Many non-native English speakers experience great difficulty in mastering the sounds of the English language. What are potential pronunciation problems that ESOL students face when acquiring the sounds of the English alphabet? (See also Part 2 of this post here.)
/a/ (as in at)
The short a sound may be difficult to hear and pronounce since it does not exist in some languages.
/a/ (as in ate)
Students may confuse the sound of long a with the sound of /e/ as in Ed (i.e. late--let; paper--pepper).
When /b/ is the last sound of a word, students sometimes forget to vibrate their vocal cords, causing the voiced /b/ to sound like the voiceless /p/ (i.e. cub--cup).
/c/ (as in cat)
It may need to be explained to students that when the sound /k/ is the beginning sound of a word, it is said with strong aspiration and a puff of air.
When /d/ is the last sound in a word, some students forget to vibrate their vocal cords, causing the /d/ to sound like the voiceless /t/ (i.e. bad--bat).
/e/ (as in Ed)
It may be difficult for some students to hear and pronounce the difference between the sounds of short e and short a (i.e. met--mat).
/e/ (as in eat)
Confusing English spellings cause pronunciation problems. Also, students may substitute the long e sound with the short i sound (i.e. eat--it).
Some students may keep their lips apart and instead produce a sound like /h/ (i.e. fat--hat). Or, students may completely close their lips and produce the sound /p/ (i.e. cuff--cup).
When /g/ is the last sound of a word, some students forget to vibrate their vocal cords, causing the /g/ to sound like the voiceless /k/ sound (i.e. rag--rack).
Some students may substitute /h/ with /f/ or /sh/ before the vowels u and i
(i.e. hit--fit; hut--shut).
/i/ (as in it)
The sound /i/ may be difficult to hear and pronounce since it does not exist in some languages. The more familiar sound of long e is often substituted (i.e. hit--heat).
/i/ (as in my)
The long i sound is generally easy for students to produce; however, irregular spelling patterns may confuse students about how to correctly pronounce words containing this sound.
Difficulty differentiating between the sound /j/ and other similar sounds might result in substituting /j/ with /y/, /zh/, /sh/, or /ch/ (i.e. jello--yellow; pledger--pleasure; gin--shin; badge--batch). Also, English spelling patterns can be confusing.
It may need to be explained to students that when /k/ is the beginning sound of a word, it is said with strong aspiration and a puff of air.
The sounds /l/ and /r/ do not exist in many languages. Oftentimes these two sounds are confused (i.e. flight--fright; late--rate).
Pronouncing /m/ at the beginning and in the middle of words may not be difficult, but pronouncing /m/ at the end of words is sometimes difficult and substituted with /n/ or /ng/ sounds (i.e. some--sun; swim--swing).
Pronouncing /n/ at the end of words can be difficult because of the similarities between the sounds /n/, /m/, and /ng/. Sometimes /n/ is substituted with /m/ or /ng/ sounds (i.e. sun--some; ran--rang).
/o/ (as in odd)
Confusing English spelling patterns cause substitutions of the sound /o/ for more familiar vowels, such as long o (i.e. not--note, cot--coat).
/o/ (as in boat) and /ow/ (as in show)
Students may confuse the sound of long o with other similar English sounds, such as short u and short o (i.e. coat--cut; note--not).
It may be helpful to explain to students that p is much more explosive in English than it is in other languages. At the beginning of English words, /p/ should be produced with a puff of air or it could sound like /b/ (i.e. pat--bat)
Q must stand with the vowel u in order to make a sound. The sound of qu is /kw/. Initially, teach only the name of the letter. Students should be informed that the consonant q has only a name—no sound—when it stands alone.
The sound /r/ does not exist in some languages. In many languages, the r is a blend of the English sounds /r/ and /l/ and is produced by rapidly touching the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth. Some students attempt to say the English /r/ by touching the roof of the mouth with the tongue. As a result, the /r/ sounds like /l/ (i.e. read--lead). Joining r with a vowel helps produce correct pronunciation.
The sound /s/ is a common sound and is generally easy for students to produce; however, some speakers tend to say /sh/ instead of /s/ before e and i (i.e. see--she; sip--ship). It is helpful for some students to place the tip of the tongue behind the lower teeth when learning how to produce this sound.
The sound /t/ is a common sound and is generally easy for students to produce; however, some speakers tend to substitute /t/ with /ts/ before long u and /ch/ before long e and short i (i.e. two--tsu; tear--cheer; tin--chin).
/u/ (as in up)
A short u has the same sound as a schwa. Because this sound does not exist in some languages, it may be difficult to hear and pronounce. Also, irregular spelling patterns may confuse students, causing them to substitute /u/ for sounds that are more familiar, such as short o and long o (i.e. color--collar; come--comb).
/u/ (as in suit) and /oo/ (as in too)
Students may confuse the sound of /u/ as in suit with the sound of /oo/ as in look.
/u/ (as in unit)
Students may confuse the two sounds of u: /u/ as in union and /u/ as in suit.
Sometimes students substitute b for v (i.e. bet--vet). Also, when /v/ is the last sound in a word, some students forget to vibrate their vocal cords, causing the /v/ to sound like the voiceless /f/ (i.e. save--safe; leave--leaf).
Sometimes w and v are confused (i.e. went--vent; we’ll--veal). The lower lip should not touch the upper teeth. Also, sometimes students omit the w before double o vowels (i.e. wool--ool; wood--ood).
/x/ (as in fox)
The sound /x/ is a combination of the sounds /k/ and /s/. Students need to quickly roll from the sound /k/ to the sound /s/ to produce this sound accurately.
/y/ (as in yes)
The sound of y as a consonant only occurs at the beginning of a word or syllable. This sound may be difficult to pronounce. Students may substitute the sound /y/ with the sound /j/, or they may omit it entirely (i.e. yet--jet; year--ear). If helpful, have students put the tip of their tongue against the back of the lower front teeth, but emphasize that the tongue should NOT touch the roof of the mouth.
The sound /z/ is not a common sound. Many students pronounce the letter z as a /s/ or /j/ sound (i.e. zoo--Sue; zest--jest). Irregular English spelling patterns also cause confusion. Remind students that /z/ is a voiced sound.
Information adapted from Decoding Strategies for Literacy Development published by HEC Reading Horizons.
Some information adapted from: Dale, P. and Poms, L. (1999). English Pronunciation for International Students. Prentice Hall Regents: USA.