My students often ask me for tips on how to improve their English speaking skills.
- How can I learn to speak better English?
- How can I improve my English speaking skills?
- How can I speak English more fluently?
- How can I speak English like a native?
This is especially important if you are preparing for the IELTS Speaking Test.
One of the most common pieces of advice I see online is the advice to ‘speak, speak, speak!’ If only it were that easy!
In this lesson I’ll teach you a step-by-step approach to improving your English speaking skills, with lots of tips and activities.
There are 3 main steps to my approach:
- Step 1: Build a strong foundation
- Step 2: Self Talk
- Step 3: Have conversations
Start with Step 1, then move to Step 2 and Step 3.
Let’s get started!
Step 1: Build a Strong Foundation
Speaking confidently and fluently requires a solid foundation of vocabulary and good pronunciation.
If you don’t know enough vocabulary, you will find it difficult to say what you want.
If your pronunciation is poor, then your spoken English will be difficult to understand.
So it’s important to start by building a strong foundation for your speaking skills. Here are some activities to help you do that:
1. Listen, listen, listen!
My first piece of advice is perhaps not the most obvious.
Instead of ‘speak, speak, speak’, my advice is to ‘listen, listen, listen’.
If your goal is to speak English confidently, naturally and fluently, you need to know how English sounds, so that you can successfully do this yourself.
The more you listen to natural, spoken English, the more you will develop your ‘feel’ for the sound of spoken English.
The more you listen, the better you will speak.
When you listen, you can learn:
- the vocabulary which is used in natural, spoken English
- the pronunciation of words
- the rhythm, stress and intonation of natural, spoken English
And you can do this by listening to:
Movies are also great fun to watch, but the dialogue in many movies is often more dramatic than we have in normal, everyday conversations, so personally I think TV shows are better than movies if you want to improve your English speaking skills.
It’s also a good idea to find content that includes subtitles in English as this will help you when you listen.
You can use tools to help you find and use subtitles. For example, Language Reactor is a plugin for Google Chrome. You can use it with videos on Netflix and YouTube.
2. Grow Your Vocabulary
You won’t be able to say much if you don’t know many words and phrases! So it’s important to grow your vocabulary.
So when you listen to, and read, English, try to learn some of the words and phrases you hear.
Some tips for learning vocabulary:
- focus on learning the vocabulary that you think will be most useful to you.
- try to learn words in context – e.g. what other words is the word used with? You can do this by learning phrases and word pairs, rather than individual words.
I’ve also created an IELTS vocabulary course on Udemy to help you grow your vocabulary. You will learn 400 essential words for IELTS, along with example sentences which show you how these words are used in context.
3. Get Feedback On Your Pronunciation
When speaking, it is important to have good pronunciation, or people will not understand you. But many students do not know if their pronunciation is good or bad.
Listening to English will help you improve your pronunciation.
But you will also need feedback on your pronunciation.
One way of getting feedback on your pronunciation is to use an English tutor. Ask your tutor to help you improve your pronunciation (e.g. to tell you when you are mispronouncing a word).
You can also use tech tools to help you. For example, Elsa is an app which provides feedback on your pronunciation and gives you suggestions on how to improve. (If you decide to use Elsa, use the code IELTSCHARLIE to get a special discount.)
Shadowing is a great technique for improving your spoken English.
When you shadow, you simply listen to and repeat what someone else is saying, right after they say it.
You don’t need to think about vocabulary or grammar – you just need to copy what they are saying and how they are saying it.
As well as simply repeating what someone says, you can also record yourself doing the shadowing.
- play the video or audio through headphones
- record into a microphone on to your phone or computer
- listen to the recording of your voice
- compare your pronunciation with the pronunciation of the native speaker
Then try to identify the differences between your pronunciation and the speaker’s pronunciation.
In other words, it’s like a ‘spot the difference‘ activity! What is the difference between YOUR English and native speaker English?
Step 2: Self Talk
Obviously, your goal is to speak English with real people.
But if you are not confident enough doing this, a great step on the way is to build your confidence, fluency and vocabulary by talking by yourself.
5. Self Talk
Speak to yourself as you do things during the day. Tell yourself what you are doing in English, or ask yourself questions:
- “I am going to make myself a coffee. I’m putting the kettle on and boiling the water. I need a strong coffee because I’m tired so I’ll add 2 teaspoons of instant coffee in my mug.”
- “I’m opening the curtains and sitting on the sofa.”
- “Shall I have an omelette or a sandwich for lunch?”
You could go for a walk and describe what you see around you.
If you have a pet, talk to them in English! Don’t worry, they won’t think you’re crazy!
Try not to script these. Be as spontaneous as you can. If you don’t know or can’t remember a word, then try to use an alternative phrase. e.g. if you don’t know the word, “kettle”, then you could say “the machine that makes hot water”.
6. Describe a Photo
Photographs are a great way of getting you to speak.
Simply find a random photograph on the Internet, or in a newspaper or magazine, and try to describe it.
- What is happening in the photograph?
- Who / what is in the photograph?
- What are the people in the photograph wearing / doing?
You can also do this with a video or movie – just press the pause button and try to say what you see.
7. Summarise a Movie or a Story
Another great speaking task is to summarise one of your favourite movies or TV shows.
For example, my favourite movie of all-time is ‘Back To The Future‘. Here’s how I might describe the movie in natural, spoken English:
In ‘Back To The Future’ a 17 year old boy – at least, I think he’s 17 – he lives in 1985 – he’s sent back in time to 1955 in a time machine built by his friend, a scientist, Doc Brown. The boy is called Marty McFly, by the way. The time machine is built out of a DeLorean car. That’s a famous sports car, I think – from the 1980s. Anyway, the boy, Marty, gets sent back to 1955 by accident because he has to escape from some terrorists in 1985. And once he’s back in 1955, he has to find Doc Brown, the younger Doc Brown from 1955, so he can ask him to get him back to 1985. But Marty bumps into his parents and stops them from falling in love, so he won’t get born, so he has to fix that as well.
Alternatively, watch a YouTube video and describe that. Because you may not have seen the video before, this will make it more spontaneous and challenging.
You can also do the same for stories you’ve read, such as a book you’ve read or a famous story from your own culture.
8. Tell a Personal Story
A similar activity is to tell a story about yourself. This could be something as mundane as what you did today. But it could be an important event in your life.
Many everyday conversations involve people telling stories about these kinds of things:
- something they’ve done in their life
- somewhere they’ve visited
- someone they’ve met
- an experience they’ve had
So practice telling personal stories like these and you will get lots of material for real conversations.
9. Record Yourself (video or audio)
You should occasionally record yourself doing some of the above activities. This will give you an opportunity to analyse your language and pronunciation.
- identify errors
- compare your spoken output to what you feel should be natural English (remember, Step 1 was about knowing what spoken English sounds like)
If you have a tutor or speaking partner (see below), you can share your recordings with them for feedback and correction of errors. But it’s also important for you to analyse your spoken language yourself.
It’s probably better to do an audio-only recording of yourself, rather than a video. If you make a video, you may find yourself thinking about how you look, rather than what you are saying!
Recording yourself can be difficult, but it is also very motivating because you will see how your English is improving. On a day-to-day basis, you may feel you are not improving much, but if you record your speaking then you will almost certainly notice an improvement on a month-to-month basis.
Step 3 : Have Real Conversations
10. Attend public speaking events
Language schools, universities and business organisations often organise events where you can go and listen to and discuss particular topics. Sometimes, these events are held in English, especially in big cities.
You can often find these events listed on Meetup, Internations or in local Facebook groups. If there are lots of immigrants or visitors from overseas in your city (e.g. expats, remote workers or digital nomads), they will often hold events in English. You may even find TED or TEDx talks in your city.
The big advantage of these is that, while there will be opportunities to speak in English (and listen to English), there is usually less pressure to speak all the time. So events like these are great if you lack confidence in your speaking ability.
11. Get Speaking Partners or a Tutor
Ultimately, you want to practise having real conversations.
One way of doing this is to create a language exchange. A language exchange is 2 people who want to improve their speaking skills in different languages. Half of the exchange is done in your native language, and half in English.
So look for a native English speaker who wants to learn your native language.
If you can afford a professional tutor, iTalki is also a great place to practice conversation and get corrected. If you do use a tutor, tell them that YOU want to do most of the speaking!
You could also find a speaking partner who is also learning English. You can often find people through Facebook groups for English learners. The main problem with these partners is they may not be able to correct your spoken English. If you do decide to go down this route, try to find someone who does NOT speak the same native language as you. For example, if you live in Brazil, try to find a conversation partner from Asia, Europe or Africa, NOT Brazil.
So those are 11 of my top suggestions for improving your English speaking skills:
Step 1: Build a Strong Foundation
- Listen, listen, Listen!
- Grow your vocabulary
- Get feedback on your pronunciation
Step 2: Self Talk
- Self Talk
- Describe a Photo
- Summarise a Movie or Story
- Tell a Personal Story
- Record Yourself
- Attend public speaking events
- Get speaking partners or a tutor
I hope you find these ideas useful. If you have any of your own suggestions for improving your English speaking skills, please add them in the comments below. Best of luck with your speaking!