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Practising speaking at home There are ways outside your IELTS classroom to develop your speaking abilities and confidence

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


A student sent me this query about IELTS (International English Language Testing System):

“I cannot go to IELTS preparation classes because I often work in the evenings and sometimes on the weekends. How can I develop my speaking skills at home, by myself? Where can I get some practice speaking test questions? How can I improve my pronunciation and fluency?”


Here’s my reply:

You’ll need to do as much speaking practice as you can, and do it well before your exam date. Speak all the time, and speak about different things – yourself, your country, your ideas and opinions. This will make your English more natural and prepare you for any surprises in the speaking test.

If you don’t practise speaking a lot, with or without errors, you’ll never make any real progress towards developing your speaking skills. The more often you speak, the easier it becomes. If you make every effort to use English as much as possible, you’ll soon notice improvement.

Ideally, any practice should be done with a native English speaker who can give advice about how to improve your vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. It helps greatly if the person knows the specific requirements of the IELTS speaking test.

However, don’t worry if you can’t talk with a native speaker. You can also practise speaking on your own. Even though there’s no response, talking to yourself still gives you the opportunity to try different ways of saying things, which will increase your confidence.

Speaking on your own also helps you identify the weaknesses in your vocabulary and grammar. This then allows you to learn new words and grammatical structures in a focused way.

Here are some activities you can do by yourself:

  • Tell yourself what you see around you and what’s happening in the street when you travel somewhere.

  • In the morning, tell yourself what you think will happen during the day. Then, at night, tell yourself what actually happened.

  • Tell yourself what you need, and why, as you walk around the supermarket.

  • Read a short newspaper or internet article on any topic, and give a short summary of its main ideas.

As for practice IELTS speaking material, the “Writefix” website has material for Parts 1, 2 and 3. The example questions change every time you reload the page. Visit http://tinyurl.com/3btop7 .

You can also hear samples of the three parts of a real speaking test if you visit the IELTS website. Go to http://tinyurl.com/25wvnds .

Improving pronunciation

Pronunciation is about getting the sounds of English right. Of course, it’s also about getting the intonation and the rhythm right – it’s not just individual sounds, it’s “pushing” them all together.

The most important way to improve pronunciation is through listening. Often, learners of a language will try to pronounce things correctly before they can really hear what the differences in sounds are.

One way to develop your ability to hear those differences is to record about 30 seconds of a radio or television programme (e.g., the news). Then, repeat it, comparing how you’ve said it with the way it was originally spoken on the radio or television.

Do this again and again. It’s a slow process, and you may need to repeat the more difficult sounds many times before you get them right.

Learning how to link words can be especially difficult when you’re doing pronunciation practice. When a word ends in a
consonant sound and the next word starts with a vowel sound, the words link together. The ending consonant of the first word “jumps over” to the next word. For example, “She works in an old office” is pronounced as if it were written as just two words: “She work-si-na-nol-doffice.”

The linking of words – which is also known as “connected speech” – creates one of the trickiest problems when listening to English. A basic listening skill is being able to pick out words, and being able to understand where words start and finish. The way English links sounds together makes this difficult.

Fortunately, as you improve your pronunciation, your listening comprehension will improve. Once you learn to make distinctions between the pronunciation of similar sounds, or to link words together, you’ll automatically understand spoken English more easily.

For an excellent set of downloadable worksheets and practice material on connected speech, visit the “BBC Learning English” website at http://tinyurl.com/d3s5l4 .

Improving fluency

Essentially, fluency is about saying things easily. People are said to speak fluently if they can speak smoothly and continuously with little or no pausing (or breaks), repetition and corrections when speaking.

Fluency is concerned much more with psychological factors than whether you can get your tongue around individual sounds. To be fluent, you need to be confident with English vocabulary and how to put the words together in a grammatically correct way.

In other words, fluency is being confident in your ability to express yourself in English. To significantly improve your confidence and so your fluency, you may need to do much work on improving your vocabulary and grammar.

Here’s a way to improve your fluency using Part 2 (the two-minute talk) speaking material:

  • Get an MP3 player or cassette recorder, prepare a topic for one minute and then record yourself giving a full, two-minute talk.

  • When you’ve finished, listen to the recording. How fluent did you sound? Can you identify vocabulary or grammar errors? How can they be fixed?

  • Next, repeat the same two minute talk. This time, try to force yourself to keep speaking without stopping, correcting or repeating words.

  • Listen to your repeated talk. Note the changes you made and the improvements in your speech.

  • Do the talk and the analysis a third time. Don’t do it more often, or you’ll start memorising your talk!

The more you record yourself, the more confident, fluent and natural sounding you’ll become. You’ll find you’ll be able to add more details, too.

One of my students greatly improved his speaking skills using this method. He also pretended to be an examiner and asked himself Part 1 and Part 3 questions aloud, which he then replied to as a candidate. He recorded his Part 1 and Part 3 questions and answers, and later identified errors in grammar and word choice.

While doing Part 3 practice, he also added follow-on questions that were based on his replies. Asking follow-on questions during Part 3 practice is an excellent way of learning to think like an examiner. Because you’ll become better at anticipating an examiner’s questions, you’ll start to give extra information in Part 3 without being asked.

Also, as your answers become longer and more detailed, you improve your chances of higher scores for fluency and coherence, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

Finally, while you’re speaking, don’t think about the individual sounds and getting those right. Instead, think about meaningful groups of words, and getting those groups of words out as quickly and smoothly as you can.

This article was written by David Park, a highly experienced IELTS teacher. Ajarn David teaches at Paradigm Language Institute.

If you have any questions about IELTS that you would like Ajarn David to answer,
or if you wish to do an IELTS preparation course, write to:
IELTS-training@paradigm-language.com.

IELTS is owned by Cambridge ESOL, the British Council and IELTS Australia.
 

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