Exam preparation

Six Ways to Improve Your English Pronunciation (Part 1)

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What’s your biggest worry when setting out to learn a new language? Perhaps mastering grammar or widening your vocabulary?

 

For most learners, it never crosses their mind that pronunciation can be a key element in success.

 

No matter how accurate or fluent your English is, bad pronunciation can seriously weaken your ability to communicate successfully. After all, if you mispronounce a word, it can change the meaning of what you were trying to say entirely!

 

In this series, we’ll talk about six key pronunciation features that you can help you improve.

 

  1. Individual sounds

Did you know that the pronunciation of each word in English is a combination of short individual sounds called phonemes? Pronouncing these individual sounds accurately is half the battle. A good place to start would be the phonemic chart, which has all 44 phonemes, neatly grouped into three sections: consonant sounds, single vowel sounds and double vowel sounds.

 

Remember, producing a phoneme accurately requires you to position your mouth and jaw in a specific way. So, you could be in for hours and hours of diligent practice before you are able to make the right sounds.

Here’s the British Council phonemic chart to get you started: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/phonemic-chart

 

 

  1. Word stress

In English, a word is usually made up of one or more syllables, which are basically small sound units with a vowel sound and one or more consonant sounds. Here’s an example:

 

Word English
Phonetic transcription /ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ/

 

The word English has two syllables – ‘En’ and ‘glish’. While pronouncing, the first syllable has to be emphasised more than the second. Similarly, all words in English have a unique stress pattern, so while speaking, some parts of words need to be pronounced more strongly than others. If you don’t, the listener may find it difficult to understand you.

 

Here’s a quick tip: once you begin recognising all the phonemes, use a dictionary to check if you’re producing the right sounds while pronouncing a word.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

set out
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to begin doing a task with a particular aim
Example : Having saved up for years, Matt and Eva set out to build their own house.

 

half the battle
Form : phrase
Meaning : the most challenging part of doing something
Example : As a salesman, winning a potential customer’s trust is half the battle.

 

be in for something
Form : phrase
Meaning : going to experience something,
Example : Your dad is in for a shock when he finds out you’ve had your tongue pierced!

 

Traps to Avoid in IELTS Listening (Part 2)

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In part 1, we spoke of two kinds of traps – distractors and spelling.

Here are two other ways in which you could lose marks in IELTS listening.

 

  1. Word match

Sometimes test-takers choose a certain answer because the exact same words are used in the conversation and the question paper. This is particularly true when attempting multiple choice questions. However, most answers in IELTS listening are paraphrased. In other words, the vocabulary used in the conversation is usually different to the one in the question.

 

Example

Question

23. What does the woman like most about the house?

A   the design

B   the locality

C   the living room

 

Recording script

Estate agent: So, what do you think?  

 

Woman: Very nice! I mean, I love the living room – it’s spacious and so tastefully done up. And the design is so European! I’ve always wanted to live in a house with French windows and a brick fireplace. But the best bit, without doubt, is the neighbourhood. It’s so pretty and peaceful – just the kind we were looking for.  

 

As you can see, the actual answer is paraphrased – the word locality in the question is replaced with the word neighbourhood in the conversation. Understandably, listening for matching words will only mislead you, so spend time on improving your comprehension instead.

 

  1. Time conventions

If you are a non-native speaker, the chances are you don’t refer to time the way people in English-speaking countries do. Being an international test, IELTS listening makes use of such native terms to talk about specific periods of time. Here are some examples:

 

 

Convention Used to talk about Example
quarter to 15 minutes before any hour on the clock quarter to six = 5.45
quarter past 15 minutes after any hour on the clock quarter past six = 6.15
half past 30 minutes after any hour on the clock half past six = 6.30

 

Do learn more about them, or you could be left with a blank when it comes to taking the test!

 

 

 

Traps to Avoid in IELTS Listening (Part 1)

 

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Ever thought what listening tests are designed to do? Well, the primary aim is to separate the wheat from the chaff – identify which test takers are able to fully comprehend what they hear, and which aren’t. And to accomplish this, traps are set across the test to trick test takers and induce errors.

 

Here are some traps you should avoid in the IELTS listening test.

 

  1. Distractor

As the name suggests, a distractor is something that causes confusion so that the test taker does not pay enough attention to what they should be doing – which is listening for the right answers. For instance, in a conversation, a speaker may say something and then quickly correct themselves, or they may be corrected by another speaker. As a result, the listener hears two versions of the same piece of information – obviously, one is correct while the other is incorrect.

 

Example

Question

5. Telephone number: 9342__________

Recording script

Receptionist: Okay, what’s the best number for us to contact you on?

 

Customer:  You can call me at the hotel where I’m staying. The number is: nine-three-four-two-six-five-three-nine… Oh no, did I say five-three-nine? Sorry, it should be three-nine-five.

 

If you’re not careful, a distractor can make you choose the wrong answer, so be prepared. And here’s an additional tip: in IELTS listening, distractors are most commonly used in section 1, and they usually involve some type of number (telephone number, credit card number, postcode, cost of something, time, date, etc).

 

  1. Spelling

In IELTS listening, poor spelling is penalised, so test takers need to be able to accurately spell words that are long and complicated. If your spelling isn’t great, try learning commonly misspelt words.  Additionally, make a list of words that you have already find trouble spelling.

Mnemonics can also be incredibly helpful in remembering the spelling of tricky words. For example, if you find it challenging to spell the word island, just remember this sentence: An island is land surrounded by water.

 

Remember, one way to avoid falling into a trap is to spot it early on, so keep an eye out while reading questions.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

separate the wheat from the chaff
Form : phrase
Meaning : to identify a good group from the other, less desirable ones
Example : Face-to-face interviews with applicants can help recruiters separate the wheat from the chaff.

 

induce
Form : verb
Meaning : to cause
Example : Drinking cough syrup can induce sleepiness in a person. 

 

mnemonic
Form : noun
Meaning : something, such as a poem or word, that helps a person remember something
Example : Use the mnemonic VIBGYOR to remember the colours of a rainbow.

 

keep an eye out (for something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : to watch carefully for something
Example : While shopping I always keep an eye out for clothes sold at a discount.

5 Tips to Ace IELTS Letter Writing (Part 2)


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In the first part, we spoke of two tips to score well in the IELTS letter writing task: following letter-writing rules and adding finer details.  Here are three more:

 

  1. Fully develop bullet points

The letter-writing task in IELTS requires test takers to include specific information, which is generally presented in the form of three bullet points. Here’s a sample task:

 

 

A friend has agreed to look after your house and pet while you are on holiday.

Write a letter to your friend. In your letter

 

·         give contact details for when you are away

·         give instructions about how to care for your pet

·         describe other household duties

 

 

 

Remember, each bullet point has to be fully developed, so a passing reference wouldn’t be enough. For example, to fully extend the first bullet point, you could provide alternative ways of contacting you.

 

Example text

I’ll be staying at The Grand Hotel in Krakow, so you can always call me there, or leave a message if I’m out. If it’s something urgent though, I’d like you to ring my colleague Jake’s mobile, as I don’t have international roaming. I’ve jotted down the numbers on a sheet of paper and stuck it on the kitchen door so that you don’t lose them – we both know your memory isn’t great!  

 

  1. Keep the writing style consistent

The writing style you employ mainly depends on two factors: how well you are supposed to know the person you are writing to and why you are writing. It’s important that the style you use is consistent across the letter. In the above example, a reference to your friend’s poor memory lends the letter an informal feel. Further, the use of the exclamation mark at the end, and informal words such as jot down, help maintain the friendly tone.

 

  1. Produce a full, connected text

Your letter should be a full, connected text, which means use of bullet points or note form will attract an immediate penalty. While most candidates are aware of the importance of linking sentences within a paragraph, few think of establishing a connection between paragraphs. See if you can achieve this.

Most importantly, no matter how well-written your letter is, all that hard work will go down the drain if you don’t meet the word limit, so be sure to write more than 150 words.

 

So, follow these tips, and you’ll be on your way to doing well in the IELTS letter-writing task.

 

GLOSSARY

 

passing reference (to something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : brief mention (of something)
Example : The boss made a passing reference to lack of punctuality among staff.

 

employ
Form : verb
Meaning : to use something
Example : The police had to employ force to stop protesters from entering the mayor’s office.

 

lend
Form : verb
Meaning : to give a particular quality to something
Example : The minister’s presence will certainly lend the campaign some importance.

 

go down the drain
Form : phrase
Meaning : to be wasted
Example : If it rains, the sand castles will collapse, and all our hard work will go down the drain.

 

Improving reading Comprehension (Part 2)

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In the previous part, we spoke of how speed reading and deducing meaning can lead to better comprehension. Here are some more techniques for you to try:

 

  1. Improve concentration

Your powers of concentration perhaps affect your ability to understand a piece of text more than anything else, so train yourself to concentrate well over long periods. Are you wondering how? Well, take one small step at a time. To begin with, see if you are able to focus on what you are reading for about 10 to 15 minutes, increasing the reading time as you go along. The ultimate goal should be to form an ability to concentrate on a task for as long as an hour.

 

  1. Widen vocabulary

Unfamiliar vocabulary is often a stumbling block to reading comprehension, so the more words you are able to recognise, the better you understand a text. One way to learn new vocabulary is by maintaining a running list of words you don’t understand; later, you can look them up in a dictionary. Of course, you need to make it a point to use the words too, while speaking or writing, so that they become a part of your active vocabulary.

 

  1. Expand background knowledge

Background knowledge and vocabulary sort of go hand in hand: an individual who doesn’t know much about factories may not understand words such as supply chain, reverse engineering, or lay-off.  Do not panic though, as there are several ways to acquire background knowledge about something – watching TV programmes, reading articles, talking to people with experience, making visits, etc.

 

  1. Read for pleasure

We commonly turn academic activities into a right struggle, not realising that it doesn’t have to be that way! Turn reading into a fun activity by reading for pleasure: read about your favourite movie star or an exotic holiday destination, or read a novel by your favourite author. This will help you truly engage with the text, because you are reading content that you find interesting.

 

Remember, there are no shortcuts to improving your reading ability. Keep at it, and your comprehension will get better with time.

 

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

stumbling block (to something)
Form : noun
Meaning : something that stops you from achieving something
Example : Lack of funding is the major stumbling block to completing this project.

 

running
Form : adjective
Meaning : continuous
Example : Stanley has had a running battle with the council over his new garage.

 

make it a point (to do something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : to make sure something happens
Example : Cindy makes it a point to avoid heavy meals while travelling.

 

go hand in hand
Form : phrase
Meaning : to be closely related
Example : It’s a fact that poverty and crime usually go hand in hand.

 

engage (with something)
Form : verb
Meaning : to be fully involved and try to understand something
Example : Young children engage with content that is full of colourful images.

 

keep at (something)
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to continue to work on something
Example : He kept at it and finally learnt how to take a free kick.

 

 

Improve Your Reading Comprehension (Part 1)

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Let’s face it, among all the language skills, reading is perhaps what most people least enjoy, especially if it happens to be an academic text. The reason for this can vary – a wandering mind, narrow vocabulary, or just impatience.

 

However, there are situations where this skill is a must; an exam perhaps being the best example. Almost all popular language tests have a reading component. IELTS, for instance, has a reading module designed to test a wide range of reading skills.

 

So, how do you improve your comprehension if you are not the reading kind? Here are some ways:

 

  1. Use speed reading

Speed reading is the technique of reading a text quickly with the aim of understanding its overall idea. In a reading comprehension test, this skill is priceless, as test takers find themselves in a race against the clock to answer all the questions. When dealing with long passages, the reader often focuses on content words – i.e. words that carry the message, such as nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. This way, they save time, allowing them to better focus understanding and answering those questions.

 

  1. Learn to deduce meaning

One thing that slows readers down is unfamiliar vocabulary. Each time they come across a word they don’t recognise, it hinders their reading speed, thereby affecting comprehension too. One way to overcome this problem is to develop the ability to deduce meaning. In other words, form an ability to guess the meaning of a word you don’t know by looking at words surrounding it. Let’s put this technique to test with the help of an example:

 

We drove past hyacinth fields in full bloom, the air filled with their sweet, lingering fragrance.

 

If you don’t recognise the word ‘hyacinth’, focus on words surrounding it – fields, in full bloom, sweet, lingering, and fragrance. From the context, it is clear that hyacinth is something that grows in fields, develops over time, and has a pleasant smell that is long-lasting. If your guess at this point is that it’s a flower, then you are dead right!

 

So, the next time you come across an unfamiliar word, try to deduce its meaning; then look it up in a dictionary to confirm you guessed right.

 

GLOSSARY

 

let’s face it
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to indicate what you are about to say is unpleasant but true
Example : Let’s face it, we both know you shouldn’t be marrying a guy like Jake.

 

wandering
Form : adjective
Meaning : moving aimless from one place to another
Example : Sally fares poorly in studies because of her wandering mind.

 

comprehension
Form : noun
Meaning : an individual’s ability to understand things
Example : Miguel had no comprehension of how difficult it was to raise a child.

 

a race against the clock
Form : phrase
Meaning : a situation when someone has to do something quickly, as they only have a limited amount of time
Example : Rescuing people during floods is always a race against the clock.

 

hinder
Form : verb
Meaning : to make it difficult for someone or something to make progress
Example : A leg injury hindered Roger from playing his best tennis.

 

How To Use Time Conjunctions Correctly

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Imagine you are asked to deliver an impromptu speech on some topic. Chances are that you would just focus on producing sentence after sentence, paying little attention to the order in which they appear.

 

However, when speaking at length, it’s important that what we say is coherent, i.e. our thoughts appear in a logical sequence. Using conjunctions of time is one way of achieving this.

 

Wondering what conjunctions of time are?  They are tiny words (such as before, after, once, while, etc.) which connect an action to a point in time. Put simply, they indicate when something happens.

 

In part 2 of the IELTS Speaking test, candidates need to speak continuously on a topic for two minutes. Here’s how time conjunctions can help structure your answer better:

 

Topic

 

IELTS Speaking: Part 2

 

Describe a holiday you went on recently.

 

 

Sample Answer

I love exploring new places, so holidays are something I always look forward to. The last holiday I went on was to a place called Kumarakom, which is in Southern India.

 

I first heard about Kumarakom when a friend spoke of her trip to India. Her vivid descriptions of the place and its people intrigued me so much that I knew I had to visit it. In fact, while she was busy recollecting her holiday experiences, I’d already started comparing tour packages on my phone. The following week, I found a great deal on a travel website. Before booking the holiday, I checked with my sister if she wanted to come. She jumped at the chance, and thus began our exciting journey.

 

Once we reached Kumarakom, I couldn’t contain my excitement. To be honest, since a visit to Egypt in my teens, never had I been to such an exotic location. As soon as we checked into the resort we were staying at, my sister and I decided to go for a swim. We enjoyed ourselves so thoroughly that we remained in the pool until sunset. After a sumptuous dinner that night, we decided to ….

 

Remember, time conjunctions also help create complex grammar structures, which is a major plus in a test situation.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

impromptu
Form : adjective
Meaning : not planned in advance
Example : He gave an impromptu performance at the wedding.

 

chances are that
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to say that something is likely to happen
Example : Chances are that Lilly will be moving abroad soon to join her parents.

 

at length
Form : phrase
Meaning : for a long time and in great detail
Example : Mike and I spoke about his career choices at length.

 

plus
Form : noun
Meaning : advantage
Example : Knowledge of current fashion trends would be a major plus in this job.

 

The Key to Study Success? Don’t Set Goals, Create Habits

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We’re always told that it’s good to dream big. That we should have our goals planned out: write a hit novel, become a surgeon, run a successful business.

 

But as we embark on making those dreams a reality at university and beyond, we can come unstuck. Most people have experienced those difficulties to some extent. The progress to achieving our goals is slow-moving. There are still a lot of blank pages that we’re trying to fill.

 

So, what’s the key to achieving the goals we set ourselves and realising our dreams?

 

Some Psychologists suggest that instead of setting goals, we should create habits.

 

They argue that a goal is too far off in the distance for it to have a significant effect on our daily lives.

A goal doesn’t help you get the thing done. In fact, until you reach the goal you exist in a sort of state of failure, e.g.  ‘I haven’t written a novel yet.’

 

Instead, we should create a habit that fits with the sort of person we are, or want to be.

 

For example, writing that thesis is a daunting prospect, with many thousands of words to compile.  But if you create a habit: ‘I’m the sort of person who writes for an hour every morning,’ the thesis takes care of itself.

 

In both cases (goal or habit), the end result is often the same (these completed). But crucially, our happiness, and therefore our ability to produce our best work, is far greater when we employ habits.

We’re creatures of habit after all.

What to Expect in a Decent Dictionary (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Chris Dlugosz via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

The first part looked at some information that is typically found in most dictionaries – meaning(s), part of speech, pronunciation, verb forms, and miscellaneous grammar points.

 

Here’s some more information you are likely to come across:

 

  1. Synonyms and antonyms

A synonym is a word that has the same meaning, or nearly the same, as another word. An antonym, on the other hand, is a word that means the opposite of another word.

Example:

honest

Synonyms – truthful, sincere, trustworthy, straightforward, reliable

Antonym – dishonest, corrupt, deceitful, insincere, untrustworthy, unreliable

 

  1. Collocations

The word collocation refers to a word combination that happens naturally in a language. Learning such typical combinations is important because it broadens the scope for expressing ideas clearly.

Example:

food

Verb collocations – consume / eat / have / cook / make / prepare food

Adjective collocations – fast / junk / takeaway / fresh / organic / canned food

 

  1. Example sentences

Example sentences are perhaps the best way to learn how to use a word or phrase accurately in a sentence. They show us the way various grammatical features work together to form a sentence. Some dictionaries print fixed expressions or phrases in bold to help users learn faster.

Example:

The change in policy will do serious harm to our business.

Though I’m not particularly fond of my mother-in-law, I don’t wish her any harm.

I know our neighbour’s dog looks ferocious, but he means no harm.

 

  1. Register

The term register means the degree of formality associated with a word. At times, dictionaries also highlight words that are old-fashioned or offensive.

Example:

ascertain (formal) = to find out

ripping (old-fashioned) = wonderful

gaffer (informal) = an individual who is in charge of a group of people

dude (slang) = a man

bird (sometimes offensive) = a way of referring to a young woman

 

  1. Spelling

A lot of words have alternative spellings, depending on the version used – British English (BrE) or North American English (NAmE).

Example:

theatre (BrE) / theater (NAmE)

doughnut / donut (NAmE)

colour (BrE) / color (NAmE)

 

So, the next time you use a dictionary, gather different types of information that can help you better your English.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

miscellaneous
Form : adjective
Meaning : consisting of different kinds of things
Example : Tom has a box of miscellaneous items from his childhood.

 

scope (for something)
Form : noun
Meaning : the opportunity to do something
Example : Sally’s new job offers plenty of scope for international travel.

 

offensive
Form : adjective
Meaning : rude or unpleasant
Example : Students who use offensive language in the classroom will be punished.

 

alternative
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that can be used instead of something else
Example : Swimming is a good alternative to running when recovering from an injury

 

 

What to Expect in a Decent Dictionary (Part 1)

 

Image courtesy of Chris Dlugosz via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

A decent dictionary, be it printed or electronic, can be an invaluable tool when trying to improve your English. Sadly, not many language learners exploit it to the full.

 

So, what can you typically expect to find in one?

 

  1. The meaning(s) of an English word or phrase

Most words in the English language have more than one meaning, and dictionaries usually list them out.

Example:

run (verb)

  • to move quickly using legs
  • to manage a business
  • to use a computer program
  • (of liquid) to flow in a particular direction
  • to try to get elected to a job
  • to drive somebody to a place

 

  1. Part of speech

This refers to one of the grammatical groups that a word belongs to depending on how it is used in a sentence. Remember, a word could have different forms.

Example:

drive – verb (= when used to talk about operating a vehicle)

drive – noun (= when used to talk about someone’s energy or desire to do something)

 

  1. Pronunciation

The phonetic transcription of a word usually appears alongside it to help users pronounce the word accurately. Alternate ways of pronouncing the word can also be found in some dictionaries.

Example:

 

Word Pronunciation

(British English)

Pronunciation

(North American English)

restaurant /ˈrestrɒnt/ /ˈrestrɑːnt/
sure /ʃʊə(r)/ or /ʃɔː(r)/ /ʃʊr/

 

  1. Verb forms

Most verbs in English have between 3 and 5 forms; knowing them is essential to be able to make different grammatical structures.

Example:

 

Present simple

I / we / you / they

Present simple

he / she / it

Past simple Past participle -ing form
cut cuts cut cut cutting
dance dances danced danced dancing
eat eats ate eaten eating

 

  1. Other grammatical information

A comprehensive dictionary may also contain other important information, such as the plural form of a noun, or whether a noun is countable or uncountable.

Example:

thief (singular) – thieves (plural)

furniture (uncountable)

 

If you’ve just started learning English, using a dictionary regularly can help stretch your limited vocabulary, so be sure to use one.

 

GLOSSARY

 

decent
Form : adjective
Meaning : of good enough quality
Example : Is there a restaurant nearby where I can get a decent meal?

 

exploit
Form : verb
Meaning : to use something well in order to get benefit from it
Example : I don’t think students exploit the study resources in our library enough.

 

to the full
Form : phrase
Meaning : to the maximum
Example : Youngsters usually want to enjoy life to the full.

 

comprehensive
Form : adjective
Meaning : including many details
Example : He’s writing a comprehensive guide to tourism in Asia.

 

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