is so strong that the examiner cannot understand you. But even then, the root of the problem wouldn’t be your accent; it would be all the pronunciation features you’re missing.

How to get a good score

Now that we know what examiners look for, let’s maximize your IELTS score! Check out the tips below to get a higher score in the pronunciation category.

Tip #1: Work on sounds that you struggle with

Preparing for IELTS is a great opportunity to work on any sounds you have trouble making in English. So make a list of sounds you struggle with, and practice making them until you are confident that you can pronounce them clearly. 

Here are some free resources to help you do that:

For sounds that you particularly struggle with, try some “minimal pair” exercises. In a minimal pair exercise, you practice saying and listening to pairs of words (e.g. “pat” and “bat”) that sound almost the same except for one sound.

Here’s an example of a minimal pair exercise that helps you practice differentiating between the vowel sounds in “fit” and “feet”:

Minimal pair exercises can improve your pronunciation by forcing you to distinguish between two similar sounds. You can find a minimal pair exercise at the beginning of all our IELTS lessons.

Tip #2: Work on words that you struggle with

Now, work on correctly pronouncing words. Every day, write down words that you mispronounce or have trouble pronouncing. Then, practice pronouncing them and pay attention to the following two things.

  1. Are you stressing the right syllable? Also keep in mind that the syllable that’s stressed sometimes changes with the form of the word. An example is “geOgraphy” vs. “geogrAphic.”
  2. Are you skipping sounds? For example, if the word is “name,” make sure you’re pronouncing the M sound at the end and not skipping it by accident.

Here are some free resources to help you check how words are pronounced.

  1. The Cambridge Dictionary has recordings of words pronounced in both American and British English. 
  2. If you want to hear how native English speakers pronounce a word in real life, search for it in Youglish. It’ll find Youtube videos of people saying the word in American, British and Australian English.

Since you will not always know you’re mispronouncing a word, you should get help from a real person. We recommend booking a lesson with one of our professional English tutors – we have 10,000+ tutors available 24/7 to help you with your English!

Tip #3: Focus on groups of words

Next, make sure you pay attention to meaningful groups of words. When you write, you do this by putting commas in the right places. For example, take a look at the following sentences.

Let’s eat mom and dad!
Let’s eat, mom and dad!

As you can see, the sentence with the comma is a lot clearer. In the sentence without the comma, it’s not clear if you’re inviting people to eat your parents or if you’re inviting your parents to eat. 

The comma breaks the sentence into meaningful groups of words and makes it easier for the reader to understand you. Similarly, when we speak, it’s helpful for the listener if we pause at the right places to break our thoughts into meaningful groups of words.

So when you take the IELTS Speaking test, pay attention to where you pause. Also pay attention to which word you stress within each group of words. Take a look at the following sentence and think about where you would pause and which words you would stress.

My name is Claire. I come from France and I'm learning English to get a job in tourism.

In English, you will be a lot easier to understand if you stress the keywords in each group of words. Usually these are the nouns.

  • My name is CLAIRE.
  • I come from FRANCE.
  • And I’m learning ENGLISH.
  • To get a job in TOURISM.

Remember to stress the most important word the most. This will depend on what you want to focus on. For example:

  • If someone asks you “What language are you learning to get a job?”, you would stress the word “English” more than “job”: “I’m learning ENGLISH to get a job.”
  • If you’re asked “Why are you learning English?”, you would stress the word “job” more: “I’m learning English to get a JOB.”

If you stress every word equally or don’t stress any words at all, your examiner will need to try harder to understand you and that will affect your score.

To improve your pronunciation of groups of words, we recommend reading things aloud. For example, our IELTS lessons include sample dialogues. You can read the lines aloud and ask your tutor to give you feedback on whether you’re pausing at the right places and stressing the right words.

Tip #4: Pay attention to rhythm

Every language has its own rhythm. Some languages like Spanish and Chinese have a very steady rhythm and each syllable is pronounced with the same length. However, if you speak like this in English, you will be hard to understand. 

For example, here’s what the sentence “I’m learning English to get a job in tourism” would sound like if you read every syllable with equal length: “I’m. lear. ning. Eng. lish. to. get. a. job. in. tou. rism.”

You’d probably sound like a robot if you spoke like this! That’s because not all syllables are the same length in English. Some are longer and some are shorter. 

In addition, the short syllables are pronounced more quickly because they’re not as important. For example, a native speaker might pronounce the tourism sentence like this: “I’mlearning ENG lishtogeta JOBin TOUrism.” Notice the less important syllables get smushed together.

Often, the pronunciation of the short syllables also changes. That’s why the phrase “fish and chips” is usually spelled “fish ‘n’ chips.” In this phrase, the word “and” is less important so people weaken their pronunciation of it.

To improve your rhythm in English, you can listen to English music and pay attention to which syllables get stressed. You can also listen to English podcasts or watch videos and try to copy the speaker’s rhythm.

When you read something aloud, you can also cross out or put parentheses around less important syllables: e.g. “(I’m learning) Eng(lish to get a) job (in) tour(ism).” This will remind you to focus less on the less important syllables.

Bonus tip: Take an IELTS Speaking course designed by an IELTS examiner

As a bonus tip, we recommend you take a course that was made by someone who is actually an IELTS examiner.

At Engoo, our own IELTS Speaking course was made by an examiner with over 15 years of experience teaching IELTS. To learn more, read this introduction to the course or check it out yourself!

Make sure to take this course with a professional English tutor. Many Engoo tutors have experience teaching or taking the IELTS themselves. You can find them by typing "IELTS" in the search bar. Good luck!