Here you are, in the speaking part of the IELTS test. You’ve just completed part one and you think it went well. Here comes part two. The nerves creep in. The examiner asks you to speak for two minutes about …
The spot light is firmly fixed on you. You’ve got to come up with the content of your answer within a few seconds and then you’ve got to speak coherently and fluently for two whole minutes.
Ryan has invited me here to share with you the three essential techniques for sounding fluent when you speak in part two of the test.
I’m Ashley Howard. I am a professional voice coach. I have an MA in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, I’ve been coaching for over 12 years and I’m the author of The Complete English Pronunciation Roadmap that guides non-native speakers to speaking English with more clarity and confidence.
Technique #1 Think In Chunks
This is part of a transcript of a real candidate that performed very well in this part of the exam:
“Recently, I took a coach from Toronto to Montreal to visit my brother. It is a journey that normally takes about 5 hours, but this bus company stops halfway for a 30 minute break.”
When we listen to someone speaking (in any language) we are always asking ourselves, ‘what’s the most important information?’. This might vary for a number of reasons, but some speakers help the listener and some don’t. In the exam, you need to help the examiner!
In English, one of the ways we do this is by dividing up our sentences into sections (chunks) that contain one of those important bits of information. For example:
“Recently / I took a coach / from Toronto / to Montreal / to visit my brother. / It is a journey that normally takes / about 5 hours, / but this bus company / stops halfway / for a 30 minute break.”
Now it is not just the highlighted words that are vital in helping the examiner follow your story but the forward-slashes that segment those important words. In my world, this combo is called tonic syllables and tone units (feel free to google it) but I prefer to call it ‘chunking’.
Try speaking the example aloud: emphasise the highlighted words and add a slight pause at every forward-slash (sometimes it might just be a split-second, other times it might feel more appropriate for it to be a second or two).
Depending on your first language, this will most likely feel very different to the way you usually speak, but to a native speaker (and more importantly your examiner), it’ll make you sound super fluent because you’ll be indicating the important words but also giving them the space to digest what you are saying.
Technique #2 Tell A Story
If you think about it, everything we say is storytelling. Right now, I’m telling you the story about how telling a story will help you in the speaking test. Just a moment ago I was telling you the story about ‘chunking’. Whether it’s fact or fiction, formal or informal, serious or silly, everything is a story.
There are many things I could say on the role of storytelling in helping you sound more fluent, but the most essential is to recognise that you are like a tour guide. The best tour guides know where to start and where to finish. They know exactly what to point out on the journey. And they know when enough is enough and when to say more.
So, how well are you guiding the examiner with your voice? Are you indicating when there is an important ‘landmark’ coming up in your story? Are you indicating where they are on the journey: beginning, middle or end?
All of these things are to do with the way we use our voice: essentially, intonation. Are we changing the pitch of our voice at the right moments?
Try this: speak this next section of the transcript above, and on the highlighted words, change the pitch of your voice to a slightly higher note:
“I chose / to travel by public transportation / because I don’t / like driving / long distances. / When I travel via bus, / I can read / or work / on my computer / or sleep. / I find this helps me arrive relaxed. / In fact, / I often opt for the public transportation option / if I can.”
So from the previous section, the examiner knows that the speaker is travelling by coach. And if you changed the pitch/intonation of the highlighted words above, then this is the story they will have heard: chose, public, don’t, driving, distances, bus, read, work, computer, sleep, relaxed, often, can. They will have got the story and marked you as fluent.
Technique #3 Keep The Frontal Lobes Functioning
The frontal lobes are the parts of the brain that come in really handy when we want to communicate. They control language, emotional expressions, memory, judgement and problem solving. All of these would be useful to have in the speaking test. But under stress (the kind you might be feeling in the exam), they are prone to shutting down because what’s called the autonomic nervous system thinks it is a life or death situation. Did you know that one of the things that is under conscious control that can keep your frontal lobes functioning is breathing?
Now, whilst you won’t stop breathing in the test, you might not be taking every opportunity you can. It is these missed opportunities which can stop you from thinking at your best.
And ‘chunking’ can help you with this too! Note – I’m NOT suggesting that you breath at every forward-slash, but instead of trying to breath only at the end of a thought, maybe you could take a few breaths on the journey. Try it with this:
“ (BREATHE) The price, however, / was a little steep. / (BREATHE) I think I paid $110 / for a return ticket, / (BREATHE) which, to me, / is quite expensive. / (BREATHE) I suppose it would have been cheaper to drive, / (BREATHE) but I feel arriving fresh / is money well spent. / (BREATHE) So, on the whole, / the entire experience was a positive one. / (BREATHE) I would highly recommend it / to anyone.”
So, tell your story by modulating the pitch of your voice, chunk your sentences into bite sized pieces with one important piece of information, and be sure to breathe more regularly.
If you want help with this or any other aspect of pronunciation or intonation in English, Ashley offers one-to-one coaching online which you can find out about here or you can learn more about all of these techniques and anything else you want to learn about speaking English clearly and confidently in his 324 page comprehensive ebook which comes with 12hrs of audio to help you practice. Just click here.