Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Improving ESOL Students' Pronunciation

There are quite a few ideas out there regarding how to improve ESOL students' pronunciation. I came across a few interesting resources in a discussion list I am a part of. One resource includes an article posted on the CAELA Network which discusses interesting points to consider when teaching English pronunciation. The article includes a couple of interesting tables, one of which provides a pronunciation checklist to identify ESOL students' areas of weakness which can then be used to help students set goals for improvement. (See Table 1 below.)

Another interesting resource is a document that lists core items of English pronunciation to teach as suggested by Tran Thi Lan, PhD, at Hanoi University of Foreign Studies. The information is specific to native Vietnamese speakers, but I would consider many of these aspects to be relevant and adaptable to teaching speakers of other languages, as well. The document can be found in full here.

The core items listed by Lan are as follows, with particular emphasis given to the first seven items:

1. The English alphabet. A focus should be put on the following letters which [Vietnamese] students confuse the sounds of: R, I, E, G , J, H, K, Q, W, X, Y

2. Familiarization with the English phonemic chart. Essential as it helps students to be able to know the pronunciation of words from dictionaries. Teachers should encourage students to use monolingual dictionaries made by reputable publishers.

3. Voiced and unvoiced sounds. Students should be taught this to help with the pronunciation of ‘s’ and ‘ed’ endings.

4. Long and short vowels. Students need to be able to confidently differentiate and produce these as they are both challenging and have an effect on meaning.

5. Word final consonants. Vietnamese students often neglect these and constant exercises on final endings should be done attentively during any course.

6. Consonant clusters. These are not a feature of Vietnamese and therefore are challenging. ‘sts’, ‘ts’, ‘str’, and ‘tr’ appear to be the most challenging for many students.

7. Suprasegmental level: Word stress, sentence stress, and intonation are essential items to address. Tonic intonation should be given special care as changes alters meaning. Sound linking is important, but not essential. When learners say the words correctly, they will link sounds naturally themselves.

8. English sounds not found in Vietnamese. For example, the interdentals /d/, /q/, can be mixed up with /f/ or Vietnamese /th/, though this may not influence comprehensibility.

9. /l/ and /n/ can be mixed up in the northern dialect (Hai Phong, Hai Duong, Hung Yen, Quang Ninh etc.).

10. Initial /j/ like in yes, young, yellow may be heard as in zes, zoung, zeallow. This sound can be a bigger problem for learners from the south or central provinces of the country.

11. /r/ The Hanoi accent does not distinguish between /r/, /z/, or /gi/. Some people in the central part of Vietnam, such as Nghe An, Quang Binh, Hue, or Danang, can say /zed/ instead of /red/.

12. The difference between aspirated and non-aspirated ‘t’. Initial ‘t’ in English is aspirated as in ten and tea. After ‘s’ as in stop and steel, ‘t’ is not aspirated and is more similar to its Vietnamese counterpart. This is advisable to teach, but not in a short course.

Table 1: Pronunciation Checklist
Pronunciation Always Sometimes Never
Mark “x” where applicable, according to frequency of error

th (e.g., thin—not[t])

th (e.g., then—not[d])

s & z (e.g., sue vs. zoo)

r (e.g., rice vs. lice)

l (e.g., parrot vs. palate)

Final consonants
Voiceless, voiced (e.g.,nip . nib; seat vs. seed; lock vs. log; larch vs. large)

final l (e.g., final, little, sell)

final s (e.g., pupils, writes, schools)

-ed suffix to mark past tense

Vowel variation
hill vs. heel

cut vs. cart

cot vs. caught

pull vs. pool

pen vs. pan

Use of rising intonation: yes/no questions (e.g., Are you coming?)

Use of falling intonation: statements (e.g., Yes, I am coming); wh questions (e.g., What are you doing?)

Mark “x” where applicable, according to frequency of error

Audibility level
Too loud

Too soft

Fading out at end of statements

Pitch and range

Other comments

Note: This checklist was designed by Nora Samosir & Low Ee Ling (2000) as a means to assess teachers’ oral English proficiency.


  1. Just a note, cot and caught is not necessarily problematic, as many cot/caught merger dialects of English exist. Additionally, students may have correctly learned another dialect's bowl/ball vowels (as a Canadian native speaker, I misunderstand Australians constantly because of this!)