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La Trobe University Library La Trobe Library


La Trobe University Library La Trobe Library




Speaking at uni

Many learning activities at university encourage or require students to speak, even though this usually forms only one part of their assessment. You’ll need to develop good speaking skills to:

  • deliver a paper/presentation at a seminar
  • answer questions from your tutor or fellow students
  • discuss your course with other students informally, outside the classroom
  • get help from fellow students or tutors
  • socialise with other students by participating in clubs and societies, or even talking at home in shared accommodation
  • discuss issues with your landlord/landlady if you have private rented accommodation
  • ask for help, and understand the advice you are given
  • attend a job interview in English

Work through the next few tabs to learn more about pronunciation and its elements, look at some helpful tips on how to improve your pronunciation and develop confidence as a speaker, and familiarise yourself with Australian English.

For information on how to prepare and give effective presentations, go to the module Giving Presentations.

What is Pronunciation?

Pronunciation refers to the way we pronounce words and includes such elements as sounds of a language (vowels and consonants) as well as the elements that operate beyond the level of individual sounds (e.g., word and sentence stress, sentence melody or intonation, rhythm, and phrasing). The first step to improve your pronunciation and speak more clearly is to understand what these elements are.


Consonants are sounds that are articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Air is interrupted or limited by the position of the tongue, teeth or lips. For example, /t/ as in ‘to’ or /d/ as in ‘do’.

Languages show differences in the way sounds are combined to create parts of words (syllables) and words. Speakers of English as an additional language may find some consonant sound sequences difficult simply because these sequences do not occur in their first language. For example,


(C)(C)(C)(V)(C)(C)(C)           C – consonant, V – vowel

/s    t    r   e   ŋ    θ   s/


Unlike consonants, vowels are created by the relatively free passage of air through the mouth. English has a large inventory of vowel sounds in comparison to a number of other languages (e.g. Spanish or Arabic).

In English, it is important to make distinction between long and short vowels. For example,

leave vs. live             hut vs. heart              sheep vs. ship

Word stress

In English words with two or more syllables, one syllable always sounds more prominent. This is called word stress; and the syllable can be described as stressed or strong. For example,

to-day            tea-ching                   

In addition to the most prominent syllable, English words with three or more syllables, may have an additional stress location. These syllables have secondary stress (underlined).

u-ni-ver-si-ty                        con-ver-sa-tion

Sentence stress 

Sentence stress refers to the way English speakers make some words more prominent in a sentence. Stressed words signal to the listener what is important and therefore are crucial for the interpretation of meaning. This element of pronunciation often takes time to master. Look at the sentences below and think of the differences in meaning.

I can’t give you this information. (greater emphasis on ‘this’)

I can’t give you this information.  (greater emphasis on ‘I’)


Rhythm in English is built on the alternation of strong (stressed) and weak (unstressed) syllables in speech. In addition to elongating strong syllables, speakers also compress or reduce weak syllables. Maintaining this beat is one of the key steps to improving your pronunciation.


Phrasing or chunking information refers to the way words are grouped together in a stretch of speech. When words are grouped well, it is easier for the listener to process information. Besides, how you choose to chunk information may change the meaning of the whole sentence. Compare these two patterns of phrasing:

Those who sold quickly    |   made a profit.


Those who sold    |    quickly made a profit.


Intonation generally refers to the use of pitch (tune) across a sentence, and works in combination with sentence stress and phrasing patterns. Intonation in English is used to convey different meanings, express emotions and feelings, indicate when to take turn in conversation and more. Speakers use a range of tunes (e.g. falling, rising, rising-falling) depending on the context.

When you want to improve the way you sound, you need to practise both listening and speaking. Listening to spoken English and being able to hear the different features of the language helps you to develop awareness about your pronunciation and determine what you need to work on. Speaking practice helps you to improve your pronunciation and speak more clearly.

Tips to improve your pronunciation

Listen to spoken English as often as possible. Practise listening for pronunciation several times a week - do it while on public transport, sitting in a crowded place, or even when watching TV. You can download podcasts of news programs or listen to radio talk-back shows.

Listen with a purpose

  • Listen for the way the speakers stress words by saying them more loudly and with greater duration.
  • Listen for pauses when the speaker groups thoughts and ideas together. Speakers use a number of strategies to indicate to the listener that even if they are not talking, they have more to say and are going to continue.
  • Listen for the overall rhythm and 'tune' of a speaker, and if possible, try to 'model' these aspects of their speech.

Try to become aware of what you sound like and compare that to how other people speak. Record yourself speaking to learn what you sound like. Based on your recordings, work out which aspects could be the most 'problematic' to the listener. 

Ask for feedback. Ask other people to tell you when you make a mistake, and whether what you've said is clear or pronounced correctly. Watch their faces for signs that they do not understand you, and use these cues so you know when to ask for pronunciation help. If you show others that you are aware and interested in getting their feedback, they will be more comfortable about helping you.

Slow down. Speaking fluently does not necessarily mean speaking fast. If your speech is fast your listener may not be able to follow what you are saying. Besides, speaking fast will make you more anxious and nervous.

Set yourself goals for improving your spoken language. For example, you might decide that you are going to speak more slowly, or more loudly, or you might focus on one or two sounds in English that are difficult for you.

Practice makes perfect. Practising once or twice is not enough to change speaking habits. Improving pronunciation is like developing a sporting skill (for example hitting a ball in a game of tennis, or kicking a football). You need to practise a lot to get it right, and even then you may not get it right every time. Many people find that their pronunciation varies from day to day, sometimes it even seems to get worse. However, if you accept that there is no quick and easy solution, you are less likely to become frustrated or to give up trying.

Australian English 

Australian English is one of many varieties of English around the world. Standard Australian English is spoken by the vast majority of people in Australia and is generally used by those who were born and grew up in Australia or migrated at an early age. This is the accent that you will most frequently hear at university. It has a number of features distinctly different from British or American English, for example vowel sounds, connected speech processes and melodic patterns (intonation). Therefore, it is important to develop a better understanding about this variety and train your ear.

Australian English also includes Aboriginal English, spoken by many Indigenous Australians, and ethnocultural varieties, for example Lebanese Australian English or Vietnamese Australian English.

For more information about Australian English visit these sites developed by Macquarie University.

To familiarise yourself with Australian English accent, listen to a few audio files using the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA).

This site offers a number of videos to teach you how to pronounce words, link words in conversation and use the English rhythm.

Remember, your lecturers and tutors do not expect you to speak with an Australian accent. The main aim is to improve speech clarity so that your listeners can understand you better.

Develop your confidence as a speaker

Are you nervous about speaking in class?
Do some preparation. As a minimum, read any tutorial handouts and skim the reading.

If you are nervous about making a mistake:

  • use the first tutorial to observe
  • say something in the next tutorial
  • prepare a comment or question in advance

Remember, participating does not mean you always need to show how clever you are.

You can also participate by:

  • saying why you agree or disagree with someone's point
  • encouraging others to speak
  • expressing agreement
  • concentrating on the discussion
  • looking interested when someone else is talking
  • asking for clarification
  • summarising the discussion
  • returning the discussion to the main point

Student Learning offers a range of study support to all La Trobe students, to help with developing academic and communication skills.

Further resources

  • 'English' at Home provides strategies for improving speaking skills and has a number of other resources to develop your spoken language. 

10 ways to improve your speaking

  • La Trobe Career Development Centre offers an online resource that allows you to learn and practise interview skills for a job or graduate school. 

Big Interview

  • The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) represents the sounds of a language and is used to show the pronunciation of words in a particular language or language variety. For a description of the IPA symbols for Australian English go to the Macquarie dictionary pronunciation key. The site also includes the pronunciation of each sound.  

Australian English Sounds

  • You can check the pronunciation of a word with the help of an online pronouncing dictionary.

Howjsay Online Dictionary

Cambridge Online Dictionary 

  • Download 'The Pronunciation App' from Macmillan to help you practice pronunciation wherever you are.
  • Visit the Speech Accent Archive to familiarise yourself with a range of English accents, including Australian English.

Speech Accent Archive 

  • You can scan the QR Code and view a series of practical and easy to understand Video Lectures on English pronunciation on your mobile  or tablet. 
  • Try this site if you’d like to practise a number of consonants. You can also download an app for your phone.

Phone app 'Sounds of English' 

 Website 'Sounds of English'

  • ‘Doctors Speak Up’ site offers a list of potential difficulties for native speakers of languages from the Indian subcontinent and native speakers of languages from China.

Doctors Speak Up - Potential Difficulties 

  • Also try the BBC site on Learning English which contains pronunciation tips, free videos, recordings and quizzes.

BBC Learning English